It's interesting that Eugene Peterson chose this provocative title for his book, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. The sad commentary for most of us who have spent years in churches, as members, as lay leaders, and among paid staff, is that we've seen far too many pastors, leaders, and church members working the angles. They name themselves followers of Christ, but belie their profession of faith with their political and financial maneuvering. From my experiences in reconciliation ministry, churches and chaplaincy, it's obvious that most people who now don't attend church but who did attend, at some point in life, left the church because of the hypocrisy and damaging relationships that many so-called "pastors" and "Christians" have espoused openly or surreptitiously within the "church" system. As these former church members realized in their hearts, it is sheer hypocrisy to claim to serve God while chasing big donors, ignoring the poor, the elderly, and the marginalized, and chopping off at the knees those who dare to dissent with such methodologies.
For a long time, I have been convinced that I could take a person with a high school education, give him or her a six-month trade school training, and provide a pastor who would be satisfactory to any discriminating American congregation. The curriculum would consist of four courses.
Course I: Creative Plagiarism. I would put you in touch with a wide range of excellent and inspirational talks, show you how to alter them just enough to obscure their origins, and get you a reputation for wit and wisdom.
Course II: Voice Control for Prayer and Counseling. We would develop your own distinct style of Holy Joe intonation, acquiring the skill in resonance and modulation that conveys and unmistakable aura of sanctity.
Course III: Efficient Office Management. There is nothing that parishioners admire more in their pastors than the capacity to run a tight ship administratively. If we return all phone calls within twenty-four hours, answer all the letters within a week, distributing enough carbons to key people so that they know we are on top of things, and have just the right amount of clutter on our desk—not too much, or we appear inefficient, not too little or we appear underemployed—we quickly get the reputation for efficiency that is far more important than anything that we actually do.
Course IV: Image Projection. Here we would master the half-dozen well-known and easily implemented devices that that create the impression that we are terrifically busy and widely sought after for counsel by influential people in the community. A one-week refresher course each year would introduce new phrases that would convince our parishioners that we are bold innovators on the cutting edge of the megatrends and at the same time solidly rooted in all the traditional values of our sainted ancestors.
(I have been laughing for several years over this trade school training with which I plan to make my fortune. Recently, though, the joke has backfired on me. I keep seeing advertisements for institutes and workshops all over the country that invite pastors to sign up for this exact curriculum. The advertised course offerings are not quite as honestly labeled as mine, but the content appears to be identical—a curriculum that trains pastors to satisfy the current consumer tastes in religion. I'm not laughing anymore.)
I wouldn't be surprised if names pop into your mind as you read Peterson's words. Whether the names were those of pastors, leaders or church members, what turned our stomachs was the lack of integrity between their faith profession and the way they treated others, the way they conducted business and themselves, in their homes, inside the church, in the community, or in the secular workplace. A mentor and friend with whom I met this week noted that the wheat and the tares (weeds) grow up alongside one another. As Jesus told the parable, the field's owner told his servants not to gather the weeds, "…for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest…" (Matt. 13: 29-30) Peterson's quotation above is indicative of how distorted "church" becomes when the one ordained as "pastor" is one of the weeds. Atheists have asked me why the church allows so many of these (frequently) loud-mouthed, slick-talking and self-aggrandizing weeds among us, and the fact is that our answer has to be that God doesn't permit us to throw out these weeds. (NB: Institutional authorities who fail to reprove, correct, discipline and remove leaders who are demonstrably leading according to worldly methods, however, destroy the meaning of "church" – those called out to follow Christ – and become the very authorities against whom Jesus spoke in Matt. 23.) Regarding the members, however, Paul noted, "…when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine." (1 Cor. 11:18-19)
It is certain, however, that God would not commend us for endorsing leaders who feed the weeds, who chase after wealth, who demean and gossip about others, who foster divisiveness, and who fail to embody the incarnate Word s/he speaks to the community in life, action, deed, and whose Sunday morning words are contradicted by their lives. As Peterson noted, pastors are supposed to guide the community in the way of Christ, NOT in the ways of the world. "…Christians continue to take certain persons in their communities, set them apart, and say, 'We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel.'" (p. 23) However, too often institutions with the word, "Church", in their names humanly endorse other humans to lead communities according to human methods and claim their institutional endorsement certifies this person to be "ordained by God." They put an "ordained" or "certified" banner in the name of a god over worldly scheming which subordinates that god to serve their ends. The Almighty God is not there.
So, if people are burdened and burned out by the machinations in their offices and communities and walk into a building named "church", they expect a reprieve and a respite from brokenness, lies, gossip, slander, back-stabbing, self-promotion and incessant undermining, and encouragement to live differently. Instead, too often, they find those same machinations among the church staff, the church committees, and members' relationships with one another. Why, then, should we be surprised to find so many people becoming atheists and people who claim belief in God but would never set foot in another "church"? Biblically, atheism is defined by the actions of doing these very same things! Too many church leaders and members are actually atheists, in practice!
Frankly, one reason I continue in church life is because I have faithful family and friends such as those with whom I fellowshipped this week. We encourage one another to believe God, to live lives of integrity in the face of the charlatans, and to continue to work for the good of God's work here on earth – the mission of Jesus Christ to make disciples, to live in communities that are united in love just as Jesus and the Father are one. The reason we continue, ultimately, is because we have been blessed by God's grace to have the faith to be faithful and to live holy and obedient lives empowered by the Holy Spirit. Neither do we claim more than the wisdom of Jesus and try to sort wheat from tares, now. But, we hope and we pray that by our lives' testimonies others may come to know and love this God whom we serve, and to know God's love for them within the wreckage in which we live. We also pray that those who seek God with their whole hearts will be able to discern lies from truth and not follow these many false shepherds and teachers. Those who are false will be exposed on that Day, we believe, and that which they built will be burned (1 Cor. 3) or swept away (Matt. 7). May the true Lord, our Shepherd, have mercy on us, and lead us in the way everlasting through these valleys shadowed in death. May we be builders approved by God, God-ordained accordingly with lives conformed to the Word who is Jesus Christ, and certified by our love and service that endures the fires and the floods.