A recent opinion piece by Tamie Ross in the Christian Chronicle gave me pause, primarily because it stirred up some less-than-pleasant memories of my own as well as recollections that have been shared with me by friends who are church-supported ministers.
The article focuses on the way that ministers’ families are often treated by churches. She relates the feeling that many ministers’ spouses and children have of being constantly held under a spotlight and judged: on their behavior, their appearance, and other details. Often, the pressure on the minister’s family is greater than the pressure on the minister. Lest I be accused of exaggeration, I share this story: a friend of mine was once told by a member of the congregation where he preached that he (the member) voted to hire my friend because he (the member) thought that my friend had a hot wife. Sound criteria for selecting a spiritual leader, huh? I don’t know what bothers me more: that a brother could think that way or that he would feel comfortable admitting to it other than as a confession.
As appalling as that story is, I think that it is symptomatic of a much larger problem: the ever-expanding discrepancy between what we do want from our ministers and what we should want from our ministers, and how we treat them as a result. Consider the following:
· A friend of mine who recently completed a long search for his first preaching job was requested by almost every church where he applied to send a picture of himself and his family along with the usual materials that one would submit for an interview. Certain questions spring to mind: Could a potential employer in any other profession get away with such a request? Why the picture of the family? Did they want to make sure that his kids all looked like him? That nobody in the family was ugly or deformed? This friend also shared that during one interview he was asked who he voted for in the last presidential election. I will leave it to the reader to contemplate the implications of that question.
· Two friends who are single (egad!) have shared their stories about trying to find a ministry position without a family as a selling point. Both of these guys are committed believers, diligent students of the Word, and gifted preachers. Both of them have found over the years that most churches are indifferent to the qualifications listed above because they do not have a ring on the third finger of their left hands.
· Look at the job listings for ministers from any brotherhood periodical or Christian college website: almost all of them require a wife and children. What if a preacher or his wife happens to be sterile? Does that mean that they have no favor with God?
· Another preacher I know had corrective surgery on his jaw (as a result of a childhood birth anomaly). His jaw was to be wired shut for six weeks and of course, preaching during that time was out of the question. The elders’ response? They promised to pray for his recovery and then fired him.
· Take a look at this excerpt posted on Mike Cope’s blog from an ad in the Chronicle.
I could go on, but I believe that you get the point.
These stories and others that I have heard and seen leave me convinced that many churches have added to, warped, modified, and knotted up the expectations of ministers to the point where the job descriptions given by most churches bear almost no resemblance to Scripture (see 2 Cor. 5:20, Eph. 4:11, 2 Tim. 4:5, 1 Thes. 3:2, etc.). We don’t want pastors, we want politicians. We want them to look like TV newscasters, have a pretty and compliant wife, and kids straight out of a 50s sitcom. Rather than modeling the power, redemption, joy, renewal, and depth of life in Christ, we want them to model middle-class homogeneity, upward mobility, and comfort.
I am trying hard not to generalize. Note that not once have I used the words all, every, or always in reference to churches. I know that there are many ministers out there who work for congregations that love them, their families, and sincerely appreciate the work that they do. Praise God for that. However, I believe that the problems described in the preceding paragraphs are common enough to warrant some long-overdue attention. Our priorities on this matter need some serious reshuffling.
What about you, gentle reader? Have you seen or heard about any incidents like what I described above? More importantly, what will it take to instate some genuine and broad changes on this issue? Comments are encouraged. (Please be discreet enough to protect the confidentiality of those involved.) Peace.