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Pastoral Predicament

A recent survey of Protestant pastors indicates that nearly 40% of them perceive that they are not “on the same page” – either politically or theologically or both – with the leaders of their denomination, and/or the congregations in their churches. A recent AgapePress article presented the results of this survey. It was authored by Allie Martin and Jody Brown, and entitled “Survey Reveals Discord Between Pastors, Denominations”. Martin & Brown report that Ellison Research found “19 percent of pastors are more liberal theologically than their denomination, 23 percent are more conservative, and 59 percent say their views align with their denomination’s teachings.” It also pointed out that “”Sixty percent of all evangelical pastors said that they are on the same page as their denomination politically, compared to only 45 percent of pastors in mainline Protestant churches,” Sellers says. “As a matter of fact, over one-third of pastors in mainline Protestant churches said that their denomination is more politically liberal than they are.”

I found several dimensions of this report to be significant. One aspect that struck me as intriguing here was the fact that political and spiritual (or at least religious) aspects are tied together. The research performed by Ellison appears to start with an underlying assumption that liberalism and conservatism are both dimensions of one’s political and spiritual position. I think that’s absolutely correct, but in this increasingly “politically correct” world, I’m surprised that researchers would make any such assumption. This would imply that there is not a statistically significant number of people in the congregation who are both politically conservative and religiously liberal, and vice versa. It would be interesting to see that hypothesis tested, I think. If it’s true (and I think it is,) the “separation of church and state” crowd will be appalled.

Another very interesting dimension of the findings is that there is a substantive difference in the degree of alignment in mainline denominations versus more evangelical churches. Again, though, when one thinks through this, it makes perfect sense. The liberalism that has been growing in American Protestant churches is obvious: Abandon the theologically rich hymns of the faith and replace them with shallower lyrics projected using Powerpoint; condone female ministers, gay lifestyles, and the idea that the Bible really is the Word of God, and as such is likely to be offensive to some folks when it is proclaimed honestly. Casual is more than the dress code of many parishioners in many of these churches; it is their view of Christianity. It is increasingly entertainment-like, and decreasingly focused on serious, soul-searching worship. There are a number of excellent examinations of this phenomenon, and among them are articles by Dave Mosher who says: “You will be hard pressed to find a local evangelical church that is not getting sucked into Emerging/Emergent/Emergence teachings.”, Melinda Penner, who says: “the Council’s decision to recommend our departure [from the denomination] was not based solely upon this issue but rather an accumulation of liberal decisions by the national body over the course of nearly 20 years, which caused a widening distance in our relationship with them as a conservative congregation.  Thus the gay clergy decision was the tipping point after adding up many factors and a long-term trend.”, and Dave Cloud, who says: “Respected evangelical leader Harold Lindsell gave this testimony in regard to the mainline denominations: “It is not unfair to allege that among denominations like Episcopal, United Methodist, United Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, the Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. THERE IS NOT A SINGLE THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY THAT TAKES A STAND IN FAVOR OF BIBLICAL INFALLIBILITY. AND THERE IS NOT A SINGLE SEMINARY WHERE THERE ARE NOT FACULTY MEMBERS WHO DISAVOW ONE OR MORE OF THE MAJOR TEACHINGS OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH” (Harold Lindsell, Battle for the Bible, Zondervan, 1976, pp. 145-146.) Modernism has permeated the mainline denominations. Any call, therefore, to breach denominational barriers today, is a call to yoke together truth with error and is an open denial of the biblical doctrine of separation.”

The third dimension of interest to me is simply the large and increasing number of pastors who feel that they are not aligned in terms of their theology (and politics) with their own congregations. In my experience, at least in the case of strong pastoral leaders, the congregations tend to gravitate toward the perspectives presented from the pulpit. Congregations should be calling pastors who they believe to be teaching in accordance with their perceptions of biblical truth. If they are doing that, then why would there be such a large and growing disparity between their views and the pastor’s?

