Today is Part 13 in a series dedicated to helping readers understand the dynamics that can push a pastor out of parish ministry – and the things that ultimately keep a pastor in parish ministry. I alternate each entry between reasons for want to leave, and reasons for staying.
Today, I will close a portion of my series by giving you the final reason I considered leaving parish ministry.
As I was reading today’s Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times, I saw an article that touched on one of the greatest challenges we face – both as a nation and as a world: the COVID-19 pandemic. As I read the article, I realized that perhaps the most challenging dimension of the pandemic isn’t the medical aspect: perhaps the greatest challenge is attitudinal.
For you see, most experts in the fields of medicine and public health have long agreed on what behaviors are needed to defeat the virus. These behaviors include things like washing our hands, socially distancing, and wearing face masks. We knew that if people followed these three simple guidelines, the virus could largely be defeated. And yet many people continue to ignore these guidelines – even as numbers of infections and deaths continue to soar.
Because attitudinally we have reached a point where the rights of the individual trumps their sense of concern for others in the community. The only thing that matters for some, it would seem, is their ability to choose for themselves if they want to do things like wear a mask or socially distance themselves. The consequences of their behavior on others has little if any affect on their decision-making process.
In the church, we have been facing a similar challenge for a while now. Let me take a moment and explain what I mean using my own tradition (The United Church of Christ, which was formed in 1957 when the Christian Congregational denomination merged with the Evangelical and Reformed denomination).
In The United Church of Christ we have two theological principles that lie at the heart of our denomination: the principle of autonomy (brought to us primarily through the Christian Congregational Church) and the principle of covenant (brought to us primarily through the Evangelical and Reformed Church). Autonomy meant that every expression of the church (ranging from an individual member in a local church to the national setting of our denomination housed in Cleveland) could do whatever they felt was right in their relationship with God. Covenant meant that each expression of the church should pause for a moment in their decision-making process and consider the effects of their decisions on the rest of the church.
In theory, it seemed like the marriage of these values (“autonomy” and “covenant”) was a match made in heaven. The values could be complimentary and give us a wonderful sense of balance in our approach. In reality, however, that has not been the case. At important moments in the life of our church, one of the two principles has repeatedly dominated: autonomy. Individuals, local churches, associations, and conferences often make decisions in a vacuum – giving little if any regard for how their actions affect other expressions of church.
This imbalance between “autonomy” and “covenant” shows up in many ways. An individual in a local church, for instance, might complain about the version of Scripture that’s used in worship (i.e. one might assert “I like the King James Version and I want IT used in worship!” to which another responds, “I can’t stand the King James Version. No one understands what it’s saying. I want The Message paraphrase used in service instead!”). It can make things difficult in the life of the local church when program decisions need to be made regarding things like programming or budgetary matters. The delicate conversation often becomes a struggle of will (i.e. “I want MY area to get the most attention, even if it’s at the cost of YOURS”) instead of an opportunity to put the puzzle pieces together to form a beautifully crafted expression of the church’s mission statement. Associations (the part of our denomination that authorizes ministry) can also assert their autonomy by ignoring the suggestions of the Conference when it comes to standards for authorizing ministry. And finally, Conferences can ignore the needs of the National setting of our church by more of the moneys it collects from local churches and sending less money on to the National setting – thereby denying the National offices much needed resources.
More and more, these days, the situation in our local churches mirrors the battle that we see taking place during the COVID crisis – as we see individuals asserting their rights over their responsibility to others. And the pastors in our local churches live with the tensions of these battles more than any other. Given our current national climate, it is becoming increasingly exhausting and demoralizing to try to get individuals – and local churches – to balance their autonomy with our call to live out our faith in covenant.
This struggle to balance the demands of the vocal few with the needs of the many was my seventh and final reason for wanting to leave parish ministry.