Tag Archives: church

Ghosted by a Former Band of Brothers


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I read an article yesterday by a pastor who experienced a phenomenon known as ghosting. This is where people who once were friends, maybe even close friends suddenly disappear from your life by silently shunning you. When I read his experiences I could relate and the article brought back painful memories of when it happened to me and for the first time I am going to really open up about what happened to me. I have to do it because I have held in the rejection for years, mostly because the people involved never gave me a chance to deal with them in person about what they did. But that is the dishonorable and cowardly thing about ghosting; it leaves people with wounds that they are unable to address, and it causes them to be more distrustful of others, as well as more guarded and careful about entering into new relationships. 

When supposed Christian friends do it to people they often leave the church and never come back. 

In the past I have mentioned what happened to me after Iraq and in the aftermath of being thrown out of a church I had served as a Priest for 14 years in rather oblique ways; ways that allowed people an easy out. But today I really feel the need to open up about it and mention some of the people by their first names. I won’t mention their last names because I don’t want people who don’t know them, or are their current friends to write them off. But I need to mention the first names just in case any of them end up reading this they will recognize themselves and perhaps have an attack of conscience whether they want to have anything to do with me or not. I figure that doing this will remove any ambiguity about who I mean and not allow them any wiggle room to think that maybe they did nothing wrong. If I really wanted to be a jerk I would share their last names, but that’s not my intention, I just want them to think of the consequences of their actions, especially since most are still in some for of ministry. 

Some people may wonder why this and why now? That is a good question. Some people might think I’m being petty or harsh, and maybe even unforgiving by writing this, but truthfully it’s the only way for the truth to be told and maybe for them to wake up and realize that relationships matter. 

In the 14 years I spent as a Priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church I built what I thought were lifelong friendships with many of our fellow chaplains. We enjoyed our times together, frequently talked by phone or corresponded in other ways, sharing our faith, our struggles, discussing theology, ministry, and the military. We called ourselves a band of brothers. 

My closest friend was a Priest named Bill. We entered the church and were ordained about the same time and for years I considered him my closest friend and confidant. There were others in that early group, Ken, Jeff, Jon, Greg, John, Phil, Bob, Steve, as well as others, including Stu, and David, but we were kind of the core. Over the years others came along, and some for whatever reason went their separate ways but even then, most of us tried to keep in contact. 

For me that began to change after I returned from Iraq. I have to admit that I had changed in the course of my time there but I never thought I would be ghosted by so many of them in the aftermath of Iraq and after I was told to leave the church in 2010. Even when I left, most said that we would still be friends and stay in contact. Maybe I expected too much by thinking that the visits, correspondence, and phone calls would continue. Maybe I expected too much by thinking that they would be there for me when I needed them, after all we claimed to be a band of brothers. But words are cheap, simply saying that you are a band of brothers doesn’t mean that you are. 

Within two years of my departure I discovered that phone calls and emails went unreturned, and even though I lived and worked just a few miles from Bill and Ken for three years while I was stationed at Camp LeJeune without Judy, I almost never saw them. I’d ask if we could meet but be told that they were too busy. I haven’t heard from either since I came back to Norfolk in August 2013. Others simply never returned my calls, one of which surprised and saddened me more than most. Thanks Jeff. 

Of the others a couple remain as Facebook friends but I seldom have any meaningful contact with them. Of all of them, only David, a fellow Iraq vet who has gone through similar PTSD issues and much worse physical issues remains in regular contact. We had a wonderful talk Friday night. He’s just finished his first year in medical school and is dealing with a teenage son who is in a lot of trouble. David is a rare soul and I love him, we can talk about anything, share anything, and be absolutely transparent with each other. Of the band of brothers, he is still my brother. 

The most hurtful losses were Bill and Jeff who simply disappeared from my life, and Stu who I had known longer than any of them. Stu had left the church to become a Roman Catholic Priest but he had nothing but condemnation for my announcement of my departure. I haven’t heard from him since he blasted me and called me disloyal to the bishop who threw me out after defending myself on my blog. By the way, speaking of loyalty the Bishop got himself thrown out for going behind the back of his fellow bishops by trying to abscond with all the military chaplains to another denomination. 

I do miss them and I hope that they will read this article if nothing else so they don’t do what they did to me to anyone else. Likewise, while what they did hurts I would not turn any of them away if they wanted to get back together. Although I am still hurt and angry I cannot hate them, and I only wish the best for them. But I think what they did was shameful and I hope that they never do it to anyone else.

On a different level what they did is not uncommon in the church. Christians tend to be the worst advertisement for Christ and after watching the antics of Christians since I returned from Iraq I don’t plan to darken the door of a church when I retire from the Navy Chaplain Corps. I find my less than religious friends to be far more reliable and caring than most of the Christians that I know. 

Now I am certainly not indicting all Christians in this post, or all Priests, chaplains, or ministers. There are many who would never do such a thing, but I don’t know a lot of them. 

