Recently when talking with a friend of mine, who is a vicar in the Church in Wales, he and I discussed the question: “Is it possible to construct a workable philosophy of ministry for a pastor, priest or vicar who has deconstructed his or her faith, yet is still involved in church ministry?”
Several years ago, I was the pastor of a community church just outside of Portland, Oregon, and found myself in exactly this position. After reading a series of books by progressive Christian authors, privately I started to question various aspects of my conservative evangelical views. The further I went down this line, I began to notice that many of my older presuppositions and biases about both the Bible and theology were starting to slough off. They were no longer as critically important as I once believed them to be. Looking back on it now, I can see that this was the start of my journey of the deconstruction of my theological worldview.
Because of these startling new revelations and insights, as a pastor I began to wrestle with this very question raised earlier: was it safe to share aspects of my own journey with my congregation? Could I be open and honest about the changes I was experiencing, and how they were beginning to transform my own life and spirituality? Upon reflection, I couldn’t be entirely certain that it was safe to say anything and still keep my job.
(As a side note, by the way, I’ve since left the evangelical church far behind; but I still have a heart for those many well-meaning men and women who are involved in church ministry, which in many cases is a thankless, difficult and exhausting vocation. I especially feel for the deconstructing minister who questions aspects of his or her belief system. And finally, while currently I have a multitude of problems and issues with evangelicalism as a whole, this topic resonates with me).
The fact is, deconstruction looks different for everyone; and not every person who goes through it will end up leaving the church or Christianity itself, for that matter. I’m not here to talk anyone out of their Christian faith, by any means; but it is definitely worthwhile to examine our presuppositions and biases from time to time.
So, to return to the question: what should that deconstructing church leader do?
An Untenable Position?
This is obviously a fairly difficult — and often unenviable — situation for anyone still involved in church ministry or leadership in which to find themselves. What happens if that leader embarks on a path of deconstruction, yet still believes in the institution of the church, or the Bible, on some level?
While they might be questioning certain aspects of their faith, they may not be ready, willing or able to jettison Christianity altogether at this point. There’s a lot of risk involved, too. Depending upon the situation, if a church leader admits to her congregation that she may no longer believe in certain aspects of what is considered “orthodox” Christian theology — or is at the very least open to questioning them — she may well find herself quickly unemployed.
But isn’t the job of anyone involved in church ministry to be real and vulnerable, open and honest, with their congregations? How can that leader expect anyone in the church to be honest about themselves, if he or she isn’t willing to be authentically themselves? The truth is, however, although church members make the claim that they’d prefer a leader who is truly “open and vulnerable” with them, when that leader takes the risk and admits his or her faults publicly, oftentimes these moments of vulnerability end up being used against them later. It happened to me several times when I was a pastor, for example.
Therefore, it would seem, the safest route is for that leader to stuff their cognitive dissonance, say nothing about their deconstruction, and continue to “play the game.” This, however, is surely a very unhealthy place in which to live, at least from a mental health point of view; and it fundamentally lacks integrity.
The sobering reality is that the stakes are incredibly high; one’s very career, and possibly financial future, are at risk. However, the deconstructing leader will inevitably start to struggle with such question and issues, such as: do I keep on faking it? Even though I don’t believe it myself, should I just tell these people what they want to hear, and continue to try and meet their expectations — however unrealistic they may be? Or do I begin to share my own journey of deconstruction with them, in the hopes that they might come along with me on a path of discovery? And where exactly might that path lead us all?
The Purpose of Church
As a more general observation of the situation, one would have to ask some searching questions, such as: “What exactly is the purpose of church? Why do people attend, week in and week out, year in and year out? What are they seeking — do they truly want to be challenged in their presuppositions, theological commitments and methods of biblical interpretation? Do they truly want to be involved in their communities on any level, or would they prefer to stay within that ‘holy huddle’ of church friends only? Or do they merely attend weekly in order to be confirmed in what they already believe?”
While they may claim to desire both spiritual and emotional growth, oftentimes it is clear that when challenged on either one of those fronts, churchgoers tend to dig in, double down on their current beliefs, and possibly go on the offensive against the one challenging them. And this is, once again, often the unenviable task of that church leader — to push their congregants into uncomfortable territory.
Changing the Culture
One of the major issues with which ministers have to deal is the culture of their church. It’s no use for that deconstructing leader to challenge one or two doctrinal beliefs, or provide an alternative biblical interpretation of a passage here and there; nothing will change on a global level unless the culture of the church is addressed. But how does that leader go about changing the culture?
