“Make your peace with being honest in ministry today. Don’t wait until you’re older or find the ‘perfect’ church. If you aren’t honest today, you may never make it that far.”
I was a youth minister when my pastor and mentor told me that. As a recent seminary graduate with a call to pastoral leadership, I was looking to the future and asking for advice to get there. As usual, my pastor’s advice was less concerned with where I was going and more concerned with who I was becoming.
Our church went through a process to become an open and affirming congregation in West Texas. It was messy, and I worried that if I left youth ministry for the pastorate, then I wouldn’t find a church where I could speak honestly about LGBTQ inclusion, women in ministry or racism.
I asked my pastor how long he held his tongue and worked the system before he shared what he really believed about those subjects. I took it for granted that I would keep my beliefs to myself. I just needed to know for how long. His response was unexpected.
Losing church members and losing sleep
I’m a senior pastor now, and I’ve tried to take my pastor’s words seriously. When George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor were killed, I told the truth about it as best I knew how. Black lives matter. My church lost members, and I lost sleep. That fall my friend, Jonathan Price, was murdered by a police officer, and I stopped second guessing.
Like most pastors, I’m asked to defend my decisions to speak out. This is especially true when I affirm that Black lives matter or advocate for LGBTQ inclusions and women in ministry. Each decision cost my church members and caused even some who consider themselves allies to question whether or not my decisions were prudent.
What I want to say in response is that yes, it may cost something today, but the advice my pastor gave me is true for the American church as well. If the church in America doesn’t tell the truth about God’s desire for justice and inclusion today, in clear language, then there may not be much of a church at all in 30 years. The stakes are higher than most imagine. The continuity of the American church is not a given like it once was. It must be fought for.
Young people leaving churches
My generation is as passionate about the things of God — justice, mercy and love — as any before us. They just don’t see the church as a place to do those things, so they’re finding other places to invest their time and talents.
It isn’t because they are bored with the worship style or don’t find the preacher charismatic enough. It’s because the deeper things of the church so rarely align with the deeper things of God.
“These pastors do believe in inclusion and justice. They just don’t believe they can tell the truth about it in their congregations.”
The great irony and tragedy is that now I know so many of the pastors at the churches my friends are leaving, and these pastors do believe in inclusion and justice. They just don’t believe they can tell the truth about it in their congregations.
These pastors are rightly afraid that if they do speak up, then people will leave, income will decrease, and the church’s reputation will be tarnished. If the budget drops, then they can’t feed as many hungry people or cloth as many needy children. If they get a reputation for being too liberal, then they will lose mission partners. These aren’t hypotheticals.
There are real and pressing concerns that keep pastors bridled, despite their personal beliefs. Very seldom do pastors hold their tongues because they lack courage. It’s almost always because they are doing exactly what Jesus recommends and counting the cost.
Count the future cost
It isn’t courage we lack, it’s a ledger that weighs future losses as heavily as present ones.
For every person who remains in our church today only because we hold our tongues on matters of inclusion and justice, how many people are we sacrificing in 10 years because we did not speak? How many people who want to see a just world don’t see the church as a viable partner in the struggle because of our silence?
“It isn’t courage we lack, it’s a ledger that weighs future losses as heavily as present ones.”
I talked with a pastor a few months ago who left ministry during the pandemic. It was the right choice for his family, but he lamented never speaking openly to his church about women in ministry. He started doing so on Facebook after he left, and to his astonishment, many of the congregants he believed to be in opposition were supportive. He doesn’t regret leaving, but he is haunted by the “what ifs.”
What if he had invited a woman to preach in February for Baptist Women in Ministry month? What if he had told his church he wanted to ordain women deacons?
His own adult daughter no longer was a churchgoer, and it weighed heavy on his heart. The biggest question he wrestled with was what if she had seen a woman in the pulpit or on staff. Would she still have left the church believing it wasn’t a place that valued her gifts?
