Pastor Gary Brinn of Sayville, New York laid down some serious clergy bitterness in a newspaper article that is going viral in religious circles.
I have a few thoughts about his column. Of course I do! You knew I would!
First and foremost, I am always interested when ordained clergy publicly erode the old pastoral paradigms. Brinn has done this beautifully and for that I applaud his courage. As I have written many, many times, the patriarchal, repressed WASP emotional culture that New England ministers have inherited is damaging to individuals and to the institutions we serve. It thrives on faux piety, repressive formality, secret-keeping and hierarchical power playing. Good for Brother Brinn for blowing it open with the dynamite of authentic emotion and testimony.
That said, I am concerned for any pastor who takes to such a public forum to vent, apparently without first consulting with parishioners or church leaders. Wouldn’t it wonderful if ministers and lay people together could blow the lid off fusty old notions of clergy propriety!? It can be done. I have not ever spoken before of the ways that my own lay leaders have supported, encouraged and cheered me on in being my authentic self in the work of the ministry and how they have helped me to see the importance of keeping on with this mission. So let me make mention of it now. I could not have PeaceBang’s ministry without the support and inspiration of those who call me their parish minister. Of course not everyone appreciates this mission or recognizes its importance, but I would recommend to all of us that we involve supportive lay people and reference them whenever we write critical pieces such as Brinn’s. Most people don’t understand or respect religious life or community at anything but the most shallow, self-serving or sentimental level in the first place ! We don’t need to take this so personally.
The fact that Pastor Brinn lashes out at a specific individual in his community in a local newsletter column says to me that he may be experiencing serious burn-out. It is never a good idea to take up the pen in outrage against an individual in, or immediately after, a hurtful moment. By all means, speak truth about someone in the community interfering with ministry to people who need it. I’ve done that, and never regretted it. But I can’t really get behind an online rant against someone’s rejection of a Christmas Eve sermon. And I don’t think it’s that big a deal that most people don’t have the first clue that we’re as highly educated as we are. I think it’s more important for us to talk about how ministerial expectations have changed radically in the past fifty years, and how much time and money we spent obtaining the necessary credentials and training to do what used to be a far more circumscribed job with a great deal more social support and status attached to it.
I just think that this article was framed in an unfortunate way. As it is written, it makes me worried for the pastor and by extension, his congregation. I think with the perspective granted by a little bit of time and rest, this could have been a more constructive article that didn’t take such a martyred, Lone Ranger tone of “minister against the world.”
I remember a colleague who worked with a very cantankerous congregation as an interim pastor. The culture of complaint was so ingrained that people lined up every week at the conclusion of the service feeling totally entitled to offer their most blistering critique seconds after she had given her heart and soul to them through worship. She had to teach the congregation that this was, in fact, a terrible and destructive habit that personally hurt her and made her want to close her heart in self-protection against them. They were amazed to hear it. What she insisted they do as a spiritual practice was to tell her three things they loved or liked in the sermon before offering any negative feedback. Those who couldn’t come up with three good things were not permitted to share their criticisms.
Rev. Brinn is right. We have far more reason to be loyal to “the regulars.” This is not immature, judgmental or inappropriate in any way. “The regulars” are, in fact, the Church. They are the ones who are living the covenantal obligation to gather regularly for worship and study, service and fellowship. Brinn and I are both in Congregational polity traditions where congregations are gathered not be creed but by covenant. There are “retired saints” of the church for whom age or infirmity make it impossible to participate as fully in the life of the congregation as they did in former times. And there are “special spiritual friends” of the church who want very much to be connected to it in bonds of fellowship and love, but whose work or family obligations make that impossible. There are tentative seekers who are called to spiritual life but for whom church life doesn’t quite fit, so they only visit now and then. We are always glad to see them. There are the hurt and suffering who may drop in as to a wayside hostel, for rest and comfort. We are here for them. There are “God’s All-Stars,” who come for Christmas and Easter only and delight in the beauty, who have fond affection for the church but no intention to attend or participate on a regular basis. Glad to have them when they’re there!
And then there are the church consumers,the Bridezillas and nasty critics and shallow grabbers who think that the church and her rituals can be purchased, and the clergy ordered around to provide the kind of experience the consumer saw on television or in the movie and wishes to replicate for him or herself. They enrage us because they have no integrity and because they expect us to compromise ours. To them, religion is just a photo op with fancy trappings and the church a movie set or a kind of Brigadoon that exists only to meet their needs and then to disappear into the fog like the benign, irrelevant, easily manipulated entity they wish it was.
Rant! Vent! By all means! But gosh, if those types are getting under your skin that deeply, just don’t LET’EM! They’re so much in the minority of what the Church is and where it’ going today, right? RIGHT? Can I get an AMEN?
Let’s write about the good church, how about?
Let’s write about the sincere, lovely people who come to church on Christmas Eve and appreciate being there, and who are grateful that there’s a beautiful tradition they can partake of for just that one night. I met hundreds of them ten days ago or so, and I’d like all of them to know that we welcome them back, that we understand that what we do feels alien and bizarre and maybe slightly intimidating to them and it’s totally okay if they’ve decided they don’t want to be part of our church life.
But it would be super if they might stop by some other time, or times, and felt the beautiful, great spirit that they felt on Christmas Eve at other times of year.
So, some cranky, wounded man insults you now and then. Yea, and I’ve been on a few hideously bad blind dates this year, too ( I say this to Pastor Brinn as a fellow singleton minister). But we ministers make a lot of really beautiful love with a lot of great people, too — some of them spiritual one night stands, you know? Let’s tell that secret.
Anyway, his editorial is getting a LOT of attention and that’s a great thing. We need to be talking in a real way about religious life and its many challenges. I wish him well with the subsequent spotlight on his face. Call me, brother. I’ve been there.
Kiss of peace, PB