By Carson Clark
There are a number of fundamental ways my philosophy of life and ministry seems to differ from most Christians. That includes clergy and laity alike. What I have in mind here is the widespread belief that the wise and prudent response to abuse and betrayal by members of a faith community is be more cautious and less transparent in the future. It evidences disillusionment with the Gospel.
One of my close mentors says it’s moving from naive idealism to “the unfortunate but necessary reality of guardedness.” I find that option repugnant. Perpetual guardedness as a way of being sounds like an awful lifestyle. Do that and you’ve allowed the jerks to win by callousing your heart, beating down your spirit, and instilling a hermeneutic of distrust.
The worst part? You’re still being controlled by them through your continuing response to them. That’s why I simply will not accept that option. Ever. Never ever. To my eyes that’s acquiescing to dysfunction. It’s being controlled by what has gone wrong instead of being principled about what is right; it’s living in response to past failures rather than living into what should be.
I believe this is where the importance of prophetic forthtelling comes in–casting a hopeful, alternative vision for being and doing. My personal and pastoral response, then, is even more transparency within the context of clearly established and diligently maintained boundaries. However imperfect it may be, it’s the only way I know to live into shalom rather than détente.
I will not sacrifice my openness and honesty to wolves in sheep’s clothing but neither will I allow them to keep hunting. The key is refusing to let parasites have a host organism. If someone attacks me or someone in my community and just isn’t repentant about it, (s)he is cut off. I’ll forgive him or her but I don’t allow that person to be part of my life. Brokenness is welcome. Toxicity is not.
Many pastors disagree. Many have insisted that the only healthy approach to pastoral ministry is concentric circles of trust and transparency: Don’t treat everyone the same and share your failure, heartache, fear, doubt, temptation, and the like only with a very small inner-circle. This I’m told is an unavoidable and healthy boundary for pastoral ministry. I strongly disagree, though.
My ministry has been its healthiest, most impactful, and most vibrant when I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve. I keep finding broken people who require empathy, who are desperatefor pastors who are startlingly open and painfully honest. It’s Batman vs. Superman. They can’t resonate with strong, outwardly flawless character who has all the answers and all of life together.
I’ve been considering the significance of this. Honestly, I can’t figure out if this is a generational thing, personality thing, leadership style thing, or something else. My guess is probably all of the above. Maybe it’s as simple as birds of a feather flock together. Maybe I’m just the misfit outlier who keeps meeting other misfit outliers. Or maybe there’s a lot of us, all feeling lonely.
There are a whole lot of us out there who are tired of the bait and switch tactics. We came to faith believing what the Church proclaimed: A Gospel full of truth, love, grace, reconciliation, humility, forgiveness, and community. But once we joined we found a Church with a nasty underbelly and a dearth of those characteristics. Only we refuse to be disillusioned. We still believe in that Gospel.
I as much as anyone have reason to be guarded, and to be disillusioned by the Church. If you went down the checklist of possible abuse one can suffer at the hands of Christians, my life story contains most all of it. My heart, mind, and soul reveal those scars and open wounds. But the answer is not to give up or acquiesce. The answer is to recommit to the Gospel and to overcome.
My whole life people have insisted that I’m being unrealistic and what I’m envisioning cannot be done. It’s a recurring motif. They said that about the interdisciplinary academic conference I put together as an undergrad. They said it was impossible for University Abbey to be spiritually devout, intellectually rigorous, rhetorically civil, and relationally intimate. They were wrong both times.
Those naysayers usually mean well but they’re incredibly limited by their inability to dream new dreams. In my experience, the more institutional one becomes the more he or she tends to lack the capacity to appreciate the beautiful chaos of innovation and reformation. Loyalty displaces truth on the priority list. You start talking about the unfortunate but necessary reality of guardedness.
This post, then, is a call to hope anew in the Gospel. Many Christians suck and inflict grave harm upon others, which I still find rather inexplicable in light of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But the Gospel remains full of truth, love, grace, reconciliation, humility, forgiveness, and community. So here’s my challenge: Respond to abuse and betrayal with even more raw transparency.