Tag Archives: Pastoral Care

A Klassiker Drubbing, A Wedding, and a Reunion

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today was a good day. I was able to do a limited amount of work to help Judy around the house last night and today as we get ready for her second knee replacement surgery Friday, and I will continue with that tomorrow. It hurts and I have to use a cane to get around, but we are making progress. I have my own appointments for my knees on Monday and Tuesday and submitted my cancellation request for my voluntary retirement on Friday so I can get my knees, hips, and other medical needs fixed before I leave active duty.

I helped Judy to the extent I could today and she allowed me to watch on the ESPN app the progress of the Bayern Munich vs. Borussia Dortmund “Klassiker” match since Fox Sports dropped it to their Spanish channel which needs a subscription to view. That pissed me off because Bayern blew out Dortmund in every sense of the meaning of blowout by a score of 5-0. Bayern Striker Robert Lewendowski scored his 200th and 201st Bundesliga goals in the beat down. In which Bayern controlled the ball 59% of the game, had 22 shots, 10 of which were on goal while limiting Dortmund to 4 shots, just one of which was on goal, taking command of the race for the Bundesliga title, leading by a point with a 15 goal differential. The difference between today and the winter break for the Bundesliga when Dortmund had a 9 point lead on the table and had beaten Bayern 3-2 in a thrilling game made Dortmund the team to beat. But since then it has been all Bayern, as die Röten chipped away at Dortmund’s lead battling injuries and questions about their first year coach Niko Kovac and finally took the lead on Dortmund with 6 matches left in the season. If Bayern can finish strong it will be their 7th straight Bundesliga championship, but the first one in years that has had been such a thrilling title chase. It’s not over yet but I think, as I told my NATO German friends back in January, when it is done Bayern will be on top. Of course to understand this you have to be a fan of a team which has big rivals and a tradition of winning. For the record, Bayern has won a total of 70 league, National, European, and international championships or cups. There are not that many other professional sports teams that have such a record of championships. I expect they will add to that this year with another Bundesliga title and probably another German Cup, but I digress…

In other news I had the honor of officiating the marriage of a dear friend and colleague from the Joint Forces Staff College. She is a wonderful woman, brilliant intellect, retired Navy Commander, with a great personality and sense of humor. Over the years she has gone through a lot of hard times, but with grace and dignity. When she asked me to conduct her wedding and to meet her fiancé I was overjoyed. I had never seen her look so happy and to at the same time discover that her fiancé was a gem. It was an honor and joy to marry them this evening.

Likewise, the event was a reunion with a lot of my friends from the Staff College. That was a remarkable time. I have missed them since transferring to Little Creek in April 2017. Today I got around with the help of a cane. Last year I was walking and running 5-15 miles a day 5 days a week and would go to Gettysburg and Antietam and walk up to 20 miles a day with a pack on my back across those hallowed battlefields. My friends there want me to come back when my voluntary retirement is canceled, which it should be.

So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Forgiveness Will Not Change the Past, but It Could Change the Future: Dealing with the Aftermath of a Painful Experience

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
As my regular readers know I went through a decidedly difficult time over the past coupled of months. If you are a new reader or have not read the post in which I wrote about this experience let me explain.
In mid-June I substituted for one of my chaplains so that he could have a weekend off. The preached from Second Corinthians chapter five regarding Christian responsibility towards other people and the creation. I discussed how the Trump Administration’s border policies were in opposition to that. I explained that the words used by the President and administration about darker skinned immigrants and refugees was dehumanizing. That the use of terms such as “animals” and ‘infestations” while labeling them all as “rapists” and “criminals” of the worst kind was little different than what others had done in the past. I used a number of historical examples; including the American experiences dealing with the extermination and forced relocation of native American tribes, slavery, Jim Crow, the incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II, and the Nazi treatment of Jews and others deemed “subhuman.” I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and others to emphasize that such treatment and demonization was in complete opposition to the teaching of the Gospel and the Christian tradition.
It was probably one of the most powerful and heartfelt sermons that I have ever preached. One of the chapel members present told one of my staff chaplains that it was like “hearing the voice of God thunder from the pulpit.” 
For that I had a member of the congregation try to have me tried by court martial for conduct unbecoming an officer and contempt towards the President of the United States. The man accused me of many things including comparing the President to Adolf Hitler and law enforcement officers to the Nazis. I did no such thing but that is what I was accused of. I was investigated and had to retain an attorney. The investigation confirmed that I had not done what the man said and exonerated me.
Since then I have tried to work through my feelings and emotions and decide what to do. I talked with a number of people and decided that I would need to address the subject before the congregation at a future point.
So I did that today and am pleased to report that my talk with the congregation regarding went well. I was very nervous and fearful going in to the service and during the half hour or so before the service while sequestered in my office I thought that I was going to throw up. 
 
