This is not a pastoral problem with a pastoral solution

This is not a pastoral problem with a pastoral solution March 8, 2021

A couple of good recent articles examine the challenge local church pastors face when their parishioners get sucked into the QAnon hoax. The first is from Jaweed Kaleem for the Los Angeles Times, which you can read without a paywall at the Bangor Daily News,QAnon and conspiracy theories are taking hold in churches. Pastors are fighting back.” The second is from Sarah Stankorb, “What It’s Like to Pastor QAnon Believers.”

Both articles cover similar territory, interviewing local church pastors about their struggles with Q-afflicted congregants and how they’ve tried to address them. The use of “pastor” as both a noun and verb in these two headlines illustrates something about the nature of this struggle. Pastors pastor their churches. And “pastoring” isn’t usually a verb that involves “fighting back.” Stankorb’s subhead summarizes what both pieces describe in more detail: “Pastors tend to the spiritual needs of their congregations. Conspiracy theories have made their jobs a lot harder.”

That word “pastor” also tells us what kind of religious congregations we’re talking about here: Protestant Christians. That’s what “pastors” rather than “priests” entails. The distinction is more than just denominational. The word priest hasn’t been verbified in the way the word pastor has, but those different titles imply different roles. The role of a priest is (among other things) to serve as a mediator and intercessor between the congregation and God. We Protestants tend to get huffy about any suggestion that such a mediator is needed. (1 Timothy 2:5, buddy. And see also Pastor Johnson’s 18-part Sunday-evening sermon series on the book of Hebrews.)

The word pastor literally means a shepherd, one who is put in charge of tending and caring for their flock. Like priests, pastors’ work involves things like weddings and funerals, but it’s less centered on sacraments and more on, as Stankorb says, “tending to the spiritual needs of their congregations.”

That’s a bit fuzzy, and it gets even fuzzier when we consider more of the practical day-to-day work of priests and pastors. Consider, for example, that the sacramental, mediating role of local priests involves the intimate pastoral work of Confession, while pastors tend to spend more time focused on preparing expository sermons — essentially mediating between their congregation and the scriptures. That’s not how the hypothetical “Pastor Johnson” we joked about above would think of his multi-week painstaking exegeses of Hebrews or of Romans or of half a verse from 2 Thessalonians, but there’s a sense in which his pulpit plays just as “priestly” a role as the altar does in the Catholic church down the street.

This sermon-centric approach is reflected in one of the pastors profiled in Kaleem’s piece:

“Fringe ideas can spread very quickly,” said Mark Fugitt, the pastor of Round Grove Baptist Church in Miller, Missouri, who said he’s battled them in his rural congregation of 300.

He recalled going on Facebook a few months ago and making a list of the radical ideas church members shared: face masks cause carbon dioxide poisoning, germ theory is fake, 5G networks are part of a ploy for mind-control and the theory of a child sex trafficking ring with connections to Hillary Clinton and her allies that’s run out of a pizza shop in Washington, D.C.

Fugitt, who plans his sermons months ahead of time, said he tries to incorporate Christian messages that apply to the modern-day plague of conspiracies as well as everyday life.

“I don’t look at the news and then write my sermon, but I look at Scripture and highlight biblical virtues like not lying and loving your neighbor,” said Fugitt, 35. The Sunday after the Capitol attacks, he spoke in church about the parable of the good Samaritan from Luke 10:25-37. The following Sunday, the topics included the parable of the prodigal son.

Still, he’s sometimes at a loss. After seeing a recent Facebook post by a pastor who said rolling blackouts in Texas were “trying to condition us for communist control” by the federal government, Fugitt didn’t reply privately or comment publicly because he was unsure if he could change any minds.

Poor Pastor Mark is typical of most of the pastors who spoke with Kaleem and Stankorb. They’re all “sometimes at a loss,” which is a gentle way of saying they’re all entirely at a loss. It’s not just that “Conspiracy theories have made their jobs a lot harder,” but that they’ve made their jobs impossible.

Here are two more pastors from Kaleem’s article:

Vern Swieringa, a Christian Reformed Church pastor, quit his post in the small western Michigan village of Hamilton in December after months of disputes with his congregation over his request to require masks. …

Jared Stacy, a Southern Baptist pastor, had a similar experience.

