By Terry Mattingly
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Week after week, year after year, ministers rise to preach, knowing their flocks expect them to deliver messages that are truly inspired by God or, at the very least, somewhat uplifting.
After years facing United Methodist congregations in the Bible Belt, the Rev. Harold Bales had an epiphany about this duty -- although some might consider his candid vision a kind of ecclesiastical nightmare.
Imagine what would happen if a pastor stepped into the pulpit and said something similar to the following.
"Dear friends, in the past week I have prayed and prayed," said Bales, describing this scenario. "I have read my Bible, talked to other colleagues and read stacks of inspirational journals -- seeking a word from the Lord.
"Well, what I need to tell you is that I have heard nothing from the Lord this week. I was kind of wondering: Have any of you heard from him?"
It's hard for clergy to imagine doing such a thing, said Bales, because most are afraid to be this transparent. Some fear that members of their flock will freak out and call their ecclesiastical superiors to register a complaint or, worse, to express concern that the pastor may be cracking up.
In addition to his years in what Southerners call "tall steeple" churches in cities like Charlotte and Asheville, N.C., Bales has also been on the administrative side of this kind of drama. He served as superintendent of Salisbury District in western North Carolina and, for many years, was on the staff of his denomination's General Boards of Evangelism and Discipleship.
In other words, Bales has fielded his share of appeals from ticked-off church members, as well as having inspired a few such calls himself. A native of Knoxville, Tenn., he is now semi-retired, living in Kannapolis, N.C., and writing columns on his website, TheSouthernFried Preacher.com.
The bottom line for many pastors, said Bales, is that they are afraid to level with their people -- person to person.
"Let's face it. Your people can run you crazy. But that's really not where ministers get into deep trouble," he said. "Through the years, I have been especially interested in all the ways that ministers struggle with their own humanity. You see, they expect so much out of themselves, which can be hard since their people keep trying to hold them to standards higher than the saints and the angels."
Try to imagine, he said, a pastor speaking these words to the faithful: "Dear friends, I am undone. My marriage is in shambles and things aren't going great with my kids, either. My emotions are wracked. I'm stressed out. ... You see, I'm prepared to minister to you, but who is going to minister to me?"
Or here is another one Bales tried to deliver a time or two: "Dear friends, I need more nerve. I need help, because there are hard truths I need to tell you. That frightens me because I yearn to be loved by everyone. I also crave success. So, you see, I'm afraid of you. I'm afraid to tell you the truth."
All of this stress adds up and, thus, Bales said he has seen research indicating that every year another 18,000 pastors surrender and quit the ministry.
Yes, it's important for the faithful to pray for their ministers, he stressed. It's also important for them to know that clergy can feel isolated from the people around them and struggle to develop real, honest friendships. Like many lay people, pastors also get suckered into believing that "humor and delight, joy and pleasure are somehow unspiritual," he explained. When in doubt, it never hurts to tell your pastor a joke or to suggest that it's time to clock out and go get some barbecue.
It's also important to "respect how emotionally vulnerable a pastor can be. Those who give the appearance of great strength are very human and unless they are deluded about themselves, are subject to inner struggles and self-doubt," said Bales. It helps to grasp the truth that "unless your minister is experiencing an occasional failure, he or she is probably not risking enough for God's sake."
Every now and then, he said, a pastor simply must have the freedom to say things like, "I don't know" -- or even, "Ouch! I was wrong."
Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.tmatt.net.