Finally, the dimension that I am having more trouble understanding: 23% of pastors surveyed report that their denominational leaders are more liberal than they are. It makes me wonder what is at the root of this. Are the denominational leaders, owing to their elevated standing in the denomination, “going Hollywood” in terms of relaxing their standards to be more widely accepted? I do understand the flip side, I think. The 19% who report that their denominational leaders are more conservative seems perfectly natural in light of the generally liberalizing trends in our churches today, as discussed earlier in this article. But the aspect of more liberal denominational leaders is troubling indeed.

I do understand the “Pastoral Predicament” here. Many pastors who remain faithful to the doctrinal teachings of fundamental Christianity as described by the Bible are feeling the squeeze these days, between a liberalizing denominational leadership and a liberalizing congregation. Other pastors have the challenge of denominational leaders growing further and further distanced from both themselves and their congregations. This path is slightly easier, because there is a clear way out – leave the denominational affiliation and find one closer in spiritual alignment. But even in these cases, the way forward is uncomfortable at best. It is a difficult and growing problem. I would be interested in hearing other perspectives on this.

What do you think?

6 Responses to “Pastoral Predicament”

  1. Dave Mosher says:

    Bill, it’s always wonderful to meet a like minded brother in the Lord concerned about these issues. Thanks for linking to my blog – I hope many find it helpful. God bless you – Dave

    • Bill Duncan says:

      Dave, it’s a great pleasure to hear from you as well. This blog is cathartic for me – I struggle to make peace with many of these challenges in my own life, and wanted to do a blog to see whether others do as well, and whether we could learn from one another. I have a very long way to go in my own spiritual journey, and I appreciate fellow Christians who are willing to lay their own opinions, experience, and insights out for me – and for others. I know it can be intimidating for some, and for others it just takes more time and energy than they are willing to invest….. sometimes, i think that says a lot, too.

  2. Dave Mosher says:

    Bill, regarding disparities between pastors, their congregations, and their denominations, you made a lot of great observations. Excellent blog. One scenario that would make the picture a bit simpler: independent churches (particularly independent fundamentalist churches). In this scenario, there is no denominational leadership to report to. So the pastor and the congregation are the only two parties that need to be in sync, so to speak. And as you mentioned, you would think the congregation would go along with the pastor’s doctrinal stance. Regarding a biblically sound pastor: get a biblically sound, mature, godly pastor who preaches salvation through “the Blood and the Cross” of Jesus Christ, and you will draw in the same kind of congregation. Attenders who do not go along with sound doctrine will leave – you can count on it.

    • Bill Duncan says:

      Excellent point, Dave. Thank you for your thoughtful response. I have attended independent churches before – though never really became involved in one. It was my impression that the one or two I attended were associated with other independent churches – not in the manner of a formal organization structure, but to enable inter-church fellowship and cooperation on things like mutually sponsored concerts and similar events. But I believe your point about being doctrinally accountable to a denominational structure is completely valid.

  3. Chris Huff says:

    I can relate to much of what you said. I think part of the reason pastors and their congregations do not always agree on doctrine is because of the way pastors are elected. In many denominations, the congregation has little to no say in it. A governing board within the denomination appoints pastors to serve particular churches. For better or worse, they’re stuck with each other. And congregants often don’t leave the church because they know they will likely get a new pastor in a few years anyway.

    But even when pastors aren’t appointed, the selection process is still often far from the ideal. It seems the New Testament describes pastors being called out from within the congregation itself. This allows for thoroughly knowing the individuals: their life, their doctrine, etc. But this doesn’t happen as much today (although I still hear about it from time to time). Today, a relatively unknown person is brought before the church and decided upon after hearing them preach just a couple times. After getting to know each other more, they find that they didn’t agree on nearly as much as they had originally thought.

    • Bill Duncan says:

      I have witnessed the selection process a number of times, Chris, and your description certainly matches my experiences. Two exceptions I have seen both involved Youth Ministers who assumed the pastorate when the existing pastor left his position. In these cases, of course, the former Youth Pastor has a bit of a “leg up”, knowing the congregation, and the congregation has a substantial advantage having seen their new pastor in action over a long period of time in their midst. Thank-you for your post!

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