Saturday, January 28, 2017

For my Dear Lay Leaders, who wish their pastor would take a stronger stand for Justice

Dear wonderful, strong, beautiful committed lay leaders, who wish your pastor would take a stronger stand for justice,

I love you. The church couldn't function without you. Not only physically, but spiritually. The fire in your belly is holy, your dissatisfaction with the church keeps us honest.

And I know that we, your pastors, are largely failing you right now. We haven't given you the tools from our tradition that will help you in your resistance to the evil in the world around us. We aren't preaching the sermons you need, we aren't taking the public stands that you know the church should be taking.

And some of you have very specific pastors you're thinking of right now, pastors you love, but wish would be better.

Dear friends, as someone who hears what those pastors say behind closed doors, your pastors wish they could be better too.

And they need you to help them.

Your pastors, it's true, are afraid for their jobs. You pay their paychecks, and keeping you at least some level of satisfied is pretty essential to them being able to feed their families. All this is true.

But it's also true that your pastors are genuinely worried that if they speak too strongly, get "to far ahead" of their congregations, they'll lose you. They want to be able to continue to influence you, and they fear if they speak too strongly you'll stop listening to them all together. Because they don't really know that you want them to speak out.

And they love you. I don't know if you know, dear lay leaders in the church, how much your pastors love you, as people. And it's hard to say hard things to the people you love, to make them uncomfortable, to disappoint them.

Maybe this makes them weak, it's true. Your pastors are weak. We'd like to be stronger. You probably wish that your pastor would be the kind of person who can do the hard, uncomfortable thing, risking life and limb and livelihood, refusing to care about what people think of them. Your pastor probably wishes they could be that kind of person too.

But they're human, and the uncomfortable truth about humans is that most of us need a community to help us be our best. And you, dear lay leaders, can be that community for your pastor.

Have you talked to your pastor about this?

And, dear lay leaders, have you talked to your pastor in a loving, challenging, faith-filled way, trying not to attack or be too critical? It is hard, I know, and maybe impossible, but if you can get to "I'd love to support you in taking more risks, standing up for what we both believe," you'll be more powerful than if you say "Your sermons are boring and irrelevant."

Look, this isn't fair. It's true. But we believe that lay people are just as likely to be doing the work of God as the clergy, and sometimes this means even with and for your clergy.

And-even harder, can you not only ask your pastor to stand up, speak out, but can you promise to have her back when she does? Can you promise him that when you hear other congregation members criticize him in the parking lot, you'll join the conversation and turn it another direction? Will you promise her that if her bold stance gets attacked in the congregational meeting, you'll stand up and speak to your siblings in Christ about how she was being faithful to the prophetic call?

It's hard, I know. It's terrifying. Especially speaking up at a congregational meeting. Telling a roomful of the ones you love and go to church with and don't want to hurt something they don't want to hear. It will take courage. Right?

Right. The same courage it will take for your pastor to do those things in the first place.

Encourage her, encourage him. You have so much more power than you think. You are waiting for your pastor to take a stand, but the hard, human truth is, your pastor might be waiting for you to.

You, also, dear lay leaders, do the work of God. You speak the words of the Spirit, just like we do. By your work, the church can take a bolder stand, can reclaim its prophetic voice, can be Christ in the world.

Help your pastors, dear lay leaders. We need you now.


  1. Thanks very much for your post, but it strikes me as extremely foreign to my experience. In my opinion, the very last thing most pastors in the ELCA value are the thoughts, or dare I even say, insights, of lay leaders. (I'm not even sure what a lay leader is, tbh.) When I read, "[W]e believe that lay people are just as likely to be doing the work of God as the clergy," who is the "we" in that statement? Yes, I have certainly met a small handful of pastors who would support such an assertion, but generally speaking I don't think the average ELCA pastor has been trained to even think in these terms.

    I've spent a great deal of time in the Roman Catholic Church, The Episcopal Church, and the ELCA. I've been quite active at all three expressions of the ELCA, and I can honestly say that at least in my experience, the ELCA is by far the most clerical church of the three. Our church, at its very best, is church for the sake of the world. Mostly though, we are the church for the sake of the church, and far too often, we are simply church for the sake of employing the pastor—-which I think is why we have more pastors now than when the ELCA was founded, while the lay membership in congregations continues to decline rapidly.

    1. I'm so glad you shared this here, even though it is painful to read.

      I believe you. And your experience shows how badly the ELCA has failed to live up to our ideals. In theory, we (meaning, as I did on the blog, Lutherans, and most other protestants) believe in the priesthood of all believers. That is, that God uses all people of faith, and that clergy, although we have some specific jobs to do, are no more holy, no closer to God, than anyone else.

      "Lay Leader" means any leader who is not ordained or consecrated- any leader who isn't clergy. So council members and Sunday school teachers and worship leaders and trusted voices and volunteers, etc. Perhaps my using the term was an example of the problem itself.

      I am so, so sorry that we, the ELCA, failed you, and didn't value your thoughts and insights. I'm committed to trying to do better.