Friday, April 08, 2016

A Spirited Defense of the Pastoral System

For the sake of full disclosure and complete transparency, let me state for the record my religious past. I was raised, baptized, and confirmed a United Methodist. At the age of seventeen, well into teenage rebellion, I became a heathen Unitarian Universalist. This lasted for eight years, whereupon I dramatically renounced UUism and returned again to my beginnings. Both of these faith traditions have, as part of their time-honored and long-established leadership structures, formally called, seminary-trained, full-time ministers.

At no point did I ever worry that my voice was somehow being compromised by a usurping preacher, priest, or rector who was up to no good. No one I encountered agonized about such matters, and it wasn't until I began worshiping in the company of Friends that I ever learned any reason to be especially alarmed or concerned. Many liberal unprogrammed Friends, in particular, share this uniquely paranoid, pearl-clutching religious view. I have to say I never once felt especially disenfranchised or taken lightly in my own faith journey with a single leader nominally in control.

Bored? Yes, certainly. Uninspired? Of course. Cynical? Absolutely. But it takes belief in the destructive power of organized religion to fear its ultimate malevolence. Never assign to malice, as the saying goes, what can be assigned to stupidity. Never assume stupidity when ignorance will suffice. You might say that I saw the exact opposite perspective, one that is equal parts milquetoast and mind-numbingly bureaucratic. Ministers were often underwhelming in practice, and as a member of the congregation, I knew I had a vote and a say regarding church matters. No one railroaded me or disregarded my views.

I think some of us are giving ministers of any denomination or persuasion far too much credit. Those of us who have never worshiped in what Quakers call a programmed setting, or who left programmed worship long ago may benefit from a slightly different perspective, an alternate means of contemplation.

My worries about any sole minister, male or female, young or old, ambitious or conflict-averse, were quite practical ones. I didn't like dull sermons that droned on and on with no resolution, not an end in sight. I wasn't always sure that we needed an cute eight-part series to span three solid months of Sundays or a clever concept to remind us to tithe regularly. It was basic competence that I always sought, and sad to say, not all ministers are interesting or particularly skilled in what they do. It's hard to feel threatened by someone who gives a person no compelling reason to care one way or the other.

The most recent issue of Quaker Life magazine features its usual regular column by FUM General Secretary Colin Saxton. Readers of this post may find it particularly relevant.

At the close of worship, we divided into worship-sharing groups to talk further on the practical nature of reconciliation.
As we were about to introduce ourselves, a member of the group turned to me and asked, "Are you a pastor?" I responded that I was.
Suspicion confirmed, this person looked me in the eye and shouted, "You know, you are everything that is wrong with the Religious Society of Friends, and you are ruining it for the rest of us!"
Obviously, I had underestimated my influence!

Sound familiar, Friends? How ironic that a discussion intended in a spirit of reconciliation took a sharp, swift detour towards disharmony. Someone else put it much more eloquently than my inadequate words ever could.
So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. I want to do what is good, but I don't. I don't want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.
Saxton's column ends on a positive note. Reconciliation is eventually achieved between Friends, but sharp, judgmental, unforgiving words come first. How very human. It is also very human to resort to projection when an open-minded, peaceful attitude is much better served. Instead of assuming that someone else is over-reaching, defining what Quakerism is for everyone, especially without your having any say in the matter, look deeper. Live your Testimonies in your own way. Speak to your condition, but recognize that we do have more in common with each other than we have differences.

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