Clergy Cowardice?

Dear Clergy Colleagues:

I am looking for your feedback and comments.

I hope you will all take the time to read this great blog entry. The blog sites the results of several new surveys on the attitudes of both clergy and layfolks in various mainline denominations. It was written by Candace Chellew-Hodge and is entitled “Clergy Cowardice.”

The thesis of the blog is this:

The folks in the pews are more progressive and activist than their clergy, a new survey shows. And those clergy who are supportive of social change are often silent.

Another key quote is this:

“Fifty-six percent of the mainline clergy polled said they’d like to become more personally involved with social and political issues. When it comes down to acting on those desires, however, the clergy lose their nerve, especially on more public forms of becoming “personally involved.”

What even more interesting is something that I have observed throughout my tenure at Northaven. The survey puts it this way:

“The unwillingness and timidity of the clergy over social justice issues (be they LGBT, abortion, the environment or social safety nets for the poor) is striking in this survey. What may be most striking, however is that the clergy really do understand the source of the disconnect. More than 47 percent say that many mainline churches are declining in membership “because they have lost the courage to take prophetic stands for social justice.”

I have definitely seen this personally. Time after time, colleagues have told me privately that they WISH they could be more outspoken and active on social issues, but that they feel constrained either by pressures from their particular church or denomination.

So, I have a few questions for my clergy colleagues. I hope you all will be willing to join a conversation about these issues. I have specifically posted this at my blog to allow for folks to leave anonymous comments (obviously not possible on Facebook…)

Scroll down to the bottom of this blog to leave a comment. I am specifically interested in clergy who are willing to be open and honest about these issues here.

Questions for Clergy:
1) Do you feel constrained or pressured to not speak out on social issues of the day?
2) Where does this pressure come from?
3) If you could be more open in your views, what issues would God be calling you to address publicly?
4) Do you agree with the thesis that mainline churches may be losing members because they are too cautious or conservative?
5) If not, then why do they continue to lose members, even as they have been getting more conservative over the past twenty years?
6) How do we reach the “unchurched” (a term I despise and use only because I know you will know its meaning…) without being far more edgy and socially progressive than we are now, given that most of them seem to believe that religious persons are far too conservative and judgmental?

I genuinely look forward to any dialogue and comments you might wish to leave…

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

20 thoughts on “Clergy Cowardice?

  1. Eric, since I'm retired I can only speak from 5 years ago and before that. 1. I did feel that pressure from the churches I served, and even moreso from my Kentucky Conference leadership.2. Answered.3. What I DID address was the War in Iraq; and I believe that is part of what cost my my ministry.I never had the courage to speak out on abortion or GLBT rights or to some extent even on welfare as much as I would have naturally spoken in public were I not "working for" (Dependent on income from) the people to whom I am speaking.4. I don't think this is true in Kentucky overall. The only growing churches in Kentucky tend to be conservative evangelical regardless of denomination. Eight years of Bush didn't help this at all, either. 5. The conservative churches seem to be gaining; but only if they are contemporary in worship styles.6. I don't know, Eric.

  2. Hi Mike (and I reiterate that anybody can post anonymously…) I agree that the conventional wisdom is that only conservative churches are growing. The church I serve tends to ruin that theory, of course, as do many other progressive congregations around the nation. Progressive churches many never grow at a spectacular rate, but they DO grow. And, it seems to me that the growth of most "conservative" churches tends to be among the "already-churched." They are simply reshuffling the deck…stealing from mainline churches, or other independent churches.What's left out of the discussion so often are the high percentage of Americans who no longer list any church or religious preference. If we are truly going to grow, it seems to me we must have an aggressive outreach to these folks, and they have made it clear they see much of "traditional" Christianity as hypocritical or too conservative.

