The Ecclesiastical Gatekeeper’s Club

An Oft Untold Story

 There’s an untold story in Christendom that doesn’t get much light at the end of the pastoral ministry tunnel.  And it’s a sad one, I think.  Though it doesn’t necessarily start out that way.  For it is the tale of those who recognize the call of God upon their lives and set out as very “gung-ho” vessels eager to contribute to the fight for the souls of men and women.  They are comprised of individuals either privileged to garner support for the preparation they will need for enlistment; those who weather massive school loan debt because of the call that seems like a constant fire shut up in their bones; as well as potential leaders without the academic pedigree, but who have that something special about them that everyone knows just by being in their presence.  And with all three of these shiny new toys in the body of Christ, there is a confirmation from the particular ecclesiastical cloth of which they were hatched that seem to initially both recognize, endorse and even send them off with their spiritual guns ablaze.  But it is here that the story gets somewhat murky along the way I’m afraid.

Failure to Launch

For instance, the now emboldened man or woman of God all of a sudden begins to voice their own thoughts on the spiritual matters at hand.  They are somehow seeking to join the “top brass” in the discussion of all matters that effect the church and to find their place in its noble mission.  And so they begin to “in love” voice their litany of Socratic questioning trying to find answers they assume all are wrestling with.  They are those who simply want to contribute to the collective church conversation and be a part of its universality both as those who are accountable and as those who serve; somehow endeavoring to become co-equal in the journey of faith and and its propagation, so help them God.  Equal at least in the sense that theirs is a voice to be heard; while at the same time understanding their ears need equal attention to others older and more tenured who have journeyed much farther on the most difficult path.  And yet it is at about this particular time that the story often takes a different turn I’m afraid. For many will often be accused of being a novice irrespective of their time in the collective fold, but never quite “ready for primetime” to the one in which they now find themselves as the “odd man out”.  Or better yet, because of their own giftedness, they are cast off as mere rebels and perhaps even uncommitted and bastardized sons.  And yet all the while, there remains hidden the perceived threat among the ecclesiastical gatekeeper’s club.  A hazard to their very own status quo and fiefdom that up until now has kept them somewhat fat, sassy and gainfully employed.  And once the threat finds equally strong voices in unison, these potential powerful soldiers coming alongside the church of Jesus Christ are now cast off; or they simply throw in the towel, give up the fight and say, “I quit”!  And they have found out the hard way that there is not much room for even gracious mavericks in the Kingdom of God (men).

 We Shouldn’t Have Been Surprised

But you know I guess you and I shouldn’t have been surprised really.  Somehow, we think that as the church, we are so much more enlightened than those stubborn Israelites groveling around in the wilderness, or those gosh darn Pharisees and Sadducees missing Jesus by a country mile!  Those of whom never lifted their pointed finger to ease the burden of those seeking to find rest for their souls from the ecclesial intelligentsia who were to lead the way.  And yet oftentimes we scurry off, not extracting lessons from these leaders of what would have been “the church” of Jesus day.  We forget that power timelessly has the wherewithal both to corrupt and to cause narcissistic and even entitled tendencies the masses don’t recognize until the pastor and the choir director have checked into the Hilton for choir practice!  Or when young male and female acolytes are given “extra” duties not listed in the church bulletin!  But perhaps even more subtle and somewhat dicey, are those who continue to bypass the next line of leaders because they think the show couldn’t possibly go on without them.  The result being mass produced imagery of themselves on satellite screens from here to Timbuktu!  For indeed the praise of men is an aphrodisiac gift that seems to keep on giving yet evenly extracting more from them, as well as from the congregants who can’t ever seem to get enough.

