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A couple weeks ago my Center hosted a gathering of pastors who have been serving as Peer Group Leaders in our Lilly Endowment grant program for “The Initiative to Strengthen Preaching in North America.”  Between those who were able to come in person and those who joined via Zoom we had about 20 pastors in attendance.  Most of the Peer Groups led by these pastors have been meeting for 3-4 years but unsurprisingly it was the experiences of this past year that dominated some of our conversations.

Probably and statistically this group may be representative of pastors generally.  Insofar as that is the case, it was a sobering reminder of what has happened in congregations and to pastors during the pandemic.  Several pastors had left their congregations over tensions related to COVID, mask mandates, and various political pressures.   Several others were hanging in there but by their own admission it has been a hanging-on-by-their-fingernails experience as often as not.  Those who did not leave their congregations and who fared a bit better nevertheless reported stress levels seldom if ever before experienced in their many years of ministry.

But as striking as anything that emerged in these conversations was the wide-eyed wonder with which most of the pastors present reported one particular aspect of their interactions with their congregations in the past 15 or so months: a complete disbelief in what their pastors told them.  And these were pastors who had served and loved and ministered to people in these places for a long time.  One pastor who moved on from his congregation had been their pastor for 18 years.  Another had been in a congregation for 12 years, still another 8 years.   No one who shared with this group was a newbie to his or her church.  All had a long record of many years of presence and ministry.

Yet when they assured their congregations that the pandemic was real, that masks were saving lives, that social distancing was necessary and that it was not safe to gather in person for worship for a time, people accused them of lying.  The most charitable would assert their pastor was simply misinformed or duped by left-wing politics or unreliable government officials.  The less charitable seemed to believe their pastor was a willing part of some vast conspiracy to deceive the masses.

The pastors who had served for many years in these congregations were dumbfounded.  One pastor said she directly said to her people, “After all these years together do you really believe I would lie to you?”   But some did.  Unsurprisingly, this cut deeply into their souls.  The wounds inflicted will take years to heal and some may never fully recover.

Hearing these stories reminded me of Jesus in his interaction with Philip in John 14 when Jesus says to Philip and the other disciples, “Have I been with you so long and still you do not know me?”  I am very certain it would be correct to read that line with a fair amount of wounded inflection in Jesus’s voice.  It also reminds me of the father’s response to the older son’s kvetching about the prodigal son’s party in Jesus’s famous Luke 15 parable: “My son, you have always been with me and everything I have is yours.”  Or in other words, “Don’t you know me by now, my son?”

Granted, I write and report all of this from the perspective of a pastor and my sympathies tend to run in their direction.  From a different vantage point some in various congregations may claim they had their own valid reasons suddenly to doubt or completely disbelieve the words of a longtime pastor where the pandemic was concerned.  I am less sure if there could be valid reasons to believe a trusted pastor was actively lying but no doubt some will claim they were justified in even that rather dire assessment.

The COVID-19 pandemic is most certainly not the first time in church history when parishioners disagreed with or disbelieved a pastor on this or that given point or idea.  And surely there is more than enough room in Christ’s church for people to disagree with a given pastor’s take on this or that issue of the day.  But much of what has happened to too many pastors this past almost year-and-a-half feels different, feels more significant if not dire.

I think I have mentioned this before in one blog or another here on The Twelve but I remember well a line from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead in which the faithful and theologically well informed pastor John Ames expressed a lament.   Ames noted that he had done his best across decades of ministry to preach with biblical and doctrinal integrity.  But then some fool radio pastor who did not know his theology from a hole in the ground would take to the airwaves and end up wielding more influence over the congregation’s theological sensibilities than their own pastor.

The information age has led to an explosion of sources for information.  A lot of it is sound.  A good bit of it is not.  But somehow in some places some less credible sources of information have become more important to people than longtime pastors whose trust ought to have been well earned by now.   “And still you do not know me?” these pastors have plaintively wanted to say to the sheep of their particular pasture. 

Pastors like me are not perfect.  We all make mistakes.  We all goof up now and then and share something—even in a sermon—that turns out to be a little or a lot incorrect and it’s on us then to correct that and apologize for the error.  True enough.  But what my fellow pastors have reported to me points to troubled waters in the church for potentially a long while to come.  I don’t know how we can come back together and rebuild trust but without a doubt, doing that is going to remain high on the list of ecclesiastical and pastoral priorities in the coming times.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

15 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Wow, Scott, this is important. Who would have predicted it? I guess some of us pastors who did not experience this have more to be grateful for than we’d realized.

  • mstair says:

    “ … a complete disbelief in what their pastors told them. “

    An assertion of the American belief in personal liberty over the The Holy Spirit’s instruction to “submit to each other in the fear of God.”

    A declaration of a self-full attitude of the individual’s right to life-determination over a sincere profession of Lord’s Day 1.

    An exemplification of fulfilled prophecy of 1 Timothy 4?

  • Anonymous says:

    Yes, the pastors you mention have much to grieve. I pray that find solace and healing in the community you’ve created.
    But those of us in the pew could also ask, “Do you not know me?” when our pastors ignore our pleas for a word on racial justice. A challenge to nationalism. A bold stand on truly loving our neighbor. The silence from these pulpits speaks volumes. Some of us are also leaving and grieving after years and years of faithful service.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Scott, This is shocking. I agreed with my pastor with limited services and masks and I think the other people in my congregation did too. I hope that it is true.

