Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The Silence (and Silencing) of the Clergy

According to my letter of call, my congregation called me to preach and teach. I guess this means I have to commit to saying things within hearing distance of others. 

Additionally, my letter indicates I'm called to do traditional pastor-like stuff: sacraments, worship, pastoral care, encourage others to ministry, etc. 

Then, as if the preaching and teaching weren't enough, it indicates I'm supposed to speak for justice in behalf of the poor and oppressed, and equip my congregation for witness and service, and guide the people of God in proclaiming God's love through word and deed.

I fully recognize there is a lot of action in there, lots of loving, ministering, sacramenting, etc. But you know, that letter of call is a lot about speaking and words! My words. The words of those in my congregation. The church is really a word-house. Words make a difference. A seriously huge difference, so much so that the Savior of the world is also referred to in our tradition as the Word.

Given that reality, it's always amazed me how silent clergy are, and how much the church (writ large) attempts to silence clergy.

The silencing of clergy happens for a lot of reasons, but a very high profile example is the resignation of Robert Wright Lee from his parish ministry after he spoke out against racism at the MTV Video Music Awards. His congregation and denomination had the opportunity to stand behind him and celebrate him proclaiming the right words in a venue where a LOT of people would hear. Instead, although some supported him, what really won out was a desire to avoid conflict rather than support the truth. He writes in his resignation letter:
I regret that speaking out has caused concern and pain to my church. For this is I offer my heartfelt apology. I understand that my views could be considered to be controversial. I never sought this sort of attention. But, I do believe in God’s role in calling out for positive social change for the good of all. 
We are all called by God to speak out against hate and evil in all its many forms. There are so many good things going on with this congregation and I do not want my fight to detract from the mission. If the recent media attention causes concern with my church, I reluctantly offer my resignation.
A couple of comments. First, if you are speaking out about the right things at the right time, there will always be concern and pain. People get concerned really fast. And change and truth both involve pain. There's no reason to apologize for that, let alone resign.

Second, many clergy leave their churches in the middle of conflict, thinking their departure will reduce such conflict. But that's like saying that drinking a bunch of booze can heal your depression. It won't. It just delays having to deal with the depression. So too leaving your church won't heal the conflict, it will just delay the congregation dealing with it, because the local institution gets to scapegoat you rather than deal with the truth you've proclaimed.

I do wish more clergy would stay through conflict, and say more things that cause conflict. It would be good.

I also understand how hard that can be. Those of us who make our living doing this thing have to pay the bills like anyone else. We don't want to yank our kids out of schools they like, or lose our health coverage. It's hard to say true things because the consequences can be significant.

But we are not alone in having to deal with this. Many people in many professions also get pressure not to speak out. Colin Kaepernick as a prominent example. Many business people are told, "Don't get too political." There are risks to speaking out in many professions, and in daily life.

I think clergy are unique in one way: It's in their call to speak up on behalf of the poor and oppressed. It's written into our call documents or contract with our congregations. It's all over the Bible. All kinds of people tried to silence the apostles (read Acts), tried to silence Jesus (read the gospels), and the prophets (start with the stories of Moses and then read the rest of the Old Testament). Clergy should probably know something really simple but hard: it's well nigh impossible to speak up, and therefore we must do so. 

And when we do speak, all the systems around us will use all the tools at their disposal to try and silence us. They'll withhold their giving. They'll leave the church. They'll say you aren't being pastoral. They'll call the bishop. They'll say you're supposed to just hunker down and focus on them.

All of those are good forms of pushback against inappropriate forms of speaking out. But they are not healthy pushback against the pastor legitimately performing the functions of their call.

I do not think clergy are professionally unique compared to other professionals or general humanity, but I do think they inhabit a specific moral space that both a) requires them to proclaim in ways not everyone is required to, and b) receive unique pressure from the group of people who support or follow them. Groups know how to manipulate and put pressure on their leaders, in any organization, but the way clergy are positioned in congregations may make them uniquely vulnerable to such pressure.

I imagine it is going to get even harder for clergy to speak up, and I imagine people are going to push even harder on them to remain silent. I find it inspiring and wonderful that so many of my colleagues speak up and proclaim loudly in spite of the pressure. That's a miracle. God must be involved.

But if clergy are going to do their jobs, they're going to say a lot, and a lot of it will be hard but true. That's just the way God is.


  1. Yep. I left a congregation because the bishop's assistant told me not to talk about anything controversial. So I couldn't preach