Pastoring In Public

Pastoring In Public September 11, 2019

Standing on the corner of a highway outside Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network stands alongside me in protest. We’re protesting Fort Sill functioning as a detention center for unaccompanied minors and other undocumented people.

I’m in my collar, the full wrap-around kind, and it’s decorated like a rainbow.

He asks me what denomination. I say Lutheran. First he says, “We need more of you out here. The church leaders, I mean. ”

Then, he says, “You know, back about 20 years ago I was on trial for inciting a riot. This was up in Rapid City, South Dakota. Anyway, it was the Lutherans who stood up for me and said I didn’t do it. That’s my connection to Lutherans.”

Somehow that story is a quintessentially “Lutherans in public” story, although if you asked me to try and explain it, I probably can’t do any better than say, “Let those with ears to hear, hear.”

So what does it mean to pastor in public?

Let’s consider, as an example, the recent letter from Mark Labberton, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary: “The Politics of Cheap Speech and Taming the Tongue.”

“If our president’s tweets last weekend about “the Squad” (i.e. the informal group of first-term congresswomen including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib) were not offensive enough, the smiling and presumably broadly Christian crowd chanting “Send her back!” was even more alarming.  Wherever we are on the political spectrum, we need to remember that degrading our political opponents is not the same as disagreeing with them. Falling prey to tropes that carry racist and misogynist messaging is not the same as disagreeing over immigration policies or religion.”

Undoubtedly, making such a statement in a public letter alienated many Fuller alumni and donors. Having taken an early risk in the letter, he decides to temper his claims with a more “middle” position later in the letter:

“Much of our political speech, from the right or from the left, exposes the guilt in our hearts revealed by the venom on our tongues.  In attempting to truthfully name what is wrong with “them,” we easily expose what is wrong in “us.””

Because Mark Labberton is president of a seminary that represents many perspectives (ecumenically and globally) on Christian faith and public speech, and probably many (given that it is a broadly evangelical institution) that are very sympathetic to Donald Trump, it makes a kind of disappointing pragmatic sense that he shifts to the middle position.

The Problem With Being In the Middle

The problem inherent in this “middle” is the problem inherent in politics more generally. The problem which we’ll return to, is it simultaneously fails to win over either side, andit fails to state truth in a full costly manner.

We hope that our politicians, our public officials, when they’re in public office, will do the right thing, make the right choices, say the right things, because those are the right things. But we know that they do the political calculus and decide what they should say or what they can’t say in order to remain in the elected positions to which they’ve been elected.

Now, you might ask, aren’t pastors different than politicians? And on the one hand, you would have to answer of course, they’re called by a congregation and their letter of call.

But the truth remains that a pastor, just like a politician, would have to be very secure in their position in order to say or do anything that is going to alienate their base, which in the case of pastors is their congregations.

Most pastors care for and love their congregations. That’s a good thing. But they also perceive themselves as beholden to their congregations, inasmuch as they make their livelihood, and maintain their office and pulpit, at the discretion of the congregation.

Because partisanship in our culture finds its way inevitably into our congregational life (I’m reminded of the old joke about why Episcopalians have altar rails in their sanctuaries–to separate the Republicans from the Democrats) I appreciate the attempts of some theologians to move us beyond our partisan tendencies.

For example, Leah Schade, in her recent book, Preaching in the Purple Zone, offers a method of theological preaching, of naming in a first sermon the topic that’s going to come up (say, on climate change), then conducting dialogue with the congregation around the issue, and then returning with a prophetic word that has been in dialogue, critical conversation with the congregation.

This second sermon may still be prophetic in the sense that it expresses “unrelenting hope about God’s activity to transform church and society in a present-future sense based on the principle of justice” (120). But the sermon-dialogue-sermon model makes use of the preacher’s “unique position and opportunity to model a dialogical approach to a contentious issue while also examining it through the lens of the gospel” (121).

Schade was first inspired to develop this model for preaching after conducting a 1200-person survey of clergy. Her research led her to the conclusion that many pastors do not feel trained or prepared to preach in the “purple zone.” So they simply avoid controversial issues altogether, both because of the inherent risks involved, and because many doubted whether it would make a difference in the life of their congregation.

Is A Congregation Public Or Private?

But even “purple preaching” ends up having to deal with the stark reality that when the pastor says certain things, or names certain things out of their perspective, or out of the faith, it is going to alienate some base or another.

All the carefulness in the world won’t avoid certain kinds of fragility.

Think of the rollercoaster of adulation and rejection Jesus rides in his last week.

Additionally, if pastors are going to be public, they’re also going to say things in public spaces, and then that’s going to place certain performative pressures on them while also imbricating the public and private dimensions of congregational life. In the newly mediated reality of trans-media, this will often mean, for example, that many of those hearing the sermon will have their perception of the sermon illuminated (or clouded) by what they read posted by the pastor during the week on Twitter.

Toni Morrison: Today we are experiencing “… the distortion of the public and the destruction of the private. We glean what is public primarily, but not exclusively, from media… there is the looking-glass phenomenon of the ‘play’ of the public in our private, interior lives… Since the space in which both civic and private life is lived has become so indistinguishable from inner and outer, from inside/outside, these two realms have been compressed into a ubiquitous blur, a rattling of our concept of home.”(“The Foreigner’s Home”, in The Sources of Self-Regard)

Pastoring, Like Many Things, Has Become More Public

When we think about pastoral ministry in the 21stcentury, one thing that has changed is that pastoral ministry has become more public (or at least, a certain kind of socially mediated public).

