Flattery will sometimes get you closer to your goal. How many times has a new pastor stumbled because they believed the flattery? I left one first Sunday morning worship as the new pastor. As she walked by an older woman pulled me over to whisper in my ear, “Thank God for you!” It was the sort of ego boost we like to receive now and again…well…all the time. But I was a little wary of it too. Previous pastors have their fans and detractors. Once a pastor leaves, the fans suffer loss while the detractors believe they have gotten their way. The best way to forget this truth is to let the praise go to your head.
A White Male Schism
Lovett Weems recently reported that churches leaving the United Methodist Church all have similar characteristics. They are usually led by white male pastors of a certain age. The church membership is overwhelmingly white. And most disaffiliating congregations are in the South. What I knew to be true based on my local experience is confirmed by this data.
The stated issues of why these congregations and clergy are leaving – human sexuality, biblical inspiration, and the divinity of Jesus – are patriarchal and racial in nature. This is not to say the rest of us do not care about these issues. But they are used as a cover to preserve white male domination over the churches.
Schism and Flattery
Weems’ findings include the majority of pastors serving disaffiliating churches are in the range or ages 55-72. Mandatory retirement of clergy in the UMC presently is 72. White male clergy in this age bracket (including me) are witnessing three things about their careers. The first is it is almost over. The second is they will not achieve any of the goals they thought they should have at this point in their lives. Third, the clergy are seeing an emphasis placed on younger clergy and clergy who are people of color.
These clergy have built up years of resentment toward their Annual Conferences and their congregations. A few examples I hear include grousing about female clergy being “promoted over” them without “paying their dues.” A black female clergy person who becomes a Superintendent was recently referred to as a “double minority.”
These bruised egos are susceptible to flattery. The easiest form of flattery is to appeal to these resentments. Affirming the resentments a flatterer may easily then motivate the person into doing something that looks like taking charge or being decisive. “We need bold men like you leading us.” In the case of schism, it takes the form of “standing for the truth” or “standing up for Jesus/God.”
Flattery in the Bible
Ironically, reading scripture can help one overcome this susceptibility. Purim was celebrated just a few days ago. The book of Esther is the story of how fragile male egos almost brought about genocide. Haman cannot stand the fact that Mordechai will not kneel to him. He appeals to Xerxes need to keep face as a leader and build up his treasury. Do not forget the introduction of this story shows the King being rebuffed by Queen Vashti. Xerxes must dump her before all wives start treating their husbands with the same disdain.
Flattery And Fearmongering
There are more examples in Scripture. Shakespeare’s tragedies usually involve a flatterer somewhere near the main character. Fearmongering and flattery often go hand-in-hand. Pastors who become culture warriors fall for this combination. The would be leader says, “They are coming to destroy you.” But ends the conversation with, “We need bold Pastors to save our country.” Ronald Reagan’s famous line to evangelical leaders comes to mind. “You can’t endorse me. But I can endorse you.” Trump’s line, “They are not coming for me. They are coming for you,” plays into it as well.
Many of us recognize the fearmongering and appeal to resentment for what it is. Yet, we progressives fail to see the real diabolical actions produced by flattering words. I suspect this is because we like hearing them applied to ourselves. But it is dangerous not to see the poison in the candy wrapper.