Why Pastors Make Poor Allies

It was 1992. The church I attended was heavily invested in the pro-life cause. Many of its members marched in front of the only abortion clinic in our town, shaming women who entered, and calling for strict change of law to make abortions almost impossible to get. There were prayer meetings in the church to defeat the “powers of darkness” surrounding the abortion industry.

One of the members was involved in a commission to help re-write some of the state’s laws on abortion. Another member had been thrown in jail twice for marching against abortion. We had our “pro-life credentials” well established.

No one knew the reservations I had about the pro-life movement. As a counselor, I knew that dozens of women in our church had abortions in the past. Some of them were the most vehement opponents of abortion. Some of them lived shamed lives, hoping no one ever found out about them.

I had doubts the movement was from God. I had researched the pro-life movement’s political roots, and knew I could not support any of the principal players. I searched in vain for any mention of abortion in the Bible. Even the few verses which spoke about God calling someone from their mother’s womb were found in poetic writings which are hardly substantial fodder for theological positions.

In short, I had my doubts about all the marching going on.

The worst part was the work of the Holy Spirit inside of me. The Spirit of God was convicting me of my hatred and judgment toward women who made the decision to terminate their pregnancies. God would not allow me just to ignore those hateful attitudes. In prayer one day, God directed me to publicly apologize for my attitudes and to make amends. I started to prepare a teaching but God showed me it wasn’t enough.

God directed me to write a letter to the editor, apologizing to every woman in our town who had ever had an abortion, and to the doctors and nurses who had taken part. I owned my hatred and asked for forgiveness.

After mailing that difficult letter, the editor of the newspaper called me. She wanted to know if I really wanted to go ahead and do this. She warned me it could not be withdrawn. I asked her to print it.

That’s when hell started for me.

Actually, the first wave seemed positive. I received letters and phone calls from women thanking me for asking for forgiveness. They told me their stories. The more abortion stories I heard, the more I was convinced there was much more going on than I knew. Neither the pro-life nor the pro-choice leaders could adequately explain and help all of the women I heard from.

The next wave came from Christians. The response lasted for years. It was a steady throttling of my entire reputation. I was a traitor. I was being used by the Devil. I hated women. I would burn in hell. I was not worthy to be a pastor. My wife should divorce me. (She laughed at that one. Her words: “This makes me love you so much more”).

And they never stopped. I got threatening phone calls and letters. I had my car keyed. My children heard the threats and the name-calling.

Many times I have regretted my letter. Though I have not changed my doubts about the pro-life movement, I do hate what it cost me. It cost me money, reputation, and the ability to work freely in our denomination. I am still labeled by people as a liberal democrat, which is profanity to evangelicals. (Note: I don’t vote. I’m Canadian. They frown on non-citizens voting in the US).

But the pro-choice side doesn’t trust me either. Unless I march for them, renounce all pro-lifers, stand for every element of their platform, I’m just a pastoral sell-out. And in all conscience, I can’t support all of the beliefs or the political machinations of the pro-choice movement either.

I also know many complications with reproductive decisions as a therapist which give me pause. Yet, I’m still an ordained pastor. Pro-choice groups would be wary of me even if I did wholeheartedly endorse the pro-choice cause.

Which brings me to the heart of this article. Pastors make really bad allies in social causes. And there are good reasons for it.

The Barna Group just published their study titled “Faith Leadership in a Divided Culture”. There are many facets to it, and I won’t break the entire study down here. But they draw one intriguing conclusion. Regardless of what they believe, pastors do not feel comfortable going public on social issues. Because so many people want them to, it is a painful mental position for most clergy, especially evangelicals.

I have led many seminars with pastors. I have privately counseled dozens of pastors also. I have many pastoral friends. Though I am primarily a therapist now, I still maintain many of those relationships. Over the years, I ask them privately about their beliefs on controversial subjects. What I have heard led me to a deep conviction.

Churches would be outraged and frightened if they knew what their pastors really believed.

I wrote for a publication devoted to Pastors and their issues. We regularly broached issues of sexuality, gender, gun control, abortion, porn, race, ableism, Bible inerrancy, hell, social justice, etc. In researching articles, I found that pastors were never as confident about what they believed as they came across from the pulpit.

In today’s contemporary world, the group that has left church is growing quickly. Many have been hurt by church. Many more self-identify by LGBTQ practices and beliefs. A number of evangelical pastors support gay marriage, pro-choice reproductive rights, universal healthcare, premarital sexuality, gun control, and an errant Bible.

But here is the kicker: Don’t expect very many of them to be great allies of your causes. And even if they do support your cause, don’t expect them to be very visible in the fight.

Why?

There are five very real reasons:

1. The Financial Cost is Too High for them and their families.

I can feel the collective rolling of the eyes at this one. But think carefully through this. Most pastors will lose their job if they publicly support gay marriage or any LGBTQ issues. If they’re an older pastor, that means a number of things. Their only skill is pastoring. Their only degree is theology. They cannot pay their bills without doing it. They cannot afford to get retrained. Many would lose their retirement and their support network. The older they are, the more hefty the price.

