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On Empathy and Exclusivity

I couldn’t help but be curious when I saw the title of Vancouver Sun spirituality and ethics columnist Douglas Todd’s latest article come through my reader this afternoon: “Embattled Clergy Could Use Christmas Empathy.” Not being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I read on to discover why I might be the appropriate destination for someone’s Christmas empathy.

The article begins thus:

Take a few moments this December to feel some empathy for the clergy of British Columbia as they work their way through Hanukkah, Christmas and the Muslim new year of Muharram. Clergy have a particularly tough job in the rugged Pacific Northwest, where the spiritual supermarket is remarkably open and loyalty to religious institutions is among the weakest in North America.

Todd goes on:

In this challenging context, B.C. clergy often have to be extremely gifted or charismatic to build even a small amount of loyalty to their spiritual “brand.”

The Pacific Northwest, which includes Washington and Oregon, is famous throughout the continent for often leaving clergy defeated and broken.

Sounds pretty ominous.

So what might account for the Pacific Northwest being a graveyard for institutional religion and those who seek to keep it alive? Why might those of us who toil here be worthy of your empathy? Well at least part of the answer likely has to with the fact that we’re selling (or at least perceived to be selling) what many consider to be an outdated and unfashionable product: exclusivity. According to Todd, “it is becoming increasingly hard for clergy to ask adherents to be ‘exclusive’ about their religion.”

We are asking “enlightened,” postmodern, twenty-first century Pacific Northwesterners to believe that there is a truth that stands over the bewildering array of options that dot the spiritual landscape. We are asking them to consider that all roads might not lead to the same destination; that “whatever floats your boat” might not be the proper approach to take when it comes to weighing our options on matters of ultimate importance. These are not exactly popular ideas.

It’s not all bad news, though. Ours is not the first region or the first historical period to be faced with the challenge of syncretism. Or individualism. Or confusion. And spiritual hunger certainly still abounds, even in the Pacific Northwest. I see this firsthand. Indeed, Todd notes that ours are “religiously fertile times, offering up many creative possibilities.” “The challenge,” according to Todd, “is for clergy to survive them.”

Survival is good, but it seems to me a fairly modest goal. Far better to stand tall, and stake one’s claim—to confidently and respectfully articulate the truth and hope of the gospel. If history tells us anything it is that many of the views that seem fashionable or plausible at this or that cultural moment have a habit of passing. The Christian message has outlasted many challenges, after all. If it is what we claim it to be—the true story of the world (including the Pacific Northwest) and our place in it—it will outlast this one as well.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    It reminds me of the title of a book on preaching titled, “As One Without Authority” by Fred Craddock. It dealt with how to preach in a time like ours.

    You and all pastors deserve our empathy, and not just for the reason in the newspaper column. For many reasons, you have the hardest vocation in the world.

    December 16, 2009
  2. James #

    Good post, Ryan.
    Thanks for the encouragement, Ken.
    Douglas Todd, interesting analysis but save your pity for those without hope- we pastors have the most satisfying job on earth. For us proclaiming the Good News after the death of institutional religion has the same exhilaration that Paul had when he looked across to Spain. And by the way, I don’t think that there are any more defeated and broken pastors than there are teachers, lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs . . . It’s still a job that needs the right people doing it.

    December 16, 2009
  3. A latent assumption in Todd’s proposal is a definition of success that many of us would probably disagree with theologically. While many pastors (myself included) constantly wrestle with the need for job satisfaction – i.e. ‘fruit’ of our ministry – I take comfort knowing that my success or my church’s success or The Church’s success is not dependent on how I or the world defines success. As you mention Ryan, history shows the church’s success isn’t dependent on its popularity.

    A question I’ve been pondering lately is this: is a shrinking church necessarily a bad thing? I know, not the question a paid clergyman should be asking ;).

    December 16, 2009
    • I had similar questions as I read Todd’s piece. I found his language of preserving/protecting one’s spiritual “brand” and the necessity of dynamic and charismatic leaders to do this to be particularly odious. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “the product doesn’t have enough merit to survive on its own but maybe someone who’s really, really good at tricking people can keep it on the shelf for a few more years.” The whole article seemed to portray clergy as a bunch of beleaguered salespeople saddled with the unenviable task of trying to hawk last year’s model of a product. Our “success”apparently rises or falls based on how well we’re able to move the “product.” Not very inspiring stuff—certainly not what you or I signed up for!

      December 16, 2009
  4. Ken #

    When I read Todd’s column, I had a different reaction, although I don’t mean that I disagree with yours or with the stance you advocate. I see now what you and James and David see.

    I remembered the week I left the PCUSA. I was campus minister at the time. In that ministry on a diverse secular campus, I was taking the stance you advocate in the last paragraph, as expressed by the Presbyterian tradition. There was no question that it was an effective stance. But that week, the Board that oversaw the campus ministry discussed ways to include Buddhism in our ministry for the sake of being open and liberal and ecumenical. I was stunned. The campus was not lacking in ecumenism. It was lacking an authentic Christian, Presbyterian voice.

    That was not the sole reason I left the PCUSA. There were many reasons that I had considered for a long time and I had been planning to leave anyway at about that time. But that was the final absurdity, and one that still stuns me.

    I never found the struggle Todd describes to be hard, nor did I ever think of the ministry as sales work. What was hard for me was the struggle within the Presbytery and the denomination. Ironically, I found much more interest on the university campus for that authentic voice than I did in the PCUSA.

    December 16, 2009
    • That is very ironic indeed, Ken. And tragic. I think (hope?) that there is a growing awareness on secular campuses that the official party line of being radically open-minded and tolerant and inclusive of all views can (and does) function as just another exclusive religious view. Campuses need voices like the one you offered much more than they need this or that religious tradition trying to accommodate their message to what has been deemed acceptable by the powers that be.

      December 17, 2009
  5. Paul Johnston #

    I love your push back, Ryan. Seriously….that is all. 🙂

    December 16, 2009
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Perhaps the printing of Christian newspapers, is a practical alternative?

    December 17, 2009
    • A practical alternative to what? I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at here. There are certainly no shortage of Christian publications out there.

      December 17, 2009
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Sorry, I meant as a practical alternative to superficial Christian expression.

    Are there any specifically Christian daily newspapers in B.C.? I am a subscriber to the “Catholic Registar” a weekly publication available in the GTO.

    December 17, 2009
    • There are none that I am aware of, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I don’t have a whole lot of interest in reading a specifically Christian newspaper. It’s more fun to critique the secular ones :).

      December 18, 2009
  8. Well it’s good to hear the clergy in the room saying they’re feeling pretty chipper, not too beleaguered! 🙂 I won’t pity you, then but looking in from the outside, I don’t envy you either. The times seem plenty challenging to me.

    December 17, 2009

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