I wrote two posts last week about the importance for pastors to tell the truth, and it generated a suprising amount of debate — both on the side of saying that there is never a good reason to lie as well as those defending the need for strategic fabrication and misinformation. For many, truth is a gray area — there is no simple black and white, right or wrong to the issue. But the discussion triggered a staggering number of personal emails sharing stories about broken trust and the damage done by not telling the truth, as well as telling the truth inappropriately.
- a pastor who preached using a couple from the congregation going through a divorce as an illustration
- a pastor who actively covered for a staff person having an affair by telling her spouse that he (the pastor) didn’t know where the staff person was when she was playing around
- a pastor who leaked a laity leader’s drinking problem to pressure the person to resign his position
- a lay leader who started vicious rumors about each new pastor he didn’t care for
- a pastor chronically telling whoever he is talking to what he thinks they want to hear so they will leave him alone
- a treasurer who refuses to let anyone else see the church financial records, so that no one but her knows that the congregation is on the verge of a total collapse
- a pastor who knows he is leaving the church reassuring parishioners that he isn’t going anywhere
- a district superintendent telling a church there is no plan to move the pastor after the decision has already been made
- a pastor sharing publically who voted for and against a controversial decision in a closed meeting
- a pastor publishing the names of all the church members giving-to-date in a “special” church newsletter
What are we thinking? Look at the list again. Which of these things looks like a good idea? If a group of church people got together and studied the list, how many of these things would they like to try themselves? I am hoping the answer is “none.”
Trust is so fragile. Many people will begin by extending a certain measure of trust, but once it is broken, it is so hard to rebuild. It is perhaps so precious because it is so fragile. Telling the truth inappropriately is almost as bad as lying. It can do catastrophic damage. This last week’s lectionary passage from James pointed out what a potentially toxic and virulent thing the tongue can be. The author emphasizes the need for teachers and leaders to “tame the tongue,” so that it offers only praises and blessings rather than curses. But this still begs the question: why is it so easy to use the tongue as a weapon rather than a tool?
Three troubling attitudes have popped up out of this whole discussion:
- people can’t handle the truth, so it is better to keep it from them
- pastors have the wisdom to know what people have a right to know and what they do not
- avoiding conflict and unpleasantness is our highest value
The number of pastors who defend lying as a way of protecting the congregation is high. So is the fear that scandal might tarnish our image, and if there is a dark secret in the family, it is best hidden so that people won’t leave the church. One pastor actually told me, “I will not share any information that could reflect badly on the integrity of the Christian church.” Think about this for a moment. Withholding negative information to protect integrity. Act without integrity to insure integrity. Kind of like using guns to insure peace. It may work and in some cases be the best course of action, but is it right? There is an insidious subtext that lay people don’t have the coping and processing skills to understand what is going on. I find this incredibly insulting. Having done mediation work for two decades, it is laity leadership more often than clergy leadership that is the key to reconciliation and health. This leads to the second troubling attitude.
The vast majority of emails I receive from pastors state unequivocally that they know when it is right to tell the truth and when it is acceptable to lie. Pastors “know” what is right. I wonder how they come to such confidence? One pastor wrote to me saying, “I pray about every decision I make. I take very seriously what I will say and what I will not. We went through <a terrible experience> in my church that simply made it impossible to tell people what was actually happening. It was in prayer that I received the story that we told the congregation. You may call it lying, but for me it was a case of spiritual discernment, and I have no doubt that it was the right thing to do.” Hard to argue with such conviction, but forgive me if I read in this a smidge of rationalization and delusion. The concept of the Spirit of God directing spiritual leaders to lie is unnerving to me. I believe that sensitive decisions should be made in community with other leaders and not fall to the shoulders of any one individual, including the pastor. I never knew for sure what others “needed” to know. I always saw the pastoral ministry as a journey with the congregation, not me up front with everyone else following behind. It is obvious that my bias is toward full disclosure and total transparency. When there was a breach in the spiritual family, the whole spiritual family dealt with it — whether it was financial, sexual, personal or other. Perhaps I never had the kind of earth-shattering crisis that could have destroyed the Christian church for all time, but I did have the kinds of experiences that might have destroyed the congregation if handled poorly. I was fortunate to pastor three churches that all wanted to address problems and conflict rather than avoid them.
This is the third attitude that has been prevalent — don’t make waves. Keeping the peace at all costs and making sure that people don’t get upset is a high priority. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, however the desire is so strong that it causes people to justify lying as an appropriate peace-keeping strategy. The emails I have received contain a litany of cliches: “don’t rock the boat,” “what people don’t know won’t hurt them,” “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” “ignorance is bliss,” and “don’t ask, don’t tell,” among them. “I will not share anything that hurts people’s feelings, causes ill-will, or makes people uncomfortable at church,” writes one pastor. “I take the concept of ‘sanctuary’ very important. Church is one safe place where people can escape all the unpleasantness of the world. I am not going to allow problems behind the scene poison the congregation’s experience of safe, spiritual community.” This is a lovely sentiment, but at what cost?
For me — an I emphasize that this is my own personal observation — this whole issue is symptomatic of the larger issue of what it means to us to be “church” in the 21st century. For almost two thousand years, the “shepherd-sheep” model of church has been dominant. This is a deeply patronizing and limiting image, even though it is biblical. The minority model throughout the past two millenia is the one I would like to see dominate in the millennium to come: that of teacher-disciple. This is a much more empowering, edifying model — and equally as biblical. See, the problem with the shepherd-sheep model is that try as hard as you will, if you’re a sheep you can never become a shepherd. You will always be subservient and inferior to the shepherds (pastors?) who tend you. However, a disciple is in training to become a teacher. Followers can become leaders, learners can become teachers, disciples become stewards, mentors and guides. Shepherds protect their lambys from the wolves; teachers equip and train their students to protect themselves. Where “pastoral” ministry is locked into the traditional “shepherding” mentality, you can treat the sheep anyway you see fit — they won’t know any better. But where “disciple-making” ministry prevails, teachers have the highest commitment to equipping students to become trustworthy, honest, and respectful leaders themselves. The pathway toward healing broken trust is not through the sheep-pen, but into true spiritual community. It will take more than a shift of metaphor, but moving from the “shepherd-sheep” to the “teacher-disciple” worldview may be a very good first step.