Clergy Cowardice

Back when I was a seminarian, I was incredibly excited to learn all of the things that I did not learn while in church. I learned about the history of the Bible, how it came to be organized and what problems and challenges (and even mistakes) there were in interpretation and translation. I learned about Christian history—the good, the bad, and the oh-so ugly events that formed the religion over the millennia. I was exhilarated by this information and swore that if I were ever privileged enough to lead a congregation, I would certainly share my knowledge with them.

In my excitement, during one class I asked a group of nearly newly minted Methodist pastors (I attended a Methodist seminary, so the majority of my classmates were headed for Methodist pulpits), if they would be sharing this new knowledge with their future flocks. The gasp in the room was audible. No, they averred, they would never share this kind of information with their parishioners. This information was far too volatile, far too controversial. Church members, they said, were not ready for such information like exegesis that made the Bible inclusive for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people or church history that showed the effectiveness of the church in dealing with human suffering like poverty, war, and political liberation. No, no, they said—this stuff is off limits.

It puzzled me greatly, because each of these potential ministers were very liberal in their thinking—very supportive of full inclusion of LGBT people in church and society, pro-choice in matters of abortion, pro-social programs and more than likely, Democratic voters, if not formal members of the Democratic Party. In short, these ministers were going to toe the line—no matter what their personal political or social leanings, they would not stray from the message their denomination has taught for centuries—infallibility in Scripture, Virgin Birth, physical resurrection, etc. Even if they didn’t personally believe any of it (and many of them didn’t), they understood the job description of their denomination and were planning on following along. They were more interested in keeping their jobs safe than moving their congregations, and ultimately their denominations, toward being a positive force for social justice in the world. I found this cowardice repeated in 2006 when mainline Protestant clergy in South Carolina privately opposed an amendment to our state Constitution that banned marriage equality for LGBT citizens, but refused speak out publicly (or in their pulpits) against the measure.

Recent surveys have shown, however, that there is a big disconnect between the pew and the pulpit. Take the question of marriage equality for LGBT people as an example. As I noted in a recent article, a survey commissioned by GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation, showed majority support in mainline (as well as evangelical) congregations for some sort of protection:

Among mainline Christians, 42 percent support domestic partnerships or civil unions, while 40 percent support marriage. Catholics were not far behind, with 42 percent favoring separate but equal domestic partnerships or civil unions, and 36 percent favoring full marriage rights. Among evangelical Christians, 37 percent support domestic partnerships or civil unions, while just 23 percent supported marriage. Overall, that means 59 percent of evangelical Christians actually support some sort of legal protection for gay and lesbian relationships.

The clergy leading these flocks don’t score that much differently in their support for LGBT Americans. A new survey of mainline Protestant clergy by Public Religion Research shows that “nearly 8-in-10 (79%) agree that ‘homosexuals should have all the same rights and privileges as other American citizens.’ […] Nearly two thirds (65%) support either same-sex marriage (33%) or civil unions (32%).” Given the comparison of those two polls, it would seem that those in the pews are far more progressive than their clergy counterparts with 82 percent of mainline Christians supporting either marriage or civil unions for gays and lesbians.

The timidity of the clergy is underscored in further observation of the numbers. Fifty-six percent of the mainline clergy polled said they’d like to become more personally involved with social and political issues. When it comes down to acting on those desires, however, the clergy lose their nerve, especially on more public forms of becoming “personally involved.”  

Eighty-six percent say they “seldom or never” write letters to the editor about issues. Seventy-eight percent say they “seldom or never” take a stand from the pulpit on a political issue and another 72 percent say they’ve never even organized a study or action group in church related to a public issue. Eighty-nine percent say they’ve never taken part in a protest march. It’s revealing to see which clergy have participated in protests: 54 percent of clergy over the age of 60. Only 35 percent of clergy under 40 have marched to protest some social ill they’d like to correct. This, I believe, shows that the older clergy—who have fewer worries about losing their jobs—are far more likely to act on their true convictions that those just starting out or in the middle of their church career.

Where are the clergy participating? Within the structures that continue to cow them into not speaking out on these issues—their denominations. Seventy-two percent are involved in local clergy councils with 70 percent participating “in denominational committees or organizations.”

The unwillingness and timidity of the clergy over social justice issues (be they LGBT, abortion, the environment or social safety nets for the poor) is striking in this survey. What may be most striking, however is that the clergy really do understand the source of the disconnect. More than 47 percent say that many mainline churches are declining in membership “because they have lost the courage to take prophetic stands for social justice.”

My seminary colleagues argued that those in the pews were not ready to hear the truth about Christianity or join in the push for social justice and reform. The truth, however, is that their denominational structures are not yet ready to make the changes needed to empower their clergy to speak boldly and take “prophetic stands for social justice.” These surveys should serve as a wake-up call to denominations—especially those consistently losing numbers as the years pass. Those in the pews want you to lift up your voices, provide streams in the desert and let justice roll down like waters. God is doing a new thing in the mainline church—will they perceive it?    

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