The Silence (and Silencing) of the Clergy

The Silence (and Silencing) of the Clergy January 17, 2019

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.

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  • Speck

    I had some very good advice in seminary – one piece was that if I’m not disturbing people in the congregatation, I’m probably not doing my job (the prophetic piece). The other piece was love my people (the pastoral piece). One often allows the other.

  • mariannea

    I struggle with this a lot. One thing I try to focus on is not being partisan, not being personal, and preaching the Gospel above all. 2) Remembering that Jesus made everyone uncomfortable. I would always hope that everyone feels a little called in and so I always try to ask myself–is one “side” feeling targeted and the other feeling smug? Well, sorry, I have to equalize that, because I want everyone to feel like they have something to take in. 3) Related to #1, do I sound like I am echoing what they can already hear in the public square? Then my sermon is not needed. If we don’t sound like a new voice and new perspective then where is our value as church? 4) Finally, where’s the good news? That is something that applies to every sermon. Who needs a “lecture”? There has to be liberation in it.

  • LynneLMFT

    I actually DO think clergy are uniquely placed in positions of vulnerability for their livelihoods. Public people who are paid by just dozens of people, all of whom are voluntarily giving their own funds, makes the threats of withholding respect or support or giving absolutely real. If you are single, as I was at one time, or the sole provider of a family, as I was again at one time in my parish ministry, or if you are female, as I am, or of any other minority status, the position is exponentially precarious. After attempting to live into the reality of my call, of 20 years of crafting carefully worded sermons, articles, and talks, I finally gave up and went back to graduate school. I am now my own boss, as a family therapist in private practice, doing the work of ministry, just not in a the parish. And I did this to save my mental health, and the well-being of my family. I have thought long and hard about this problem and I don’t see any way out for clergy except to capitulate and say what people want to hear, which has been the default for many for generations, or to change the way Protestant clergy are paid. If salaries were no longer tied to a congregation’s offerings, perhaps the threats of financial ruin would stop. This, of course, doesn’t stop the emotional threats to one’s reputation that would still exist. But at least our children would eat.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    Religions should lose their tax privileges; clergy should lose their housing allowances.

  • jekylldoc

    Yes, this is a tough balancing act. I like to think of it in terms of the “Prophetic Imagination.” We can create liberating images, like beating swords into plowshares, without constantly confronting people with “wrong, wrong, wrong.”

  • jekylldoc

    One way to think about it is to ask myself how I would feel if someone came in proclaiming a message of judgement that I disagree with. Is there a way they could phrase things so that I could hear a graceful invitation to live better rather than a voice of condemnation?

  • Here is a quote I like:
    You cannot be protected from the things that frighten you and hurt you, but if you identify with the part of your being that is responsible for transformation, then you are always the equal, or more than the equal of the things that frighten you.”
    ― Jordan B. Peterson

  • jekylldoc

    I like that. I am more familiar with Peterson’s reputation than his work. I don’t think I quite agree with the way he has put things in that quote, but I really like the “if…then” part of it. This suggests that “the part of your being that is responsible for transformation” may be strongly related to the part that is responsive to your Higher Power.

  • /the part of your being that is responsible for transformation/ intriguing the way he articulated that MHO. Part of the warranty or an app installment. Everybody gets issued one. It comes included in the human unit! I just found Peterson on my YouTube feed from following some other person. What have you heard about him?

  • Guthrum

    In the average size church the largest budget item is usually the pastor salary. In order to meet that, struggling churches often start cutting items such as youth pastor, secretary, and custodian. This weakens the support and operations of the church. I remember a denomination state leader say that it is more expensive to try to revive a church than to start a new one.

  • jekylldoc

    He is quite the celebré these days, for his tapping into myth and archetype, but mostly for telling men how to avoid the traps of dropping out, on the one hand, and relying on aggression, on the other.
    I read about him on the blog of Tylor Lovins, who seems to have done a fair job of providing an introduction in the eyes of Peterson himself. … -peterson/

  • Mr. James Parson

    I wish I had more than one upvote for that.

  • Mr. James Parson

    So would the level of discomfort indicate the level of success?

  • Pennybird

    It seems it would have advanced the cause of Christianity further if Robert Wright Lee had informed his congregation that what he said was not controversial in a Christian sense because Jesus would not have approved of racism. If they don’t realize that they’re in the wrong religion. The Christian Right has made great strides in twisting Jesus’ message into something akin to “Jesus loves straight white men best” and now people are running, not walking, away from church, and this is what happens when you let the wrong people do all the talking.