So anyway, I know I am not alone. This form of silent shunning and shaming is all too common and not just in the church, but I would say that the damage inflicted by Christians is worse than others. Today I took the opportunity to publicly let these men how badly they wounded me because none of them gave me the opportunity in private. If people think that is inappropriate for me to do then fine, I’ll live with it but now I can finally let it go because after years of holding it in I have at last said my peace and I’m done with it. 

As difficult as the article was to read, and this to write, it has brought me closer to closure and hopefully maybe will open up a chance for reconciliation if any of them desire. That however is up to them. 

I would love to discuss the subject over a beer with any of those involved, but today I needed to finally let it out. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

4 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, Religion, remembering friends

If Christ was Here Today… 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

On this Sunday I want to impart a short thought. The great American humorist Mark Twain once noted “If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be—a Christian.” 

Last week I preached about separation of church and state at my chapel and pretty much said the same thing. One think I noted was that if I wasn’t already a Christian that nothing I see in American Christianity could ever convince me to become a Christian. 

The reality is that  people are fleeing the church in record numbers and non-believers don’t even want to darken the door and I don’t blame them. The illusion of packed out mega-churches betrays the reality that if things continue apace that within a generation the American church of all denominations will be as bad off as the state churches of Europe which are empty, and no amount of the craven lust for political power of those who call themselves “evangelical” or “conservative” Christians will change that, instead it will make it worse. 

Big name preachers rush to the side of a President who has measured them and found that by doing very little for them except say what they want to hear, that they will prostitute themselves to gain political power. George Truett, who served as Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, and President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote something that should serve as a warning to such people: 

“Constantine, the Emperor, saw something in the religion of Christ’s people which awakened his interest, and now we see him uniting religion to the state and marching up the marble steps of the Emperor’s palace, with the church robed in purple. Thus and there was begun the most baneful misalliance that ever fettered and cursed a suffering world…. When … Constantine crowned the union of church and state, the church was stamped with the spirit of the Caesars…. The long blighting record of the medieval ages is simply the working out of that idea.”

But it seems we don’t learn and the Millenials, as well as others, particularly combat vets like me, have looked behind the purple curtain of the Church’ Oz and found that Jesus isn’t there. What comes to mind when most people are asked to describe the Church? Let’s check the polls of evangelical pollster George Barna which have been corroborated time after time by Pew, Gallup, and other polls. 

These polls find people are leaving Christian churches of all denominations in droves and that non-believers want nothing to do with the church. For most of these people it is not about God or Jesus, or even the Bible. It is due to the lack of love, care, compassion exhibited by Christians and the institutional corruption, lack of transparency, double standards and political machinations of churches over people that are not of their faith or under their institutional control. The surveys conducted by Christian pollsters like George Barna bear this out. When asked what words or phrases “best describe Christianity” the top response of 16-29 years olds was “anti-homosexual” while 91% of all non-Christians surveyed said this was the first word as it was for 80% of Christians in the survey. Here are those words that describe Christians. Personally I don’t like them but it is what it is.

Hypocritical: Christians live lives that don’t match their stated beliefs;

Antihomosexual: Christians show contempt for gays and lesbians – “hating the sin and the sinner” as one respondent put it

Insincere: Christians are concerned only with collecting converts

Sheltered: Christians are anti-intellectual, boring, and out of touch with reality.

Too political: Christians are primarily motivated by a right-wing political agenda

That is the future and honestly I think that it is too late to turn this around and it is not the fault of academics, liberals, homosexuals, scientists, educators, or the media. It is the fault of Christians who love power, position, and prosperity more than they love people; the same people that Jesus supposedly died and rose again to save. In fact many Christians spend so much of their time hating and preaching against people they have never even met that and allying themselves with the government to ensure that they can discriminate against LGBTQ people, women, Muslims, and a host of others solely based on their interpretation of cherry-picked Bible verses that no one listens to them anymore. 

The great American patriot, free thinker, and atheist Robert Ingersoll wrote something that goes to the heart of the matter: “Christians tell me that they love their enemies, and yet all I ask is—not that they love their enemies, not that they love their friends even, but that they treat those who differ from them, with simple fairness.” 

I cannot agree more with him. Ingersoll saw beyond that purple veils over a hundred years ago, and he asks a question that the purloined preachers of the American church have completely forgotten. If we want to attract people to Jesus we have to treat them with simple fairness and love, if we can’t do that then we forfeit all that we preach about Jesus and we shall be rightfully dmaned. 

So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under civil rights, faith, Religion

“You Don’t Want to Be That Sick” Pastors Who Ignore

themiddle

Back when I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital I was astounded to hear my pastor make a comment which I think was one of the most heartless that I have ever heard said from a pulpit.  The church was a large and trendy Evangelical-Charismatic Church which I had attended throughout seminary and had ordained my in October 1991.  The Pastor was recounting an incident where one of our members had been critically ill in hospital and had not been visited by him.  After the parishioner was released from hospital he asked the pastor: “How sick do I have to be for you to visit me in the hospital?”  The pastor told us his response: “Sir, you don’t want to be that sick.”