I talked for a little over 8 minutes and humbly explained what happened without any judgment on the man or the congregation. In fact I confessed my fear about even coming before them. I explained that of all the things in my 37 year career that this was the most difficult, including going to combat, getting shot at and dealing with PTSD. I explained that I never expected anything like that. I explained that I had thought that even if someone disagreed with the sermon that they would come to me as is taught in the words of Christ and the writings of the Apostle Paul and not try to have me punished by attempting to have me punished. 
 
I explained that I had worked through my anger but that I was still hurt and that I did not feel safe with the congregation. I invited anyone that wanted to see me either after the service or make a time with me to talk over coffee, lunch, or a beer at a later time. I discussed forgiveness and remarked that even though I had gotten through the anger and forgave my accuser and those who turned their backs on me after that service that the pain remained and that I did not feel safe or that I was fully able to trust them. I also asked forgiveness for anything that I might have said to offend anyone present. I noted that forgiveness will not change the past but could very well change the future. 
Likewise I explained that during my anger I had considered taking revenge on my accuser by suing him in civilian court for libel and defamation of character. But I realized that if I did so that it would not be helpful to anyone. When I was binge watching The Blacklist over the past few weeks I remembered a comment made by Raymond Reddington. He said: “Revenge isn’t a passion. It’s a disease. It eats at your mind and poisons your soul.” 
When I completed my remarks, I exited the pulpit and handed the service back to my Protestant pastor and waited in my office.
 
The response was good, I don’t think that I could have asked for more. A number of people came to me after the service and were very kind. Two of them were men who in their interviews with the investigating officer refuted all of the accusations against me. The response of the people who came to me was quite touching and very encouraging. 
Since I do not know what the man who made the charges looks like I do not know if he was in attendance today. At the end of my talk I announced my plans to retire and that I may not preach again at this chapel, but that the decision was not final. Those who visited with me all told me that they wanted me to continue to preach the truth, all of them said that it was badly needed in our chapel if it were to survive. One elderly couple said that the congregation was dying. I haven’t decided if I will preach again because I am not there yet, but I haven’t ruled it it. 
As far as forgiveness, I do forgive, but it is a process, but it is impossible to forget. Maybe that is one thing that makes us human. The memories of such experiences will always be a part of us, and just maybe that is a good thing. That may sound strange because so many people say to “forgive and forget” as if that is part of scripture or a Biblical command. In fact that the phrase is not found anywhere in the Bible. I believe that we should forgive but that because we cannot forget we should remember what was done so that we learn from it and are able to move on and do better ourselves.
So for tonight I thank all of my readers for your kind words, thoughts, and prayers over the past two months.
Until tomorrow.
Peace
Padre Steve+

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An Unexpected Encounter in a Bar: a Divine or a Chance Meeting?

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’ve been in the military almost 36 1/2 Years and a chaplain for about 25 1/2 of them. I remember when I was in the Texas Army National Guard, our State Chaplain, Colonel John Price pulled me aside and gave me some of the best advice any chaplain has ever given me. He told me that in his experience that chaplains who were not afraid to sit at the bar at the officer’s club or go to other bars often had the opportunity to care for people who would never darken the door of a church or chapel. Over the years I have found that to be true all too often.

This afternoon I went with Judy to our favorite German restaurant, the Bier Garden. We had been working around the house most of the day and the weather was cold a dreary, cloudy with rain and temperatures in the high 30s. When we got there there were only two seats available at the end of the bar and I asked the young man sitting next to them if they were free. He said yes and we sat down. The Army-Navy game was on the televisions and I was settling in to watch the game when the young man struck up a conversation with me. He had obviously had too much to drink and he was struggling to stay awake.

That being said he seemed lonely and depressed, so as I watched the game I occasionally engaged him in conversation and listened to what he was saying. Then he passed out and the bartender woke him up and cut him off. That is when I really got concerned for him. I asked if he was okay, if he needed help and if he was local. He said that he was from California and stationed on board one of the many ships based in our area. He also said that he had walked to the restaurant. So we continued to talk and as we did I could see that he was crying. So I let him talk. He had been in the navy less than a year and he was on his first ship and away from his family for the first time. He was depressed and struggling and I realized that for whatever reason I needed to be there for this kid.

I introduced myself and let him know that I was a chaplain, but even more than importantly that I was a fellow sailor, a shipmate who cared for him. I’m not going to go into details of the conversation but I asked him what ship he was stationed aboard and took the time to encourage him, care for him, and even more importantly decided to find out how he was going to get back to his ship. He told me that he planned on walking back to it, which I realized that since he had had a couple too many drinks, was tired, and it was both dark, cold and beginning to snow that I couldn’t let that happened. I asked him to call his ship and have someone come and get him, but he was hesitant. However he did have a card from his ship that would help him with a cab ride, so I asked the bartender to call a cab. I stayed with the young sailor encouraging him the best that I could for the next half hour and then stood with him waiting for the cab to come outside the restaurant where we continued to talk until the cab came. I talked with the cab driver and found that his company didn’t have the agreement with the Navy to honor it, so I paid the driver more than twice the fare to get him back to his ship.