  • John Tiemstra says:

    Politics has become religion for a lot of our fellow Americans. They don’t believe In the Bible or the creeds, and they don’t believe in science or scholarship; they believe in some political ideology they heard from a charismatic figure on the TV or the radio. I don’t know that there is a shortcut to solving this. It may take many years of the ideology being flatly wrong about reality before people will give it up. We may have to wait for its most passionate believers to pass on before it subsides.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Scott,
    I understand this article, and in many ways agree with what you are saying, and yet a few weeks ago I watched a CNN story about a gentleman in his church, who agreed with our basic assertion that water is wet, the pandemic is real, and basic protections (masks, social distancing, etc.) are/were necessary and served to limit the risks/spread of the disease. His pastor preached with passion that all these things were wrong, that only Jesus could keep you safe, and any of these actions were to deny the Lordship of Christ. The man disagreed. He stepped away from the church for a time/maybe forever and did not make a fuss, but he has lost contact with his family in all this drama. He faces judgment regularly. I share this to say that the impulses of American’s and people of faith work in both ways, and you and I may say he was right (though we may say, stick it out and work to speak the truth in your community … easier said than done). I know you are limited in what you can write, but so many parishioners are being bombarded and living with stress as well. The whole mess is a sad story of the state of the church. Pastors are beat up. Parishioiners are led astray and forced to choose safety over their pastor’s teaching. The claim that science and faith are enemies continues to grip the church. I’m ready to throw up my hands, even as I’m one of the lucky ones who was supported and encouraged in the stress of the situation.
    Come, Lord Jesus …

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Yes, definitely a blog for another day. One pastor in my group referred to some in his church as “COVID atheists,” but in too many places it was indeed the pastors who were the COVID atheists, leading many people astray in ways that, as you rightly note here, inflicted lots of other wounds. Ironically, the “faith vs. fear” crowd where COVID is concerned are pretty inconsistent because I have heard from other pastors that these are the same folks who want to carry weapons into worship to take out an active shooter if one showed up. Apparently faith alone doesn’t protect you in that situation nor does faith protect your child in the car such that you don’t need to bother with an approved child safety seat . . . And so on.

  • George Vink says:

    Thanks, Scott. You’ve put well into words what’s been happening. I used to think it was only in “fringe” churches, but sadly enough, it’s right at home in “our” churches. I’m almost, yes it’s still only almost, ready to be a denomination unto myself. But, then I look in the mirror, and alas, it’s not a pretty sight either. Who was it that had the battle cry, “Lord, send a revival and/but let it begin with me?”

  • Dear Scott,
    Please keep on, listening and speaking (writing) for and about pastors (persons and work) and churches. Unreasonably denied credibility is awfully tough to deal with. Four or so years ago, preparing elements for Communion with a fellow elder, I noticed my usually affable friend was uptight, unspeaking, looking like a firecracker with a lit fuse. I said with urgency, “Man, you ok?” He answered in spaced declarative words, “I do not want to hear one more word around here about white supremacy.” He was not ok. I asked another innocuous question, something like “Can you say more?” He said, “John, you don’t have a clue. You’re a pastor.”
    I’m a retired pastor in my ’70s, a part-timer still in ministry with good trust built in my church, and I by grace am able to brush off everyday, old hat complaints like crumbs off my shirt, even stuff aimed at me. A luxury, to be sure, of my not being the preacher who goes up front weekly to share the Bread of LIfe. Nevertheless, his retort, “You don’t have a clue. You’re a pastor” stopped me cold. What’s to say? He pulled my plug, cut off my water. Even though my turn to preach is months away, he wrote me off. This is very hard. I know love will win over, I’ve seen it a hundred times. But what to do, where is love when conversation is cut off, and people run away? (I believe I mumbled something like, “Maybe you should not serve Communion.” In any case, he did not.)
    I believe unreasonably denied credibility coming to the fore in ministry especially during Covid is owed to at least a couple of close-by influences on church folks: a national administration that exchanged truth for lies as modus operandum and national sensationalist media that everyday sells truth down the river for audience share. Those are up on top, and down underneath? Pick one among a score of reasons why people just do not trust any public voices claiming authority, not even their pastor’s voice, a Spirit-called and Christ-ordained shepherd of God’s sheep.
    I am strongly motivated by your piece, Scott, to pray more about pastors and congregants. And to keep listening in love, to speak the truth in love.
    God’s peace, Friend
    John Rozeboom

  • Deb Genzink says:

    What shocks me even more are friends and family that have known and trusted my strong scientific background and long nursing career, but won’t believe my medical judgement regarding the need for masks and vaccinations. It is as though they all got medical and theological degrees from Google University

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Scott, I wish I could say that I am surprised by the experience of your pastors’ group, but I am not. For the past 40 years I have personally watched various parts of the evangelical church in the United States disparage reputable science and embrace pseudo-science. Theories such as “creation science”, “flood geology”, and “intelligent design” were (and are) used to discredit sciences such as astronomy, planetary science, geology, paleontology, and others. My own field of climate science has spent the last 30 years (and more) trying to convince society that climate change is real and dangerous, but has faced continuous opposition from much of the evangelical church. My fellow-scientists in biology can add to my examples. In almost every case, theological dogma is used to trump science regardless of the merits of the science. Given this history and the general unwillingness of church leadership to take positions supporting real science, it is no surprise that many Christians use the same arguments to discredit the science surrounding COVID transmission and the recommendations for common sense actions that show love for our fellow citizens. We in the church face a crisis of leadership in the arena of science and faith. I truly appreciate the pain that you express when those who should trust you don’t. This doesn’t only happen to the clergy.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      You are right. A survey years ago of Christians who work in the sciences showed that the only place these people felt uncomfortable sharing about their work was their home congregation. It is a sad state of affairs but a long time coming, alas.

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