Is it just me, or do the leaders of today’s Church seem paralyzed by their own fear of conflict?
Last week, Reverend Stan Weatherford, pastor at the First Baptist Church in Crystal Springs, MS, canceled a wedding (with one day’s notice) because he didn’t want the “conflict” of marrying a black couple in his predominantly white church. After coming under fire by community groups, he claimed that the congregation told him he would be fired if he did it. Good try, Pastor Weatherford, but I’m a pastor myself and I’ll tell you what really happened. My guess, based on experience, is that one or two church members told you they were upset and you caved. And anyway, the Huffington Post reported that most of your several hundred-member church never even heard about the wedding until they read it in the news.
Instead of setting boundaries on his difficult church member and riding out the storm of parish disapproval, Pastor Weatherford did what many pastors do: he avoided the conflict. I have seen this behavior repeatedly among my colleagues. Pastors who support same sex marriage but refuse to officiate at one for fear of “upsetting” church members. Pastors that accept salaries below appropriate standards because he or she is afraid to “upset” the congregation by asking for a raise. Pastors who won’t speak out at a school board meeting because it might “upset” their church board. Unfortunately, this behavior seems to have become more the norm than the exception.
My question is why? What has happened in our culture that has allowed the voice of the pastor to change from prophetic to whimpering? I find it especially curious when the head of the Church is Jesus Christ– the one who cleared the temple, stood down the pharisees, and made friends with tax collectors. If you ask any UCC pastor to name their heroes, they will most likely respond with the names Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Oscar Romero, or Martin Niemoller. But how can we claim these individuals as our heroes, when our litmus test for parish decision-making is the question “do you think this will upset someone?”
Every mainline protestant pastor knows by heart the statistics on denominational decline. Every big denomination is getting smaller. Rapidly. Frighteningly. I think that we have allowed the downward decline to make made us cowards. The fear of our future (or the lack thereof) is driving a once brave clergy into ethical surrender.
Here is the problem: upset church members often leave the church. And if you live in a culture of decline anything that reminds you of decline is scary. But a good leader does not act out of fear (nor does a good leader deny their fear). Pastors need to stop worrying about decline and start living out the Kingdom. Kingdom living is not about the size of your congregation. Kingdom living is following Jesus — a guy who never backed away from the truth. Personally, I think decline is the challenge God called me to when I was ordained. And I translate “decline” as “grass roots renewal”. But mostly, I don’t really believe you have to decline. My church is growing in a community that is not growing, in an economy that is dismal. We are growing because our vision has nothing to do with keeping everyone happy.
Pastor Weatherford could apologize and re-commit to leading his parish without fear and racism. So far all he has said is that he is going to do is “pray to the Lord.” A nice idea, Pastor, but I think the Lord wants more from you than a prayer.