With all the headlines in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about clergy sex abuse and cover-ups, some are crying “Foul!” at what they see as a journalistic witch hunt aimed selectively at the Christian church. Consider all the good that churches do for the poor, the sick and the shut-ins, they say. And aren’t there other organizations and institutions, corporate and governmental, at least as guilty of crimes and cover-up?
Yes. But none of these entities lay quite the same claim to universal yet exclusive truths and values that the church does, claims directly at odds with the purported behavior and its cover-ups. As a Christian and a minister, I believe those claims, and have based my life on them. Those very claims shed a piercing, revealing light upon the weakness of human nature, beginning with the minister himself or herself. It should not surprise us then if the world should shine spotlights just as bright upon us as what our very own gospel does. And if the world should judge us less fairly and with less mercy than does God, counter-attacking and defensiveness will only betray our message and ministry. If our critics are correct, we know what we have to clean up. If our critics are wrong, “count it all joy,” for God will turn it to our favor; we will witness by our loving and peaceable patience.
There was a time when, to be a pastor or priest, meant automatic respect, appreciation and honors even outside the church in the form of free haircuts, coffee or even a meal. Those days are over, and I don’t lament their passing, for they also carried the danger of seducing us into illusions of power, prestige and privilege, to the domestication of the church and the adulteration of our motives for ministry. Now, increasingly, the clerical collar or the ordination title (“Reverend,” “Pastor,” “Father”) are met with indifference or even distrust and contempt. I wish it were only because we had so greatly loved society’s scapegoats and enemies, as did Jesus.
Knowing how intoxicating, seductive and mind-bending spiritual authority and the spiritual intimacy of prayer, communion and confession can be, we in ministry should be most careful and distrusting about ourselves. Entrusted with the sin-revealing and sin-healing message and ministry of Jesus Christ, every minister of the gospel must consider himself or herself not as a prince of the church, but as “the worst of sinners (I Tim. 1:15).” It is intoxicating to point fingers at the world, but “judgment begins with the household of God.”
We can begin by looking for the beams in our own eyes before we turn to help others with the speck in theirs. Given the dangers of self-delusion and the abuse of power, every part of our lives must be an open book to someone, at least a spiritual director, counselor, or fellow ministers. The law of the land, for the protection of the vulnerable and the reporting of offenses, should not be a stretch but our starting point, the very least that we can do in the name of love. Authority, accountability and transparency between pastor and church must be a partnership. In such a two-way street, we may fear that some parishioners might use their power against us. But for the sake of the church and our witness to the world, it is much better for Christ’s under-shepherds to lose some sleep, than to lose trust. Or did we not know what we were signing up for with our ordinations?