In a viral commencement address, Jim Carrey tells the story of his father’s choice to become an accountant instead of a comedian because it was safer. Eventually, he was laid off from his accounting job anyway. Carrey says he learned from his father that it was possible to fail at what we don’t even want to do.
When pastors count the cost and choose not to speak out, it’s still no guarantee that their churches will thrive. The pandemic illustrated the paradox that our churches are both more fragile and more resilient than we imagine. On the one hand, pastors who make all the right decisions still lead dying churches. On the other, churches who have no right to still be alive somehow find ways to survive and even thrive.
“When pastors count the cost and choose not to speak out, it’s still no guarantee that their churches will thrive.”
Church health is no excuse to delay proclaiming justice.
If the church of the future is going to thrive, then our leaders must start telling the truth more clearly today. The game is changing. The American church is in trouble, and the pandemic sped up its decline.
Speak now, before you retire
If there’s a plea I could make to pastors in the second half of their careers, it is to speak your truth before you retire. Don’t wait until afterward; don’t carry your convictions into retirement with you. If you don’t tell your church that you affirm women in ministry, support LGBTQ inclusion or affirm the intrinsic value of Black lives before you retire, then your predecessor won’t be able to either. Not for many years.
The church may not have that long to wait.
You have the freedom to take the risk and speak out for the things you truly believe in today. You have the freedom young pastors who are paying off loans and saving for their children’s education don’t have.
Take the risk. Speak your truth.
Without fail, each time I write or speak about these things, a pastor in the second half of his or her career will pull me aside or email me to tell me how grateful they are that my generation is able to say the things that theirs cannot. They confess their allyship in private emails and in quiet hallway nooks, but they remain silent on the same issues in their churches.
“The church in America desperately needs pastors to speak their truth to congregations today.”
The church in America desperately needs pastors to speak their truth to congregations today. Don’t leave it for another generation to tackle. It is better to leave the church in conflict because it engaged in honest conversation than to hand it down to its next pastor mistaking the absence of conflict for peace. Besides, you might be surprised by what happens.
My church is seeing what many others testify about — that people are joining precisely because we engage the issues of the day. If it’s true for us in Oklahoma, then it should be true nearly anywhere.
Young ministers not absolved either
If there’s encouragement I could give to other young pastors, it’s the same advice my pastor gave me. Learn to tell the truth now and make peace with putting the rest in God’s hands. We might not have the opportunity to do so tomorrow.
The fate of the church is not on the shoulders of young ministers, but neither does that absolve our responsibility. The only way we can carry our share of the burden (and only our share) is to prize faithfulness over effectiveness. It is by judging ourselves more by whether we’re good Christians and less by whether we’re good pastors. The former should take care of the later, but when it doesn’t, then those are the times when it’s most important to choose being a good Christian.
Allies needed among lay leaders
Now, to any congregants who are still reading. Encourage your pastors. Make sure they know that you won’t only send them private emails, but you’ll voice your support in Sunday school and committee meetings. Let your pastor know that you’re affirming and that when they feel like the time is right, you’ll be there beside them.
“Let your pastor know that you’re affirming and that when they feel like the time is right, you’ll be there beside them.”
For God’s sake, don’t be the congregant who says, “I agree with you, but the time isn’t right.” Or “I’m all for BLM, but our church is too fragile right now.” It sounds way too similar to the Pharisees telling Jesus, “There are six days on which to heal, can’t you come on one of those days instead of the Sabbath?”
The time isn’t right, they protested. But the time is always right for healing and truth-telling. And the work is too hard to manage without the support of allies. Be an ally even when things aren’t perfect.
This work is not going to get easier in the decades to come. The health of the church and our own souls are tied up together, and they always have been. Pastors and church leaders, regardless of age, must make their peace with telling the truth in ministry today, come what may. We are not guaranteed tomorrow.
Jakob Topper serves as pastor of NorthHaven Baptist Church in Norman, Okla.
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