The tragic violence of two mass shootings in a span of 13 hours in different parts of the country continues to weigh heavily on the hearts and consciences of many in our nation. Based upon their social media posts and our conversations together, the reactions among my friends and congregants have ranged from disbelief to outrage to sorrow to a sense of numbness due to the sheer number of times we’ve experienced this as a nation.
And for those with larger audiences, there was mostly the usual refrain of public statements. From politicians, we heard assurances of “thoughts and prayers” to victims and families and praise for first responders. As a pastor and person of faith, I welcome and appreciate any prayers on behalf of fellow members of God’s family. We can and should pray for one another in times of tragedy.
Yet, like countless others have articulated, I demand more of our public servants beyond their thoughts and prayers. We need action. We need sensible legislation. We need accountability. The Epistle of James is clear – our faith is useless unless we are moved to act with compassion for our brothers and sisters.
“Congregational life is much too nuanced and specific for such blanket statements.”
In the immediate aftermath of these shootings, there was another refrain that is becoming common – this time from faith leaders. Saturday evening, I read several exhortations along these lines: “If your pastor does not call out white supremacy and gun violence tomorrow in worship, it’s time to find another church.”
Respected authors and speakers like Diana Butler Bass and Jonathan Merritt hinted at or outright demanded that pastors preach about white supremacy and gun violence in the pulpit the next day; to do otherwise, they argued, would be an abdication of our pastoral vows and a betrayal of Christ.
Can we please stop doing this?
I have great admiration and respect for Bass and Merritt, but in this case their words are hurtful and unhelpful. For the record, I did address the mass shootings in a time of prayer as well as during my sermon. But even if I hadn’t, I would still feel this way.
First, persons making such proclamations are not in relationship with my congregation. I am. I think that puts me in a better position to divine the word my congregation needs to hear. Ministry 101 teaches us that context is everything. Congregational life is much too nuanced and specific for such blanket statements. These proclamations can’t begin to understand what a particular congregation may be dealing with, celebrating or grieving on a particular Sunday.
Second, such statements seem to indicate that a sermon is the only or best time for such a prophetic word to be offered. Many churches I know march against gun violence, protest systemic racism within their communities and generously serve their brothers and sisters in need. If a church like this heard a different sermon Sunday than these proclamations would demand, are they somehow less faithful than the church down the street that heard a sermon on gun violence but then failed to enact the Gospel’s teachings during the week? Of course not.
Moreover, I trust we recognize that the ministry of Christ on earth – proclaiming peace and not violence, love and not hate – is a calling for all of us, not simply the one in the pulpit.
Third, these statements often come from persons who do not preach week in and week out. If they did, I think they might reconsider their demands.
I do preach most Sundays. And in the past several years, I’ve lost count of the number of times when, late Saturday evening or early Sunday morning, I’ve scrapped the sermon I prayerfully prepared the previous week and wrote another one in an effort to be faithful and address a national or world crisis, violent event, or racist or sexist words and actions by those in power. How often must we do this? I, for one, am exhausted.
“In these difficult days, let’s commit to lift up our clergy, to pray for and encourage them, not to shame them.”
I’m tired of staying up late Saturday and waking up early Sunday rewriting my sermon because someone with a military assault rifle wanted to inflict mass harm. I’m tired of jumping up from the table and finishing supper in my office on Saturday evening to rewrite. I’m tired of cancelling Saturday evenings out with my wife so that I can rewrite. I’m tired of telling my children to watch the movie without me because I need to rewrite.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I take seriously the vows I made at my ordination. I am committed to pastoral ministry with all my heart. And I realize what faithful ministry asks of me – that I must occasionally scrap my best-laid plans and chart a new course. But I’m tired. I can’t do this every week.
The days in which we live are especially difficult for pastors and congregations. Every conversation seems to be so politicized that relationships are strained and often broken. This affects the church in deep and powerful ways. So at the risk of sounding self-serving, in these difficult days, let’s commit to lift up our clergy, to pray for and encourage them, not to shame them.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of several opinion articles by our columnists and regular opinion contributors, along with several unsolicited submissions, written in the aftermath of mass shootings on Aug. 3 in El Paso, Texas, and Aug. 4 in Dayton, Ohio.
Wendell Griffen | I’m a pastor who refuses to offer ‘thoughts and prayers’ for these people
Steve Harmon | The root of our inability to end gun violence is spiritual, but not in the way many think
Also on this topic:
Daniel Bagby | Letter to the editor