Thursday, December 18, 2008

Public-Private Pastors Part 2

In my previous post I discussed the dichotomy of the pastor as a public figure, and a private one. I brought it up because it raises questions of integrity for me. How can I be one person in public and another in private without being a liar and a hypocrite? How do we negotiate this dilemma?

To explain... I believe it is a dilemma because it appears to me that there is a strong necessity for the pastor to maintain privacy not for their own protection, but to protect the parishioner in a relationship that has bizarre power dynamics embedded in it. The public function of a pastor, in other words, is supported by a certain amount of privacy.

Obviously the boundary lines here are fuzzy and movable. They change depending on the congregation, the pastor, the situation and the personalities involved. I am not advocating any specific solution for all times and places.

The example I gave last time was a direct question from a parishioner about the politics of the pastor. To such a direct question it is probably best to respond directly - either by refusing to answer or being honest. Many situations aren't that direct though. It is more likely that the pastor will be dragged into a conversation about politics sideways, and in those situations it is easier and more appropriate to give sideways answers.

Some reasons for doing this:
  • if there is productive conversation going on between members of your congregation. Once the pastor weighs in it can shut conversation down.
  • if there is strong disagreement and you agree strongly with one side or the other. If you take sides than you will alienate people and deepen divisions in the church.
  • if the issue is likely to be a distraction from more important matters.
But this is not just about politics. Not even primarily. Another example:

A pastor accepts a call in a church that was built in the 60's. The sanctuary has abstract stained glass windows in garish colors from that period. A sizable contingent in the congregation passionately desires to get the windows replaced. An equally sizable contingent loves the windows and is adamant about keeping them. The new pastor privately dislikes the windows and people from both sides come to her asking her opinion to buoy their side of the argument.

If the pastor here is honest about her opinion she will upset a significant portion of the congregation. We all know that you can't please everyone, but wouldn't it be wise in this instance for the pastor to keep her opinion to herself and to try to mediate a resolution between the warring factions in her church?

What I'm getting at is that there are times, more frequent than one might expect, when the pastor ought to set themselves aside in deference to their role in the church. They ought, in other words, to keep their thoughts and feelings private, in order to be effective in their public role.

Can you think of examples where the opposite is true? Where it is important that the pastor expose themselves for their ministry?


Alan said...

I'm no pastor, but in these matters it may often be useful to remind yourself (and others) that you are not a member of the church, and simply its employee. Your job, as stated by the Book of Order, is basically to preach and pick out the hymns for Sunday morning. OK, maybe a bit of an oversimplification, but really, we Presbyterians have been very smart about separating the Pastor in important ways from the congregation.

Decisions about stained glass windows should be handled by the professionals. If you have a male organist, I'd suggest asking him. Heh.

"Where it is important that the pastor expose themselves for their ministry?"


Nick.Larson said...

LOL. This is definitely a harder question for me than politics. Although if you think about it, this is politics (just not with the ballet boxes and official positions).

I would say the role I would play in this situation is to be mediator. Now if I really disliked the window then I might take a more active role. But to me without having a clear action point in this discussion there seems to be no direct motivation to take a side. Did it come up in a session/congregational meeting? Did we receive a large donation to upgrade part of the sanctuary?

I would help in this conversation by digging into the reasons behind loving and hating the window. Why does a particular part of the congregation love it so much? What is the story behind it that makes it so important to them? What about the others, is it just not their personal taste or do they think it hurts the mission of the church? The "why" to this is a very important role to bring out. I think that's the "role" in this I would take...

John Shuck said...

Yes, I agree with Alan. Many decisions are best left to the session and the minister moderates the discussion. That is easier said than done especially when ministers (and I include myself in this) want to solve problems. But for the most part, allowing the session or whatever decision making board is in charge to wrestle with the dynamics gives the problem to them rather than making it the minister's problem.

I vote no on exposing myself. : )

Craig said...


First, let me say, welcome to ministry. This kind of stuff happens all the time.

Been through a similar situation with chapel pews (to remove or not to remove)

Specifically you have 2 options in this situation.

1. You can allow the session (or building com.) to make the decision about the windows. It might be helpful to solicit input from the congregation. Then, allow the elected governing body of the local church to govern. This has the benefit of allowing people who are not "the new pastor" to make the call.

2. You can lead. Make your course known and advocate for it. It's a little more risky and probably at the fringes of the role of a pastor as per the BOO, but sometimes you've got to go for it.

Good luck, hope you get rid of the windows.

Chip Michael said...

Some opinions matter and others do not. What color the church window is is really unimportant in the scheme of things and so voicing an opinion is counter productive to the role the pastor is to play. However, other questions, such as abortion and the existence of hell are questions that need discussed and questions where people need guidance.

It's difficult when someone asks a question to not just respond with an answer, but some answers aren't the role of a pastor an therefore aren't needed.