During our time together I listened a lot and I shared a lot of life experience, I also gave him my business card so he could look me up. But the one thing that I kept letting him know was that he was a sailor, that he was one of my shipmates, and that he wears the same uniform that I do, and that he matters to me. Truthfully that is not bullshit, it’s what I have been taught by every decent non-commissioned officer, Petty Officer, Chief, or commissioned officer in my career. You care for the sailors, soldiers, Marines, and airmen that come into your life no matter what their rank or situation. It’s who we are, and why after all these year I still serve.

While we were standing outside waiting for his cab we were talking about the weather and how cold it was and at that point I pointed out that I was wearing short pants, as I don’t go to long pants until the high temperature is under 40 degrees. He looked down and exclaimed: “Chaps, you,re crazy sir!” I told him that he was right.

My hope is that this young man will remember the crazy chaplain who stood with him in cold weather, wind, rain and snow in short pants who helped him get back to his ship, and that when he has attained any kind of rank that he will take care of other sailors in the same way.

Some might say that the encounter was an act of God or simply a coincidence and I could argue for either point of view. But that being, whichever it was, I know that I couldn’t have done any other. I wanted him to get back to his ship safely and I didn’t want to embarrass him in front of his chain of command.

He asked me questions about God and church and I encouraged him to seek out his chaplain or to contact me and so I hope that our encounter will help in get through his hard times and to succeed in life.

But that is why I am here. I’m going to finish my career in the next few years, this young man is just getting started. He is part of the future and no matter how young I still look, act, and behave, my time in the Navy and military is coming to an end. Whether that is in two and a half, three and a half, or four and a half years, with somewhere between 39 and 42 years of combined service between the Army and Navy, I am closer to the end of my career than this young man.

So I encourage all of my readers to look out for those young men and women who come into your lives.

So until tomorrow and whatever unexpected encounters come our way I wish you the best,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Your Actions Speak so Loud… A Meditation on Faith and Life


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Back when I was in high school sophomore I made a dumb decision to try to play football. I should have stayed with baseball, but football was cool, and despite the fact that I was too small the be competitive as a lineman and too slow and unskilled to be a good running back, receiver, or defensive back, and not strong enough to be a solid linebacker I went out for our sophomore team. I showed up for ever practice but I really didn’t have the instincts needed to play the game, and no-matter how much I showed up for practice I didn’t get to play until our line coach, Duke Pasquini, nailed me. 

When I complained that he wasn’t playing me after we lost a big game by an embarrassing score he told me “Steve, your actions speak so loud I can’t hear a word you are saying.” That infuriated me so I yelled and him and he said “I can’t hear you.” Eventually after a minute or so of this back and forth his words sunk in. I went out to practice that day mad as hell, and in a pass rush drill I got around a player who I had never beat before and tackled the coach. As we got up he said “now I can hear you.” Now I still wasn’t very good, but I did get a few plays in during each of our last three games and even got in on a couple of tackles. After the season we had our team banquet where to my surprise our coaches and players named me the most inspirational player. That is usually an honor reserved to people who are dying or injured who inspire others by overcoming or enduring their hardships. Honestly, in my case I think it was because I was so bad and untalented that nobody thought I would even make the team, and that they were surprised I didn’t give up and that I learned to do more than show up expecting that showing up would be enough to get me into the game. That year I learned that my heart, soul, mind, and body had to be into the game. That was something that Coach Pasquini taught me, and it is something that I have done my best to apply to the rest of my life, including my spiritual life.

When I was attending Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in the late 1980s and early 1990s I began a journey to the catholic faith. One of my favorite theologians and authors was Hans Kung, one of the great theologians to come out of the Vatican II era. Kung once wrote something that really was at the heart of what Coach Pasquini t me. Kung wrote: “In the last resort, a love of God without love of humanity is no love at all.” 

I have found that there are many people who profess a love of God but who hate humanity. They despise their neighbors, crush the poor, and strive to ensure that they are as powerful politically, socially, and economically as they can be. They show up at church, they say all the right prayers, and hold the doctrines of their denominations as tight as a boa constrictor would hold its prey and as perfectly as an elite Soviet era figure skate could do a triple axel double toe loop combination, but they hate their neighbors. 

