Over the next several weeks, as a follow-up to our recent Roundtable Podcast (Check it out if you haven’t already: What’s at Stake?), we will be reflecting on the question, “What’s at Stake?”
We are surveying our experiences over the last several years to unpack the significance of this moment in our lives and in the life of the church.
The crises of this moment have accelerated and exacerbated the issues that have been hinted at for the last sixty years in the life of the church. The decline our institutions are encountering is real. The continuation of this pandemic, the social and political unrest that have for years lay just below the surface of our national identity, our stumbling economy, and a cadre of clergy ill-prepared to deal with any of these things, has brought us to a reckoning.
What’s at stake?
The vocation of ministry and the soul of clergy are at stake.
We wear the mask that grins & lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears & sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask
This poem, one of my favorites, titled “We Wear The Mask” penned by Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1896 describes a type of existence experienced by many people of color to this day. Wearing the mask describes living a cloaked existence where a person isn’t free to express their true feelings, live into their true identity or live out their true life’s purpose. Instead, everything they do is motivated by the need to appease and comfort others and uphold false narratives. For example, Dunbar describes the ways that blacks were made to smile and act jolly when their hearts were breaking, and their bodies were being oppressed in order to appease the guilt, fear and discomfort of white people and to uphold the false narratives of white supremacy. While many people of color still wear this particular mask, many of us as clergy wear a similar type of mask, the mask of ministry.
As such we aren’t free to express our true feelings in our churches for fear that we might offend some in our congregations prompting them to leave and take their tithes and offerings with them.
We aren’t free to live into our true identity, instead diminishing our voices, our purpose, our passion, and our call to fit into the box of ministry inherited from the past or based on a lack of imagination of the congregation.
We aren’t living out our true purpose focusing instead on outdated metrics and data that no longer encapsulates the strength and vitality of the congregation but seeks to support a model of success based on nostalgia and wishful thinking.
We aren’t living into the whole truth of the gospel but instead are redacting and revising it, making it palpable to uphold and reinforce false narratives.
As a result, ministry as a vocation has become less focused on shepherding: tending relationships, growing disciples, introducing people to Jesus, creating conscious community, being a public voice and witness of the gospel, and loving people through their most intimate and important life transitions, and more focused on managing buildings, navigating frail political systems, planning and implementing programs to lure people into our buildings and trying to convince ourselves that we are relevant.
The vocation of ministry is at stake because it is predicated on subpar financial models that force us to turn straw to gold each month and to stump for worthiness and our livelihood without taking a critical look at the infrastructure and old financial systems and models despite long-term diminishing returns.
The vocation of ministry is at stake because the current expectations undermine the souls of too many preachers. Wearing the mask of ministry costs us our integrity, our self-esteem, our mental health, and physical wellbeing (and that of our families) and our own relationship with God. The vocation of ministry is at stake because we are not okay, and we are too invested in the vocation of ministry to admit our frailties and do something about them.
While all of this sounds ominous and daunting, the good news is we already have the tool kit to repair the breaches in the vocation of ministry and to remove the mask of ministry. The bible says,
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2
We must not conform to the patterns of this world and capitulate to the comfort of our congregations and the whims of culture.
We must be transformed as we renew our minds – not just by earning more degrees and attending copious conferences but by nourishing our souls and minds by reclaiming the mystical and contemplative healing practices of our tradition.
We must stop expending all our energy in outwardly managing, administering, and coordinating and learn to be still and focus so our souls can be edified, energized, and renewed. Our ministry will be from the overflow rather than exhaustion and desperation that accompanies faithless works.
We must remove the masks and admit our brokenness, the pain and grief that pastoring brings, and be intentional about our healing and restoration so that we don’t become a toxic presence in our congregations.
We must be brave and courageous, trusting and believing that God’s will—God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will is enough for us and our congregations to thrive from here.
This moment has presented each one of us with the perfect opportunity to release ourselves and our congregations from some of the unfruitful and unproductive programs and practices of the past. We are more connected than ever, and the world needs the salvation, hope, joy and incomprehensible peace of our faith desperately. I believe we were made for this moment and through the power of Jesus Christ can redeem this age as one of spiritual growth, vitality and freedom if we are willing to take off our mask, get real, get healed, be brave and get serious about the true work of ministry.