Where issues have faces

June 18, 2015
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A ministry to homeless people in Puyallup, Washington, serves a meal at a church. Some rights reserved by robinsan

It was the kind of conversation that makes pastors enjoy professional conferences—the kind that has nothing to do with the conference. We were drinking coffee at a table in the hotel lobby. I was amazed at how quickly the conversation became a common lament.

“I want to get back to being a pastor,” said the man across the table. “I’m so tired of trying to navigate our church through the debates about divestment and gay marriage. These issues are sucking up all the air in the congregation.”

Another pastor said, “We have gays in our congregation. We know them, love them, and have worked beside them on mission trips, committees, and Sunday school. If two of them wanted to get married, the congregation wouldn’t blink an eye. But if the elders are forced to vote on a policy about gay marriage, it will tear the church in half.”

“For us the problem is the divestment issue,” said another pastor. “We’ve worked hard to develop a good relationship with the synagogue down the street from us. When they heard that our denomination voted to divest its stocks in companies doing business with Israel, they went berserk. I’ve done weddings with the local rabbi, and a joint Thanksgiving Day ser­vice. But now I’m spending my time trying to explain that our denomination is not anti-Semitic.”

None of these pastors would say that issues such as justice for LGBT people or Palestinians are unimportant. They feel called to speak about these issues as much as they do about racial justice, the environment, or economic concerns. The problem is that the pastors cannot engage the conversation on the congregation’s own terms. Their denominations have determined the nature of the debates that take up an extraordinary amount of their energy.

For a very long time mainline Protestantism has congratulated itself on being prophetic because it is so good at voting for progressive agendas. But what our society really needs from the church are agents of change. And that has never come from a denominational vote. Change comes from congregations that decide to live by the ethics of Jesus Christ.

I trust local pastors. They are the ones who receive the phone calls in the middle of the night. They sit through boring committee meetings, butterfly around the fellowship hall after worship, knock themselves out to write another “profound” sermon, and wade daily into the messiness of human lives. They are the ones with the most authority to speak to the congregation about the call to social justice.

No one in the pews is holding their breath to read the next position paper from the denomination. But if their pastor climbs into the pulpit, wearing a gown tattered by the nibbling of sheep, and says, “Hear the word of the Lord,” they will follow that shepherd anywhere.

So it’s time for the denominations to get off the backs of their own pastors. It is so easy for them to send their delegates to some distant city and delude themselves into thinking that voting, voting, voting, without congregational accountability, will bring about the kingdom of God. It doesn’t.

The kingdom comes as local communities of faith engage in prayer, worship, mission, and conversations about sex, Pales­tinians, or whatever else Jesus Christ puts on their plates along with issues that denominations don’t seem too concerned about—families, widows, teenagers, crime, health insurance, who will be the church treasurer after old Mr. Smith dies, and how they are going to fix the leaky roof.

I know the leaders of my denomination. They are good and caring people who work very hard with an ever-shrinking budget. They are not the problem.

The problem is the inability of a modernist superstructure like a denomination to handle postmodern affections. In the 1950s the church could speak with one voice because people trusted big institutions. Then it made sense to speak about the Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, or Methodist position on the issues. Now we have to humbly remind ourselves that there is a myriad of positions on every issue within the church.

If people trust any religious body these days, it’s the local congregation. They prefer their issues to have names, faces, and stories. They handle nuance well and don’t worry so much about logical contradictions. So they’re happy to have the gay couple they know get married by the pastor but would rather not have to vote on a policy that would permit it. They care about the plight of Palestinians but don’t want to upset their Jewish daughter-in-law. It is important to them to be a part of a historic tradition, but they hate being told what to believe.

Somehow, contemporary pastors have figured out how to navigate this changing spiritual landscape while remaining absolutely committed to the gospel and its prophetic proclamations. And they took a vow to love their congregations. They refuse to be dead right on the issues at the cost of tearing up their churches. That’s why I trust them.


Where issues have faces ...

I've read and re-read Barnes' article, and have come to the same conclusion: 25 years ago, I might have agreed with Barnes about the "voting" on the national level, but in the last 25 years, I've come to a different view of things: those national votes at GA and other similar bodies have a tremendous impact on the church, and it's NOT all negative, as the table-talk of his colleagues seems to imply.

Over the years, these votes have spoken powerfully to the world, even as they have helped shift lots of attitudes in the life of church.

It's almost as if Barnes has forgotten that those voters at places like GA are also pastors and elders, and when they return home, they bring with them the insights of GA, and their owns passions and stories when they voted "yes" or voted "no."

I think some of the logic here is a bit disingenuous - a vote at GA, for example, is not about being "dead right." Nor is a pastor's "love" for the congregation any guarantee that social issues, or even the gospel, are well-addressed.

Yes, a congregation might not blink an eye if a gay couple from within the ranks of the church get married, but a vote by a congregation, while it has plenty of tensions, is a way to speak to the larger world, beyond the church, and gets beyond a certain reluctance evident in this part of the essay.

Lets not forget: lots of congregations have expressed gratitude for the work and votes of GA on some of the world's most contentious issues. And in the PCUSA, recent changes reflect monumental shifts in thinking, both in the church and in culture. Yes, people have left the PCUSA for other groups. What else is new? Presbyterians have been doing this since the first sermon preached by Calvin.

If some of Barnes' colleagues fret about the pressure in which they're put, pressure from the national body and pressure from below in the local congregation, well, that's not new, either. I've been in the ministry 45 years, and it's always been a giant conversation between lots of different parties - tumultuous, messy, vibrant and good.

Perhaps congregationalism has eliminated this vice-like experience, but in a connectional church, it's part of the deal, goes with the territory, a task that has to be managed.

Pastors can't be too fearful at this point - I mean, sleepless nights and churning guts, of course, and angry members and bitter emails and letters stuffed under the minister's office door, not to mention after-church confrontations and crusty remarks. But affirmation, too ... and hope that the church can truly be a light to the world and the salt of the earth. Not every church, as many of these table-talk colleagues seem to imply are uneasy about the national body. But certainly, over the last 40 years, certain elements of the church have expressed and promoted massive amounts of dissatisfaction, even as some in America resent the Federal Government.

But so it is ...

I find Barnes' article way too negative about the situation because it seems his table-talk friends have pretty well given up on the connectional nature of their denomination (in this case, I suspect, mostly PCUSA types with edgy congregations applying lots of pressure regarding marriage equality and divestment).

He needs to find another table now and then.

Tom Eggebeen, Los Angeles.

Letter from Merle Showers

M. Craig Barnes offers an eloquent cop-out.

We live in a world increasingly divided into very strict camps—right or left, red or blue—with no prisoners taken. But clergy are not politicians who are going to bend with the wind. God calls us to be professionals who speak truth to power and who do not give in to the pain of being unloved if we tell the truth in love.

The laypeople who look to us for guidance assume we agree with the powers and principalities when we say nothing or go along. They wait for us as their spiritual leaders to give them the reasons for why we think differently. We follow the Christ, not the culture.

Merle Showers
Buffalo, N.Y.

Letter from Ann Clarkson Turpin

Surely Barnes is not too young to remember apartheid in South Africa, the civil rights movement in the United States, and opposition to the war in Vietnam. While individuals took part in protest actions, it was not local congregations that changed things. The General Assembly’s votes on those crises got the attention of the press. The denominational declarations on civil rights and Vietnam were powerful. And it was most certainly BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) that turned apartheid around in South Africa.

Ann Clarkson Turpin
Centreville, Md.