Words pastors fear saying to their flocks, part 2

Week after week, year after year, ministers rise to preach knowing their flocks expect them to deliver messages that are truly inspired by God or, at the very least, somewhat uplifting. After years facing United Methodist congregations in the Bible Belt, the Rev. Harold Bales had an epiphany about this duty -- although some might consider his candid vision a kind of ecclesiastical nightmare.

Imagine what would happen if a pastor stepped into the pulpit and said something like the following.

"Dear friends, in the past week I have prayed and prayed," said Bales, describing this scenario. "I have read my Bible, talked to other colleagues and read stacks of inspirational journals -- seeking a word from the Lord.

"Well, what I need to tell you is that I have heard nothing from the Lord this week. I was kind of wondering: Have any of you heard from Him?"

It's hard for clergy to imagine doing such a thing, said Bales, because most are afraid to be this transparent. Some fear that members of their flock will freak out and call their ecclesiastical superiors to register a complaint or, worse, to express concern that the pastor may be cracking up.

In addition to his years in what Southerners call "tall steeple" churches in cities like Charlotte and Asheville, N.C., Bales has also been on the administrative side of this kind of drama. He served as superintendent of Salisbury District in Western North Carolina and, for many years, was on the staff of his denomination's General Boards of Evangelism and Discipleship.

In other words, Bales has fielded his share of appeals from ticked-off church members, as well as having inspired a few such calls himself. A native of Knoxville, Tenn., he is now semi-retired, living in Kannapolis, N.C., and writing columns and bites of social media linked to his website.

The bottom line for many pastors, said Bales, is that they are afraid to level with their people -- person to person.

"Let's face it. Your people can run you crazy. But that's really not where ministers get into deep trouble," he said. "Through the years, I have been especially interested in all the ways that ministers struggle with their own humanity. You see, they expect so much out of themselves, which can be hard since their people keep trying to hold them to standards higher than the saints and the angels."

Try to imagine, he said, a pastor speaking these words to the faithful: "Dear friends, I am undone. My marriage is in shambles and things aren't going great with my kids, either. My emotions are wracked. I'm stressed out. ... You see, I'm prepared to minister to you, but who is going to minister to me?"

Or here is another one Bales tried to deliver a time or two: "Dear friends, I need more nerve. I need help, because there are hard truths I need to tell you. That frightens me because I yearn to be loved by everyone. I also crave success. So you see, I'm afraid of you. I'm afraid to tell you the truth."

All of this stress adds up and, thus, Bales said he has seen research indicating that every year another 18,000 pastors surrender and quit the ministry.

Yes, it's important for the faithful to pray for their ministers, he stressed. It's also important for them to know that clergy can feel isolated from the people around them and, thus, struggle to develop real, honest friendships. Like many lay people, pastors also get suckered into believing that "humor and delight, joy and pleasure are somehow unspiritual," he explained. When in doubt, it never hurts to tell your pastor a joke or to suggest that it's time to "clock out" and go get some barbecue.

It's also important to "respect how emotionally vulnerable a pastor can be. ... Those who give the appearance of great strength are very human and unless they are deluded about themselves, are subject to inner struggles and self-doubt," noted Bales. It helps to grasp the truth that "unless your minister is experiencing an occasional failure, he or she is probably not risking enough for God's sake."

Every now and then, he said, a pastor simply must have the freedom to say things like, "I don't know" or even, "Ouch! I was wrong."

Words pastors fear saying to their flocks, part 1

The powers that be in professional sports know that it’s easier to fire embattled coaches than to push powerful athletes out the door.

Pastors know that the same pattern usually holds true when push comes to shove in religious sanctuaries. The sad result is often a vicious cycle of fear, stress, doubt, despair, workaholism, frustration and fatalism.

In his book “Counseling Christian Workers,” the late Dr. Louis McBurney — a Mayo Clinic trained psychiatrist known for helping clergy in times of crisis — summed it up with one sad, exhausted quotation from an anonymous minister hurt by powerful people in his pews.

“There’s nothing wrong with my church,” said this pastor, “that wouldn’t be solved by a few well-placed funerals.”

The Rev. Gary Brinn has heard clergy offer variations on that line, with the most common being that, on occasion, “pastors get to bury their problems.” It’s the kind of blunt talk pastors share when privately talking shop. It’s not the kind of thing they would say to their flocks, not even to the angry goats in the pews.

“You would think the one place people would practice some manners and show some understanding would be in church, but too often that just isn’t the case,” said Brinn, who leads the Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ, on the South Shore of Long Island. “Sometimes you just want to say, ‘Have a little kindness, folks.’ “

Recently, Brinn went toe to toe with one “bushy-bearded rogue” after this year’s late-night Christmas Eve service. In this case, the once-a-year churchgoer wanted the pastor to know that the service — which blended Christmas hope with the sobering realities of Hurricane Sandy and the massacre in Newtown, Conn. — was one of the worst services he had ever attended in his life.

The pastor turned the other cheek. Later he turned to his computer, pounding out a commentary entitled “Secrets Your Pastor Can’t Share in a Sermon” that went viral. While many readers posted outraged online comments, said Brinn, in a telephone interview, his email in-basket was soon full of sympathetic letters from clergy.

Among his dark secrets, Brinn noted that clergy — usually experienced, seminary-educated professionals — wish their parishioners would remember that:

* Offerings are not tips exchanged for entertaining sermons, “nor are you paying for services rendered. Your stewardship, bringing your tithes and offerings to the community in which you worship, is a spiritual practice that comes right out of scripture. … Failure to give appropriately is a spiritual problem.”

* Clergy struggle to work 60 hours or less each week. Even on Sundays, he noted, they’ve “been ‘on,’ like rock concert ‘on,’ all morning. I’m smiling and being social, but I’m actually fried. … You know that important thing you needed to tell me as you shook my hand and headed off to brunch? I forgot it, along with the important things eight other people told me. Sorry, I didn’t mean to, but you better write it down, send it in an email, or leave me a message for when I get back in the office.”

* Truth be told, clergy care more about “the regulars. I know I’m not supposed to, but I do. You know, the ones who show up in the pouring rain, there for every fundraiser and Bible study. When a perfect stranger shows up demanding the rites of the church and treating me like I’m an unfortunate prop in their personal movie, it’s a problem. … I’m having serious theological qualms about this, I’m just not telling you.”

* Clergy work for a bishop, a vestry or another source of authority, but they ultimately must be able to confess that, “I work for God.” Yes, it’s hard to please everyone, but an honest preacher also must be able to say, “If I stop challenging you, you’ll know that I am either exhausted or scared. Neither is good for you or the church you love.”

Brinn said he didn’t worry that members of his small congregation would misunderstand this candid shot over the pulpit.

“I really wrote this piece for all of the pastors who don’t have the freedom to be this honest in their pulpits,” he said. “Way too many pastors try to bury their problems. … I am convinced that 75 percent of American clergy are terrified of their congregations.”

NEXT WEEK: Why are many clergy so afraid of their flocks?