If you have been involved in most any aspect of ministry in the church, then sooner or later you confront some tough realities. Probably pastors experience this more often—and perhaps more intensely—than do others in church leadership but sooner or later we all learn some hard truths. This is pretty much the primary theme of a new pastoral memoir written by my friend Bill Mills in his book “Losing My Religion: A Memoir of Faith and Finding.”
Bill is an Orthodox priest, the rector of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. In this lively volume he narrates his own journey of faith, focusing especially on his transition—or really it is a series of transitions—from a somewhat idealistic seminarian to a rather disoriented parish pastor.
At first the shocks to the system are somewhat minor if not nearly humorous. The new pastor leaves behind a heady academic environment where conversations about Barth take place to meetings in the church where conversations are not about Barth but about the kinds of bagels to serve after church. And mind you: the bagel debate is treated as serious business. Serve the wrong type and you might turn people off where your church is concerned. Forget parsing orthodoxy from heresy and bring on the cream cheese.
But eventually pastors and other church leaders encounter shocks to the system that go much deeper and lacerate much more severely. For some, as for Mills, one discovers that the church is far from immune from the same petty and sometimes ugly behavior one can encounter most anywhere in life. Power structures are real in most congregations. Power brokers are real. And not a few pastors like Mills discover this the hard way when some line gets crossed, someone’s toes get stepped on, and suddenly—to riff on a line the writer Kathleen Norris once used to describe her church—suddenly you see a whole bunch of grown-ups behaving about as badly as one could imagine.
As Mills details his own journey from disorientation back to hope, we see what this does to the pastor’s soul, spirit, mind. The hurts are real and they cut deep. When this happens, cynicism and the temptation to chuck the whole thing, religion and all, is crouching on the front stoop of one’s life and next thing you know this temptation to despair is knocking on the door. Thankfully Mills found the help and guidance he needed to go on. And many pastors and leaders are also gifted with such help. But not all.
What accounts for this? Why do our besetting sins not disappear even in the context of the church? Or, to paraphrase how Neal Plantinga once opened a lecture on the topic of Common Grace: why are some people in the church not a whole lot better than what you’d expect from believers and why are some people outside of the church not a whole lot worse than you would expect from unbelievers? Why aren’t ostensibly holy people better and why are non-Christians sometimes even friendlier and kinder than Christians?
As I reflect on Mills’s memoir—which I highly recommend—I take some solace in the fact that even the New Testament does not sugarcoat the nature of the Church. Even the Book of Acts is honest enough to admit that the very earliest Christians in the Church struggled with all the things that still vex us today. People lied. People argued. Even the disciples turned apostles had some real donnybrooks. Shoot, you only get through 14 chapters in Acts and the history of the Church before you run across history’s first-ever meeting of a kind of Synod or General Assembly as the apostles debated the status of non-Jews who become Christians. I don’t know why even with the apostles the Holy Spirit did not just reveal the truth of it all to them directly but fact is they had to hold a conference to suss it all out.
The Bible could have told the story differently. We could have gotten a rose-colored-glasses view of the Early Church. But no, in utter candor the Spirit gave us a warts-and-all picture of even the earliest believers. (That’s why whenever I hear someone say “If only the church today could be more like the church in Acts,” I want to say, “Believe me, we already are!”)
This is oddly comforting, though. No, the fact that the church in Acts and the church in Corinth and the church in Thessalonica had problems too is no excuse for us today to be casual about our own church conflicts. We should always try to be better, be more Christ-like. But the comfort comes from the idea that if the Holy Spirit was active then despite all the foibles and faults of the church and of its members, then the same is happening now. Yes, seeing what the church can be like is enough to make you lose your religion. But thanks be to God it need not be enough to make you lose your hope.