But what about the younger pastor? They also have much to lose. The older pastors got a cheaper education. They bought their homes when it was cheaper. Today’s young pastor has $100,000 in student loan debt. They may have no house. They have few assets. And they too are trained to do one thing. Most of them are married. Most have families. If they come out as supporting a cause which the congregation is against, they lose it all. I guarantee you, if you had spent that much on a career, you would be very careful about coming forward. You know you would, so don’t act so smug.

2. They are being pushed from both sides.

Not only do most of the pro-choice, LGBTQ, and social justice supporters want pastors to come out and completely support their agendas, the congregation is even more insistent that the pastor completely support the opposite agendas. And both groups are asking the pastor do this publicly. It is one thing for any of us to hold our own personal beliefs. But when the entire world demands you make statements about it all the time, it causes a lot of strain.

Many pastors deal with this by not committing completely to any position. I have witnessed this recently on gay marriage. Pastors who I know support the position have begun to waffle on that support. Why? Making a firm decision means they can make only one set of announcements. It will mean alienating an entire group of people. They don’t want to alienate either group. So in order to avoid the cognitive dissonance that comes with believing one thing and saying another, they just do not make up their minds. It is easier to deal with that way.

Conservative talk-show host Chuck Baldwin read that Barna’s group in 2014 said 90% of American pastors were reluctant to speak on social issues from the pulpit. Here was his response:

It is time for Christians to acknowledge that these ministers are not pastors; they are CEOs. They are not Bible teachers; they are performers. They are not shepherds; they are hirelings,” he said. “It is also time for Christians to be honest with themselves: do they want a pastor who desires to be faithful to the Scriptures?”

But what the congregation doesn’t know–and probably Baldwin as well–is that some of these pastors are not speaking because they disagree with what the congregation believes. And they know the congregation would not listen if they tried to outline their personal journey to what they currently believe.

We all saw what evangelicalism did to Rob Bell when he tried to lay out the nuances and intricacies of the doctrine of hell. And he even admitted 3 times in his book that hell exists. He was run out of evangelicalism. All pastors saw that and cringed.

3. They don’t talk to enough supportive voices.

When pastors get together, they ask each other probing questions to see if other pastors are safe. They ask each other about social issues and doctrinal positions to see which of their pastoral friends can keep confidence with them. Few pastors will go out on the limb and reveal the areas in which they have personal doubts. As a result, no one really knows each other’s true positions on critical issues.

For example, I happen to know from anonymous surveys we did with the magazine that almost half of evangelical pastors hesitate to fully support some aspects of Bible inerrancy. But they will not tell each other. Inerrancy is the watershed issue for all evangelicals. If you fail that test, you are not part of the movement. On the other hand, because they do not come out publicly questioning the tenets of inerrancy, they do not really know if others are on the same page with doubts. There are no forums which allow pastors to acknowledge their doctrinal/ethical struggles.

When I wrote my letter to the editor, only one other pastor in town supported my position. Paul and I became very close friends and I relied on him for emotional nurture. He found one other pastor who supported me but who was afraid to openly tell me. The three of us got together weekly to help each other. Without them, I may have given up what I had come to believe.

Pastors today have close friends in their congregations. That is a positive change from years past. However, because of this, the church is where a lot of their support network comes from. If they disagree with the church on social issues, where will their support come from?

4. They can’t support all of the issues that progressives support, so they often don’t make friends there either.

I had one progressive Christian tell me recently that unless a pastor comes out in favor of every single thing that progressives believe, they don’t want to have anything to do with them. My question is this: How then will pastors ever find enough support for moving into social issue discussions if they must always accept black and white answers? I have no idea how to solve this one. Perhaps if there are some bridge people to help pastors move gradually from one position to another, we will see breakthroughs.

I have tried to do that in my counseling office with them. Pastors will tell me things in the therapeutic setting they have never shared with other clergy. I am not referring to dark secrets concerning abuse, adultery, or marriage problems. They tell me their doubts about hell, drug and alcohol use, moral values, and egalitarianism. I help them work through the difficulties as best I can. But I know from experience they will find few people on either side of those positions who will stand with them unless they accept every other issue on their agenda.

5. They still read the Bible and the certain approaches to the Bible can make it difficult to support some things.

When I first became egalitarian in doctrine, everyone threw 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 at me. Women had to be silent. Women had to be submissive. Women were not allowed in leadership. Blah, blah, blah. At the time, I didn’t have many answers. I just knew that I believed men and women were equal. Galatians was my book at that time. I knew in Christ we were neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile. But I hadn’t wrestled with the other issues yet. It took me several years to work through it.

Fortunately, at that time, many scholars were beginning to examine the Scriptures and found legitimate exegetical approaches to these passages. But it still took me years to be fully convinced of finer aspects of egalitarian marriage. It took me even longer to work out where the Bible sat on those finer aspects.

I went through the same process with the abortion issues. I finally settled on what I believe the Bible stipulates on abortion to my own satisfaction.

There are many pastors today at various stages in examining social issues. Because they teach from the pulpit and are often involved with establishing doctrine for their churches and denominations, they cannot glibly come to new positions. It takes them time. This makes them really bad allies. They can’t jump into a fray when they’re not convinced yet which side they’re on.

Many of you want church leaders to be your allies. They probably won’t be. Or at the very least, they won’t be quick about it. And when they do support your position, it may only be one aspect of the package. If this frustrates you, then know it frustrates them as well.

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