Well, I managed to make it to four different church music programs for Christmas -- one on each coast and two in the greater Chicago area each of a different denomination. They were simply stunning and, indeed, overwhelming and moved me to tears. Rarely does the church achieve such levels of overweening pride and hypocrisy then in their music programs -- and, it seems, especially during the Christmas season. These are performances, purely and completely, and are treated as such by the congregants. The stupendous, thunderous applause after the first performance I saw on the east coast, left me bewildered. As I looked around at the rapturous faces, they clearly had greatly enjoyed the performance. Did they realize the music was not for them but for the worship of the Christ child? Subsequently at the reception, they spoke of the music with reverence and devotion. Yet in all their praise for the performance and the performers, the language of faith was nowhere to be heard. This was not a large church -- the musicians and choir were all amateurs led by an enthusiast. The pride the congregation had in the choir and their musicians was apparent in the frequently expressions of gratitude and appreciation for their efforts -- including statements that 'no other church in the surround cities had anything as good'. Clearly this was a performance competition and the needs of worship, faith, and life were not a priority. I do praise the choir members and the musicians for their efforts but there needs to a substantial reappraisal of the purpose of music in the church worship service. At each of the four performances I attended the results were deplorable and made me ashamed. Do they and their leaders realize they are not doing a performance? Have they given serious thought and effort to what makes music good in worship? Did they see their music as a gift to God? Did they see the music as a means to enrich the worship of all the congregation? Were the congregation given the chance to themselves worship by their own musical contributions? Was the music devoted to faith, to the Christ child? The unequivocal answer to each of these is a resounding NO!
Yes, not all of the four performances I attended were as bad as the others. Yet in each one, the sheer quality of their work was enough to drive one screaming from the church. Yes, yes, I know these are amateurs yet the focus on technical excellence was so keen that often the soul of the music itself was utterly lost replaced by a mechanical rigidity to the notes on the page. Yes, the notes sung and played were generally correct -- some errors came from a lack of ability (nothing to be ashamed with amateurs) but more often errors were due to vain struggle to be perfect. The enunciation of the words was hideous. Painful, painful, painful. Often you could not understand the words being sung. They knew what they were singing -- no doubt from many rehearsals and much effort. There was, however, a complete lack realization that the congregation was hearing it for the first time and that the articulation of the words must be precise and clear so they can understand what is being sung. This is even more necessary when sung in another language. The most telling criticism is with the "S" or soft "C" words that sounded more like the snakes of Slytherin with sibilants starting too soon and lasting well into the next several beats. I cringed at the near-whistling sounds in one performance as they did a special arrangement of "Silent Night". The sloppiness and slurring of the sibilants, the failure to enunciate sharply, and the overindulgent sentimentality of the singing meant that even as performances these were appalling. Apparently every music choir director out there thinks that slowing down the beat gives the choir a chance to emote and express their utter devotion. Au contraire! Where is that rigidity to the sheet music when they most need it? Some songs were simply painful in their ponderous slowness and the disgusting sentimentality. Vanity, vanity, vanity -- all is vanity. And to have this at Christmas time of all times.
At one of the performances, the congregants were simply left out. They did not even get to sing; their purpose was only to listen and appreciate the performance. At another performance, the congregants were given the chance to sing yet the choir made sure it had the upper hand, adding needless frills that made it impossible for congregants to sing for themselves however badly. In listening to comments during the reception, certain choir members and the director themselves blatantly made it clear that music was far too important to be left to the 'untutored masses'. Frankly, snotty remarks were made that 'Only the choir could truly carry forth the difficult, sublime work of singing' and non-choir members listening in on the conversation nodded their approval. Pastors seemed to have completely abdicated their responsibility to ensure worship and let the choir directors do whatever they wish. In none of the performances I saw did the choirs or organists help the congregation to sing for themselves, none aided the musical worship of those in the pews. Pastors sat by and let it happen like a piano roll.
