For over 35-years I served as senior pastor to five white Baptist congregations. After serving my last church for over 15 years, I left pastoral ministry in 2014. The election of 2016 was an affirmation of that decision to leave as the returns revealed how 80-plus percent of white Baptist/Evangelicals voted for the antithesis of their belief claims. The pull of fear-based tribalism in 2016 propelled these churches into an era of post-integrity.
In July 2017, while visiting relatives in Florida, I attended a Presbyterian, USA congregation. I enjoyed the hymns and was feeling good about the sermon. Then, out of context, the pastor used a quote from the new president (45) and it seemed clear he was pandering to certain members in the church.
In a congregation where you might expect the pastor to have the good sense to understand the ethical dissonance of offering a quote from this president, one whose entire life has been a thematic movement of one big lie to the next, it was all I could do to keep from standing up, calling him out, and walking away. Family restraints held me in my seat.
This experience reminded me of my own pastoral experience and some criticisms I received from conservatively political members that I was “too political.” However, for these same people, had I used memos from Fox or the RNC they would not have considered that “political.”
The truth is, we all became politicians from the moment we were born. We cried to be fed, changed, and hugged. This continues throughout life with ever-increasing levels of complexity. Everything is political and those who negatively use the term to diminish another only reveal their own bias. As a pastor, I respected the separation of church and state, followed the lectionary lessons, and used a hermeneutic centered in the teachings of Jesus.
Churches interested in surviving in an era of post-integrity would be wise to develop strategies distancing themselves from the false god of civil religion and personality cults.
Here are my thoughts about surviving. First, there is no substitute for kindness. You are not required to pander to bullies or be controlled by their nonsense, just be kind in a firm way. Second, have enough humility to be empathetic. Some may be ignorant and simply need empathy to open the door to additional information. Which leads me to the Third thought; you must be truthful. If all truth is God’s truth, telling the truth represents an ethic of love.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “You are entitled to believe anything you want to believe, but you are not entitled to your own set of facts.” Separating the subjective from the empirical is necessary to break the polarizing impact of threats of economic abandonment. Finally, pastors must be willing to risk their jobs for the integrity of the community they serve and for themselves. Integrity is the only real commodity we possess.
Henry Green, a former pastor, is President of Henry Green Consulting which assists corporations and congregations in strategic planning and lives in Annapolis, Maryland.
This essay was originally published Dec. 27, 2017, in Center for Congregational Ethics.
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