The congregation laughed at the pastor’s story and he went on to talk about how he and other senior pastors should not be doing that kind of work because it “distracted them from bigger Kingdom tasks.”  You see according to the pastor the care of sick parishioners did not contribute to the “growth” of the church and thus was a “distraction and better left to others.”

The comment struck a raw nerve now that I was dealing with the suffering and death every day of people who had been abandoned by the churches and pastors.  I lost all respect for him as a man and pastor during that sermon.  My philosophy of religion professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary, Dr. Yandall Woodfin said: “You have not done Christian theology until you have dealt with suffering and death.”

Unfortunately my old pastor, and many more like had stopped doing Christian theology in order to be an “Apostle” and CEO.  He was “growing” the church and managing programs, but had for the most part stopped caring as in being a pastoral care giver.

Now this pastor is not alone and nor is the issue of the lack of care confined to Evangelical or Charismatic churches. The trend has has found its way across the denominational spectrum.  Sometimes this is by design as is the case of the Mega-churches.

Pastors of mega-churches are for all practical purposes CEOs of large organizations and have a multiplicity of specialized staff, but often which do little for pastoral care. Having attended a number of these churches, and worked for a prominent television evangelist I can sadly report seeing this first hand many times.

Sometimes this problem it is by default in cases such as the Roman Catholic Church.  In that church the ever worsening shortage of Priests is forcing the closure of smaller parishes and the increase of large parishes with a corresponding decrease in what Priests can do for their people.   Even very good Priests cannot keep pace with the demand of both Sacramental needs as well as pastoral care.

No matter if it is by design or default the result is similar.  The least, the lost and the lonely those “lambs” that Jesus talks about who need care and feeding are shunted aside.  In one case, that of the Catholic Church it is primarily a lack of Priests, Deacons and Sisters to provide this care, although sadly there are Catholic priests who do not see themselves as care givers.

The “by design” issue is more far more troubling as the focus of the church is growth, sustaining numbers, programs and buildings.  This requires that pastors spend their time with members who can supply the vast financial need that those plans require.  I have seen this in numerous congregations across the spectrum, which sometimes as was the case at a church that I attended in Florida results in a financial meltdown and collapse of the congregation, many of whom gave up and went elsewhere when the extent of the scandal became known.  Likewise the ripple effects that this caused in the denomination were like a Tsunami, it was disastrous and the church is still in recovery mode.  Going back to my pastor back when I was in residency I got the feeling that had he been the shepherd in the Parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15) that he would have let it go as hunting for it might have distracted him from the others.

When I was in seminary there were quite a number of my fellow students who chafed about having to take courses on pastoral care.  I remember friends and fellow students complaining that what they needed were more “practical courses” such as “church growth, evangelism and Sunday School program management.”  Courses dealing with Pastoral Care were seen as a bother and distraction.  Not to mention academic courses such as Systematic Theology, Philosophy of Religion and Church History which offer timeless lessons for pastors.  One friend talked about his Master of Divinity only having a “shelf-life of 5 years” because what he learned would be outdated.

Well in a way he was right.  His focus was on classes that dealt with programs and methods of church growth, programs and management.   From that perspective his degree would rapidly be obsolescent as soon as the next trend in church growth came along and everyone jettisoned the last method in favor of the new.

With the ubiquity of the Mega-church which unlike the Leisure Suit is not going away anytime soon.  The rise of the “Superstar” Pastors such as Bill Hybels, Joel Osteen and Rick Warren and the proliferation of massive “Ministry Media” conglomerates and stand-alone television ministries are actually dangerous to the vitality and health of the Christian Church in the United States.  They propagate methods which have the sole intent of getting people into church or giving to a ministry and keeping them there, doctrine, worship, sacraments or ordinances, and pastoral care of the least, lost and lonely be damned.  The methods are pragmatic and impersonal.   Numbers and crowds define expertise, credibility and worth. The bigger the church the better the church, it’s that simple.

Unlike others who pick these ministers apart for their theology or business practices my problem with what is happening is what happens to regular people in these large and often very impersonal churches.  It is easy for people to get lost, forgotten and when they are going through difficulty abandoned when the church stops making a conscious effort to do real pastoral care and focus purely on the programs which lend to growth.  Often the substitute for pastoral care is found in the home cell group, or care group or whatever cute name a church can pin on a meeting at a member’s house.

The home groups or cell groups have a noble intention.  They attempt to build community in an otherwise very impersonal organization.  There are some really good things that can come out of healthy home groups as well as long lasting friendships.  We have a couple from our time in San Antonio that is still a very real part of our lives, they showed us genuine love and care and we remain friends.  Of course this couple had an advantage over most home group leaders; he was a clinical social worker by trade who was heading off to seminary.

Most home groups are not that fortunate.  There are unhealthy groups which are led by people who are poorly trained and equipped to deal with broken people.  The good group leaders recognize their limitations and try to get help for those who are really hurting.  Others who do not know their limitations end up abusing these dear lambs of God. Often this is because sick, depressed or lonely people take too much time, are too needy, or that their problems don’t match up with their church theology.

