Chapter 9. The Loyal Rebel
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted of God. Romans 13:01
If you believe, as some do, that the episcopacy is of the esse or bene esse of the church, then read no further. What follows are the observations of a pastor with a somewhat jaundiced view of "higher office" in the ecclesiastical establishment, certified as that experience has been by fifty years of watching and trying to be loyal to a denomination replete with bishops.
The effective pastor will not seek a higher office, even if there were one, and there isn't. Cultivating career advancement is particularly deadly for the parish minister, not only because it encourages him to look beyond his daily and eternal duties in a local setting, but because he cannot help but leave that impression, that he is headed for bigger things, with those for whom and with whom he is providing pastoral leadership.
Yes, I am acquainted with clergy burn-out, akin to schoolteachers who tire of the repetition required putting young minds through their paces year after year with multiplication tables and the like. I confess there were many Thursday afternoons in the past when, during three hours of lessons, confirmands would come and go in my office with varying degrees of preparation in their study of the Sermon on the Mount. By six o'clock I could barely keep my eyes open, what with the heat in the office above the furnace and the impenetrability of thirteen year old minds. Weekly sermon labors can also become oppressive. Visiting senile shut-ins is a real "downer." Fighting the same battles over and over with a recalcitrant Church Council doesn't help much either. So, of course, there will come a hankering now and then on the part of the pastor to move on to something else.
In such moments of temptation, I rallied my pastoral heart with the declaration of a beloved friend, Dorothy DeBeauchamp, who, hearing me say a discouraging word about my profession, replied, "Oh, pastor, there is no better job in the whole world than being a minister of the Gospel!" "Dorothy" means "gift of God," and she was and continues to be to me.
Then what is the effective pastor to make of church authorities, those to whom he must report, those who have quite a bit to say about where and to whom he will be assigned as an ordained minister? Civility always. Arms-length in every exchange. Pay your taxes (otherwise known in my denomination as "apportionments"). Bishops and presidents and elders, and whatever the ecclesiastical title for authority beyond the local church, have their Godly necessity. The human spirit and the communities it creates have, among several tendencies, some good, some not so good, an inclination to disorder. Policemen, soldiers, and bishops are God's answer to the anarchistic spirit.
This somewhat sour estimate of ecclesiastical authority may not match the high regard of elders in the New Testament's Pastoral Letters. But, then, I've rarely heard them quoted or preached on except by someone who is already a bishop, if trying to understand his own role, then also making it clear to those in his care that we owed him respect. There are, to be sure, many rank and file pastors who wholeheartedly honor bishops et al as unqualified blessings. More than once at a gathering of clergy I've listened with incredulity to a pastor encouraging the bishop to act more authoritatively. Of course, the encouraging was on behalf of a policy the pastor couldn't get his congregation to agree to.
In an ideal world, ecclesiastical authority would be wise and judicious and faithful and kind. Then, too, in an ideal world every President of the United States would be wise and judicious and faithful and kind. But the world we inhabit, including the "we" in the church, is far from ideal. I count in my years in the pastorate one bishop who was wise and judicious; another who was faithful and kind; one who was just judicious; one who was only wise; one who was devoutly and only faithful; and three who weren't very much of any of the above.
The reasons why those in high places in the ecclesiastical structures very rarely match the saintly expectations just listed are several. First of all, saints are few and far between. Even they may have trouble passing muster. The first pope, Peter by name, wasn't very faithful before Calvary, and not very wise after Pentecost. But, secondly, the processes by which clergy get to be top dogs is, of necessity, political. In the church, like everywhere else, God's will is made known through other human beings, whether the process is elective or selective. The person who gets chosen to run things will be someone who pleases not only God but the people who do the choosing, with all of their pet peeves, political leanings, and personal loyalties. And, thirdly, once in the position of prominence, the tendency for the prominent is to believe he deserves it.
The consequence is that church authority is no better than the rest of us, but, due to the ritual attending the office and the sycophancy attracted to it, the leader is insufficiently aware of his own shortcomings. Yes, there are exceptions; but, in my experience in my denomination, I can name only one.
