Pastors struggle to mix tech, theology

9/7/2006

Editor’s note: Second in a series.

“Deeper still, [many] clergy feel a sense of betrayal, as the church seems to be in retreat from the worship of the past, with its rich liturgy and symbol. More and more, clergy are saying, ‘This is not what I gave my life to. I feel like they are telling me that everything I learned, preached and did was wrong…’” – The Rev. Brian Massengale

Lamar Massingill
Guest Columnist

The technological advances in the world over the last 15 years are overwhelming. Baby Boomers could have never envisioned such a world 40 years ago, and those born in the 1970s to early ‘80s have practically grown up with it. Ours is a world in which images and other communicative technology have replaced rhetoric as the myth of the new millennium, and the primary way of communicating. 

When was the last time you actually talked to a human being when calling a corporation? One sociologist told me that my generation of clergy will be, if not the last, then among the last generation of orators.  

Many laity desire a style of worship that generates the kind of excitement and entertainment we would experience at our Friday or Saturday night football games, leaving other laity confused because it, as they say, “is not Methodist.” In fact, there is one such contemporary church that calls its worship area “The Theater!”   

Obviously, this creates a gap in the way we worship, which has eventuated in many splits among United Methodists, both figuratively and literally. The ones most wounded by this gap seem to be clergymen who are Baby Boomers, (unless they have played the system to the “top”) who have sought, many times with knuckles bleeding, to hang on to the apostolic ritual and liturgy of the church.  

These, as a result of the contemporary invasion, are wounded financially because they have had integrity enough either to say “no” to more “alternative worship” appointments, and therefore have been dropped for consideration of any appointment.

Or, they have been dropped for consideration because they are pastors who feel led to stay in parishes and walk beside their people as they journey spiritually. In a word, they simply don’t want to be ministers who marry and bury and preach for four-to-six years, until the Lord “calls” them to a substantial raise, or they use up their barrel of sermons, whichever comes first. They know money doesn’t just talk, it swears.  

They are wounded emotionally because they have given the church their hearts until it asked for their souls as well. When they don’t give their souls, then those who appoint say they have “issues.” These are competent clergy, and wise enough to know there are worse things than money and political games, opting to stay in churches that enhance their spiritual growth and stay long enough to become real pastors who know their parishioners like they know their own families. Of course there are exceptions, as with any statement offered in the context of generality, but I hurt for my contemporaries who have been wounded in this entire process. 

Among clergy Baby Boomers, we struggle with the fact that we have studied serious theology and are constantly finding ways to refine our homiletical skills so our sermons will always be, at least to some extent, as relevant in a technologically driven culture as they were when we began our journey in preaching some 30 years ago. And for all the study we’ve done, the sermons we’ve preached, the lectures we’ve given and the books we’ve written, the liturgy and ritual of the church through which we have found mysterious and generous gifts seem meaningless to those who play checkers with the lives and dreams of these they barely even know.       

Consequently, believing that these changes are not what we “signed up” for, many clergy, who have bright careers behind them, are leaving the ministry, taking appointments beyond the local church or taking early retirement. They feel they are making no difference, the denomination no longer appreciates their place or what they have to say. Some of their families have been financially ruined, and all their study is a moot issue in our technological wonderland; full of people who think no deeper than what kind of ring tone they have on their cell phones. And this is what we call a connection? 

In addition, our church has some powerful laity and a hierarchy with a thousand expectations no one could accomplish, and not having even a clue as to the competence level of these clergy, are more and more deciding their personal future. (The United Methodist Church does not use personal resumes, just files listing committee memberships, churches appointed to, accomplishments and failures within the conference.)   

The answer? I don’t know. Said Tolstoy: “Questions are given not so much to answer as to wrestle with.” I have raised some questions that voices larger than mine have shared with me, but won’t share with conference leadership because they have no trust in the institution’s hierarchy anymore.  

I would hope we can wrestle with the questions of these wounded ones, and in the process, grow up and on. The liturgy of the church came before the insane world of technology exploded in our faces. I would no more remove our liturgy, ritual and symbol than I would remove the pictures of my foremothers and fathers that hang on the wall. Perhaps it’s time to find a way to go forward by turning back the clock.  

Massingill is an author, freelance columnist and pastor of the United Methodist Church of Richton. He is also the religion editor of “The Magnolia Gazette.”