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Unbelieving Pastor Justifies Staying in the Pulpit

Unbelieving Pastor Justifies Staying in the Pulpit July 10, 2014

Editor’s Note:  In his second post, Andy, a UCC pastor committed to a social justice ministry, asks himself if he is a con man because he makes a living, in part, by pretending to believe in “…the metaphysics some people find necessary to ground them.”   What do you think?

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By “Andy”

Steve Martin plays a traveling evangelist in the 1992 movie, Leap of Faith. He’s a golden-tongued con man, heralding a message he himself discounts, but one that nets his ministry plenty of money from the gullible townsfolk who gather nightly in the tent to hear him. At one point he privately justifies his deception to a non-believer:

“Up in New York City they’ve got Broadway shows that cost $65 a pop just to walk in the door. Maybe you like the show and leave humming a tune, maybe you don’t and kick yourself. I give my people a good show, plenty of music, worthwhile sentiments and most of ’em go home feeling like they’ve got some hope in their lives that wasn’t there before.”

Why do I love this movie so much? Probably because it’s about me. What unbelieving clergy hasn’t had this thought as s/he continues to earn a living off a message that no longer holds meaning for her/him? The question haunts me in quieter moments. Am I simply another Elmer Gantry? Perhaps more refined in philosophical reflection, but a con man nonetheless? I pay my bills from money I earn proclaiming a message about a metaphysical world in which I no longer believe.

I am troubled most when listening to the ‘subjectivist’ side of me—that side which speaks about motivations, intentions of the heart, private thoughts and impulses (and doubts) – that side which a Jewish rabbi once told me is one of the great differences between Christianity and Judaism. In Christianity, to lust after another is just as sinful as the outward act of adultery; whereas in Judaism, all that matters is the outward action. This ‘objectivist’ interpretation of action eases my conscience. It matters not what my inner beliefs, feelings and misgivings are; I am paid to do a job, and I do it. Or as Steve Martin’s character proclaims—in exchange for remuneration – I share ‘worthwhile sentiments’ or at least what congregants want to hear. Most leave thinking it was a good experience worth expending time and money for.

I can’t say I will ever be comfortable with this appeasement of conscience, but it does seem to keep me going. The money factor is an important one for non-believing clergy who are still plying their craft. In mainline churches, a pastor can earn $60-$70k per year, plus paid housing, full health insurance, generous retirement benefits and all professional expenses.  That’s nothing to sneeze at. It doesn’t surprise me at all that many unbelieving clergy elect to remain in the pulpit.

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of being invited into the homes of many people. I’ve discovered that most folks experience the same conflict of feelings about their work. I suspect that most everyone has a story about dishonesty on the job. In an economy that is as damaged as ours and in a system where economic Darwinism prevails, are we not all dilettantes to some extent? Have we not at some point swallowed hard and remained silent when inner passions begged expression? Have we not capitulated to the survival instinct when the better angels of our nature cry out for acknowledgement? Absolutely.

Is this approach valid?  I can’t answer for anyone else. For me, it’s workable. The major investment of time in my parish is given to peace and justice ministries – not the metaphysics some people find necessary to ground them. Insofar as I concern myself with objective, measurable outcomes, I can live with myself.

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Bio:  ‘Andy,’ a former Southern Baptist Minister, is currently a Pastor in the United Church of Christ. He plans to retire in the church, despite his rejection of metaphysical speculation (God, salvation, heaven, etc.). His life has been an evolution from traditional theism, to non-theism (via Tillich and Spong), to agnosticism (via linguistic philosophy), to ‘incipient atheism’ (via secular humanism). He holds a PhD in Biblical Studies from a major American university.  


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