Clergy, Don't Stop Believin' (Hold on to the Feelin')

At Hacking Christianity, we often study bad.hacks of the Christian system, ie. actions or beliefs that hurt the Christian witness to the world.  Most of them, not surprisingly, deal with hypocrisy.  So imagine how much Newsweek's "On Faith" section this week caught my eye with its intriguing conversation about what happens when clergy (or religious leaders) lose their faith and continue to lead a church.

The conversation reflects the same conversation in ordained ministry circles (especially at the level of my process that I'm at): what role does doubt play when it comes to doctrinal beliefs?  What are the beliefs that are non-essential for conformity?  Can ordinands affirm Christ as God's son, yet reject blood atonement?  What are the essentials and at what point might clergy, whose own spiritual beliefs are often in process, see a divergence from their own tradition?  Newsweek seems to present three understandings:

At one extreme of orthodoxy, you've got the presumption that clergy believe everything their faith tradition understands as doctrine.  Thistlethwaite calls them robots who believe everything 100%, Hirschfield comments that such faith is "nothing more than static answers" which makes "God as its footnote."  Carter wonders if the role of preaching is to be "a mere vessel for the transmission of orthodoxy?"  I would almost claim that such a position makes doctrine an idol and a faith merely responsive, not reflective.  While there are tons of people close to this belief (including an unfortunate number on boards of ordained ministries), 100% doctrinal assent is hard to sustain.

At the other extreme of orthodoxy is the divergence of the preacher's belief with the expressed belief of the tradition in which they are.  The predominant sentiment is that such a position is unsustainable over the long run.  Cal Thomas succinctly tells such people to resign and go sell something. Hirschfield says the same, but only when the clergy subscribe to "new articles of faith which demand the denigration of the previously held beliefs."  Again, such a position is as difficult to sustain as total assent...the dark night of the soul has to end at some point, and you either see yourself in a tradition or you don't.

I think most clergy (honestly) find themselves between these two extremes.  Perhaps the happy middle is clergy who are honest about their struggles with faith...while it is in process! Honesty is the best policy (Gaddy), while also respecting the roles of the pastor/parish (Hirschfield). Honest struggle can lead to what Carter talks about: the joy of about being a wounded healer, ie. a "beggar helping other beggars find bread."  Finally, such struggles might be the vocation of the clergy, as Hirschfield reminds us:
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best when he remarked that, "the purpose of religion is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted".  Applied to here, that teaching translates into the demand that spiritual questions and doubt should afflict the spiritually certain, while spiritual answers and faith should offer security to the afflicted.
Rabbi Hirschfield
Finally, the practicum: what ought clergy who wrestle with this do?  Newsweek's panel responds with essentially:

  • If ones beliefs are held in question, be honest about the process while relying on non-parish members to be completely honest with and seek guidance.
  • If ones beliefs become more solid and they are not compatible with the faith tradition, find an exit from that parish/faith is not sustainable.
  • All clergy should have a spiritual mentor who can talk us through the dark times and help us make these decisions along the way.
I would respond that the panelists miss out on a couple of clergy-types that I know of personally:
  1. Clergy who grew more divergent the more they learned about the faith.  Part of the ordination process is becoming very intimate with the essentials of the faith, but it is usually in the practice of ministry that we learn about the non-essentials that can be big deals.  What do they do?  Their "essentials" are in unity while the "non-essentials" are not.  Do they stay?
  2. Clergy who speak too much of their doubts and the parish reacts badly.  I know of a church where expressing doubt is like blood in the water and the clergyperson was forced out. Such a fear or experience would cause clergy to not be honest about their beliefs while they are dealing with such things.
  3. Clergy who express doubt all the time on the expression of our faith while holding sacred and true the abstract ideal of our faith.  They are comfortable with their faith in abstract but wrestle with how to live it out in actuality.  For example, Emergent Christianity holds doubt and mystery as essential components of a healthy faith (yes, such perspectives are mentioned a lot on this blog though I don't consider myself emergent).
  4. Clergy whose faith traditions change over time and no longer speak to them.  For instance, the fundamentalist takeover of the Baptist Convention certainly exiled women and progressives from their tradition...and it wasn't the clergy's fault!  (EDIT: Gaddy talks about this a bit)