The world being what it is, the church being what it is, and bishops being what they are, I therefore offer the following rules for relationships with ecclesiastical authorities to anyone who would be an effective pastor:
1. Do not confide in the boss, be he or she the bishop or his lieutenants. Christians are supposed to bear one another's burdens, but what the Good Book doesn't explain is that one must be judicious in choosing what Christians on which to unburden. Everyone understands the foolishness of telling the boss of the company for which you work that you have trouble with booze and have been unfaithful to your spouse. Such confidences down the line can be cited as additional reasons for demotions or firing. But in the church, where compassion has been elevated to the primary virtue, the temptation to take the boss, the preeminent compassionate Christian, into your confidence is nearly overwhelming. Just don't do it. Your weakness will be used against you somewhere down the line, never bluntly, but ever so subtly, usually in the name of doing what's best for The Church.
Instead of telling all to the church authorities, find a friend, maybe another clergyperson, or, better, some wise, judicious, faithful, and kind member of the congregation. Or pay for a good psychotherapist.
2. When ambiguous and potentially divisive issues arise in the local congregation, do not ask for advice from above, especially if you suspect it isn't what you want to hear. This rule I borrow from a friend and fellow warrior in local church battles, a Catholic priest who has had a distinguished and very effective pastorate in a large parish not far from Diocesan headquarters. By sidestepping intervention from beyond the church, this rule has the additional advantage of sparing the larger church hard and unpopular decisions. Occasionally, there is no other recourse but to call for uber-church help. The one time I made such a request, I received no response. I assume the issue, adjudicating a dispute between ordained clergy, was too hot for the bishop to handle.
3. Do whatever the church authorities ask you to do within the limits of the church polity. Host interchurch conferences. Make extraordinary contributions for causes the larger church promotes, even when you think the project less than worthy. Do all of the necessary paperwork required for reporting to the Diocese or Conference or Presbytery, etc. Serve on boards and agencies beyond the local church. Contribute to occasional purses for administrative personnel. Attend meetings where attendance is strongly "encouraged." (On this matter, I admit I was the chiefest of sinners.) In other words humor those in authority with compliance to their view of connectional responsibility.
4. Learn thoroughly the written and unwritten laws of your church's governing polity. Count on it, the time will come when a denominational functionary will cite your disciplinary infractions. I was "called on the carpet" by an auxiliary bishop for agreeing to preside at the funeral of a member of a church I had previously served as pastor; and that's against connectional ethics. In the next breath the same fellow, knowing of our church's endowment, asked for a contribution for a new Conference project. He certainly wouldn't have appreciated, if he had perceived it, my own sense of his incredible chutzpah.
5. Wait until you retire before you write something like this.
I have been in the denomination I'm in for fifty-nine years. There are those reading these opinions who may well ask, "Why?" Seeing that I am so disaffected with its institutional hierarchy. My disaffection, I suspect from my knowledge of and travels in other church communities, would surface were I to have been nurtured as a Christian anywhere else. All of the animals of the denominational zoo on the ark of faith have their problems. Congregationally-based denominations are more susceptible to internal parish strife. Structured churches with long traditions have a tendency to suffer from excessive tenures by tired clergy. Connectional churches encourage conformity, not the kind of exceptional talent that grows church membership. So it goes. We all have our strengths and weaknesses.
At the retirement recognition service at our Annual Conference, the one I refused to attend, we were asked to prepare a few well-chosen words. What I would have said, had I been willing to suffer a moment I rejected, goes like this: "I want to thank the United Methodist Church and the New York Annual Conference for being good to me for forty-nine years. On the other hand, in my humble opinion, I have been good for the United Methodist Church and the New York Annual Conference. Take it from Bob Howard, a loyal rebel."
P. S. For my view of what a bishop (and others, including cardinals and popes) ought to do and be, go to Essays on this website and read the one at the bottom of the list, "What I Would Do If I Were a Bishop."