My wife and I know this from personal experience as my wife suffered from a number of ailments throughout seminary and we were going through tremendous health and financial difficulties and in some places we felt cast aside and like we did not matter.  We were fortunate that some people did care and we did make it through, however it was not something that I would ever want to repeat.  I have heard similar stories from hundreds of people that I have come across in my life and work over the years.

I don’t care what you call it, but any church which has multiple services of several thousand or a major service of close to 20,000 as occurs at Osteen’s Lakewood Church is no longer focused on caring for people but sustaining their growth and market share.

I remember reading Charisma Magazine back in the mid-1990s when I still read it regularly about a church in North Dallas that has a period of incredible church growth in which it grew from 1,200 members to well over 7,000.  In the article the pastor touted the church programs which drew people to the church.  What the dirty little secret which was not mentioned was that two exits south of this church a Mega-church of some 10,000 members imploded when the Pastor, one Bob Tilton got caught doing some pretty bad stuff.  This church despite its claims of great programs simple picked up about 6,000 of these people because they were close by and a similar type of church.

All of this is dangerous as to its impact on people.  One only has to look at the latest Barna Polls about what is going on in churches to see that these large churches are alienating people even as they grow.  People come, but others either burn out trying to keep pace with the manic pace of programs proliferated by these churches or they get lost in the crowd and forgotten.  I meet a least a person every day who is a displaced Christian, often hurt, lonely and broken, not only by what they have experienced in life, but by the cold emptiness that they feel when a church surrounded by thousands of people who don’t even know their name.

Some churches do recognize that people have issues that need to be addressed and have in-house Christian counseling programs or refer members to Christian counseling services.   I think that there certainly is a place for clinically trained therapists in the life of a church; however this is not really pastoral care, even when they use “Biblical” methods.   In a sense it is the outsourcing by pastors of one of the most vital missions entrusted to a church, the pastoral care of the flock of God to others, in a sense, “hirelings.”  Again my issue is not with the therapists or Christian counselors, but rather pastors who refuse to do pastoral care as part of their ministry.

Ultimately it is people that are important, even those who are not rich, powerful and who have problems that don’t fit nicely into theological boxes or paradigms promoted by church growth experts. It is high time that churches start reclaiming one of the most vital missions given by Jesus to his Disciples, to care for the least, the lost and the lonely.
The onus for this falls on pastors who cannot simply outsource one of their primary missions as given by Jesus himself to others.  If pastors do not set the example of being caring pastoral care givers, it will not matter that they are supposedly “empowering” laypeople to do ministry.  Instead it sends another more ominous message, that if it is not important for the pastor, why should it be important to me?

Every member of the church at some time goes through a crisis when their faith, family, health or vocation.  Sometimes these are not isolated events but rather prolonged periods of anguish, as what Saint John of the Cross described as “the Dark Night of the Soul” where it seems that God has even abandoned the person.  Unfortunately people in this situation are often abandoned by their church as things fail to improve.  Despairing they become the lost sheep whose shepherd has abandoned.  This is the hardest time for pastoral care, the times where we as pastors are called to stand with someone as Mary the Mother of Jesus did at the Cross, just simply being there though nothing else can be done.

Now do I understand that the demands of running a large church can be sometimes become such that pastors have difficulty making time for pastoral care?

Of course I understand this, at the same time pastors, even those who function primarily as pastor-teacher/CEOs still have the responsibility of caring for people, not simply administering programs and preaching.  Pastors need to set the example of care for people, real people, the regular people who populate their pews, by their books and give to their ministry, even if it is only in small ways, not just the super-givers or the wealthy and powerful.

James’s “right strawy epistle” (Martin Luther’s words) has much to say about favoring the rich and powerful and neglecting the poor and seemingly insignificant people hanging about the peanut galleries of their large “Worship Centers.”  Even if the pastor has limited time he or she must be about the flock, or they will forget what the needs of the flock really are and instead of the People of God, the lambs who Jesus says to care for they will simply be the consumers of a religious message who we have to keep coming back to keep the operation going.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, ministry, Pastoral Care, Religion

Churches that Ignore: The Mega-Church and the Least, the Lost and the Lonely

Lakewood-Church-1024x768-2

“Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

Back when I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital I was astounded to hear my pastor make a comment which I think was one of the most heartless that I have ever heard said from a pulpit.  The church was a large and trendy Evangelical-Charismatic Church which I had attended throughout seminary and had ordained my in October 1991.  The Pastor was recounting an incident where one of our members had been critically ill in hospital and had not been visited by him.  After the parishioner was released from hospital he asked the pastor: “How sick do I have to be for you to visit me in the hospital?”  The pastor told us his response: “Sir, you don’t want to be that sick.”

The congregation laughed at the pastor’s story and he went on to talk about how he and other senior pastors should not be doing that kind of work because it “distracted them from bigger Kingdom tasks.”  You see according to the pastor the care of sick parishioners did not contribute to the “growth” of the church and thus was a “distraction and better left to others.”

