December 2, 2020

Pastoral Care Week: It’s not just about the pastor

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Chagall

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Chagall

At their courageous best, clergy lead where people aren’t asking to go, because that’s how the range of issues that concern them expands, and how a holy community gets formed.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

• • •

Over the years I have been critical of pastors, probably because I have been one and still am in a form of pastoral ministry. Most of the critiques I’ve written come with one finger pointed outward while three others are directed toward myself.

I take this calling seriously, as I think most who pursue it do. For every self-promoting celebrity circus ringleader, there are hundreds of priests, rectors, ministers, and pastors who are quietly going about their business, trying their best to provide spiritual direction and soul care to people in their congregations and communities. Still, as I observe around me every day, the state of our vocation is dismal.

The era through which I’ve lived and served has provided serious and sustained obstacles to the spiritual life, ecclesial life, and pastoral life.

I came of age in small town America in mainline Protestantism — both now utterly changed and nearly unrecognizable. I had a spiritual awakening during the counter-cultural Jesus movement that caused all manner of upheaval throughout society and churches. I cut my pastoral teeth and went to seminary during the heyday of the church growth movement, in a time when an entire subculture called evangelicalism was growing strong. I saw the birth and spread of megachurches. I witnessed the politicization of conservative Christianity in reaction to several “liberation” movements, many of which were themselves rooted in socially aware progressive forms of the faith.

As for my life’s cultural context, the small towns in which I grew up are now shells of their former selves. The heartland has been decimated by sea-changes in our technologies and the economy. Multitudes have fled south to bask in sunnier climes and those who didn’t suffer long commutes and alienation in the cold big cities up north.

Television, in my opinion, has been the single greatest technological life-changer in my generation, altering our ability to personally access entertainment forever. Its impact on transforming our society into one that values individualism, personal choice, and a consumer mindset is inestimable. The ubiquitous presence of screens in our personal lives, homes, and everywhere we go (even at the gas pump! even in church!) has had a dramatic effect on us and the way we “take in” life.

Stop for a minute. I don’t want you to think that I’m merely criticizing today’s world — I for one would rather live in no other era. I’m just trying to trace, in the most general fashion, why pastoral ministry in particular has become so vapid and disrespected in our day. The tsunami of change we’ve experienced and the insufficient ways we’ve tried to keep church “relevant” have made the pastoral vocation seem like a relic that belongs in a museum.

Some, emphasizing a more robust pastoral role, have over-corrected in response. A “shepherding” movement, neo-calvinist and puritan in nature, has sought to restore robustness to the ministry. This emphasizes the pastor’s authority and “ruling” elders in an attempt to revive respect for the office. It seeks to reinstitute forms of hierarchy in the church and society (patriarchal, of course) to restore proper “biblical” order. Some of these groups have been saturated in charismatic teachings, adding “revelations” and “visions” and “miracles” to the biblical text to boost the pastor’s status as uniquely “anointed.” And of course, there are the prosperity gospel preachers, who are simply not to be questioned. They are the faith-full, the ones who hold the secrets, to whom everyone else must say “Amen.”

All these are attempts to seize back the power that has been lost. However, pervasive scandals in which abuse of power has been uncovered have turned an entire generation sour on the idea of the celebrity and/or authoritarian pastor. There are, nevertheless, a lot of people who still stream into their churches and ministries.

And frankly, a lot of what’s wrong with pastoral ministry today has as much to do with those people as it does with pastors and church leaders themselves.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a minister in the United Church of Christ, and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul, wrote a piece in the New York Times called, “Congregations Gone Wild.” In it, MacDonald laments that many clergy are suffering from burnout, not only because of their hard work and the natural demands of the vocation, but because congregational expectations in today’s church are forcing them away from their true calling and into work that they are ill-prepared to do.

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.

He blames “consumer-driven religion” for this state of affairs. It has become so pervasive that a 2008 Pew Forum poll he quotes reports that 44% of Americans now say they have switched their religious affiliation at least once, or dropped it altogether. The shoppers hold the power in this marketplace. So much so that pastors’ job descriptions have been rewritten. Attracting people and building the organization now takes priority over spiritual direction and proclamation that is designed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

MacDonald speaks from personal experience:

I have faced similar pressures myself. In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.