While Waiting for the Church World to Change

But back to our oft untold story.  A story whose unfolding chapters continue in tragedy in some, and spiritual retreat in exiled anonymity for others.  Yet the latter are men and women of God who hold on to the hope that while yieldedly resting under the microscope of God on the sidelines, they are still feebly holding on to what was once entrusted.  Somehow quietly refusing to please the ever-visible men, but instead preferring the hopeful validation of their invisible God.  They are those who shun empty flattery or the potential of “ill-gotten gain”, resigned to wait in anticipative uncertainty for a renewed call that has long lay dormant while they watch, wait and listen.  And yet sometimes, like Rip Van Winkle, they wake up 20 years later and something has changed.

The Emergent Anomaly of Humble, Apostolic Leaders

You know a lot of people tend to the throw the apostle word around a lot these days.  Some have scary tones to them, lacking the “small a” in its spelling while also adding “more of the same” to the ground we’ve already covered.  And yet others emerge gifted; yet also broken, humble, and equally holy; ready and able to empower others to exponential multiplication of themselves (2 Tim. 2:2).  They are about the business of the church period.  They are ecumenical and cooperative.  They look for strategic engagement with the world rather than retreat from it.   They look for movements that are as deep as they are wide, while shunning attractional models which only create “mega” spectator sports.  And they are those who care less about a title attributed to them and more about the fruit that comes from their gracious tutelage.   And instead what we find, are men and women who open gates rather than close them, constantly keeping their watchful eye out for the placement of gifted yet broken leaders at their newly appointed battle stations.  And though I’ve often wondered just how I missed these “Johnny come lately” leaders’ existence by virtue of the circles I ran with once upon a time.  Yet in retrospect, I’m glad at least to have finally encountered one who seems to be opening wide the door again.  And so I guess there is at least a modicum of truth here to be learned.  For it seems that time does indeed heal all wounds.  Even the faithful wounds of gatekeepers.

Selah

Loving the Sound of Our Own Voice

The word narcissism is thrown around a lot these days; and for good damn reason.  In fact, our culture breeds those who exemplify it now like seahorses, yet they all seem to live far too long!  This dilemma is in fact something that anyone, even without a spiritual bone in their body, can easily spot a mile or so away.  And even if they don’t get out much, I’m sure Facebook or Instagram would be a case in point as to their predominance.  Yet, for those of us who add a daily mirror check through the reflection of that outdated book we always hear about, then we should actually be meeting the narcissist in ourselves most regularly–if we allow God’s laser pointer to zero in on that particular bullet point of our lives.  It is no less the case I’m afraid for many who peddle the word of God on any given Sunday in our pulpits across America.  And as much as we’d like to think we are exempt from the analysis; I beg to differ.

A Month of Sunday’s Ago

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 20 years ago now that I served as one of those clerics myself in a local church.  And preaching was of course important.  And it is my humble opinion that it is indeed very vital in the life of the church.  And as much as I used to think that anybody with a “call” could get up and say “thus saith the Lord”, I’ve come to believe that those that do it should have what Stuart Briscoe once suggested, “the heart of a child, the mind of a scholar and the hide of a rhinoceros”!  It is sufficient of course to also add that the preacher’s task is pivotal to aid in guiding the hearts and minds of people towards reshaping the world they are far too often conformed to, and to act as spiritual chisels in the lifetime task of transforming their thinking towards the mind of Christ instead.  This of course is no easy assignment, and the fainthearted and the unqualified need not apply.

Now I for one, though I have preached a good bit in the past, I have for sure sat in on more sermons than most.  And as a result, I would like to think I’m a pretty good guide as to its consequent blunders that cause many people like myself to prefer a root canal instead.  Besides noting the obvious fact that people who cannot take a 2000-year-old book and bring its relevant reality into the life of the average person, which causes them to seriously wrestle with its truth claims should never be allowed to do it, there are other more even weightier issues I’m afraid.  For instance, sometimes methinks, in light of the importance of what we’ve been called to do, perhaps we like the sound of our own voice a bit too much.

Who You Calling a Narcissist?

