This week, a friend shared an article on Facebook, Eleven Things You Might Not Understand About Your Minister. I was totally expecting to relate to this list. Because I can come up with eleven hundred things people don’t understand about me and what I do. But the list had almost no relation to my life, ministry, or experience.
To be clear, I don’t want to suggest the author of the article shouldn’t feel what he feels. I believe that is his experience. I do think it is sad and unfortunate that his experience of ministry led him to that list. But it got me wondering, how many of my friends and colleagues feel like him?
I said as much to my friend. Here was her reply:
“I look at a lot of things you do and say as a minister and am totally in awe of how much you get to be yourself and I love it that your community reflects and mirrors your convictions and passions. It’s a great gift. It inspires me. and gives me hope.”
What she said made me consider that not every minister gets to be authentic and share who they are and what they believe in their ministry. I guess I knew that, on some level. But I didn’t realize my situation was unusual.
My situation is that I serve a congregation of people who know what I believe about faith, politics, and current events. I share articles on Facebook and Twitter that make clear my political and theological leanings. To be clear, my congregation does not universally share my political or theological leanings. And I don’t expect or want them to. But they know what I believe.
I don’t have a “church” profile and a separate “personal” profile on Facebook, as some pastors do. For people who can make that work, my hat is off to them. But I just can’t do it. I am constitutionally unable to be enigmatic about my opinions and beliefs. I don’t say that to boast–I wish sometimes I could be more neutral.
But I just can’t.
Would some members of my church be happier if I were more neutral? Probably so. But there we are.
And so I have the privilege of being authentic in my ministry. And because of my friend’s comment, I have some awareness that others do not have that privilege.
And that makes me wonder if an absence of authenticity is actually the biggest problem in the contemporary church today.
It’s a big claim. I know.
But consider the problem of pastors who are called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, but can’t speak freely out of fear of what would happen if their congregations knew what they actually believed and thought. The stories in scripture make it clear that the people who follow God are not perfect, people who don’t follow the party line. They make horrible mistakes–all the time— and they fail and fall short. But they own it. They are who they are. God is not fooled. God calls us to be the people we were created to be.
And if we can’t be those authentic people in the churches we serve?
Houston, we have a problem.
A few years ago at the Festival of Homiletics, Old Testament Professor Walter Brueggemann said this to a room full of preachers when talking about the Old Testament prophets:
“There is a diminished sense of self that comes from coerced silence in the church. It is wearying to remember what not to say, all the while the words grind our guts.
Take stock of the truth that you have been given.
I crave for you the edge of freedom that will let you witness to the full truth that has been entrusted to you.”
When he finished delivering that charge and blessing, there was a collective gasp in the room from the gathered pastors. We wanted that freedom to proclaim. But we also understood the words that grind our guts. By the response in the room, you could feel the toll that “coerced silence” had taken on those clergy.
So clearly this is an issue in the wider church. To those of you who are my colleagues in ministry, how does this issue of authenticity and coerced silence affect you? Do you experience this? Are you free to be yourself in your ministry?
Is authenticity the biggest problem in the church today?
I posed my question to my friend and she replied with this:
I don’t think churches know how to be authentic either. (A large majority) There are too many legacies, wounds, etc. to be able to center on imago dei. I’m glad you said what you did about authenticity. I’m going to think about it today as I write sermon and do the bulletin.
And I think she is right. It isn’t just pastors who don’t think they can be authentic in church. Congregations, systemically, are afraid to be who God has called them to be.
What if someone gets upset?
What if someone doesn’t agree with us?
What if so and so leaves the church because we say this?
I think this can keep congregations stuck trying to be all things to all people, or trying to be so neutral that nobody would be offended. And I’m not sure where or when we picked up the idea we aren’t supposed to offend people.
I don’t think we should be rude for rude’s sake. We aren’t called to be jerks.
But Jesus offended people all the time. His friends, his opponents, his mother.
And I know we aren’t Jesus. But Paul offended people too. He very clearly stated his thoughts on a matter. Listen to Paul’s opening words to the church in Galatia:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
If our gospel is of human origin, and moderated by human opinion, then we fall in to the trap of not being authentic with each other and in the world.
On a personal level, too, people are afraid to be authentic in church.
What if they find out that I haven’t led a perfect life?
Would they still welcome me if they know I have been divorced (had an abortion, been arrested, lost a job, had bulimia, etc, etc, etc)?
In many cases, I think those fears are well founded. You hear of people being shunned (still! today!) from congregations because of their transgressions.
How can we work to be faithful people and still leave room for faithful people to err? How can we be faithful people and still leave room for faithful people to disagree with us?
How do you see authenticity playing out in your life? In your faith community? In your career/calling?
How can we help each other be authentic?