Over his four years as a minister in Virginia, Stacy noticed a gradual uptick in conspiratorial conversations beginning to divide his congregation. …

Stacy left the church in November. Today, he lives in Scotland, where he studies theology at the University of Aberdeen, and hopes to one day return to the U.S., possibly again as a pastor.

And you won’t find any success stories in Sarah Stankorb’s piece either. What that piece provides, instead, is a fuller description of why it’s so difficult for these pastors to pastor their way through this:

Pastors learn how to baptize, officiate weddings, and help families mourn a loss. There’s little preparation for helping people you care about dismantle a worldview that cleaves them away from reality. When someone in Kubilus’s own life started spouting conspiracies, “my first instinct was one of anger and frustration and derision” he says. “Eventually I had to figure out that that wasn’t helping anything. That I can be as angry as I wanted to be, but that anger was only making the problem worse.”

Kubilus there is Pastor Derek Kubilus, who pastors a United Methodist church in Ohio:

Kubilus didn’t want to go into detail about work he’s done directly with members at his own Uniontown, Ohio church, citing confidentiality. He says the conflicts over QAnon in his congregation have been settled for a while now. He thinks, perhaps, those who were in conflict over it have left.

He features in this story not for his work as local church pastor, but for the pastoral work he’s now trying to do “on his podcast, Cross Over Q, which offers healing for QAnon followers and family members from a Christian perspective”:

To Kubilus, QAnon is a pastoral concern. He sees the movement’s conspiratorial thinking as heresy, a “spiritual pandemic” that is destructive to real people’s lives. Unlike so many pastors who have spent the past year weaving together Christian nationalism, Trumpism, and Q ideology, Kubilus is on the other side, trying to unravel these conspiracies and bring Christians back home. …

On his podcast, Kubilus strikes notes of empathy. He understands people wanting to feel they have secret knowledge, that they are taking part in saving the world. He understands it’s easy to get caught up in a grand narrative. “QAnon literally injects transcendental meaning and purpose into the lives of regular folks every day, by convincing people they are central players in a war for the soul of America,” Kubilus has said on his podcast.

This podcast is a pastoral effort that seeks to embody the pastoral virtues of empathy, patience, and gentle spiritual guidance. Kubilus seems to be a sincerely good shepherd who cares for lost sheep, all of which is quite commendable.

But it doesn’t seem that any of those lost sheep have come back to the fold. The eminently pastoral work of all of these good pastors isn’t working.

This is not their fault. They are pastors, after all, and this is not a job for pastors. QAnon may be “a pastoral concern,” but it is not a pastoral problem.

This is why I think it is vitally important to push back — as we did here last week — against the assertion that the individuals caught up in Satanic Panics “are sincere in their convictions and mean well.” That’s a fundamental misdiagnosis of the problem that leads only to useless, impotent prescriptions for the disease.

Again, none of this is really new. We’ve seen this before. I’ve been in exactly the same situation as these poor pastors, dealing with the same frustration and futility due to the same misdiagnosis.

For me, this happened back in the ’90s, when the same fantastical conspiracy theories now taking the shape of QAnon were circulating via photocopies and chain letters decrying the Satanism of Procter & Gamble and Liz Claiborne executives on daytime talk shows.

I responded pastorally, presuming I was dealing with sincere and well-meaning fellow Christians who had been led astray by misinformation. And so I responded as poor Pastor Kubilus does — with empathy and patience, gently supplying better information that might unravel their deception and bring them back home.

That didn’t work. Not only was it ineffective, but it backfired spectacularly — serving only to inflame their anger as they doubled-down on the fantasy. It took me a long while to realize what that meant. Treating these lost sheep as innocent dupes unwittingly led astray won’t have any effect because they were not dupes and they were not innocent. The problem was not one of error, but of sin — of moral choices, made willingly. It’s not a problem of “fringe ideas” or “conspiracy theories” spreading in congregations due to gullibility and naivete, but more starkly a problem of bearing false witness against they neighbor.

That’s a very different diagnosis requiring a very different prescription. That’s a grim realization, given that this is a far more serious spiritual problem. But there’s also a sense in which this realization is hopeful because, again, the “pastoral” prescription hasn’t been working at all.





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