I served 27 years as a pastor, the last 15 of them in a wonderfully supportive and healthy congregation. Even so, mistrust in the narthex, rooted in our toxic culture, is part of what led me toward the church exit five years ago. My decision provides one more example of how external forces are altering the dynamics of all churches. These dynamics make pastors’ jobs — never easy — even harder today.
I always was to the left of the churches I served, because, well, the Galilean crucified by the Romans also was to their left, and mine too, as he stood with those Howard Thurman called the “disinherited,” with “their backs against the wall.”
Even so, my attempts to tug churches in the direction of social justice never really were a problem, in part because my people always knew I respected them even if they disagreed with me. I often preached, “If you’ve never disagreed with anything I’ve said from this pulpit, then one of two things is true: Either I’m not much of a preacher, or you’re not much of a Baptist.” This helped keep the peace in my churches, as did my awesome trustworthiness, which was surpassed only by my awesome humility.
But really, I’ve always been that guy people trusted. Friends in high school confided their problems to me, and typically boards and committees end up asking me to chair. Down the home stretch as a pastor, however, a certain percentage of people I served went from disagreeing with me to doubting my motives. And so there I was, the same Chris I’d always been, trying to figure out why, 25 years into being a pastor, I was experiencing this personal mistrust for the first time because of stances I had taken on social issues.
Recently, however, I gained new clarity on what was going on, thanks, rather surprisingly, to two comedians.
“We are living in a post-intention time right now …. Nobody wants to hear about intention or context, which makes everything very black and white.”
On his podcast, Al Franken was discussing with fellow comedian Sarah Silverman an edgy bit she had done a few years before, which she now regrets. Of the backlash she received at the time, Franken began, “But if your intention was right ….” Silverman, however, interjected: “But we are living in a post-intention time right now, where intention doesn’t matter. Nobody wants to hear about intention or context, which makes everything very black and white.”
That phrase, “post-intention time,” struck me, and I immediately saw it applied to my final few years as a pastor.
Like all pastors, I sometimes made mistakes, but my people always knew I had good intentions. I have long defined a church as “a group of people, trying to follow God the best they can, together.” And I think it’s fair to say my people always sensed that, right or wrong in their eyes, I was trying to follow God and had good intentions. Sadly, in this culture, my good intentions ceased to matter to some folks, because my stance on an issue put me on the wrong side of the black-and-white divide Silverman described.
So, what are churches and pastors to do in this post-intention time?
First, pastors need to be as relational and transparent as they can be. This won’t erase the effects of our toxic culture, but it will mitigate against them.
Second, pastors should explain their intentions more fully than might have been necessary before. I get it, pastors: You are not trying to drive your church into the arms of Satan or push some godless agenda. Yes, that should go without saying. But sadly, maddeningly, people on Fox are singing a different tune about you 24-7-365, and over against this, you get one hour a week.
Church members need to stand up to fellow church members who don’t seem to want to trust the pastor.
Third, church members need to stand up to fellow church members who don’t seem to want to trust the pastor because of some stand they took. Conventional wisdom with conflict generally, and church conflict specifically, is, “Don’t personalize it.” Well, I beg to differ. When church members go beyond disagreeing with a pastor and begin doubting whether a pastor can be trusted, things already are personalized. So, name that reality and push back against it. Fox is a knives-out organization, yet pastors are called to bring Bibles to knife-fights. Your pastors won’t say it to you, so I will: Sometimes they need people fighting for them when their trustworthiness is on the line.
May we someday return to a time where intentions weigh what they should on the scale of human relations. As the Jews say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” But for now, we’ve got to figure out how to live in the post-intention world of this year.
Chris Caldwell is a member of the faculty and administration at Simmons College of Kentucky, a historic Black college founded in 1879. He also is chair of the BNG board.