Pastors, in many cases he says, have become “the spiritual equivalent of concierges” — meeting every customer request for information, entertainment, and religious experience. As Eugene Peterson wrote years ago, this is a natural result when “pilgrims” forget their calling and view themselves as “tourists.” Pilgrims need strength and direction to persevere on the journey. Tourists want to know where they can get the best massage.

To be fair, there are many, many churches that are deeper than that, at least by intention. However, in my experience what they often offer, while it goes beyond a back rub, serves only as a reinforcement of commonly held beliefs and opinions that makes people feel good about having found their “tribe” (or in today’s parlance, their “brand” of choice). I’ve heard pastors toy with messages they think will be “prophetic” and “life-changing,” but more often than not it’s the same thin soup people have learned to live on, and indeed asked to be served.

The pastor’s problem is that this state of affairs doesn’t send him to his or her knees with the same desperation by which Moses grabbed hold of God on the mountain.

The people’s problem is that they really do prefer the golden calf.


  1. I think your criticism of the current scene, the consumer power of laity squelching the authority of pastors, is apt. But I’m not sanguine about the way things were in the past, when pastors and priests had great authority and influence over their congregations. I think when we look back to that era as superior we are romanticizing or idealizing the pastors and their influence in a way that was not matched by the reality.

    The authority and influence of pastors and priests arose out the the same cultural matrix that propagated the general authority and influence of educated older men over others in society. When this started changing in the 1960s and 70s, when the clay feet of the authoritative castes were unveiled by the women’s movement, the rise of counterculture among young people, and other social changes in those decades, pastors/priests along with their authoritative peers in the rest of society started to lose their mystique as leaders and guides. As it turned out, in many, many cases, the clergy were the golden calves.

    Much of what is bad that is happening in evangelicalism is the attempt to reconstitute and revive just this mythical authority, to “get back” to an earlier time in church/society. As a result, the new golden calves are bigger than ever, by a huge factor; social movements in their death throes often stage a big firework show, a grand finale, before they burn out. But the genie won’t go back in the bottle; the gig is up, and we are going to need to find new, creative ways of balancing the influence and authority of the pastoral and congregational roles. God help us in this.

    • Good insights, Robert. I’m not so much concerned about restoring the pastor’s authority as I am to reclaim the mere dignity of the vocation and its defining characteristics of prayer, spiritual direction, and the cure of souls. As I tried to say in the post, I think that efforts to revive authority are misguided. Exercising power and insisting upon respect for authority has never been Jesus’ way. The pastor’s symbol is the basin and towel, not the ring and scepter.

      • flatrocker says

        > “The pastor’s symbol is the basin and towel, not the ring and scepter.”

        This may be the go-to quote of the week.

      • –> “…and the cure of souls.”

        You’ve mentioned this more than once this week. I’m not sure what you mean by that. Thinking pastors are responsible for “the cure of souls” seems like an overstatement and an over-reach. I can’t think of a single pastor, the best or the worst, who could cure my soul. Only Christ can do that, and probably only when I’m rid of this body of suffering and lust.

        Perhaps it would be better stated as “the health of souls.”

        • Rick, it is a traditional term. I understand your objection. It is an older translation from the Latin. Today we would more likely say “the care of the soul” or simply pastoral care. I like the older phrase because it explicitly includes the idea that we can bring true healing as we minister to one another. I don’t mean to say that anyone should expect a complete cure from anyone other than Jesus.

          • Mike, I picked up on that term in your article of April 11, “Pastoral Care Week: Curing Souls or Running Churches?” You quoted Eugene Peterson:

            This is the pastoral work that is historically termed the cure of souls. The primary sense of cura in Latin is “care,” with undertones of “cure.”

            In Spanish, one of the terms for priest is “el cura.” It’s likely related to “curate” in English, which Charles Fines commented on in the first comment of that article.

