Saturday, February 08, 2014

Why Pastors Are Losing Trust

In response to statistics provided by the Pew Research Center revealing that only 37% of Americans have a favorable view of clergy, Thom Rainier, CEO and President of Lifeway Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, has compiled a list of 11 reasons that ministers are held in lower esteem.  Those reasons include widespread attention to moral failures, the marginalization of Christian faith across the culture, short tenures of pastors, and the use of social media as an outlet for criticism.  While all of those -- and the others mentioned by Mr. Rainier -- are true as far as they go, I think that he has left out a significantly important one that points to the trade offs that have been created in the way many are now approaching church.

Clergy are perceived, correctly, as figures of authority.  As a result, the manner in which they receive and maintain their authority is going ot impact whether they are viewed as trustworthy.

Ministerial authority, in the most visible sectors of American evangelicalism, now rests almost entirely on charismatic authority (likableness, ability to emotionally connect to people, leadership dynamic, etc), not on external forms of authority (education, credentials, relationship with institutions, etc).

Charismatic authority will always tend to be fluid, and Americans tend to have a love/hate relationship with those who mesmerize them.  On the one hand, we elect them as our leaders and we buy cars and other stuff based on their ability to sell themselves to us.  On the other hand we will criticize them for being self-serving and manipulative.

They tend also to be galvanizing figures:  to their fans, they are heroes who can do no wrong; to their critics, they are only out for themselves.  Thus, in sports, Pete Rose is thought by some to be a victim who really didn't do much wrong and deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, while others see him as damaging the integrity of the game and getting what he deserves.  In politics, some see Senator Ted Cruz as principled and courageous; others think him to be only too eager at the game of self-promotion.  Some see President Barack Obama as too intelligent for the country he leads.  Others see a deeply flawed, power hungry politician.

Of course, the presence of charismatic authority in the Christian movement is nothing new, and in the United States it certainly can be traced back as far as the First Great Awakening.  However, the trend is accelerating, as churches become increasingly unmoored from anything approaching a traditional liturgy, educational institutions become more distant from how churches view their missions, denominational structures become less relevant, and marketing and personality driven ministry overtakes distinctives based on heritage or theology.  Many will argue that these are positive trends.  Perhaps so, but recognize that clergy respect will continue to take a hit as a result.

Consider this:  100 years ago, when a Rev. Smith approached his pulpit in the downtown church, the congregation was aware of the following: he held credentials from an educational institution validating his expertise in the Bible and theology, he had been examined by and was accountable to representative bodies of his denomination, and he was also accountable to a group of leaders of the congregation that had for the most part been in place before his arrival.  For all of that, he claimed that his ultimate authority was derived from the Word of God and, in that vein, he may have worn a Geneva gown to signify that it was the Word, not his individual personality, that counted in the pulpit.

We may or may not appreciate that style of ministry or find it to be a good thing in our day, but there is much there to command respect.

So, contrast that with today, when Pastor Eddie strolls out on stage in his skinny jeans, untucked shirt, and spiked hair, conveying to the amateur sociologist in the crowd that individual personality counts for everything.  His bio on the website doesn't mention if he has ever been to school and only discusses some individual accomplishments: he made this church grow and speaks in lots of places.  If there is any connectedness to the larger church, it is well hidden, and, in fact, one almost gathers that this church -- and its satellites -- constitutes its own little cloister fulfilling God's purpose in the world.

But, he preaches a really engaging sermon.  To those on board, this is great.  For others, there is a tendency toward cynicism.  One of Mr. Rainier's reasons has to do with cynicism in our culture, which takes me back to that love/hate thing I mentioned earlier.  Charismatic based authority tends to breed cynicism, especially when some charismatic leaders prove to be little more than bags of wind or particularly self-serving.

In that regard, I would like to highlight and further discuss one of Mr. Rainier's points:

9. There is a failure of some pastors in two key areas: leadership and emotional intelligence.  Some pastors are well prepared biblically and theologically. But some have not been taught leadership and healthy interpersonal skills.

Each of the three sentences here includes the word "some."  Clearly, from the way it is structured, the point of emphasis is on the lack of leadership training, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills, with the middle sentence being supplied to provide contrast. Some pastors have biblical training, but they are lousy leaders.  The point is understood.  However, while I would not want to diminish the importance of the skill sets he emphasized, I find what is omitted to be interesting.  Given that Mr. Rainier seems to be saying that only "some pastors" are biblically and theologically prepared, it is curious that this is not addressed as a reason for the lack of respect for clergy at any point in the piece.

The fact of the matter is that clergy have no authority apart from the Bible, and if they are not adequately prepared to proclaim it in light of the modern situation, there is no reason for them to be in their positions, and one would not expect them to be able to garner the respect of their culture.  Removed from proper authority, it is inevitable that legitimate respect will decrease.  As churches increasingly view their missions as disconnected from scriptural moorings and more connected to contemporary categories of thought, they will find that they will lose both the world and their souls. Lacking a claim to transcendent authority, they are doing little more than hawking a product.  Pastor as used church salesman is not a recipe for respectful trust in a post Christian culture.

I think it will also be worth the time to write a post at some point on another reason that Mr. Rainier leaves out:  the extent to which political engagement has tarnished the reputation of clergy.  Another subject for another day.

Hat Tip:  The Aquila Report

1 comment:

David A Booth said...

Good stuff.