Be warned: this is a very difficult and emotionally threatening journey, both for church leaders and congregations alike. In order to assess and possibly shift the culture, the leader must to facilitate a safe environment in which people can have open and frank conversations about their belief systems, presuppositions, theological worldviews, and expectations of both the church and its leadership. There is also a pressing need for a moderator to ensure that the discussion does not devolve into an argument, which is all-too possible.
To facilitate this dialogue, questions the leader might ask his or her congregants could include the following: “Why are you even here, in the first place? What’s the purpose of the church? What do you hope to get out of your investment in the church community? What are your views on the Bible? Is it the inspired, inerrant “word of God,” or is it something different in your understanding? How exactly do you believe should it be interpreted, and why? What do you think you need to get from the preacher and his or her sermons? How important is it for you to “believe all the correct things” doctrinally? Honestly, are you willing to examine, and possibly change, some of your beliefs about God, the Bible, or theology? Why or why not? What do you believe about heaven and hell? How important is it for you to “evangelize non-believers,” and what exactly does that look like?” And so on — obviously more questions could, and should, be asked and openly discussed in an atmosphere that fosters open and honest dialogue.
Ultimately, the culture question is intimately tied to the issue of expectations. Churchgoers often have a great many of expectations of both the church and its leadership, some of which are realistic, but many are totally unrealistic (and often unspoken). People tend to project their expectations on to others, and this is acutely true in most church situations. Woe betide that unfortunate church leader who transgresses one or more of those expectations, whether he or she even knows that they even exist!
Therefore, having the sorts of open and honest discussions as outlined above not only start to reveal the culture of the church, they also begin to expose the expectations of the members. For the church leader who is deconstructing, then, it is incumbent upon that leader to begin to assess both its culture and expectations. Be aware, however, that what is uncovered may lead to some uncomfortable realities: it may turn out that the congregation may not want to change in the slightest, and all they want of their leadership is to confirm what they already believe. In that case, the deconstructing leader will have to ask whether this is the right fit for them at all, and will potentially face the difficult decision to move on.
What’s the Point?
When I was a pastor, I had very little idea as to what I was supposed to be doing, or why I was doing it. I had a vague notion that just “teaching people from the Bible” in my weekly sermons would somehow magically transform the listeners’ daily lives. (This relatively simplistic view was intimately tied to my then-belief in the inerrancy and authority of the Bible).
My wider philosophy of ministry was that as a result of my biblical teaching, our church would grow numerically, as I motivated people (using biblical truths) to evangelize their non-believing friends, relatives, neighbours and co-workers. Together, we’d build a wonderful, welcoming community that shared life together, and would be a safe place whereby we could all experience spiritual growth. Looking back on it now, I think that a lot of it was “rainbows and unicorns.” Over the course of my 12 years in church leadership, however, I learned a hard truth: my simplistic philosophy of ministry simply didn’t match up with reality. In the end I burned out, as I tried to make it all work.
But I do believe that for a great many of well-meaning church leaders today, the sort of thinking described above would encompass their basic philosophy of ministry.
Nothing wrong with any of that — right? According to evangelical orthodoxy, absolutely not. That whole package depicted above is basically what most church leaders and congregations alike believe church is supposed to be about. We were certainly not in the game to lose people; and not just because they left our church to go to another one, but from the Christian faith altogether. Losing members to another church is considered problematic enough, but to the typical evangelical pastor, talking Christians out of their faith isn’t at all why they got involved in ministry in the first place.
However, for that church leader who personally embarks on the journey of deconstruction, she must face a sobering reality: if the congregation follows her along that line, not only may people decide to leave the church, but they may give up their Christian faith entirely. Imagine standing up in front of your church as a preacher and announcing something like this to your congregation: “As a result of what I’m going to share with you, some of you may leave not just the church, but quit being Christians altogether!” I’m sure that would not go over too well in most church settings.
But isn’t that being truly authentic and transparent, despite the associated risks? It is truly unfortunate that in so many cases, those involved in church ministry cannot truly be themselves, air their doubts publicly (or even privately), for fear of being at best censured, or at worst sacked by their church. I do not envy that church leader who is caught in that potential trap of having to wrestle with the issue: exactly how safe is it for me to divulge what I’m going through to those in my congregation?
Surely, though, in the end — isn’t it better to live a life of integrity, rather than continuing to prop up a system that does not allow for both its leaders and followers to be truly authentic? If you’re a pastor, priest, vicar, or serving in some capacity of church ministry, the journey of deconstruction you are on will inevitably lead you into a head-on impact with your church’s culture and expectations. Either that, or you’ll have to suppress your cognitive dissonance, hide your true thoughts, feelings, doubts and concerns, and just keep on faking it.