How a Parson Stops Being a Person

It is a mystery why Christians who’ve been shaped by an emotionally hyper-sensitive culture can treat their fellows with disrespect and callousness.  It turns out that sensitivity to people’s needs and feelings is not universally applicable, even in the church.  That’s because other priorities of the culture outrank empathy, especially when that empathy or emotional connection between believers is based on secular sentimentality rather than biblical principles and commands.

‘Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.’  That should be practically universal now, given the widespread (we’re assured) cultural epidemic that is cyber bullying.  But at least folk who attack one another on Facebook have the excuse of anonymity, the speed of transmission from keyboard to internet public, and no victims’ hurt expressions in front of them to slow them down, make them think twice.  So few people, I’m sure, would think of walking into a coworker’s office (better yet, for the illustration), the office of the supervisor, to offer constructive criticism.  Certainly no one would choose to go in and word the criticism in an emotionally loaded way–‘Your work is sub-par; your staff meetings are dull; you’re misdirecting the office.’  For a closer-to-home illustration, you’d never think of telling a farmer he’s so incompetent even his cows are tired of him.

Reasons for not doing this are manifold.  For one thing, you don’t want to make angry the person who signs your paycheck or supplies your eggs.  But also, you should be concerned about the person’s well-being.  If your boss is a despot, it will be hard to imagine that person has feelings to be hurt, or that the person can be discouraged.  But don’t assume a tough or even spiny exterior is hollow (think of Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada).  You have to consider the emotional and relational consequences of what you say (if you don’t know what you’re talking about, that will have very objective consequences–you will look an arrogant fool for complaining).

Christians’ relationship to one another is not business–it’s emotional and spiritual (as well as intellectual, of course [common creeds, shared doctrinal standards, etc.]).  That’s why Christians should approach the issue of criticism very carefully, prayerfully, graciously, and compassionately.  It should also be direct; that is, if someone wants to complain about someone else’s conduct, and demand change, he/she should speak to, first and only, to the party in question; that’s especially if what needs to be said is addressing offence: no triangulation, going through third-parties, avoiding one-on-one discussion.  Matthew 18 says to go to your brother, not to your brother’s friend and air your grievance to him, for him to pass on while keeping you anonymous.  It shouldn’t need to said why this is so damaging.  Permitting such approaches encourages gossip, because it allows people to vent their frustrations without having to go through the difficulty of confrontation, and allowing the confronted party the opportunity of possible (fair!) rebuttal.  And gossip is a sin.  But as important–how would the person on the receiving end feel, once he hears that (who knows how many!) people have been discussing his shortcomings behind his back, and without having the chance to explain himself, or hear the complainant’s complaints for himself, is left to deal with the ethereal content of second- or third-hand reports?  Why should a Christian ever be stuck in that position?  Because people do what’s easy, what’s convenient for themselves, rather than what’s right, and with little consideration of the complained-about person’s welfare.  How is a person supposed to seek God on an issue or make a problem right (if he’s in the wrong) if he can’t learn from the offended party what the issue is, and instead has to fight anxiety, confusion, and wondering how many people know how much that he apparently doesn’t.  What a position to be in!  And now imagine that it’s a pastor, and this is a pattern in people’s treatment of him.

It may be a great shock to be treated this way, especially as the problem proliferates.  People are talking; who knows how many?  He hears from a couple of sources what ‘they’re saying’.  Everything going wrong at the church seems to be his fault, or at least, that’s what people think, but no one will say it to his face.  He must press on with his work in prayer, seeking God, writing sermons, leading the church, with his social ties to the flock (not to mention his authority) eroding, because he can’t trust what he hears, or what people think.  The only thing that’s clear is that they don’t see him as a person.

That’s more shocking, because some of the people involved in the talk, or the relaying of it (which likely means they’re not rebutting it or calling it what it is–destructive, unedifying chatter) were or still are friends.  What can it mean that criticism, suggestions implying incompetence or lack of confidence, undermining contradictions and sarcastic, democratic-mind-driven remarks can become so common, and so acceptable, so quickly–and perhaps (we’ll assume for the sake of argument) directed at an obviously sincere man of God, who works hard, takes his calling seriously, puts a lot of time and heart into his teaching and preaching, and who is emotionally and socially invested in the congregation?  How can it be so easy to spiritually destabilize and pick apart the approach, person and efforts of such a man?

Perhaps part of it is because people think they can separate the man from the job.  “This isn’t an attack on you!  This is about your preaching!’  (Even when people are right in doing that, for a job where it’s possible, and do it in the proper way, it’s still hard not to take it personally.)  But perhaps there is no other ‘vocation’ where to do so would be more inappropriate: this isn’t to say that the man is the job.  But a man is called to the cloth, and called to a particular pulpit.  He hears from the Lord when it comes to what to preach, how to lead his congregation.  His spiritual state affects his performance, likely more than in any other kind of work.  There may be no other skill or task which is more deeply personal, even for artists, designers, musicians–it’s more even than that combination of gifting and instinct– because the minister is supposed to be led by God–cause him to question that, shake that confidence, and he’s lost.  It’s not the same as telling a computer programmer that he needs to become more familiar with a system to improve his performance.  The minister hears, and does what he hears, or he doesn’t. Of course, he can grow in terms of style, clarity–he must grow in holiness.  But you can’t tell the minister that everything he does is a waste of time without it being intensely personal, and a savage blow to his spiritual stability.

That was one possible cause for how a parson can stop being a person.  I think this second one may be even more likely.  And this is that the pastor has become an object, a commodity, like everything else in the church.  It may be as crass as being the victim of the irresistible urge to ‘redecorate’, as it were.  It doesn’t matter if the pastor feels kicked around, unappreciated, undermined, scapegoated, especially if the all-important consumers are threatening to take their business elsewhere if the fellow leadership allows the parson to continue to darken the pulpit.  He’s part of the package, and if the anonymous ‘churchadvisor’ reviews indicate dissatisfaction, the council had better make a change, up their game.  The disregard for and consequent effects on the pastor’s well-being, convictions, anything–are just collateral damage in the game of filling the pews and maintaining consumer ratings.  What God thinks of the man doesn’t seem to come into play, nor what the purpose of the man being in that church is, or was.  It’s bad enough that people think the pastor is there to cater to misguided whims–what’s even worse is that Christians think they can justify themselves in 1. putting strings on a pastor,trying to get him to dance contrary to his conscience. 2. holding a council hostage and demand a man be put out like a box of last year’s school clothes 3. talking about a pastor behind his back and rubbishing his efforts to each other, while never feeling a pang of conscience about not obeying the Word by going to him directly.  And all this is without mentioning the fact that pastors don’t need to be under attack by their own parishioners to be vulnerable–they have invisible targets on their backs from the moment they enrol for seminary, and Satan and his demons are never missing an opportunity to take pot-shots at them.  And Christians make themselves available for loading up the guns.  ‘But he shouldn’t be discouraged!  He should take my telling him that his messages are crap as purely professional advice!’

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One thought on “How a Parson Stops Being a Person

  1. Puritan Girl says:

    […] bad enough that these criticisms are unfounded and undermining of the pastor’s authority and potentially of his confidence as well, and in a sense de… What’s worse is that they have begun to come from people within the church that he and his family […]

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