            I like how you mention that it’s more along the lines of “care” than “cure.” That, and the Latin & Spanish, tell me that it may be related to the New Testament Greek “charis,” from which we get the English “charity,” “care,” and “grace.” Charis is translated “love” or “charity” in 1 Corinthians 13.

            Off-topic, but fun stuff. And a good series. Thanks.

          • I must’ve missed that. Thanks for clarifying! Good series!

        • I have given this phrase much thought in recent years. Here is how I understand it:

          As pastor, I am not the cure for my people’s souls. But, I am the one who is charged with administering the cure. That cure is our Lord Jesus Christ, incarnate God, crucified and dead, risen and ascended and coming again. I apply this salve, I prescribe this medicine, I may compound this remedy, and distribute it to myself and to those in my charge, trusting that by the Spirit of Christ, this cure will infuse itself into the spiritual bodies of those in need.

          I am still learning how to do this.

          • –> “…charged with administering the cure.”

            Good take on the concept of “the cure of souls,” too.

      • Christiane says

        For all I have seen of evangelicals on line, I did learn something important about ‘labels’ and pre-judging’ individual Christian ministers on the day when my neighbor passed away at home in hospice. Her minister came to the home to visit with the family who didn’t share her evangelical faith. My husband and I went over to him as he came out of their home toward his car and we asked him simply how we could best help the grieving husband. His answers revealed that he was a deeply humble person of faith and I remember thinking how fortunate Edie was to have had such a pastor to help her through her time in hospice.

        I know this much after surviving middle-age, that sometimes we presume too much about those who are ‘not of our tribe’ and when we encounter them as persons, if we expect the ‘label’ we have presumed, we find out we deceived ourselves and there was instead a real individual with something recognizable ‘of Christ’ in them . . .

        perhaps there are still a remnant of the pastors of ‘the basin and the towel’ quietly at work in the midst of those whose bling and fame grabs all the publicity, and maybe these humble pastors remain in that environment to do the REAL work of Our Lord when human pain grows so great that the mega-preacher’s entertainment gig no longer suffices to enthrall and distract from reality. (?) I hope this is true. Because there will come those times when the mega’s hubris and fame and shouting won’t cut it anymore, and the quiet word of a humble pastor becomes the only real lifeline in the storm.

        • And I fear a “storm” is exactly what it’s going to take to restore humility and genuine servant leadership and create congregations that actually value such things. We’ve become too fat and sated and self-satisfied and addicted to having and wanting more of everything. Sadly, I see this in myself. Christ’s Spirit inside me wants the things of God — peace, righteousness, love, contentment — but the flesh has become too much of a monster whose appetites will not be denied. A storm or even a timely plague of locusts might be just what I need at this point in my life. On the other hand, is it right to expect God to come in and purify us with fire and brimstone when we can’t summon the will to crucify our own flesh?

  2. Joachim of Fiore, a somewhat controversial mystic and monk from the twelfth century, predicted that in the age of the Spirit, as opposed to the ages of the Father and the Son, “… a new Epoch of peace and concord would begin, thus making the hierarchy of the Church unnecessary.” Here was a Catholic priest talking about an unnecessary hierarchy. Amazing. Still a forward looking thought as there does not appear to be much concord at the moment. Israel still seeks a king.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.

    “We don’t want to learn anything new, preacher. You’re only here to Keep Us Comfortable!”
    — actually told to the face of my burned-out preacher writing partner

  4. Most of the concerns expressed here strike me as 20th century concerns. I would guess that at least 90% of people attending any kind of spiritual gathering these days are pretty much living with 20th century concerns. I would guess that for most people born in the 21st century, which now includes teenagers, the concerns expressed here are mostly irrelevant and will become more so.

    At bottom, we are talking about a profession, a career choice made over that of doctor, lawyer, dentist, pharmacist, accountant, teacher, social worker, and so on. It takes advanced education and certification, with obvious exceptions. It’s not a very good way to make a living any more for most, especially those coming into the profession now. To a young person thinking of a pastoral career with graduate training, a mountain of student debt to pay off, a barely livable wage to support a family on, a bureaucracy to support and answer to, and a diminishing demographic to serve, I would wonder what is wrong with this picture.