The comment struck a raw nerve now that I was dealing with the suffering and death every day of people who had been abandoned by the churches and pastors.  I lost all respect for him as a man and pastor during that sermon.  My philosophy of religion professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary, Dr. Yandall Woodfin said: “You have not done Christian theology until you have dealt with suffering and death.”

Unfortunately my old pastor, and many more like had stopped doing Christian theology in order to be an “Apostle” and CEO.  He was “growing” the church and managing programs, but had for the most part stopped caring as in being a pastoral care giver.

Now this pastor is not alone and nor is the issue of the lack of care confined to Evangelical or Charismatic churches. The trend has has found its way across the denominational spectrum.  Sometimes this is by design as is the case of the Mega-churches.

Pastors of mega-churches are for all practical purposes CEOs of large organizations and have a multiplicity of specialized staff, but often which do little for pastoral care. Having attended a number of these churches, and worked for a prominent television evangelist I can sadly report seeing this first hand many times.

Sometimes this problem it is by default in cases such as the Roman Catholic Church.  In that church the ever worsening shortage of Priests is forcing the closure of smaller parishes and the increase of large parishes with a corresponding decrease in what Priests can do for their people.   Even very good Priests cannot keep pace with the demand of both Sacramental needs as well as pastoral care.

No matter if it is by design or default the result is similar.  The least, the lost and the lonely those “lambs” that Jesus talks about who need care and feeding are shunted aside.  In one case, that of the Catholic Church it is primarily a lack of Priests, Deacons and Sisters to provide this care, although sadly there are Catholic priests who do not see themselves as care givers.

The “by design” issue is more far more troubling as the focus of the church is growth, sustaining numbers, programs and buildings.  This requires that pastors spend their time with members who can supply the vast financial need that those plans require.  I have seen this in numerous congregations across the spectrum, which sometimes as was the case at a church that I attended in Florida results in a financial meltdown and collapse of the congregation, many of whom gave up and went elsewhere when the extent of the scandal became known.  Likewise the ripple effects that this caused in the denomination were like a Tsunami, it was disastrous and the church is still in recovery mode.  Going back to my pastor back when I was in residency I got the feeling that had he been the shepherd in the Parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15) that he would have let it go as hunting for it might have distracted him from the others.

When I was in seminary there were quite a number of my fellow students who chafed about having to take courses on pastoral care.  I remember friends and fellow students complaining that what they needed were more “practical courses” such as “church growth, evangelism and Sunday School program management.”  Courses dealing with Pastoral Care were seen as a bother and distraction.  Not to mention academic courses such as Systematic Theology, Philosophy of Religion and Church History which offer timeless lessons for pastors.  One friend talked about his Master of Divinity only having a “shelf-life of 5 years” because what he learned would be outdated.

Well in a way he was right.  His focus was on classes that dealt with programs and methods of church growth, programs and management.   From that perspective his degree would rapidly be obsolescent as soon as the next trend in church growth came along and everyone jettisoned the last method in favor of the new.

With the ubiquity of the Mega-church which unlike the Leisure Suit is not going away anytime soon.  The rise of the “Superstar” Pastors such as Bill Hybels, Joel Osteen and Rick Warren and the proliferation of massive “Ministry Media” conglomerates and stand-alone television ministries are actually dangerous to the vitality and health of the Christian Church in the United States.  They propagate methods which have the sole intent of getting people into church or giving to a ministry and keeping them there, doctrine, worship, sacraments or ordinances, and pastoral care of the least, lost and lonely be damned.  The methods are pragmatic and impersonal.   Numbers and crowds define expertise, credibility and worth. The bigger the church the better the church, it’s that simple.

Unlike others who pick these ministers apart for their theology or business practices my problem with what is happening is what happens to regular people in these large and often very impersonal churches.  It is easy for people to get lost, forgotten and when they are going through difficulty abandoned when the church stops making a conscious effort to do real pastoral care and focus purely on the programs which lend to growth.  Often the substitute for pastoral care is found in the home cell group, or care group or whatever cute name a church can pin on a meeting at a member’s house.
The home groups or cell groups have a noble intention.  They attempt to build community in an otherwise very impersonal organization.  There are some really good things that can come out of healthy home groups as well as long lasting friendships.  We have a couple from our time in San Antonio that is still a very real part of our lives, they showed us genuine love and care and we remain friends.  Of course this couple had an advantage over most home group leaders; he was a clinical social worker by trade who was heading off to seminary.

Most home groups are not that fortunate.  There are unhealthy groups which are led by people who are poorly trained and equipped to deal with broken people.  The good group leaders recognize their limitations and try to get help for those who are really hurting.  Others who do not know their limitations end up abusing these dear lambs of God. Often this is because sick, depressed or lonely people take too much time, are too needy, or that their problems don’t match up with their church theology.

My wife and I know this from personal experience as my wife suffered from a number of ailments throughout seminary and we were going through tremendous health and financial difficulties and in some places we felt cast aside and like we did not matter.  We were fortunate that some people did care and we did make it through, however it was not something that I would ever want to repeat.  I have heard similar stories from hundreds of people that I have come across in my life and work over the years.

