He gave me a lot to think about. Somewhere along the way, he learned that churches are places anyone can visit, but only incognito. If they knew who you really were, they’d kick you out. He was looking for a church that was real. He was looking for a church where he could be real. Real churches are out there. They’re all over the place. But I could also see why he hadn’t found one yet. Sometimes in religious communities, we save the real stuff for the insiders—or even worse—we just don’t deal with it. Either way, the outsiders leave feeling as if they’d never fit in.
“It would break the poor pastor’s heart”
An ethics professor asked a city minister to assemble a group of thoughtful businesspeople for interviews on the subject of business ethics. So the pastor gathered a small group at church and the professor asked them how their religious faith impacted their lives in the office and the business decisions they made. The pastor encouraged the group to share those difficult gray area stories but people stuck to the obvious. They talked superficially about not stealing office supplies or the importance of being a good mentor. It was only after the pastor left the room that the real stories started flowing.
These executives had nightmarish tales of deals gone bad, deception, plant closings, firings without cause, prejudice, and greed. They talked about agonizing decisions that would never be 100 percent right and how hard it was to live with the realization that people were being hurt by choices they made. No matter how they tried to live their values, life was a lot messier than they had been prepared for.
Finally the professor stopped taking notes and asked them, “Why didn’t you say all this when Pastor John was in the room with us?”
There was an awkward silence until one of them said, “Oh, he’s such a wonderful man. It would just break his heart.”
They weren’t worried about Pastor John’s wrath or even his push back. They saw him as a sweet, naive man whose view of the world was simplistic, almost childlike. They weren’t worried about Pastor John being disappointed in them. They were worried that Pastor John would be disappointed by life, and that he was far too tender to take it.
Now, I can tell you that clergy are not easily shocked.
But clergy, like most people, are afraid to tell the truth about themselves in church. So instead they pretend to tell the truth, with trifling little stories that pretend to be revelatory (“Now when I say I like chocolate, I mean I really like chocolate …”) but are not really (“Sometimes I think I am a chocoholic!”). Unless the pastor is obese, in which case he won’t be talking about food but football instead, or some other such harmless pleasure that really isn’t his issue.
Heaven forbid an obese pastor talk about food addiction. Someone at church might actually think they could talk to such a pastor.
Every time a clergy person pulls a punch, an angel in heaven yawns, and the laypeople wonder, “Are these really the only problems our pastor has?”
I can picture the angels up there sighing, “She has all these people there on a Sunday listening to God’s word that we are saved and loved no matter what, and then she acts like it barely applies to her. No wonder they don’t think it applies to them.”
Over time, clergy learn to tell a story in which they are the heroes, or they are the ones who step away from sin, or they sin but in a manner so inconsequential it makes the congregation think they live on Sesame Street. It makes the church seem less real.
Particularly when the Bible passages can seem so harsh. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus yells to his best friend and disciple, Peter.
And then the preacher begins to preach with some inane anecdote that wouldn’t wake Satan up from a nap.
“My mother always made the most delicious cookies, and we couldn’t help but steal one or two before they had cooled … I know, we were wicked … Tee hee hee.”
And the congregation titters along.
But somewhere out there in church someone is hurting. Someone is grappling with a bigger decision than whether or not to steal a cookie, or even whether to eat one. Someone has put everything else aside to get there that morning.
They deserve more than a charming anecdote meant to draw them closer to the warm fuzzy preacher with warm fuzzy faults. (What are the odds? We both are obsessed with American Idol?)
As for the person obsessed with porn, he’s out of luck that week, and the next. Never mind that clergy use porn as much as the next guy. I know this because clergy write about it anonymously, in clergy magazines, almost always after the fact. There is one evangelical leadership journal that seems to have a two-year cycle of clergy sins, written by anonymous sinners, after the fact. If it’s spring of an even numbered year, it’s clergy gambling addiction season. The winter will bring Internet porn. Other years bring marriage problems due to overwork, plagiarism, or clergy mental illness.
Always anonymous, the clergy have been delivered from such sin by the time they write their pieces, but still there is no name attached. The byline says it all. You cannot be known.
So instead, clergy make jokes in sermons about their weakness for donuts or their fave football team and hope that someone can read between the lines and see that they are human, too.
Instead they think, “I could never tell my pastor that. It would break his heart.”
Clergy, please tell the truth about yourself. Be real and love me just as I am. Let me change and let me change you. Don’t dumb down the message. Respect my God-given brain. Don’t lower your expectations of me. Tell me what people have done before, over time and in community, to get to know God so I can try it, too. Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter but don’t scare me into it either. Show me. Love me. Welcome me.
With the Eyes of the Heart Enlightened
When I think of my deepest yearnings for real encounters with faith, real encounters with goodness and evil, real encounters with scripture, of being prompted by the Holy Spirit, I didn’t feel them that way at the time.
It’s not like I was sitting around celebrating my own life when suddenly I noticed that I was missing the rigorous study of a ten-thousand-year-old book that appears to accept slavery, animal sacrifice, and wife abuse. No, I never thought to myself, if only I had more of that in my life. But when I look back, I can see that I did want a tradition larger than myself, and I’ve been blessed by a weird book read by weird people through the ages.
No, most of my yearnings show up in retrospect, after they have been met and filled in the most surprising ways. I am shocked to discover the phrase “the eyes of the heart enlightened” (Ephesians 1:18) in the middle of a letter by the apostle Paul, whom I had thought of as a violent sexist thug. Even after his conversion, I objected to many of his ideas, like the notion that celibacy is considered a higher calling than marriage, which is to him basically a dumping ground for lust. I hated Paul’s sexual ethic and had avoided reading his letters, but then when I first saw the words “the eyes of the heart enlightened,” I thought, they are too beautiful not to have come from God.
When you look for a community of faith, you look with “the eyes of the heart enlightened.” That beautiful phrase implies that there are different ways of looking, and in this beautiful way you look with the eyes of the heart, eyes that are enlightened. I presume those eyes are wide open to reality but accepting of the real life they see in front of them, and able to see the beauty in broken things.
Religious community is a broken thing because people are broken things. Both can be beautiful, or they can just look broken. It depends which eyes you use to see.
Showing up is key, and then showing up as our real selves and allowing other people to be their real selves.
Excerpted from Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To by Lillian Daniel. Used with permission from FaithWords, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Lillian Daniel is an editor at large for The Christian Century magazine and a contributing editor to Leadership Journal. She has taught at Chicago Theological Seminary, the University of Chicago Divinity School and at her alma mater, Yale Divinity School. After leading three churches, Lillian is currently devoting herself full time to writing, speaking and procrastinating.