Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Pastoral Veneration (R.E.S.P.E.C.T.)

By that title I am not referring to veneration by the pastor, but rather veneration toward the pastor.

Veneration: showing deep respect towards a person or an object.

When I traveled to the gulf coast for Katrina relief I was very surprised to witness a degree of pastoral veneration that I found, well frankly I found it rather alarming. When the pastor spoke people listened, but more than that they tended to treat him with respect that (to me) bordered on the ridiculous. When he met with the deacon board, everyone was shushed and scooted away from the room as if the president was meeting with the cabinet--or a king with his knights. He walked around his church with a small retinue. It made me uncomfortable to hear people say, "The pastor is here"almost as if they all had to stop what they were doing to bow.

I found it amazing, and so did my husband. More than once we glanced at one another in disbelief. It bordered on idolatry, in my opinion. (A side note: he was thanked for coming to help and recognized as being a minister. I was not. Wonder why? But that is a separate issue.) I am concerned that such an attitude could lead to an atmosphere ripe for all kinds of spiritual abuse.

Sometimes this is geographic or cultural, but 'round these parts we tend to be much more casual when it comes to pastor-congregation interaction. Some people in my church call me Pastor. Some call me SingingOwl and some call me "Pastor SingingOwl." (Hmmm. I like the sound of Pastor SingingOwl. Don't you?) Sometimes the same person calls me all of the above, depending on the situation and circumstances. That is fine with me. I don't much care about titles, though I admit I worked hard for that "pastor" one so it does have a nice ring to it.
I bet no one ever took this guy lightly. Perhaps the key is to practice a steely gaze, never smile, and wear a BIG cross. I'm looking at this picture and my picture and I think I see the problem!

Point is, I tend to feel that a clergyperson is just one part of the whole. An important part to be sure, but the work of the Kingdom is teamwork. The pastor is not the only minister. He or she is given the task of equipping others for ministry. Is the pastor more holy, more blessed than others in the church? Maybe, but maybe not. Probably not. I remember my fellow ministers-to-be all too well. LOL!

However, last week after a few episodes that were not exactly polite, in fact bordered on a kind of veiled contempt, I found myself thinking of that particular Mississippi pastor with a tinge of envy. How nice to be treated with such respect. It would be good (sometimes) to enter a room and encounter an expectation that God was going to do something important because I am in the room.

Okay, I don't really mean that. But do you see where I'm trying to go? In our more casual culture have we lost something?

I recall reading the wonderful old book "The Little Minister" by Barre and being quite struck by the respect and graciousness extended to the hero of the story just because he was the new minister in town. I was a teenager when I first read the book, but even in the long-ago '60s the attitude toward my pastor was nothing like what I read in the book which was set in the 1800s.

My fellow Wisconsinite and Rev Gal member, "Cheesehead in Paradise", posted recently about how some parishioners took the opportunity to aim some painful arrows of criticism her way during (of all things) a worship service when she had requested they write some comments related to vision for their church. Vision for their future! And they found that an appropriate time to slam their pastor?!

That made me very angry, perhaps because I recalled my husband's similar experience with a group of critics in a long-ago parish. Those particular folks would have been overjoyed to see harm come to all of our family and made that clear during a meeting in the church sanctuary.

Popular culture certainly does not help. Do you often see a positive view of clergy in current books, television or movies? (Don't even get me started on that one.) In a survey I saw recently, ministers rated just above used-care salesmen on the trust and respect scale. Of course, the scandals of the 90s and the Catholic Church's handling of pedophile priests has added a lot of fuel to the fire. Sadly.

Are most clergy untrustworthy? Sometimes I wonder. I do not believe so, but I've had many conversations with people who seem to think so and will not go to church in spite of being Christians, partly because of autocratic pastors. And yes, I do know some. I also know many others who are kind and hard-working and dedicated to God and people.

I just like basic R.E.S.P.E.C.T. I want to always give it--and I want to receive it.

What do you think? Is there a balance we have lost? Is it cultural? Is there something we should change? Have we (ministers) brought this upon ourselves? Are we too casual? Too formal?
Am I overreacting?

Two follow-up comments:

1. I just read an article which says that the trend of vilifying clergy may be ending. Read about positive (fictional) clergy role models if you like.

2. To the two or three of my dear church folk who occasionally stop in here, don't worry. You are not guilty.


Anonymous said...

I think the person who left the criticism of your friend on the card intended for comments related to church vision used to live in Indiana, because the same thing happened to me once! What's worse is this person had a very distinctive handwriting, so I have no doubt about who it was. How do you minister to a person like that?

On the other end of the scale, I spent my teenage years in a predominantly African American church where I was constantly mystified at the degree of deference the pastor was given. All the subtle—or not so subtle—rituals that set him apart from everybody else got rather tedious. I went straight from that to college, where I had the first pastor in my experience who wanted everyone to call him by his first name instead of "Brother this" or "Reverend that." Talk about culture shock!

Over the past three years away from the pastorate, I've occasionally gauged my own level of deference to the pastor. I find it easier to show deep respect, having once been on the job myself. I find it is very easy to respect my pastor because it is clear that he respects all of us. He treats us like equals, so I'm happy to return the favor.

Nina Reeder said...

The BIG cross is what makes it, I'm sure. Too bad for me. Guess I'll have to work on my steely gaze.

Seriously, women pastors are never going to get respected in the SAME way as men -we live in hope that eventually the fact that we work twice as hard to be thought of half as well will catch someone's attention. In the meantime, we can rest in the fact that God must have known we were women when he called us.