I can remember when I was a young person, I honestly didn’t know mostly what my pastor did, said, thought, ate for breakfast, between Sunday and Sunday, because I only saw him or her on a Sunday morning. By and large, pastors simply were not in my (or any) public space. Perhaps there were exceptions, pastors with newspaper columns or a spot on the radio. But they were exceptions.

Now clergy, like almost all of us (Luddites exempted) are constantly “present” in these new mediated spaces. Daily, maybe hourly if you follow your pastor religiously, you see what your pastor posts on Facebook, or Instagram, or any of the other contexts in which you can follow them. The pastor’s curated presence in these spaces has inevitably “been compressed into the ubiquitous blur” which then also includes the books they publish, the blogs they write, the podcasts they record, and the sermons they preach.

Pastors have the opportunity (in many instances they have even been pressured) to become more public, even as they’ve been pushed to the side culturally by certain kinds of moves within secularization.

The prestige may be lower, but the potential (the demand) for a platform is higher.

So although maybe we don’t have clergy that are listened to or heeded on quite the same level that say the Niebuhr’s or  Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 20thcentury, nevertheless, we have this broad range of pastors who are pastoral advocates in public spaces because of social media, and we hear from them.

Increasingly we even shame them when they aren’t there. Some of them (admittedly few… now I’m shaming) even show up at rallies and protests and city council meetings and quorum courts.

Okay, let’s return to the issue of Mark Labberton and then consider it in light of the average pastor.

The average pastor who publishes something as pointed as Labberton’s letter is, as I mentioned, going to have to be pretty secure in their call in order to do it, because they’re going to have an entire cross section of their congregation, if their congregation is made up of a spectrum of political perspectives, who’s going to be very offended that he says anything against Donald Trump.

The Problem With “Both Sides”

The pastor who’s trying to also be politic (an institution builder, a fundraiser, an empathetic leader), is by necessity going to make some kind of both-sides argument.

Now, here’s the problem with the both sides argument. I can remember back the summer before my congregation split (over a public stand I took about same-gender marriage), I had some in my congregation who thought we should send a letter out to all the Sunday school parents letting them know that a woman in a same-gender marriage was teaching Sunday school.

When I didn’t listen to their side, and at least consider doing what they wanted done, suddenly I wasn’t being a good listener. What was desired in that situation is that I would consider “all sides.”

But in a situation like that, you can’t really consider all the sides, because some sides inherently exclude others. It’s just the way it is. Count me completely on the side of “I want great people in same-gender marriages to teach Sunday school and I don’t plan to follow the suggestions of those who are homophobic.”

Recently, Donald Trump tweeted this thing about antifa and wanting to try to argue that antifa demonstrators are the same as terrorist organizations. If you go with the both sides, you have to accept a false equivalency into the overall strategic analysis of what you’re going to do as a pastor or as a congregation.

In the case of having to send letters out to the congregation warning them that somebody in a same gender relationship was teaching Sunday school, I already knew what I was going to do… we weren’t going to do that. It was simply not a perspective that gets to be at the table. In a congregation that is clear on being inclusive, it’s simply not something that we’re going to do.

Similarly, I’m simply not going to listen if somebody tells me that the people who were interposing their bodies at the march that I was at last week in Lawton, Oklahoma, placing themselves between a Trump supporter with a knife and a loaded gun on his belt, by simply standing and making sure he couldn’t walk right into the crowd of demonstrators, are as much a problem as he is.

If I do, I’m not paying attention to what’s right there in front of my face, which is two people or a group of people making themselves vulnerable and perhaps even scared while another one walks up and illegally brandishes a large hunting knife on his belt. The both sides argument just doesn’t work.

Now, before we put this weight completely on pastors, the truth is all organizations and institutions do the same thing. Mark Labberton probably had really significant conversations with his leadership and his board before he published that letter, because both-sides thinking controls ALL the everything.

Here at Augustana College (where this blog post was first given as a talk), before Augustana would take a really public stand on something, they would probably give some consideration to the alumni and what kind of impact it would have on donors to take certain kinds of positions.

Corporations and companies make the same kinds of choices.

Because politics is bad for business.

Until it’s not.

Once there’s a wide majority of people behind something, then corporations get on board. It’s why you’re seeing more and more corporations with big floats at pride parades, because corporations now know what public opinion is on the issue, generally speaking.

And so this is the kind of calculus that lots of people, including pastors have to make.

The difference is, is that pastors are called upon to make biblically grounded, and morally sound, public statements and pronouncements not for the sake of shareholder profits, or to get reelected, but specifically, to be faithful.

And that’s the most difficult part of what it means to be a pastor and to do it in public. The voice that you’re going to have to exercise in public spaces is sometimes going to be so complex and rolled into the community wide issue, and then mapped back into the congregation that it’s going to leave the pastor uniquely vulnerable.

It’s going to be perceived as political, or partisan, when in fact it’s an attempt at truth-telling.

We can have a lot of sympathy for clergy who deal with this. It can become very easy for a pastor like myself, whose congregation over the years has changed enough that I know that I have broad support for making very strident public statements that sometimes go against, say, dominant forms of Christianity in the Mid South, to say “get out there and pastor boldly in public.”  But nevertheless, all clergy in various ways are going to have to deal with this.

What I’ve done here is simply attempt to describe how impossible it is to pastor in public, and why we have to, and what that means.

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