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.