  3. I have never felt constrained or pressured to not speak out. I had a conversation with my bishop before I was ordained during which the bishop told me I did not have to give up my conscience to be ordained. I have never been a senior pastor, so I don't get to preach very often. I did get fired, however, for honestly speaking my mind.I don't know where the pressure comes from, but it does exist. I think some of us are afraid to be ourselves for fear of being removed from our pedestals. At time same time, knowledge and reasoning do lead to empowerment and I believe that some of us are afraid that we will encourage "the folks in the pews" to think and question and then they will think and question some more about the "wrong stuff" and make our lives more stressful and difficult.The issues I would speak out about include LGBT concerns, immigration, the environment, racism, sexism, poverty and commercialism/consumerism.I do agree, and have believed for a long time that mainline churches are losing members because we are cautious, conservative, judgmental and harsh. In the United Methodist Church we constantly hear that our church is losing membership because we are becoming too liberal or progressive. I believe we have lost members because we do not truly have "open hearts, open minds, open doors."I don't think we can reach postmodern believers as long as we hold onto our modern ways that seem (and are) very conservative. We use too much "inside baseball" language and we appear to be judgmental, uncaring and hateful. I don't believe we can reach postmodern believers if we don't become more socially progressive and at least appear to be loving and kind, accepting and inclusive.

  4. 1) Not since I left full-time pastoring. When I, as a full-time pastor, I had church leaders telling me what campaign signs I was allowed to have in my yard, I realized that I was not going to survive.2) It some from the congregation. If you hold the congregation accountable, you can almost count on not getting any support from above least the congregation not pay apportionments or leave the denomination.3) issues of gender equality and poverty4) I think that is true for younger people. Churches, in my experience, are controlled by an older generation which has a move conservative, less progressive view. When younger members won't conform, no one cares when they leave.5) When Christians stopped caring for the "least of these" and began worrying about music, building, and survival……..6) We reach out in love and demonstrating with actions what the Reign of God can be like.

  5. Absolutely there is a longing to say more than I do about progressive issues. I am still struggling to find the right place and venue to express my opinions. Truthfully? You're damned either wayIf I speak out too strongly in a conservative way, the ACLU comes after me. If I speak up for progressive issues, I lose denominational support.It sucks

  6. 1) As a candidate for ordination, speaking out can be intimidating. Given how diverse our clergy are in this conference, no matter what side you take, you will be in disagreement with someone. 2) Fear of the process. 3)I'd speak out more about environmental issues as well as issues of violence and war. 4&5) I don't think the mainlines struggle due to being either too conservative or too progressive. I think the mainlines suffer from trying to be all things to all people. When you walk into a United Methodist congregation in America, you never know what sort of theology or social ethos you might find. People know what to expect from a Southern Baptist congregation. They know what they'll find at a Metropolitan Church. Not so with us. It is tough to market a denomination when we lack a core identity. 6)I think having a consistent, humble, heart-felt message is the key. Unchurched people are not all alike. No one theology or social ethos will reach them all. But every theology and social ethos will appeal to some. The issue is solidarity and our integrity. I'm going to make a wild claim. I think that if our denomination split into two new denominations- one conservative and one progressive- I think both camps would grow like wildfires. The problem isn't that we are too liberal or too conservative to attract new people. It is the constant conflict and ambiguity which defines United Methodism that prevents growth. So long as we remain ideologically divided, we will not gain traction.

  7. eric, you may remember back in march i hosted a preaching workshop on this exact issue. last week, a few who attended met again with the hopes of starting a group to focus on these issues. in attendance were charles stovall, chuck aaron, john thornburg, tim mcclemore, and myself. tim sent a note about the discussion to the REPORTER, which hopefully will be published, inviting other clergy to join the conversation. the initial plan is to meet in various locations throughout the conference, then maybe a couple of years down the road host a major event with a speaker. you raise a real issue/need, and the "conversations about preaching" group is trying to do the same thing.

  8. For some strange technical reason, another person was unable to actually access this blog, but they sent me a comment, which I am reposting for them below:"Being fresh from the ordination process myself, I sometimes felt hesitant to say anything anywhere about any topic, much less about anything that might be controversial. The scrutiny was tremendous. That being said, as an Associate Pastor who was afforded the opportunity to preach weekly at a previous appointment, I nevertheless took chances that my peers would not take when preaching, trying to push the congregation to think beyond their own front yard. In that particular setting, I discerned the need to preach about hunger and poverty and what that affluent community could do to be in ministry in those particular areas.I have not felt the same freedom in my present appointment, still as an associate pastor, but now at a different place with a different senior pastor. I also preach much less frequently, so the congregation does not have the same level of trust in me that my previous appointment had. I think it is because of this undeveloped trust that I preach less on lightning-rod topics than I used to. (I cannot explain why our senior pastor preaches mostly about personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and addresses social issues very little.)I think mainline churches are in decline because (1) life-long social-issues pounders are becoming older and dying off and (2) the young and mid-age social-issues pounders no longer feel they have a voice of their own in the church. In turn, that comes from the pulpit not inviting that voice.We reach the 'unchurched' when people know they can trust us, when people know the person in the pulpit loves them, and loves God. In my view, as we build the trust up, we little by little insert more social conscience into the sermon, or the bible studies, etc.There is much more I would say, but want to see other comments also."

