Currently I’m reading Pulitzer Prize-winner Stacy Schiff’s history of the Salem witchcraft trials, The Witches.
I’m only about 50 pages in, but already something has jumped out at me.
No, not a hobgoblin. Instead, I’m having one of those “the-more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same” moments.
Early on, Schiff examines the abysmal dysfunction of the church in Salem village and of other Puritan churches nearby. This internal church bickering contributed to the tragic outbreak of witch hysteria in 1692, she suggests.
Reading The Witches, what occurs to me is that if you change a few details, Schiff’s descriptions of congregational battles could easily describe many contemporary churches in Kentucky or elsewhere.
Ministers and parishioners no longer feud over how much firewood the pastor should receive annually, a life-and-death matter in Massachusetts’ colonial days.
But Puritans, like contemporary churchgoers, criticized their ministers’ speaking abilities and fat salaries. They recoiled at contributing to building renovations and at supporting the local poor and homeless.
They divided into factions, sometimes along family lines, and made life rough for any pastor supported by an opposing faction. They nit-picked one another’s theology. They gossiped like mad.
The pastors appear to have been equally clay-footed. Some were martinets. Some meddled in parishioners’ private lives. Some were self-pitying and ineffectual.
The atmosphere seems to have been perfectly toxic, a witch’s brew, pardon the pun.
Many congregations of all stripes today are similarly toxic. We don’t hang supposed witches now, but we do fight, bicker and assassinate our fellow Christians’ reputations.
If you happen to belong to a troubled congregation, I’d like to suggest some basic guidelines that could prevent or solve most problems.
Granted, my feet are as clay-bound as those of any old-time Puritan minister.
Still, I’ve weathered about every variety of church rancor. And I’ve survived 35 years in the pulpit without (so far) being run off or frozen to death from lack of firewood. I’ve also observed and listened to the woes of preachers and lay people from other churches.
Anyway, here goes.
▪ Never forget ministers are human. The pastor is neither a sculpted saint set in an alcove nor a demon. He’s just a person, with all the virtues, flaws and needs that implies. Thus, treat the preacher with respect, but don’t turn her into an idol.
▪ Realize that because the minister is human (see above), she has a real family that may not conform to your ideals. She needs sleep. He can’t be in two places at once. He has feelings that can be hurt. She has bad Sundays when the sermon doesn’t click. He might be lousy at fund-raising. You must show forbearance and mercy, as you’d like to be shown forbearance and mercy when you have a bad day — or year.
▪ Remember that while the church is not of this world, it does operate in this world. It doesn’t run on magic. It runs on cash and elbow-grease, just like other organizations. Its salaries and light bills must be paid, its gutters have to be mended and its parking lots need repaving. Give your money and time. That’s your God-given duty.
▪ Check your ego at the door. Believe it or not, church isn’t all about you and your kids. You’re there to serve just as much, or more, than to be served. Try to get along with the other parishioners. Be humble, merciful and meek rather than narcissistic. Cooperating with others is the best gift you can give your weary pastor.
▪ Pray. Pray for the preacher. Pray for your irritating brothers and sisters in the Lord. Pray for yourself, because you’re probably irritating as well.
▪ Never delude yourself into thinking you’re God’s indispensable right-hand man or that you have all the answers. No one is indispensable and no one has all the answers. Be humble up front, and perhaps you won’t need humbling later.
▪ Remind your congregation that you’re mortal. When you do something forgetful or incompetent or even sinful, admit it freely, just so your humanity will always be directly in front of everyone’s eyes.
▪ Listen to your parishioners. They know things you don’t. God speaks through them, too — even through the squirrelly ones. Especially the squirrelly ones.
▪ Yes, listen to your parishioners, but don’t be a slave to their opinions. Your first job is to listen to the Lord. Obey him first. (Make doubly sure it’s the Lord talking and not just your crazy ego.)
▪ Consider the criticisms you receive, but don’t internalize them. Don’t believe all the praise you get, either. The truth about you probably lies somewhere in-between. Besides, as said, your real job isn’t to please people, it’s to follow the Lord. If you’ve done your best to do that, you’ve succeeded; if not, you’ve failed. Period.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.