Saturday, July 20, 2019

Irrelevant Again

I have to stop reading polls that report trends in religious life in America. They are depressing. The newest one is a NORC/AP poll released this month. It shows that the American public’s opinion of clergy continues to decline.

Barely a majority (55%) believe that clergy and religious leaders have a positive influence on society. That compares to teachers (84%), medical doctors (83%), scientists (80%) and members of the military (75%). Only 34% thought that clergy were extremely or very trustworthy. Ministers are down in the gutter with attorneys. I guess I won’t be telling any more lawyer jokes.

It confirms the findings of an earlier 2018 Gallup survey of the public’s views of the honesty and ethical integrity of a variety of occupations. In that poll only 37% of Americans viewed clergy “very highly” when it came to honesty and morality (with 43% having an “average” view of clergy). It was the lowest rating of clergy seen since Gallup began examining occupations in 1977. I wrote about that poll in January (“You Don’t Trust Me”), so I won’t repeat my lament here.

What is different about this newest study is that Americans across the board – even very religious people - said they don’t trust clergy’s advice when it comes to personal decision-making on issues such as family planning, child rearing, sex, careers, financial decision-making, medical decision-making or voting. Religious News Service’s analysis of the data concludes that clergy have become irrelevant. It looks like I retired just in time.

It is anyone’s guess why this is happening. And many people are guessing. My guess is that it is due to the increased visibility of fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and the Religious Right in American society, as well as the Roman Catholic Church’s ongoing sex abuse scandal. When people think of religion, that is what comes to mind.

The decline of religious attendance is also an important factor. Less involvement with a local church means that fewer people know a minister personally. Therefore their view of clergy is more likely to be influenced by the news media and entertainment industry, which tend toward negative religious stereotypes.

Part of the problem is clergy themselves. We have ourselves to blame. My experience is that clergy are not as committed to the “care of souls” as they used to be. I am not talking about “pastoral care” provided by ministers in times of crisis and emotional need. I am talking about the “things of the Spirit.” I have in mind contemplative prayer, spiritual disciplines and spiritual direction.

Clergy have little time for these matters because churches and other religious employers expect their time to be devoted to other areas. I have in mind things like church administration, counseling, meetings, congregational activities, visitation, community ministry, etc. Not that there is anything wrong with these. They are all important. But in most cases they can be better done by laity and other professionals.

No one can address spiritual issues as well as spiritual leaders. Furthermore there is a real hunger in the pews for this type of spiritual instruction. Yet clergy tend not to make it the focus of our ministries. Spiritual direction is, in my opinion, the chief calling of spiritual leaders. Yet few clergy are spending time on soul care – not even the care of their own souls. How can you lead others where you have not gone?

It is not all the ministers’ fault. A declining American church is increasingly focusing on the survival of the institution. They need growing numbers (of attendees and dollars) that will keep churches open and religious organizations solvent.  Ministers have to address these issues in order to be “successful” and make a decent living. Seminaries know that and design curricula accordingly.

Ministers are in a bind. There is too little time to do too much. But the consequences of following the numbers is that clergy are less likely to follow the Spirit. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” That in turn makes for a spiritually disheartened church, and so the downward spiral continues.  

Personally in my retirement I have found much more time for the development of my inner spiritual life. That is the luxury of retirement. Consequently my writing, teaching, preaching (and more recently blogging and podcasting) have become more focused on the eternal. This may also have to do with the stage of the life cycle that I am in now. Eternity looms closer and demands more of my attention. 

I still opine on important social issues of the day. But when I do, my thinking is less controlled by church politics and pockets than it used to be. I like to think my ethical stances are more thoughtful and more spiritually grounded as a result. But that may be just my limited personal perspective. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that I can be as self-deceiving and self-righteous as anyone.

My model for the balance of the spiritual and societal remains the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. He was a prophet whose soul was rooted in silence. His writings have stood the test of time almost fifty years after I first read them. They ring with a spiritual depth that is seldom found in religious activists today. Social and political involvement is important, but it must be the fruit of a life deeply rooted in the spiritual life, and not simply clerics hopping aboard a political bandwagon – conservative or liberal.

In the end I think that the influence of Christian clergy and churches would increase if ministers were given more time to focus on matters of the soul. Clergy themselves need to make this happen. Perhaps then the public would hold us in higher regard and seek our advice on other matters as well. Then maybe we will become relevant again. 

1 comment:

happi said...

Your retirement came in the critical period when we need religious leaders like you to turn our attention from the mundane to the truly important. We are very fortunate to have your blog and your other writing. Having more time seems
to have energized you to communicate more broadly than you ever could when saddled down with bookkeeping etc. Keep up the stream of wise words. most of which I agree with even though an unbeliever. Happi