The choices in what was sung only made matters worse. There seems to be two extremes that allow no hope for worship. I am sick of the contemporary stuff where the words are cute and cheaply sentimental while combined with cloying, cute tunes that leave one wanting to do serious bodily harm to those around you just to bring some semblance of the real world to the music. Yet those who selected from the long history of sacred choral works were not infrequently pompous beyond measure and lacked the sophistication to understand and fulfill its demands. The latter group tended to those given to a rigidity that undercut the very sentiments their music was expressing.
I was left in despair after all these and I had a chance to go to still another performance but could not make myself. I'd had too much. I went home instead, put on a performance on the stereo, and sang badly along with them. At least, I knew it was a performance but yet the singer's heart seemed to be in it however worldly and commercial was the result. The irony of it. At least, I knew I wasn't doing it 'right' but what I was doing was heart-felt and worshipful.
In my previous post on the pathetic nature of the current crop of pastors and their failure to have anything close to a genuine call, I promised I would discuss how to tell when a pastor (or any member of the church staff) has an authentic call and how you can realistically ascertain that in a conversation with them. It is usually and surprisingly not very difficult. You sometimes have to do some digging because most pastors and church staff have learned how to answer this question in a way that satisfies the denomination's expectations. They have learned the 'stock answers' to what a call should be. So they can easily satisfy those congregants who are bold enough to ask this question -- not to mention the pastoral selection committee.
So how do you find out if a call is truly authentic? Well, first ask them why they are called to your church. You need to do this so you can get past their prepared answers about their call. Listen attentively to what they say. More frequently than you will expect, you get hints of the lack of a true call even in their prepared answer. What you need to listen for in their answer is anything that smacks of what the person wants for themselves or what the world wants or expects of them. If they start talking about their career aspirations ("God is challenging me to move up to a larger congregation" -- How often do you hear them talk about moving to a smaller, less well-funded congregation?) or if they talk about how they feel this congregation is 'right' for their family (good schools, good education opportunities for them, moving up in terms of status or privilege) or if they talk about how God is challenging them to grow this congregation (as if numbers were the true and only measure of a 'successful' congregation) or if they talk about how they can 'help' your congregation ("You have been involved in a tragic controversy and I can 'heal' this church.) -- they are nearly always talking about their own 'success' and not about what God wants. If they avoid all these kinds of hints of worldly success, career advancement, heroic rescuing of your church, or benefits to themselves or their families, it may only mean that they have thought carefully about how to answer the question of their call.
You are not finished though. At this point you must ask a variety of follow-up questions that dig deeper into what they are really thinking without giving away that you are questioning the legitimacy of their call. This is actually easier then it sounds. All you need to do is take some of the obvious benefits of being a pastor at your church or being a part of your community and ask them what they think of those benefits. If those questions do not reveal what is really going on with the candidate, then ask about their immediate and extended family to discover why they think they are 'called' to this church. You may have to ask several of these questions. If they emphasize the benefits of your church or your community to themselves or their family, then avoid this pastor. They do not have a true call but instead or looking to benefit themselves or their family primarily. And 'primarily' here is a key word. It is acceptable that they speak of some benefits of your church or your community but if they fail to point out the difficulties, the problems, the hardships, or their own lack of qualifications for your church or your community, then they are missing what is happening in a real call by God. God's call is rarely convenient or beneficial -- at least 'beneficial' or 'convenient' in the way the world normally understands it (success, financial rewards, great status and privileges, etc.).
You must also ask some difficult personal questions of the candidate. These questions focus on their family background, their personal journey, their faith journey. If the story is one of consistent upward movement in terms of salary, status, or personal development -- be concerned. If there is no substantive issues of faith or questioning of God in their life or faith journey, then be suspicious. If you stop and think about this honestly, you will recognize that everyone has moments of despair and doubt. If your candidate is unwilling to confess to those, then you have a problem. If there is no 'doubt' about their call be wary.
