According to a December 11, 2009 story in USA Today a Gallup Poll shows that Americans’ views of the “honesty and ethics” of clergy have hit a 32-year low, with just half rating their moral caliber as high or very high….” We were at 56% last year and we’re at 50% this year. Our ratings are down among “among Catholics and Protestants, as well as among regular and occasional churchgoers.” We’re doing a little better, however, with those who have the least contact with us: pagans!
The story offers some possible explanations including the most obvious causes (clergy sex scandals) but part of the answer may be embedded toward the end of the story. “The most highly regarded profession was nursing, with 83% judging nurses’ honesty and ethics as high or very high.”
I have a theory. For most Americans pastors are simply service providers. They probably have much more contact with nurses, especially as the population ages, than they do with pastors. The nurses with whom they have contact do their jobs. They are faithful to their vocations and thus their credibility ratings are high. Pastors can take a lesson from the nursing profession.
herThere’s only one service to which God has called Christian pastors: ministry of the Word (both preached and made visible in the sacraments). Progressively over the last century it’s become increasingly difficult to find ministers who are willing to do that. There are reasons for that decline. Since the middle of the 19th century the higher critical enterprise has vitiated the confidence of biblical scholars in the historical reliability of Scripture. That doubt has trickled down to pastors. As a consequence it became, through the early part of the 20th century, increasingly difficult to find pastors who really believed the faith any more.
During the same period (e.g., 1850-1950) the radical egalitarian impulse of American religion enervated the vitality of American Christianity. That I’m commenting on this poll is all the evidence you need. Since when did faithful pastors care what their popularity or reliability ratings were? Jeremiah was so faithful he was lowered into a well (Jer 38). I guess most pastors are more worried about their cost-of-living adjustment than being put into a well. The democratizing impulse in American religion (see Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity) has marginalized the significance of the pastoral office. In many cases we’ve been complicit with the re-ordering of the preaching office into that of a therapeist, cheer-leader, or CEO.
Maybe the people are on to something? If most pastors were doing their jobs, proclaiming the law and the gospel clearly, distinctly, and unequivocally how would people be able to doubt our ethics? On what basis? They might doubt the story and they might doubt our sanity for persisting with an apparently impossible account of things (God the Son became incarnate of a virgin, obeyed the law for his elect, was crucified for it, and rose the third day) but they couldn’t doubt our honesty or sincerity and yet a considerable number of people do. Why? Perhaps it is because we too often give them reason to doubt us?
As Mike Horton rightly says, we’ve been given a script. We have a limited but significant part to play in the story of redemption: we are heralds. Our job is to announce the truth. Our job is not to organize buildings, bodies, and budgets. Our job is not to accumulate power in this world. Our job is not to manipulate people or build empires. Our job is not even to make people feel better. We’re not CEOs. Of the three biblical offices, ours most closely resembles the office of prophet. The deacons inherited the priestly office of receiving offerings. The elders inherited the kingly office of ruling the covenant community. Our job is to serve the Word by announcing it, by teaching it, by explaining it. The other biblical metaphor is “shepherd” (pastor)—not “rancher”. We’re to announce the bad news, the good news, and look after the spiritual well-being of the flock entrusted to us by the chief shepherd (1 Pet 5:4). That’s it.
There are probably many reasons why the credibility ratings of American clergy are down and it’s probably true that some (perhaps most) are unfair and beyond our control but we can control one thing: we can tell the truth. We can speak to those things we know: the saving act of God in Christ. It will also help our credibility if we refrain from speaking to things about which we don’t know. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen pastors give medical or financial advice. Really? When did you get your MD? When did you get that MBA before or after your MDiv?
Unfortunately, one suspects that too many American pastors no longer really believe the truth. To those of you in the “clergy business” who don’t believe the Christian faith any more: Get out! Go sell cars or computers or TVs or whatever but stop posing as a minister of the Word. To: those congregations, and especially to those elder boards, sessions, and consistories who know (wink, wink) that their minister doesn’t believe the faith any more: you’re culpable too.
I’m not suggesting that God can only use regenerate pastors or that that validity of ministry is contingent upon the spiritual condition of the pastor. That was the Donatist error. At the same time I’m not suggesting that we should be indifferent to the spiritual condition of pastors. We should avoid both enthusiasm and deism. It’s possible for ministers who don’t believe the truth nevertheless to tell it but people can spot a phony. They know when you’re lying, when you don’t really believe the Christian story any longer.
The point here is not to improve clergy ratings in the next Gallup Poll. The point is faithfulness. When a man is ordained to pastoral ministry, he is under a vocation to do one fairly simple thing: preach the Word when it’s popular and when it’s unpopular (2 Tim 4:2). That’s it really. If we did that we probably wouldn’t have to wonder about credibility ratings.
Thanks to WSC Library Director, John Bales for pointing me to this story.