When a pastor is scared of his congregation — and scared that God isn’t good

When a pastor is scared of his congregation — and scared that God isn’t good March 13, 2014

John Shore’s latest post coincides with some of the things we’ve been talking about here recently. He writes “To secretly gay-affirming pastors of conservative churches,” touching on some of the things we recently discussed regarding Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation and regarding the structural duplicity of so many evangelical institutions (see here, here and here).

John describes a pair of conversations he had with the pastor of a conservative local church. The pastor first sought John out because he had begun to have questions about the Required Official Stance on Homosexuality that he, as a pastor, was expected never to question. He needed to talk to somebody — somebody safe, in a setting where he’d be allowed to think about this without risking tribal punishment for insufficient enthusiasm regarding the Stance.

They met. They talked. They parted ways.

A year later, the pastor reached out to John again. He was no longer just asking questions. He had come to conclusions and conclusions had come to him. He no longer believed in the Required Official Stance on Homosexuality. He had come to believe that the Stance was wrong.

This seems to have been an enormous relief for the guy. It usually is. It’s stressful trying to hang on to an idea that you suspect is wrong, but that you can’t allow yourself to question. There’s a perpetual, inescapable anxiety — the worry that you’re probably wrong. And then, one blessed day, you finally decide that, in fact, your worst fears are true and you are wrong. But in that same instant, that changes — I am wrong shifts quickly into I was wrong. And that past tense is liberating.

But now this pastor has a new problem. He’s the head of a large conservative congregation, and as such he’s not allowed not to be wrong:

My pastor friend is now stuck leading a huge church from which he would be fired the moment he so much as intimated that he was thinking about changing his position on the gay issue.

“I’d be gone before I finished that sermon,” he said. “The elders would boot me out the door while I was still flipping through my Bible. Which means I now can’t preach the way I really want to. I can’t say the things I really want to say.”

I hear from pastors like this one all the time. It’s insane. So many pastors out there are leading congregations way more conservative than they are. And on the gay issue in particular they do not dare to ruffle their congregants’ feathers, since they fear doing so would mean finding themselves suddenly unemployed.

“I’ve got a wife and kids,” said the pastor uneasily. “I’ve got a mortgage. And yet I’ve also got pressing on my heart this thing I feel God calling me to preach about. Honestly, John, I just don’t know what to do.”

John gives him some useful advice — don’t make a big pronouncement, but start the conversation. Get people talking.

(Actual size)

That seems to be what Ken Wilson did in his church. Wilson’s publication of A Letter to My Congregation won’t come as a surprise to anyone who belongs to that congregation. That book isn’t the announcement of his change of mind, or his first attempt to help them change their minds. It is, rather, the culmination of a long process and a long conversation in which Wilson and his congregation changed their minds together.

And part of that process was creating the kind of community where members feel safe to have such an honest, open conversation. It means being a place where anyone can ask questions without the fear that even just asking will get you in trouble. It means being a place where people can challenge and question received wisdom — even the tablets engraved with the Required Official Stance. That can’t happen if people are afraid of retribution.

And that can’t happen if the entire community is secretly fearful that the received wisdom of the Required Official Stance might actually be indefensible and unable to survive any such questions.

It seems clear that the conservative church of John’s pastor friend is not a place where people feel safe to ask questions. When even the pastor himself doesn’t feel safe doing so, it’s likely that most of the congregation would be even more afraid to speak up if they’re having difficulty understanding or accepting what they’re being taught.

That’s part of this, too — it’s not just that challenging questions are discouraged, but even questions seeking greater clarity will be muzzled in a fearful environment. That leads to a situation in which a great many people don’t really quite grasp what it is that they’re supposed to believe, but since they’re afraid to ask for a clearer explanation, they wind up just bluffing their way along, hoping it all gets cleared up at some point down the road. Suppressed doubts can fester and rot, but so can suppressed confusion.

Because no one is willing to speak up, we can’t ever really know what people in such fearful communities really think. It’s possible that this pastor’s congregation isn’t nearly as reflexively, rigidly anti-gay as the pastor imagines. It may be that many, many members of his congregation are also secretly troubled and unconvinced by the ROSH. It’s even possible that everyone in his congregation is troubled and unconvinced by that Stance, but that everyone is keeping those concerns to themselves for fear of what others might say. Maybe this congregation is headed to a Man Who Was Thursday moment in which they finally realize they’re all undercover policemen.

Another step back there’s another problem — one that’s reflected in something the pastor said to John in their first conversation a year ago.

“My big concern,” he went on, “the hurdle that I just can’t seem to get over, is that I need to know that it’s biblical to believe that being gay isn’t a sin. I can’t abandon the Bible. And I just don’t find convincing enough the intellectual argument for the Bible supporting gay relationships. …”

Again, this guy’s problems don’t so much come from the Bible itself as from the clobber-text hermeneutic of white evangelicalism. But the deeper problem here is that he’s terrified that God isn’t as loving as he is.

Scratch the surface and that’s what all this business about “I can’t abandon the Bible” means. The thing he really can’t quite abandon is his fear that the Bible somehow teaches that something is evil and sinful even though it is not unloving, harmful or unjust. His conscience, his reason, and his heart all tell him he ought to be welcoming and including more people than he is now. But he has got it into his head somehow that God works in mysterious ways — ways that violate our conscience, defy our reason and break our hearts.

He’s afraid, in other words, that God is a cruel monster. This monstrous God, the pastor believes, will burn the gays in Hell forever and ever and ever. He couldn’t do that to them himself. Not forever and ever and not even for an instant. He recoils from even the thought of torturing another person by burning their flesh. And he knows that this is not because he is not sufficiently holy. He does not pray that God will grant him such holiness — making him more and more holy and righteous so that he will be able to condemn, exclude, reject and even torture others just like God supposedly does because of God’s supposed “holiness.”

He couldn’t ever bring himself to pray such a prayer. And like the kid said, you can’t pray a lie.

But the gatekeepers seem so certain about God’s “holiness” and their own. And that certainty scares him. What if they’re right? If God is, indeed, such a monstrously “holy” creature of pure cruelty, then we mustn’t risk getting on the wrong side of this holiness by doing anything that might be perceived as “abandoning the Bible.”

That’s the Big Fear at work here, bigger and deeper and more foundational than any of the smaller fears built on top of it. The fear of what the gatekeepers might do to you is nowhere near as terrifying as the fearful thought that the gatekeepers might actually be right about the character of God. That would mean that this own pastor’s finite love and mercy are still greater than the love and mercy of God. And it would mean that his lack of sufficient “holy” animus toward those “the Bible” compels him to condemn and exclude will somehow get him in trouble with this cruel, merciless God.

And again, if even the pastor is afraid of God’s cruel “holiness,” then it’s likely much of the congregation is as well.

That pastor is in a close place. He’s got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and he knows it. But he’s already having the awful thoughts, so he may as well go the whole hog and say the awful words as well.



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