I don’t care what you call it, but any church which has multiple services of several thousand or a major service of close to 20,000 as occurs at Osteen’s Lakewood Church is no longer focused on caring for people but sustaining their growth and market share.

I remember reading Charisma Magazine back in the mid-1990s when I still read it regularly about a church in North Dallas that has a period of incredible church growth in which it grew from 1,200 members to well over 7,000.  In the article the pastor touted the church programs which drew people to the church.  What the dirty little secret which was not mentioned was that two exits south of this church a Mega-church of some 10,000 members imploded when the Pastor, one Bob Tilton got caught doing some pretty bad stuff.  This church despite its claims of great programs simple picked up about 6,000 of these people because they were close by and a similar type of church.

All of this is dangerous as to its impact on people.  One only has to look at the latest Barna Polls about what is going on in churches to see that these large churches are alienating people even as they grow.  People come, but others either burn out trying to keep pace with the manic pace of programs proliferated by these churches or they get lost in the crowd and forgotten.  I meet a least a person every day who is a displaced Christian, often hurt, lonely and broken, not only by what they have experienced in life, but by the cold emptiness that they feel when a church surrounded by thousands of people who don’t even know their name.

Some churches do recognize that people have issues that need to be addressed and have in-house Christian counseling programs or refer members to Christian counseling services.   I think that there certainly is a place for clinically trained therapists in the life of a church; however this is not really pastoral care, even when they use “Biblical” methods.   In a sense it is the outsourcing by pastors of one of the most vital missions entrusted to a church, the pastoral care of the flock of God to others, in a sense, “hirelings.”  Again my issue is not with the therapists or Christian counselors, but rather pastors who refuse to do pastoral care as part of their ministry.

Ultimately it is people that are important, even those who are not rich, powerful and who have problems that don’t fit nicely into theological boxes or paradigms promoted by church growth experts. It is high time that churches start reclaiming one of the most vital missions given by Jesus to his Disciples, to care for the least, the lost and the lonely.
The onus for this falls on pastors who cannot simply outsource one of their primary missions as given by Jesus himself to others.  If pastors do not set the example of being caring pastoral care givers, it will not matter that they are supposedly “empowering” laypeople to do ministry.  Instead it sends another more ominous message, that if it is not important for the pastor, why should it be important to me?

Every member of the church at some time goes through a crisis when their faith, family, health or vocation.  Sometimes these are not isolated events but rather prolonged periods of anguish, as what Saint John of the Cross described as “the Dark Night of the Soul” where it seems that God has even abandoned the person.  Unfortunately people in this situation are often abandoned by their church as things fail to improve.  Despairing they become the lost sheep whose shepherd has abandoned.  This is the hardest time for pastoral care, the times where we as pastors are called to stand with someone as Mary the Mother of Jesus did at the Cross, just simply being there though nothing else can be done.

Now do I understand that the demands of running a large church can be sometimes become such that pastors have difficulty making time for pastoral care?

Of course I understand this, at the same time pastors, even those who function primarily as pastor-teacher/CEOs still have the responsibility of caring for people, not simply administering programs and preaching.  Pastors need to set the example of care for people, real people, the regular people who populate their pews, by their books and give to their ministry, even if it is only in small ways, not just the super-givers or the wealthy and powerful.

James’s “right strawy epistle” (Martin Luther’s words) has much to say about favoring the rich and powerful and neglecting the poor and seemingly insignificant people hanging about the peanut galleries of their large “Worship Centers.”  Even if the pastor has limited time he or she must be about the flock, or they will forget what the needs of the flock really are and instead of the People of God, the lambs who Jesus says to care for they will simply be the consumers of a religious message who we have to keep coming back to keep the operation going.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Church, Faith, Tolerance and Reconcilliation

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“Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” Paul Tillich

My friends, I write this because of something that happened to me a couple of days ago. It was an incident that upset me greatly because it ended up in the fracturing of a relationship by a friend who evidently could not tolerate where I was in my life as a priest and Christian. I discovered again the reality of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God, either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God, too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there will be nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words… never really speaking to others.”

My experience of the Church is profoundly influenced by my life in the nether world of the military culture. My world view is shaped by a blending of various Christian traditions, mutual support and collaboration among believers of often radically different points of view. Because of the love, care and mentoring of people from a blend of different traditions I came to know God and survived a tumultuous childhood with many moves.

As a historian I have been blessed to study church history from the early Church Fathers to the present. As I look to church history I find inspiration in many parts of the Christian tradition. In fact rather being threatened by them I have become appreciative of their distinctiveness. I think that there is a beauty in liturgy and stability in the councils and creeds of the Church. At the same time the prophetic voice of evangelical preaching shapes me, especially the message of freedom and tolerance embodied in the lives and sacrifice of men like John Leland, the American Baptist who helped pioneer the concept of Freedom of Religion established in the Constitution of the United States, of William Wilberforce who labored to end slavery in England and, Martin Luther King Jr. who led the Civil Rights movement.