During my ordination process, I talked about being open with my doubts and concerns from the pulpit. I was told that people who were looking for answers wouldn't get much assurance from my sermon. I think such a sentiment reflects the first extreme: that we are to be 100% sure of our answers and offer answers to people.  But for those of us who are more comfortable in the mystery of faith (which is NOT the same as refusing to take a stand or make up our minds), offering honest conversation about sustaining ourselves in our doubts is a clear pastoral duty.  There's got to be a happy medium here, and this conversation was a reminder to offer a balance between doubt and assurance in the preaching moment.

At the end of the day, honesty and integrity are the most important qualities of a clergyperson.  The first sermon that I got responses from nearly 100% of the congregation was when I preached openly and honestly that I doubted that Abraham passed the test of Isaac's sacrifice...people admitted to wrestling with child sacrifice for decades and had never verbalized it!  By being honest about doubts but strong about my faith convictions, it opened up conversation that had sat dormant for 30 years or more. Wow.

I don't know if I will ever find myself in this situation of losing the faith in my tradition...Wesleyanism is so embedded it will be hard to chip out of me.  But I hope clergy friends and former clergy friends can know that whatever they struggle with, there are good people out there to talk to and to find our way together through.  Heck, drop me an email and I'd love to talk about it.  But find a community to talk about it and together you can find a way through the dark, dark night.



Anonymous,  March 17, 2010 at 11:07 AM  

Great questions, Jeremy.

John Wesley struggled with this and was advised by Peter Bohler to preach faith until he had it himself.

I think one issue that might be worth more conversation is exactly what the pastor's role is. Does the pastor offer his own faith and her own personal witness or does the pastor preach the faith of the church?

I know this is not a strict dichotomy, but it seems relevant.

Anonymous,  March 17, 2010 at 11:13 AM  

great responses to an excellent article/conversation, Jeremy.

I typed a long response. It got so long that it looked like a blog post. so I made it one, instead.

i love the points you bring up, both your summary of the panel and your additions to their observations. i was trying to speak to my own experience in finding that I believe very strongly, but often am questioned as to whether or not *what* i believe is enough in line with my tradition.


Carolyn March 17, 2010 at 1:50 PM  

I'm with Becca. There seem to be two different understandings of the Christian religion: one that encourages us to find answers, and another that encourages us to find questions. Like Becca, I find myself among the latter.

I think that an approach similar to "the Bible has all The Answers for life" idolatrizes human knowledge. We simply can't have all the answers. If we did, we would be on a par with God (although I don't believe in total omnicience, I still think God knows more than I do). When I'm in the pulpit, I do my best to preach faith, mainly because I can live with a lot of doubt. My doubts don't bother me. I know that God holds me wherever I am and cares more about my participation in Be-ing than about what I think at a given moment.

I also think that those who are answers-oriented subscribe to a John 3:17 mentality of "right belief = salvation." Well, sorry folks, but I'm a Romans 3 kind of gal: I'm saved by God's grace through my own leap of faith. I think in many ways that faith is a choice. It's a choice to believe in something we can't "objectively prove."

I know that my life is better and my well-being is richer when I act like I believe, so I do. If I'm wrong in the end and all of the Bible is just a bunch of stories and there is no life after death, then I have the assurance that I'm living a better and fuller life because of my faith in God. And if there is life after death and I haven't believed "the right things," God as I now know God to be will simply welcome me home. I think God cringes more at my lack of compassion and ethical action than at my doctrinal errors... I'm sure God thinks they're cute.

David Henson March 17, 2010 at 2:45 PM  

As someone in the beginning stages of the ordination process, and as some for whom my doubts have deepened my spiritual life (not necessarily "my faith", though), I really enjoyed reading this. What I am still hesitant about is finding someone who I can trust to discuss some of these ideas and thoughts and struggles. And I'm stuck between blunt honesty (which can be individualistic and arrogant) and some theological sidestepping (which can be in the name of community but hypocritical).

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