The Case of the Cowardly Pastor

31 Jul

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.


Posted by on July 31, 2012 in Blogging With Jane


5 responses to “The Case of the Cowardly Pastor

  1. Todd Snyder

    July 31, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    I remember not agreeing with something in my church (more than once)… but I did not react by “bullying” my opinion onto others. Admittedly, it can be hard to find a spiritual community to fit into. Thank you, Jane, for not keeping everyone happy (possibly even yourself.) – Todd.

  2. Rich Chartrand

    July 31, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    The pastor reminds me of a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastor. His son married a Roman Catholic and he boycotted the wedding because it would look bad at the Synod. There are cowardly pastors in Illinois, also.

    • Shonda Deranleau

      August 2, 2012 at 11:20 am

      Wow, did the guy think about what it would look like to his son? I think not!

  3. Kathleen Morrish

    July 31, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    Interesting post- somewhere “caring” for people has lost the responsibility of Christian leadership? I do think though , as an entire culture, we find disagreements something to be avoided and have lost the art of ‘agreeing to disagree.” Election time always brings this front and center with name calling, finger pointing, etc. We will always have different opinions and perspectives on issues- unspoken conflicts build , take on a life of their own and cause more damage than if we just speak them.
    (hope this doesn’t upset anyone! ha ha) Kathleen

  4. Sandy

    August 14, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    I would have to agree completely, Rev. Jane! I think you nailed it when you said a leader has caved to a few of his members, more than likely ones who give a hefty amount of money to the church, worried his congregation, or worse his entire church, would decline to all but nothing if he didn’t oblige.
    Congregants have no right to bully. Nor do leaders of the church. I think when a person is called to be a spiritual leader they are handed a great deal of responsibility and know not everyone is going to agree with everything they do or say, but trust it is always with the best of intentions.
    I really wish there were more spiritual leaders such as yourself because it seems they are few and far between wrapped up in the “politics” of the church rather than serving the true needs of their congregants.


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