You need also to be concerned about pastors who too quickly talk about their own life or religious traumas. Many pastors today are using their supposed 'call' for working out their own psychological, religious, or emotional problems. The pastorate is NOT a therapy session. This is truly frightening since they fail to openly admit this and instead use the pastorate as a means to overcome those problems. For them, the pastorate is a form of self-administered 'therapy' that in reality only masks the true problems and insecurities. They are the 'walking wounded' who fail to recognize their own 'woundedness' however much they may 'confess' it. Many times this originates as a childhood where they were bullied, where their families were broken and dysfunctional, where they suffered loneliness and despair, alcoholism is not uncommon in the family or even in the pastor themselves, and where they were isolated and tormented. Here the pastorate -- and their subsequent 'calling' -- functions in a frightening way as a self-induced counseling group that is, in reality, nothing more than congregants serving as enablers. Often times these candidates hide behind a religious fervor that is unwilling to acknowledge healthy and appropriate religious doubt -- or just the opposite situation where they are overwhelmed by their doubt. These two extremes are nearly always problematic but what you are looking for is not the middle ground between fervor or doubt necessarily. Instead, if the pastor comes to you openly confessing these issues without the expectation that your church or community will help resolve them, then you should take their calling more seriously. They are not seeking their own psychological or religious healing but are struggling themselves and uncertain where that struggle may take them. Then you have someone who admits their struggle and is being honest and open about their call and is uncertain how this call will help them heal -- which it may well do. However, if they are honest, they will acknowledge that their struggle may continue at your congregation and even throughout their life.
What is happening here? Are these legitimate tests of a true calling? No, not always but most of the time they are clearly indicative. Most pastors are so unprepared to answer detailed questions about their calling that they reveal their own desires. They reveal their own unintended duplicitous desires in that they couch their response as a 'calling' when, in fact, it is their own benefit that is really pushing them forward. The truly scary pastors are those who openly and brazenly pursue their own advancement. Stop and think about this for a moment. If the pastor is answering these questions by focusing on the benefits they gain from your church or your community provides them or their family, there is a emphatic problem. Do they really think that God arranges the entire universe for their own or their families benefit? Hardly. The vast majority of authentic callings are not to the immediate benefit of the person. The call is normally a hardship. Look at the stories of Jesus calling his disciples. Read Matthew 4: 18-22 or Matthew 9:9-13 or any of the other calling of disciples. Read the calling of the prophets. Did Moses want his charge? Was that at all 'convenient' or 'beneficial' to any of them? Definitely not -- I don't care how you interpret what is going on with these callings -- each was a dramatic departure from the expectations of the world, of their community, their families, and likely for themselves. That is the 'gold standard' of a calling. Does your pastor measure up to that? Granted that is a very high standard so you do have to be careful of the pastor who speaks of the benefits of your church and community because they do not want to denigrate those aspects. Sure -- that is acceptable. They must, though, talk candidly about the problems, the issues, the controversies for themselves, their families, and your church.
So how do you tell? Well, you tell by their discussion of the difficulties and their concerns. Yes, the benefits maybe there but are their concerns and fears far behind? Are they being honest if they speak only of the benefits without discussing their fears? What is their focus -- is the benefits they may get or is it their fears? If the pastor talks about how they are not prepared to handle this congregation or community, then you should be interested in that person. They may speak of the advantages of your church but if they are unafraid of talking about the problems -- bluntly and realistically -- then you are far more likely to have a genuine call. If they speak of the financial hardship your church or your community may impose on them and their family, then the call is likely serious. If they only give you 'happy talk' -- what a wonderful church you are, what a great move this would be for them personally and for their families, then be very suspicious. If they speak of difficulties for them, for you the church, and for the problems your community faces in a substantial way, then start taking this pastor more seriously as a candidate.
Nothing illustrates this better than prostitutes --- something I, as Hosea's wife, know intimately. No woman wants to be a prostitute. Hosea certainly DID not want to marry a prostitute. I did not want to be a prostitute. This is the epitome of an 'inconvenient' and 'non-beneficial' calling for both Hosea and for me, Gomer. Both Hosea and myself were asked by God to do something we did not want to do, that our families did not want us to do, and that our communities did not want us to do. Despite that, we did what God wanted. This is scary for some of you because it says that God may call some women to be prostitutes -- including myself. It is scary for me because it makes it seem as though God wants me to be a prostitute -- that is hard to believe. I do know that I became a prostitute for the money, money to feed my children. As disgusting as being a prostitute is, seeing my children starve seems far worse. I had no alternative if I was to care for my kids. So many women become prostitutes because there are no alternatives for them. Is the wrong theirs? Perhaps -- to some degree -- but are you willing to cast the first stone? Or is it our society that fails to give us prostitutes better options? Well, as wrong as prostitution is, I am the first to admit that I, for one, do not know the mind or purposes of God.