Likewise that prophetic message of the faith is demonstrated in the ministry, writing and martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his contemporaries Martin Niemoller and Jesuit priest Father Rupert Meyer. All three resisted and preached against the evils of Nazism. In a more contemporary setting I am inspired by Bishop Desmond Tutu who helped topple apartheid in South Africa.

Women like Teresa of Avila and St Catherine show me that women have a legitimate place of ministry and leadership in the Church. I am convinced through my study of Church history, theology and a deep belief in the power of the Holy Spirit that women can and should serve as Priests and Bishops in the church.

My theology has shaped by the writings of Hans Kung, Yves Congar, Jurgen Moltmann, Andrew Greeley, and Henry Nouwen. I’ve been challenged by St Francis of Assissi, John Wesley and Martin Luther. I am especially inspired by Pope John XXIII whose vision brought about the Second Vatican Council and I am inspired by Pope Francis.

I pray that Christians can live in peace with one another and those who do not share our faith. I pray that we can find ways to overcome the often very legitimate hurts, grievances and divisions of our 2000 year history. At the same time I pray that we can repent from our own wrongs and work to heal the many wounds created by Christians who abused power, privilege and even those who oppressed others, waged war and killed in the name of Jesus.

I do not believe that neither triumphalism nor authoritarianism has a place in in a healthy understanding of the church and how we live. I am suspicious of any clergy who seek power in a church or political setting. I profoundly reject any argument that requires the subjection of one Church with its tradition to any other Church. In fact I think that the arrogance and intolerance of Christians to others is a large part of why people are leaving the church in droves and that the fastest growing “religious group” is the “nones” or those with no religious preference. Andrew Greeley said something that we should take to heart:

“People came into the Church in the Roman Empire because the Church was so good — Catholics were so good to one another, and they were so good to pagans, too. High-pressure evangelization strikes me as an attempt to deprive people of their freedom of choice.”

I grew up in and have lived my life in a very open and ecumenical environment. I have lost any trace denominational parochialism and competition that I might have had if I had become a pastor of a civilian parish instead of a chaplain. It is interesting that the pastor that first ordained me in the evangelical tradition and the bishop that ordained me as a priest both did so with the intent that I serve as a chaplain. Whether it was the recognition of a gifting for the work or the fact that they didn’t want me messing up their civilian operations by asking hard questions I will never know.

I believe that my environment and the men and women who have helped shape my life have been a stronger influence in the way I think about ecumenical relations and ministry than my actual theology or ecclesiology. Whether they were Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Evangelicals or even those considered by many to be outside the faith including Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Mormons and even complete non-believers all have contributed to my life and faith.

I have grown weary of refighting theological debates that have divided the church for a thousand years. Since what we know of theology including our Scriptures and Creeds are based on faith and not science I see no reason to continue to battle.

That doesn’t mean that I think we should put our brains in neutral but rather we must wrestle with how to integrate our faith with science, philosophy and reason, otherwise we will become irrelevant. In that sense I identify with Saint Anslem of Canterbury who wrote about a faith seeking understanding and Erasmus of Rotterdam who very well understood the importance of both faith and reason. In that sense I am very much at home with the Anglian triad of Scripture, Reason and Tradition when it comes to approaching faith.

I struggle with faith and belief. After Iraq I spent two years as a practical agnostic. As Andrew Greeley wrote: “Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.” Andrew Greeley “The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain”

I am an Old Catholic and believe that inter-communion does not require from either communion the acceptance of all doctrinal opinion, sacramental devotion, or liturgical practice characteristic of the other, but implies that each believes the other to hold all the essentials of the Christian faith. I like to think that I embody what the early Anglicans referred to as the via media and that somehow my life and ministry has been about building bridges at the intersections of faith with a wide diversity of people.

When I have tried to embrace traditionalism or choose to fight theological battles I have ended up tired, bitter and at enmity with other Christians. In a sense when I tried those paths I found that they didn’t work for me. I discovered that I was not being true to who God had created and guided my life, education and experience. I feel like T. E. Lawrence who wrote:

“The rare man who attains wisdom is, by the very clearness of his sight, a better guide in solving practical problems than those, more commonly the leaders of men, whose eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success….”

My favorite theological debates have been with other chaplains over pints of good beer in German Gasthausen or Irish pubs. Those were good times, we argued but we also laughed and always left as friends and brothers. I believe since we are human that none of us will ever fully comprehend all of God or his or her truth. I believe that the Holy Spirit, God’s gracious gift to her people will guide us into all Truth. For me my faith has become more about relationships and reconciliation than in being right.

As far as those who disagree with me that is their right, or your right if you disagree. I don’t expect agreement and I am okay with differences and even if I disagree with an individual or how another religious denominations polity, theology, beliefs or practices those are their rights. In fact I am sure that those that believe things that I don’t are at least as sincere as me and that those beliefs are important to them. I just ask that people don’t try to use them to force their faith or belief on others, be it in churches or by attempting to use the power of government to coerce others into their belief systems.