Of course they would never admit to that, but their actions speak louder than their words. Sadly, the Jesus they profess to believe in would not be welcome in their circles. He hung out with the wrong crowds, including women, gentiles, sinners, and tax collectors, he preached about them in the synagogue, and he even got angry once in a while to the point of flipping the tables of the money changers at the entrance of the Temple. When a rich young man asked him what he needed to do to get to heaven, Jesus asked him what about the commandments. The man said that he had followed them his whole life. Jesus then told him that he needed to give all his stuff away to the poor and follow him. The man was sad, because he, like the majority of American Christians liked his stuff better than the risk of following Jesus. 

Every day I learn more of what it is to be an incarnational Christian, I that I try to let God’s love for others influence how I treat them. Honestly, I don’t do it as well as I should. I’m basically a Mendoza Line Christian trying to stay in the game, but that makes me work harder. 

So until tomorrow, may we all try to let our actions speak louder than our preaching. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

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

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“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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Holy Week and the Outcasts

Sieger Köder
“Barmherzigkeit”

“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.” Henri Nouwen

Holy Week is here and on my way home from work and a visit with my shrink I was doing some thinking about Christians that have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith. I meet them all the time and read their stories on blogs, books and social media.  Of course I run across more now because I have gone through such a crisis and have written about it and through that had my story publicized. As a result I am contacted by people who have suffered trauma, especially related to PTSD as well as those that care for such people.

For many of the people Holy Week and Easter can be particularly painful. Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomena is one of the more tragic aspects of the season.  People who at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and aloneness which sometimes becomes a feeling of hopelessness where even death appears more comforting than life in the present.

I say this because people suffering through this often go unnoticed or are ignored in church. Their loss could be that of a spouse or child, the loss of something else significant or the experience of trauma that devastates them but no matter the cause of the suffering many people discover that they are now outcasts in the place where they should be cared about more than anywhere else.

Likewise there are many pastors and priests who are either unaware of them, uncomfortable around them or irritated by them because they don’t respond like “normal” people do to the message of Easter.  I have found from my own experience returning from Iraq that Easter despite the message of resurrection and hope often triggers a despair of life itself when one no longer senses the presence of God and feels alone against the world, especially in church.

Years ago I believed that if someone was in the midst of a crisis in faith if they read the Bible more, prayed more and made sure that they were in church that things would work out.  I believed then that somehow with a bit of counseling, the right concept of God and involvement in church activities that God would “heal” them.  Call me a heretic but that line of thinking is nice for people experiencing a minor bump in their life but absolutely stupid advice for people who are severely traumatized or clinically depressed and suicidal who no longer perceive the presence of God in their lives.  For those abused by parents or clergy this is I think an even deeper wound one in which the very concept and understanding of God becomes skewed in the minds and hearts of the victims.

I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or other psychological reason. The numbers of people have been victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures or physical trauma related to accidents, near death experiences or combat is mind numbing. They are all over the place and many go unnoticed in the church.

Sometimes the damage wrought on people makes it nearly impossible for them to comprehend a God who both cares about them and who is safe to approach.  My experience came from Iraq and the trauma of my return and were absolutely frightening so much so that I left a Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed.  My isolation from Christian community and sense of despair during that time showed me that such a loss of faith is not to be trifled with or papered over with the pretty wallpaper or neat sets of “principles” drawn up in the ivory theological towers by theologians and “pastors” who refuse to deal with the reality of the consequences of a fallen world and their impact on real people.

Those that I have talked to and read about who have suffered a crisis or loss of faith almost always mention to me is that that feel cut off and even abandoned by God.  It is not simply depression that they are dealing with but despair of life itself when death or just going to sleep is preferable to living. This overwhelming despair impacts almost all of life.  It is if they never are able to leave the “God forsakenness” of Good Friday and cannot climb out of the tomb.   For some the pain is so much that suicide becomes an option and the belief that their family, friends and loved ones would be better off without them. I have seen this too many times to count.

It is hard to reach out to people in this situation.  I have to admit in my case that it was only people who chose to remain with me and walk with me through the ordeal in spite of my frequent crashes, depression, anger and even rage that helped get me through the worst of this.  However I’m sure that my condition burned some people out.  There were some that would not walk with me as I first began to go down this road and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains.  In some ways I don’t blame them.  However it is telling that the first person that asked me about my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my first therapist.

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with but is something that we need to face especially during Holy Week. The Cross necessitates this, Jesus was considered “God-Forsaken” and that is what is so perplexing about Good Friday.

Yet scripture plainly teaches that we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said  We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”  It is our willingness to be with people in their suffering that is one of the true marks of the Christian.  Being with someone in triumph is far easier than with those who suffer the absence of God.  It is presence and love not sermons that people who have lost their faith need as Bonhoeffer so eloquently said “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.”

I do pray that as we walk with Jesus this Holy Week that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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