  9. These studies about how progressive the folks in our pews are is fascinating to me because I remember the day that one of my professors (I can't remember who!)at Perkins said that the folks in our pews were so much more conservative than the clergy who had been to seminary. Times they are a'changing!I do feel a little bit constrained to not speak out on social issues of the day from the pulpit because I don't want anything to block someone's experience of the divine. I do feel that my young age (not 35 until October, baby!) does allow me to get away with saying more controversial stuff then some of my older colleagues would be allowed to say. I heard recently (from NPR I think) that LGBT equal rights is very much a generational issue. I feel like mainline churches are losing members because church isn't relevant to folks anymore. Nondenomational churches are growing for folks that want "the answers" and mainline churches often don't want to give a black and white answer since we live in a gray world. People want to make a difference in the world and they are often drawn to church because they have a heart for service and they can live that out in the church. Great questions Eric, I don't have an answer for all of them!

  10. Dear Anonymous @ 9:30 am:Thanks for your great response. If I might dialogue a little more on this?You say: "Unchurched people are not all alike. No one theology or social ethos will reach them all. But every theology and social ethos will appeal to some."But then, you also posit that our core weakness is a lack of consistent "theology of social ethos."I'm confused as to why that's a weakness, given your claim that the "unchurched" are not all alike.Wouldn't that mean the very pluralism you identify as a weakness for us actually be a strength?Also, you say this:"I'm going to make a wild claim. I think that if our denomination split into two new denominations- one conservative and one progressive- I think both camps would grow like wildfires."This is a *very* interesting thought. And it might even be right. But even if it is, I have to ask: so why not stay together and find a way to unleash that same power?If we understand that there IS untapped power for growth out there, what is to prevent us from truly unleashing it as one unified United Methodist Church? Why would splitting be the only way to do this? Why not develop a genuinely "big tent" church where all sides could grow and flourish?I just don't see the fundamental logic in that. If:a) the "unchurched" ARE a diverse group, and ifb) the UMC IS a diverse church,then why aren't we perfectly positioned to move into the future with great boldness and faith?

  11. Frank: I do remember your preaching group, and I was very sorry to have to miss that meeting. Thanks for the reminder, and I look forward to hearing more. Let us know, and we'll certainly publicize any chance for more dialogue.

  12. Interestingly enough, with the exception of one of the new commissioned elders, I believe I'm the youngest clergy in our conference and feel a sense of freedom to be a little radical. I'm in a situation where I preach every week and have a support staff and lay team that want me to tackle issues like this. That being said, I have never tackled issues homosexuality or abortion from the pulpit because I've never wanted to be "the political pastor." I've watched preachers on both sides for years now and always feel that these sermons come from an agenda instead of scripture, even though I know that the pastor's interpretation of scripture creates the agenda. I suppose I feel that when I do get radical in my preaching, or any pastor does, that 3/4th of my congregation will be inspired, but then not do a thing about it, and the other 1/4 will either be radically offended or radically inspired to action. Living in the suburbs, it seems more of a battle of people to care first. I'm not sure what I would preach about more, but I've spoken on poverty and inequality of all sorts from the stage. Even inequality of status that I can't think of any better words than "popularity" need to be addressed.I actually think passion is what the UMC needs…however that comes across. That, and knowing the pastor lives a genuine life with what they are preaching.Just an off the wall observation, I will agree that young people tend to be more socially and politically liberal and desiring change. I will say the majority of young people I have come across don't do a darn thing about it. They are more concerned about having fun, getting established in their career and talking about what they want changed. But at least the attitude is there. I hope I'm wrong on a nation-wide scale.

