Integrity vs. job security
Q:What should pastors do if they no longer hold the defining beliefs of their denomination? Do clergy have a moral obligation not to challenge the sincere faith of their parishioners? If this requires them to dissemble from the pulpit, doesn't this create systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion? What would you want your pastor to do with his or her personal doubts or loss of faith?
The question about how forthcoming clergy ought to be when standing in front of their congregation (or over coffee in parishioners' homes, or in the privacy of their offices) is one which depends on an understanding of the function of clergy. Is the one who "stands before and proclaims" a mere vessel for the transmission of orthodoxy? Or is s/he expected to be self-revealing and share her/his own sense of unfolding revelation from Gd? Is the person to be a source of infallible wisdom or a "wounded healer," a beggar helping other beggars find bread? And especially, how is the person to practice integrity while also "speaking truth with love?"
In my own tradition, there are no ordained clergy, but rather ministers who share their particular abilities in facilitating others' access to the truth which already lies within them.
In that regard, sharing ones own insights, ones own struggles, discoveries, doubts, fears, and moments of revelation are part of an ongoing process of seeking together for a Truth beyond what any one person could know. In my own work as a Quaker campus minister at Guilford College, I have found that my students are best helped in their own spiritual journeys when I share mine, warts and all; when I express my own doubts, my own struggles with the "orthodoxies" in my own tradition. Above all, I have found that I must live a life of integrity, of "letting my life preach," if my students are to take me seriously. I can't proclaim one thing and behave - or believe - differently; I can't urge them to be open to continuing revelation if I am closed to it myself. College students can smell hypocrisy the way they can sniff out the next campus party!
But I know that congregational pastors are faced with a different set of circumstances. In most cases their livelihood depends on "pleasing" their congregation (a major flaw, I feel, in the "hireling" ministry!), and flying in the face of orthodox religious, social, or political belief is a recipe for unemployment. Recent history is replete with examples of clergy who have been forthcoming from the pulpit about their own doubts or new understandings of truth - and gone on to see membership, contributions, and job security evaporate.
One answer is to cultivate the nimbleness of "speaking truth with love," of finding a way to couch personal doubts in the form of loving promptings to the congregation to "consider it possible thou might be mistaken," in the words of the old Quaker query. Or, less forthrightly, if the person is the product of a fine seminary or divinity school, s/he can practice the fine art of obfuscation - of using terms that mask ones own real belief and meaning. Graduate schools of religion are brilliant at it - but it doesn't necessarily pass the "smell test" of integrity.
If one has already "drunk the Kool-Aid" of depending for ones livelihood on the whims of a congregation, then one has to face the reality that religious bodies are typically inherently conservative. The decision can be made to "say what they want to hear," find a way to couch doubts in creative ways, or keep ones bags packed for the inevitable invitation to find a home in a more liberal setting!
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