I think part of the reason we fall prey to this tendency is because though our task is indeed a difficult one for a variety of reasons, it is also equally a vastly rewarding one.  I came to this realization first hand after I finally threw in the towel on the “full-time” ministry (whatever the Hell that’s supposed to mean) and entered back into the world of well…you and me.

First of all, I had the privilege of spending 10 to 20 hours each week immersed in the scriptures and mounds of theology books, which is synonymous to giving a new tool to Tim the Tool man. I loved it! And most pastors with a call towards this task should, or else get out quickly while there is still time for all of us to escape the sermonette.

Secondly, if I was of course doing what Pastors should be doing (no differences of opinion here), I was able to spend the rest of my time praying; doing the work of an evangelist in the public square; trying to help the poor (like pulling eyeteeth!); visiting Aunt Ethel and Grandma Louise, and of course burying Uncle Joe.  Those of course were all things that I actually loved to do by virtue of the call, and in fact the only thing about my job I disliked was getting folks hitched. That’s’ a story for another time.

But imagine if you will, being a Jesus freak, and getting to go to work every day and do Jesus freak stuff. It was the greatest reason in the world to get out of bed.  And yet what I realized once I entered back into the workforce of the average Dick and Jane, was that I had a somewhat protected life.  But let me explain.

Amazing What?

You see what I had so easily forgotten, is that while I was busy week after week trying to get those “unspiritual” people to be committed, and to give Jesus their all, I found out that they were often simply too busy getting laid off from their jobs; losing their homes; having their teenagers commit suicide; and praying to God that their spouse might make love to them again.  You know, the small stuff.

In essence, sometimes, though I would have told you I was giving them a steak every Sunday with the words I had prepared, I was also equally guilty of beating the dogshit out of them at times, totally unawares.  And in that sense, I too was guilty of loving the sound of my own voice given the task I had been commissioned with, more than bleeding with the people who were simply looking for Jesus in some possible shoe leather.  Not some condescending tower of theological certainty and ex cathedra pronouncements upon their life, but an ear to listen to, a shoulder to cry on, and a grace that used to be called amazing.  And in that sense at least, I missed it for a while, much to my great disappointment.

A Solo Pulpit’s Silent Ego

But I think likewise, loving the sound of our own voice manifests itself in another very subtle way that we often miss.

For instance, when Pastors preach every Sunday and yet never equip others to do likewise, people are not able to witness something more akin to something the scriptures actually beckon us to do. As a result, we bypass the exemplification of humility to congregational narcissists who might not yet know what it looks like, by showing firsthand that we’re actually not actually the cat’s meow at all.

Instead, oftentimes we get either the same preacher week after week (who is quite frankly not that good) or we get the golden tongued orator we can’t get enough of, yet the church is built around his persona and magnetism, and thus people tend to worship his reflection right along with him.  And as a result of this gross error in judgement, as pastors exit to “bigger and better deals”, churches fold in the aftermath, having built the church house around a bigger narcissist than ourselves.  And it would seem that even though Paul reminded the Corinthian church (a church sadly reminiscent of today’s) that neither he, nor Peter, no Apollos died for them; they constantly gathered for the smooth operator sermonizers, who could have been banging the church pianist after choir practice, but somehow the fact that they could “preach the word” was the glue that held the whole house of cards together.

And as a result of this pastor worship, everyone now goes to the biggest and best show in town to hear the guy with the tightest skinny jeans and the best three-point sermon. All the while people shuffle out and shake their hands as they exit unchanged; and yet it seems in America we love to have it so.

Hello, My name is Mark Prince, and I’m a Narcissist

So, I guess you could say I’m a recovering narcissist, simply calling shots now from the sidelines as I see them.  And though I still revere the task of the preacher and even the foolishness of its message to the Greeks and the stumbling block it still is to the Jews, I sometimes wonder if us preacher types have stopped to realize that we may not be that big of a deal after all. And maybe, just perhaps; our own reflection has blinded us to the fact that what people are most in need of is one who simply looks a little more like Christ.

Yep.  That oughta do it I think.

Selah