  13. In my conference, we are losing members. We lost 1700 in ten years. At the same time, we gained 2000 Hispanic members, a growth of around 85%. The conference is losing members overall, but becoming "more Hispanic" at the same time. This is similar in many ways to the denomination losing members and becoming "more conservative." The conservative churches and conferences are growing even as the larger body declines.There are two ways to look at this: the way of demographics and the way of propaganda.The demographic way realizes that without the Hispanics, the losses, due mostly to mortality, would have been much more severe – around 3700, and that their gains ultimately promise a bright future for regional Methodism once they gain sufficient numbers to impact the overall rate of growth.The propaganda way is to blame the overall loss on Hispanics – that Hispanics are driving other people out of the church – making them not want to come any more. This is a false correlation and would be considered a racist proposition.Yet when we make the SAME proposition targeting those with whom we theologically differ, people whose conferences, both domestic and international are experiencing rapid growth, there is not a convenient term like racism we can apply. We just have to call it bigotry, the term Wesley used.Perhaps jealousy would also apply.

  14. speaking out has always been a part of who i am and my ministry in preaching, teaching and the administrative contexts. but i cannot say it was ever easy or that it was free of consequences. while i am clearly in a coming to health process of moving from victim to survivor in terms of burnout, most of what has taken a toll on me and my ability to deal and cope with it comes from speaking out for peace and justice issues. i know that much of it is contextually based in the culture of the area in which i have lived and served. still, i would contend that with the results of the voting regarding Ammendment 1 in Annual Conference settings, that there is a clear differentiation of where and when one can speak out without being a prophet who is scorned and judged by SPRC and leadership in congregation as being "not the pastor for us".

  15. i do not believe, in retrospect, that i have yet in over 30 years in ministry as a pastor to have had the opportunity to serve a congregation that was other than 90-100% republican and conservatively such. being a democrat and progressively liberal, especially in areas of social action for peace and justice, and never silent about it…i was never able to build relationships where i sensed a presence of acceptance and affirmation of gifts for ministry, or even respect for the office of clergy. be that of my own making or how things play within the church i know best, i do not know for sure. what i do know, is that people were quick to speak out against anyone and anything other than the viewpoints that were being offered up by the likes of Limbaugh, Gingrich, Falwell, Dobson, Kennedy (the Presbyterian at Coral Ridge), Reagan, and Fox network.

  16. I believe as someone in the very conservative rural churches in East Texas, that the people in the pews will say they value diversity and will welcome everyone, but that is until a different someone comes along. There is no overt mistreatment or shunning, but the new ones just dont really become a part of the locals. Even the pastor doesnt. Preaching, asking directly for our church to help with other churches to help families who had lost everything by fire – not one person, not one responded.I think its like talking to your dogs; they smile and nod their heads but there seems to be no comprehension of what was said.In this case I dont think the people in the pews are waiting for me to be prophetic, becuz when I am, its like I get a pat on the head – "nice sermon, but I really dont think we have that issue here."And then there is the :we sent a check for X amount to…"

  17. Could it be a matter of calling? What I do best is pastoral care. Perhaps speaking out on social issues, and bless those who do, is more a gift of prophecy / proclamation? As far as constraints . . . as pastors, we may work for the AC we have membership in, but the local church is paying our salary. In these economic hard times … the idea of doing without is frightening to some, perhaps less so to others. But in truth, most of us are burned out to some extent, and "acceptance" by others, especially from the people in the pews, is what keeps us going . . . How conflicted this causes us to be . . . in process, we are eager to stand with Christ for social change . . . and once ordained and part of the AC process . . . it becomes obvious that the AC wants to replace God in our lives . . . and the subtle pressure to cause that to happen begins . . . Many pastors in the UMC and other denominations need to come broken before God . . . to apologize and ask forgiveness for the sin of putting the "church" first . . . instead of the hearts, hopes and lives of people who need Christ.Unfortunately, most clergy have fallen into a trap, as has our culture, that "meeting the minimum standards" is all that is required of us. Meeting the minimum standards involves little or no risk. Even more tragic, doing ministry this way . . . is to do ministry without passion. A passionless ministry is a boring ministry.In the end . . . the truth is that many of us, have just lost our nerve.

  18. I am truly moved by the honesty and the comments that folks are leaving here. Whatever your position on these issues, thank you for responding to my questions. I appreaciate it, and I am sure others do too.

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