To my friend who broke contact with me when I refused to debate his argument that I should submit myself to his Church and tradition, the door is open for reconciliation.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Price to Be Paid: Politically Motivated Christian Leaders Destroy the Faith

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“I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.” Martin Niemöller

The statistics don’t lie. The United States cannot and should not be considered a Christian nation and any sense of the definition. To be blunt that is not the fault of secularists. It is the fault of Christians especially those political partisan pastors and pundits of the christian Right that for the past 40 years have sold their souls for political power at the expense of the Gospel.

While many people, even a majority describe themselves as Christians the fact is that what is now believed is not a Christianity that is in any sense Biblical, Catholic or Orthodox but rather a packaging of certain “Biblical values” that happen to be great political wedge issues for Christian leaders seeking political and economic power.

Nowhere was this shown more than the brazen flip-flopping of Christian leaders during the last election who adamantly opposed the nomination of Mitt Romney on the basis of their understanding of Christianity and Mormonism so long as there was a chance that a non-Mormon had a chance at the Republican nomination. Of course those leaders, even those that opposed Romney on theological grounds rapidly gave him their blessing once he won the nomination. The theological gyrations made by those leaders of the Religious Right in that process were fascinating to watch, much like a train wreck, but fascinating nonetheless.

A recent Barna survey noted that less than one half of one percent of people aged 18-23 hold what would be considered a “Biblical world view.” This is compared to about one of every nine other adults.  Other surveys bear this out.

This should not be surprising to anyone that has watched the growth of what passes as Evangelical Christianity in the Mega-Church age and the retreat of conservative Catholics into the Church culture and theology of the 1400s. It is the same ideology that brought about the Reformation. But then maybe that is not a bad thing.

What has to be said is that the American Church cannot really be considered Evangelical or Catholic. Rather American Christians have subscribed to an Imperial Church model that must throw itself at those that hold power in order to maintain their own political, economic and social power.

While these leaders talk about and rail against things that they believe to be “sinful” such as homosexuality, abortion and birth control they willingly turn a blind eye to the treatment of the poor, advocate wars of aggression and bless cultural and economic norms that go entirely against the Christian tradition as they go about with a Bible in one hand and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in the other.

One can have legitimate debates in the Church about what the Bible and Christian tradition define as sin and we should have those debates taking into consideration Scripture, Tradition as well as what we have learned from the Sciences and the Social Sciences. But the fact is that those in the Religious Right are terribly inconsistent in this, much like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who he condemned for the same type of hypocrisy.

Think about it: The Barna Group in another survey of people 18-29 years old asked what phrases best described Christians: The top five answers “Anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical and too involved in politics.” This view was held by 91% of non-Christians and a staggering 80% of young churchgoers.

This hypocrisy was again demonstrated this week. Many of these politically corrupted religious leaders turned a blind eye to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 by the Supreme Court, or cheered that decision despite the fact that many of not most of those adversely affected by that decision are African American Christians. The next day after cheering this result they lambasted the same justices for overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and refusing to hear a challenge to California’s Proposition 8, dealing with the Federal recognition of Gay marriage. The histrionics exhibited would be comical if the men and women ranting away were not so vehemently hateful towards their opponents. The tragedy of their behavior is that even more people will turn away from even reasonable Christians.

The fact is that young people are leaving the church in unheard of numbers and it is very evident to me why they are doing so. The Church has embraced the culture wars over preaching the Gospel, which if I recall correctly is based on loving people, even ones enemies.  Jesus said it so well: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35 NRSV.

The leaders of the Christian Right may hope able to bring out enough culture warriors to win or at least hold their majority in the House of Representatives in the next mid-term election for the Republican Party, but at what cost? One can debate the merits of the Obama administration and its decisions and policies. But to be authentic Christian witnesses we cannot simply become the religious appendage of a political movement whose leaders hold the Church and religious people in general in distain even as they mobilize them to support policies that are in the long term detrimental to those who claim the name of Jesus.

In the 1920s and 1930s the Churches of Germany and many parts of Europe did the same thing. They felt that their values were under attack by Communists, Socialists, Jews and yes, even Homosexuals. In order to maintain their influence and power they willingly allied themselves with the Nazis. When they spoke up against the Nazis it was seldom because they were defending anyone but their own ecclesiastical power and place in society.  When the war was over and young people began to question the actions of those that led the Church in Germany it began a process that has led to the de-Christianization of that country.

The constant hate filled attacks of Christian leaders on those that are not Christians will come back to bite them. This is not fantasy, it is reality. One only has to look at the history of the Church to see it played out time after time. But then, unless we decide to re-write history like David Barton does so well why bother reading it?

I will be writing more about this in the coming months in what will be a number of very well researched and documented articles.  But figured that I would kick open the door today. The actions of many Christian leaders are dangerous to the faith as a whole. The political opportunism is short sighted and ultimately will hasten the decline and fall of what we know as Christianity in America.

Perhaps Christian leaders who have sold their souls for such paltry political gains should be asking these questions: What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul and what does it profit the Church to wield political power but lose its soul?

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer once noted “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.” 

It is something to consider.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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