    The job that CM is doing makes a great deal of sense to me. If I was dying, I would look forward to him stopping by, or even if I wasn’t dying. If he was a plumber or a truck driver, I’m sure I would feel the same. I would not want to be bothered with most pastors mouthing prayers and giving empty spiritual direction any more than I would now voluntarily subject myself to an hour’s captivity with them on Sunday morning. What does their idea of a religious life have to do with me? Likely not much. To find those concerned with my concerns, I’ll do best searching in an online setting such as here while it is still available. In the meantime, if multitudes are gaining ground enough to attend with Joel Osteen, how is that any skin off my nose?

    • I’d be interested to hear more about what you think are irrelevant 20th century concerns, versus relevant 21st century concerns.

      Also, I would dispute that ministry is merely “at bottom…a profession, a career choice…” Certainly, all the constraints you mentioned exist, and yet there are still those who follow that vocation against reason and advice. What do you mean by “…I would wonder what is wrong with this picture”?

      • Ted, please help me understand the popular appear of Marc Chagall paintings. Given the choice between taping one of his paintings on my refrigerator and my pick of any Sunday School class of seven year olds, it would be a no brainer for me. Obviously aside from resale value. The man just irritates me. Grandma Moses I can understand, and I assume he must do what he does on purpose but I don’t understand it. I see that he employs Hermetic symbology as in the crossed legs, and for all I know his work is a giant Kabbalistic enterprise, but that still doesn’t explain his popular appeal to me.

        • I’ll defer to Chaplain Mike! I like Chagall’s paintings, but Mike is more of a fan.

          I really do like the one at the top, though. It captures the cultic, frenzied worship that people can get tangled up in without realizing it (Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do). Lots of energy, motion, and worship in the wrong direction. We’re all prone to it, so best to be aware of that and let Chagall and others remind us.

        • I’ll defer to Chaplain Mike! I like Chagall’s paintings, but Mike is more of a fan.

          I really do like the one at the top, though. It captures the cultic, frenzied worship that people can get tangled up in without realizing it (Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do). Lots of energy, motion, and worship in the wrong direction. We’re all prone to it, so best to be aware of that and let Chagall and others remind us.

      • >>I’d be interested to hear more about what you think are irrelevant 20th century concerns, versus relevant 21st century concerns.

        A 20th century main concern would be “going to heaven” when you die, which Jesus didn’t have much to say about. A 21st century concern would be how to better live in the Kingdom here and now continually, which Jesus had much to say on. The style of teaching and learning in the 20th century featured a dispenser of facts and knowledge standing before an orderly arranged group of passive empty vessels. Boomers still expect this even as the congregation dwindles. Younger people would be more responsive to an informal gathering of seekers after truth with a facilitator open to comments and questions.

        >>What do you mean by “…I would wonder what is wrong with this picture”?

        I don’t question but that some are actually called by God. I would question that all those attending seminary today have been so called. Many succeed, even as a career choice, and more power to them. A certain number will end up disheartened, burnt out, driven out, depressed, suicidal, divorced, broke, and defeated. If you don’t see anything wrong with that picture, I don’t know how to answer you. It’s not like previous times when everyone was expected to go to church and support it. As CM points out, we are a consumer society today.

  5. The painting by Chagall is just about perfect for this article.

  6. Jim Wagner says

    I am just now completing forty-three years of pastoral ministry in a (more or less) mainline denomination. It has been a joy! I have virtually always felt respected and appreciated in the office of pastor. Although some of my decisions may have been questioned, I cannot recall a single situation where my integrity or intentions have been questioned. Nor has anyone ever suggested that my sermons were too long or too short — they often vary from 12 to 20 minutes depending on the text. As I look back on my preaching, I do not think it has been either 20th or 21st century, but simply an attempt each week to speak the Gospel as revealed in each week’s text. Oversimplification? Maybe, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
    One thing that is different now from when I began is the massive student debt. I had none of that. Because I was debt-free, my beginning salary – though modest – was quite adequate to support a spouse and growing family. Sadly that is often not true today.