Authenticity in the Church

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?

 

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16 thoughts on “Authenticity in the Church

  1. Marci, I think for many pastors who aren’t as blessed as you and I, the central issue is survival. It is not just a question of gasps or gripes, it is a question of being able to continue to be employed. So authenticity is traded for very basic needs like a roof over one’s head and food on the table. As sad as that is, it is pervasive, and not just in our profession. Related to that is that in some places, shunning would be merciful, but the actual reaction is far more savage. In Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together” he talks about the “wish dream” of the church, the illusion which must be destroyed if true community is to be had:
    “Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
    I appreciate your insights on this issue.And I’m glad that at least some of us can be who we really are (almost) all the time! (Speaking for myself, sometimes it is wise to not be TOTALLY myself!)

    • Love the Bonhoeffer quote. So true.
      On one level, I know you are right. People are afraid of being fired and not having a job. And I don’t want to dismiss the reality of that fear. But I wonder if, in all cases, that fear is true. Would they all be fired? Or is it possible they would help their congregations live in to being authentic too?
      And if the fear is true–if all of them would actually be fired for being authentic–then the problem is worse than I thought. Maybe that form of the church does need to die.

  2. I would say, from the ministers I know well, that your situation is in fact at least unusual. Highly or not, I don’t know. But I know that I am not the only one who does not FB friend parishoners; who has been told that her views are off the wall, unbiblical, unChristian, and never heard of before; and who has become increasingly circumspect and abandoned much of what she has to offer while hoping for other options to materialize.

      • I might add that were I 20 years younger, or even 15, I would be willing, even enthusiastic, about helping my congregation live into something more. And if nothing else comes up, I will keep trying until I’m fired, which I will be. But I see it as a 10 year process, minimum, which is about how long I have to go, and there are a lot of other things I could be doing with that time.

        I came out of a church that was just how yours sounds, Marci; that was my experience of church and call. I wonder sometimes, now, whether had there been a realistic presentation of the prevalence of conservative church theology and culture early in seminary, I would have bothered to continue.

  3. I’ve gotten several responses this week saying ‘That’s not been my experience in ministry at all.’ I’m happy to know I was wrong believing those things to be universal, and to learn that there are places out there like the one you serve.

    Blessings to you and your ministry, Marci. And on your crusade toward more and more authenticity. I think it just might be our only hope.

    Thanks for reading 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment, and for reading. I really am sorry your experience in ministry was enough to cause you to leave ministry. This is not the way things should be.

  4. I’m one of those people who *can’t* really hide who I am/what I believe. But my experience in my current parish is much closer to Robin’s than to yours. My parishioners know that I am *different* and I won’t ever be *one of them* — which is okay in some ways and not okay in others, and probably contributes to the conflict we’re experiencing now–not because I’ve flaunted my liberalism or whatever, but just because I’m not one of them. (And female to boot).

    I would say if a call is truly a good fit, the experience should be more like yours, and I pray that my next call will be.

    • Thanks for your comment. I am thankful that at least they know who you are in your current context. You may not feel like one of them, but you don’t have to pretend you are someone else (even if you can’t fully express what you might want to express).

      I wonder how our denominations can help congregations allow more space for their clergy to be their true selves? And I pray, for everyone, a call like that. Blessings.

  5. I woke up this am feeling that I had been very mean-spirited in my comments. Most of the time I am in awe of the kindness and generosity and resilience of my people, but frustrated that their vision of ministry is not the same as mine — which it does not have to be! But why do they get to be authentic and I don’t?

    Now, however, I wonder, esp. in light of your friend’s response about the woundedness of congregations: are they, too, struggling to be authentic and it’s me who hasn’t seen that or figured out how to help them open doors? They do know who I am and reject much of it — but perhaps it is simply so startling to them that they respond defensively, and I then respond in the same way. Much to think about here.

    I will now stop hijacking your comments 🙂

    • No hijacking involved!
      I didn’t read your comments as mean spirited. But I am sure the woundedness we all carry contributes to this. Let me know what you think, once you’ve sat with it for a while. Prayers in your discernment.

  6. It’s probably true that woundedness is the source of congregation’s fear of difference and change. And, in the best of all worlds – pastors are called to model the authenticity that can set us all free – However, the truth is that all too often authentic pastors are ‘shot to put the congregation out of their misery’ – drummed out of churches and often out of ministry. And so, many of us keep trying to love people into wholeness and on some days – it’s an awesome thing…..

  7. Pingback: Rahab as a Model for Ministry | Rachel G. Hackenberg

  8. Hey marci!
    Thanks for this! Very helpful insight on the original article
    I wonder how the this conversation can be “read” in the Korean Immigrant congregations I have experienced (which I realize is a limited sample)? How do cultural layers magnify, exacerbate, twist or skew some of these observations (and even our reactions to these observations)?
    i’ve often had difficulties with understanding traditional western “boundaries”, “being authentic”, etc. taught in seminaries or alluded to in books, given the largely Asian American ministry contexts in which I’ve served. I would expound but clearly i have boundary issues as it is 4am and i am at church 😉

    • Shawn, would love to read what you will write about this in the Korean Immigrant congregations. And seriously, you were working at 4 am? I love Jesus, but not sure we believe in each other at 4 am.

  9. Marci, this is very nicely stated and reflects my experience a whole lot more than the Mark Lowe piece did. I truly hope that you and I are not anomalies, because I find serving as a pastor to be a joy and a privilege, even with the challenges.

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