By Jeff Brumley
Stressful times for the nation, it turns out, translate into especially stressful times for pastors.
That fact was the focus of Tuesday’s Baptist News Global column — titled “A humble plea: Go easy on your pastor” — by Corey Fields, associate pastor of First Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.
For months now there have been heated conversations about police brutality, religious freedom, hate crimes and terrorism. The Supreme Court this year alone has decided cases involving same-sex marriage, health care and the death penalty, Fields wrote.
With so much happening at once, tensions are at a peak and opinions are set, he said.
“This makes it a challenging time to be a leader of any church, regardless of theological persuasion,” Fields said.
Some pastors told BNG they agree it’s one of the toughest times they’ve had as pastors and preachers trying to negotiate everything from marriage equality to the Charleston church shootings.
What makes it all so challenging is gracefully handling passionately opposed viewpoints in a single congregation, some ministers say. Even churches largely in agreement on issues like gay marriage are moving cautiously, another Baptist pastor told BNG.
The bottom line is it’s hard to find a minister who isn’t struggling through the nation’s ongoing social and political upheaval, the ministers said.
‘Deliberate political statements’
“I do think that the balance between us as pastors being pastoral, and trying to be shepherds with personal convictions, is something that’s been thrown into the forefront in the last few weeks,” said Chris Aho, pastor of Oxford (N.C.) Baptist Church.
Aho said his congregation incudes long-time supporters of same-sex marriage and those who have long opposed it on religious grounds. The high court’s June 26 ruling legalizing the practice doesn’t mean anyone is changing their position on the issue, he said.
And it also doesn’t clear Aho to start performing same-sex weddings or to preach for or against them on Sunday mornings, he said.
“I don’t ever use the pulpit as a place for me to make deliberate political statements,” he said. “That’s not the tradition of preaching I have been brought up in.”
‘Our finest hour’
But navigating that delicate line can have perils of its own, especially when some church members want their pastor to be outspoken on hot-button issues.
That’s a situation Greg Deloach said he can identify with.
That kind of pressure usually comes “through email and conversation” in which “folks will want anything from condemnation, statements of support, compassion, or [to] just leave it alone,” Deloach, pastor at First Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., told BNG in an email.
While racism and gay marriage certainly are upping the stress for ministers, Deloach said, such seasons really are nothing new.
“Over the years the stories of the world can become lightning rods to anxious individuals who bring their fear into the sanctuary,” he said. “My experience has been that there are times when this can be our finest hour and there are times in which the silence is humiliatingly deafening.”
‘A chain of command’
But not all pastors are experiencing current tensions as anything out of the ordinary.
“This is what it’s always like,” said John Jay Alvaro, pastor of Spring Creek Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.
“Everything from gay marriage to how we speak about our missions expenditures at the end of the fiscal year” is stressful, he said.
Alvaro said it also makes his life easier by relying on his elders when it comes to dicey social topics.
“I have a chain of command I call on with these things,” he said.
It’s already been made clear to him he can, for example, perform a same-sex wedding as a minister outside the church.
“If I hold one in the church and don’t tell them, I’m in hot water,” he said.
In his personal conversations and on social media, Alvaro added, he avoids taking strident stands on issues that can be divisive in a congregation where people are of two minds on gay marriage and other issues.
“I’m trying to be gracious to both,” he said.
‘Burden of the calling’
Some clergy see the ongoing national debates as another avenue to be shepherds.
“For me this is an opportunity as a pastor to offer perspective,” said Merianna Harrelson, pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Fellowship in Lexington, S.C.
It’s also a chance “to be compassionate to those still wrestling with those issues,” she said.
But even the marriage equality ruling doesn’t mean the matter is settled at Emmanuel Baptist, which is a welcoming and affirming church, Harrelson said.
“We have never had a wedding in our church,” gay or straight, she said.
“We have decided it’s going to be a case-by-case decision,” she said.
Having to work through these things has been intense, she added.
“I have never had back-to-back weeks like this.”
But pastors have to know going into their callings that navigating social divisions, inside and outside the church, comes with the job.
“We can’t expect people to understand the burden of the calling,” she said.