I am so grateful to have been invited to stir the hornet’s nest on clergy image by K. who submitted the letter to which I responded in the post previous to this one.
BZZZZZZZ!!! BZZZZzzz! There we go! And it’s good to get it all out there again so I can state the mission of this blog, which is to encourage, help and goad religious leaders to understand the historical context in which we serve and to respond to it appropriately.
You just thought this blog was about lip gloss and facial hair maintenance for the pulpit.
It’s like this, True Believers.
We love the church. We believe in the relevance of religious community and in the power of God, or Love or Community, to change the world for the better. We believe in peace, and in spiritual practice, and in the deep work of being community in a world of individualism and alienation.
We know that mainstream Protestant clergy are smart, sophisticated, sexy, savvy, highly-trained professionals with scary-impressive portfolios of accomplishments and experience. It would be wonderful be able to dress comfortably and casually and walk into any space in society and have people know that about us.
But they don’t. They really, really don’t. Because since the 1970’s (and even before, but let’s start there), the mainline Protestant church has nose-dived in influence and attendance, and along with that trend, the religious right rose and gained political power and influence. And those religious leaders, who looked so grand and confident and shiny on television, disgusted the non-religious or casually religious portion of society with their politics of hate and division, war-mongering and woman-controlling, gay-bashing and education-mangling. They took the Scriptures and Christianity and used them as political cudgels. They beat ploughshares into swords.
Now, denominations fight bitterly amongst ourselves and within our own ranks about issues of doctrine and policy, and see the vast differences between us. However, the majority population of the U.S., which is unchurched and not interested in religious community, sees very little of that.
Today, in 2014, the mainstream Protestant and Jewish and Muslim and progressive Catholic movements are all in a big pot together in the public imagination. We’re just “those religious people” in our houses of worship doing our Saturday or Sunday thing, and carrying on with our quaint ways while the world increasingly fails to notice us or care about us. We’re nice to have in the neighborhood, maybe, but mostly for when you want a nice wedding or a kind person to say some words when Uncle Milt dies. If we step beyond those roles, we are regarded as dangerous, and in the United States, accused of violating the sacred separation of church and state enshrined in our Constitution.
If your eyes are glazing over because you’ve heard this all before, let Auntie PeaceBang throw you a cup of strong coffee for this next part.
So there we are, knowing that what we do and are is still relevant and important to the project of building a better world and cultivating reverence and wholeness in the hearts of individuals. And we know that there are a ton of other claims on people’s time and attention, so we have accepted that our congregations aren’t going to be as populated as they once were. We reach out and try to meet the needs of the community as best we can: through the internet, through pub theology nights, through house churches, and so on.
We try as best we can to explain, whenever necessary, that the separation of church and state does not mean that religious organizations and people are not allowed to participate in our democracy, but rather that the state is not permitted to establish a state religion.
As we do all of this, many members of the clergy still presume that the general public has a fair and positive sense of what a minister is and does. But that era is over. That’s what I am trying to bang into everyone’s heads. It is OVER.
What associations do we assume that people have when they see a collar or see the title “Rev.?” Here’s the unconscious script I believe most of us activate when asked this question:
They will think faithful, helpful, trust-worthy, spiritually deep, someone who will pray with you, representative of God, follower of Jesus, self-giving love, justice-oriented, servant-leader, counselor, member of an ancient and respected vocational tradition
Break that list down one item at a time, and please understand that every single item on that list has a different — and mostly negative and suspicious — connotation in 2014 than it did even thirty years ago.
I will translate for you.
Faithful (naive, weird, no grip on reality)
Helpful (consumers of a huge amount of wealth and resources to produce tiny, weak outcomes)
Trust-worthy (priest pedophiles, charlatans, hypocrites, meddlers)
Spiritually deep (not dealing with the world; someone I can’t relate to)
Someone who will pray with me (I’m uncomfortable asking for this; don’t know what prayer is, I got “over that” in childhood)
Representative of God (scary ego)
Follower of Jesus (has a conservative political agenda; hates gays)
self-giving love (loser)
Justice-oriented (hippies with guitars, give me a break)
Servant-Leader (underpaid loser can’t get a real job; sucker)
Counselor (maybe relevant to today, yea)
Member of ancient and respected vocational tradition (ancient, yes, respected, why should I?)
When I urge you to take responsibility for your public image as a religious leader and to put time, effort and resources into cultivating a sense of style and polish, it is because I know what kinds of unconscious scripts secular people and leaders have when they see the title “Rev.” before a name.
You may hope for the old, fast-fading script of respect, positive association with venerable tradition and reverence for God’s representatives here on earth (which is only a Catholic teaching and not a Protestant understanding of the clergy), but I want to challenge that.
When a minister walks into a room anywhere outside of his or her own church, they cannot and should not presume to active unconscious scripts of respect. Quite the opposite. When you go to lecture to the college class or speak to your congressional representative or meet with the police chief or enter the ICU or the television studio for your segment or the apartment complex to discuss tenant evictions with the landlord you can no longer assume that the people in power in those spaces have a shred of acquaintance with the church and the clergy, or that if they do, the association is a positive one.
Frame that and keep it over your bathroom mirror:
Do not assume that anyone I meet today knows or cares anything about the power of God’s love I hope to represent and embody in my ministry.
Stitch this on a cushion:
“THE MOMENT I LEAVE MY CHURCH BUILDING, THE WORLD HAS NO REASON TO TRUST OR RESPECT ME, AND IN FACT, WILL LIKELY REGARD ME WITH SUSPICION OR DERISION THE MOMENT I IDENTIFY AS CLERGY.”
Remember some of the things I said were unconsciously activated in the mind of the general, unchurched and religion-suspicious public? That we are totally out of touch with reality, losers, stuck in the past and leading sad, dying institutions, wasting property and money to accomplish tiny, unimportant bits of mercy?
I want you to subvert and interrupt that unconscious script every time you walk into a room, put out your hand, smile, and say, “Hi, I’m Reverend So-And-So. I’m so grateful you agreed to meet with me. I hope we can have a good conversation.” I want that first reaction from the person who assumed you were going to be a frumpy little push-over to be, “Wow, this is not what I expected. I have to take this person seriously.”
Kiss of peace, PB