  • swbarnes2

    I don’t see any way out for clergy except to capitulate and say what people want to hear,

    I don’t understand why a pastor and a community earnestly asking for and receiving divine guidance has this problem. Surely people publicly disapproving of a pastor do so only after earnestly praying for and receiving God’s support and blessing.

    Surely a pastor doesn’t teach something s/he knows to be controversial without knowing that God supports them, and will continue to support them by upholding that teaching in the hearts of anyone who prays about it.

  • Kyllein MacKellerann “

    First, one must remember that modern churches are focused more on money than morality. This isn’t totally hypocrisy, it’s a fact of modern life. Money keeps the lights on, the water flowing and the heating/cooling functional. Money comes from donations and offerings and for the sake of the Greater Good (if such a thing exists) Ministers need to keep the cash coming in.
    Thus is Christianity today made into a corrupt system, and it has to be to survive. Salvation defers to Survival and Virtue bows to Value.
    It’s the way things are today and as long as we keep the social systems as they are, it will continue to be so. From Evangelical to Catholic to Orthodox to Methodist, Mammon has won the competition for Salvation away from Virtue. As long as the Corporate Churches remain businesses, those who speak out will be silenced and those who cause interruption to the cash flow will be expelled.
    But I thought this was obvious…

  • Thanks!! That was an excellent study!!

  • John Gills

    A realistic pleasure in Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small series is the ongoing theme of Rabbi Small cleaving to the core of his belief in the face of hostile members of his temple agitating for a greater focus on that which was secular/popular.

    I realize that these are works of the art of fiction, but I especially like this quote from Picasso.

    “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

  • Speck

    Well, it’s certainly not a linear relationship! And of course all disturbance is not prophetic, and all love is not pastoral. But it was a clear reminder that if some people are mad at me, that may actually be a sign that I’m doing God’s work.

  • Mr. James Parson

    “may” is a highly ambiguous work. I am unclear as to what you are may or may not be describing.

  • Daniel G. Johnson

    In my view, the matter is larger. It involves a political economy wherein the mainline pew is mostly center-right to hard right. This is not a new paradigm. The mainline pew knows that it’s pastor is liberal, and at some level they know their pastor is right, and they’re wrong. But, they don’t like that. It’s what they take a la “sin boldly” to the Brief Order of Confession…and then their conservative agenda plays on. This is not new. It’s been this way for 40 years or more. Everyone knows what the script is. The liberal pastor and family will be chewed up. And this is in a context where the letter of call isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. The Bishop won’t back it up. Congregations routinely sign letters of call that denote their religious and financial obligations toward pastors and their ministries. Their fingers are crossed…they give themselves immediate privilege to reinterpret the religious obligations and renegotiate the financial. It is quite common for the annual meeting to have a complete rehash of the pastor’s health & pension, not to mention car allowance other compensation line items. Ideally, what many congregations want is a pastor’s spouse who works a full time professional job that gets the pastor health insurance off the spouse’s employer…and any other benefits. And, they want that spouse’s full devotion/time to the ministry. Meanwhile the liberal pastor’s job is to speak up for the Poor. He/She does. The script is written. The average length of time for a clergy family to put up with this bullshit is 3 years. Some go in 1. Some go in 5. It’s just human math.

    A lot of times, congregations look at a clergy departure as “sudden”…or others may call it “leaving in the middle of conflict”. LOL. There is no “middle of the conflict”. Most departures have been prepared for…and congregations have a heavy hand in that preparation. For, if a congregation really thinks it’s going to get away with abusing clergy families AND insisting their spouses carry a large amount of the financial load…well…there is Murphy’s Law. So if Pastor already has his/her health insurance and other benefits off the spouse….and if Pastor is taking classes somewhere a couple nights a week…and the congregation just keeps abusing…who really has the right to be shocked when it’s “suddenly” over. LOL.

    To talk about “conflict” is to assume there are two sides. There aren’t. The political economy of the mainline pew is just wrong….and is to be rejected outright. The internal theological reality of clergy who leave the ministry and serve God in secular places is the knowledge that the pew is wrong. And, it will be dead soon. Very soon. There is no fix to this.

  • Speck

    Are you uncomfortable with ambiguity? I am unclear as to why that is worthy of comment.

  • Yasmina Mickas

    As a pastor, your role is unique in that you are an employee of the Church; yet, called upon to give direction, and even reproof. Being called upon to give this direction can put you in a sometimes awkward position of making remarks that can prove to be unpopular with the congregation who are also your employers. It can be hard, especially in these trying times, when a lot of churches are not following the teachings of our Lord, to do and say the right thing and lead them in the right direction. God be with you.