And prostitution -- in its worst and ugliest form -- is exactly what pastors are doing by adulterating their supposed 'call' and using it as a means to too frequently advance their own worldly agendas or personal therapies. They are prostituting themselves and their faith to their own benefit and far too many of them are getting away with it because churches let them. This must stop.
Talk about prostitution! So many modern pastors are pathetic -- regardless of their denomination and all across the fundamentalist to liberal spectrum. Just ask them about their 'call' and, please, don't settle for the first three sentences out of their mouths. They've got a well rehearsed spiel about their 'call' that is guaranteed to pacify their denominational requirements and their local church. They can rattle those sentences off with a great deal of sincerity (NOT) and even divinely talk about being 'born again'. Don't be fooled by the suckers. If you dig a little deeper by asking a few questions about how their call has manifested itself, you'll quickly become embarrassed that you ever took this pastor seriously. If you do dig, you'll often see the true worldliness of your pastor.
What do you hear when you dig past the first few sentences? Some of the whoopers I've heard include "I wanted to get back to my family in this area" or "This church provides me with the opportunity for educational growth." Or "I can make this church grow!" (As if numbers matter most -- this sentence is nearly invariably a sign of the pride of the pastor and NOT their call.) I've also heard that "this church is the next step in my career goals." That last one hit me in the head like a brick. As if God rearranges the entire structure of the universe so that a pastor's personal and professional life can be fulfilled. How absolutely pathetic! Sure God may indeed call you back to your family if one of your parents have dementia but, if that is the case, maybe you need to set aside your pastoral work for a time. Funny isn't it, that so many pastors seemed to be 'called' up the careerist ladder of ever larger churches even if they lack the call to handle the church they are at.
I really hesitate to mention John Piper's book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals
(B & H Books, 2013) as he really digs into this problem within the pastorate. (There is really no excuse for such a blatantly sexist title as that; not too mention the rampant sexism in some of the chapters see -- especially "Brothers, Love Your Wives". Ugghhh....this is a throwback to the days of 'submissive' wives!) (Don't worry I will be doing a blog about the sexism in the church and among pastors in the near future.) I'm not a fan of this guy at all
but he manages to make some strong, clear arguments in this book about the professionalism of modern pastors and its corruption of their service to their church and God. His main point is that if you are trying to be a professional pastor, you are not serving God but serving yourself. Duuuhhhhhh!
Yeah, yeah, yeah -- I know there are some pastors that are exceptions to this (there really are) and I am sure
your pastor is one of them. But have you asked your pastor about their long term goals? Have you dug into what they say about their call? You might be surprised and really, really ashamed at the language you hear from them. Of course, your own ear may not be tuned to hear what is really being said. The relentless pursuit of professionalism (not a bad thing at all in a true profession like mine -- the oldest) clouds many congregants' minds to what a 'professional' pastor says about her or his call. If they start talking about how the pastorate is working to their advantage in their career, or to the advantage of their family, to the advantage of the church itself, or similar nonsense, you are probably talking to one of the many professional or prideful pastors out there.
And one of the biggest enablers of this kind of behavior is the church search committees and congregants themselves. They want a fancy educated, smooth talking, growth inducing pastor that will make them look good and raise that budget. Between the pastor and the churches themselves, finding a church and a pastor with a true calling, is frighteningly rare. There are lots of out there that pretend -- and pretend really well -- they have a calling yet few are doing the in depth soul-searching needed to get at a vital, real call.
Now, you are probably thinking up all kinds of exceptions to what I'm saying so Part II of this topic will talk about some of the indicators of a true call.