Pastors are becoming suicidal. Maybe that means it is time for the church to die.
In an article that circulated last week ("Too many pastors are falling on their own swords," by Jakob Topper), a pastor describes four colleagues admitting to feeling the depression that leads to death in the wake of the strain of COVID-19 and the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
The author shared stories of pastors who had congregants die of the virus after regathering for corporate worship; pastors whose physical space had been violated for daring – even once – to preach about racism; pastors receiving hostile messages from congregants that included threats to leave the church and take their money with them if church didn’t start being what they believed church should be.
Some of this is old news.
Has there ever been a time when church members did not use their financial giving as a tool for manipulation? Has there ever been a time when white pastors of white churches (which was surely the case here) did not receive backlash for telling the truth about our failure to practice beloved community? Was there ever a time when doing something different out of necessity did not result in a retrenchment into what no longer works?
The author makes sure to note that none of these pastors are new, but well-seasoned in the violence that occurs in spaces purportedly dedicated to the Prince of Peace.
In the time of my own church’s campus closure (our church is still very much open and active, just not in person), I have been hearing more stories, like those of the article, about Christians and Christian churches falling short of their gospel values, as well as practicing outright abuse.
I know that often when people share these stories with me, a Christian priest, they assume I will try to justify why my church is different or why Christianity should be given another chance. I do not. Instead, I say out loud what I have thought for years: It doesn’t make sense that Christianity has remained viable and maybe it is time for it to die.
I must add that this has not been my experience in my local church. During this pandemic the support for prioritizing the health and safety of all who would serve God and God’s people (which are all people) through our church (including staff and our families) has been nearly total.
I am not saying my church is perfect as I have also experienced within its brick and its virtual walls queerphobia and sexism, policing of my language and my identity. But we seem united in our commitment to not be the reason someone must be buried, either because of the virus or because of our participation in structural racism.
But this time is new. This era is different. As such, it will be, I think, a final test for many churches.
Do congregants have the posture and skills lifted up by the author – waiting for the pandemic to be over to force a complaint, actively loving the church just as the church is (like the Christ), and committing to its financial and spiritual success – that will allow their embodiment of the Christ to get to an Easter Sunday morning after this long Holy Saturday vigil?
I am not advocating for the death of Christianity (though as a resurrection people, that should not be a fear).
But is your pastor, are your pastors, given space to be human, to tell you if they are in pain, without fear of repercussion? If their depression is taking hold better than the mutual love we are to find in Christ Jesus, would you even know, or is your church unworthy of its own pastor’s trust?
I am doing OK, myself. I am tired and I am angry and I am grieving. I am also deeply in love with God and my wife and my family. And I am more aware than ever of how the stories of my faith, its rituals and its practices, are acts of resistance and freedom. They are giving me more life now than ever before.
May this time be the same for you. May this time of death and reckoning be for you a season of deepening rather than drawing away, loving rather than leaving.
May our Christian generation be the once that, at last, upholds our tradition’s greatest potential: to love God and ourselves so well that our adoration of our neighbors allows all of us to live without bigoted persecution and biased suffering.
While being tested for the coronavirus last week (it came back negative, I am fine), I had a series of conversations I couldn't shake:
Scheduler: What do you do for a living?
Me: I'm a pastor.
Scheduler: OK, so an essential worker.
Triage nurse: What do you do for a living?
Me: I'm a pastor.
Triage nurse: (to herself) Essential....
Nurse practitioner: What do you do for a living?
Me: I'm a pastor.
Nurse practitioner: (as she annotates the test order) Essential!
In each case, I responded to the the health care workers, the people who spend all day in masks and gloves and gowns, that I am not an essential worker. I shared that my church is not convening in person because we don't want to risk being a site of death or give the actual essential workers - those people who keep other people alive - any more work.
All of these conversations were brief, but they have stayed with me. They stayed with me because I have never lived in a world where a Christian priest is essential.
In my world until now church has been an option (and an oft-forgotten one) and worship a commodity (rather than a practice of community).
I know, of course, that my work being declared essential is part of a much larger political battle. Yet I wonder if, in their absence in the midst of so much shared pain, church and worship and their trained ritual workers might some day come to be treated as essential.
Please don't hear this as pouting about our previous lack of stature. Christianity's failure to be relevant is its own fault. You know our sins, our centuries of betraying our own gospels.
But what would the world look like if offerings of peace, prayer, teaching, feasting, healing, song, time, talent, and treasure were held dear?
Perhaps we wouldn't need so many ICU beds for the next pandemic. Perhaps we wouldn't even need so many protestors in the streets.
When I preach, when I am in any leadership role, I use the words and phrases gay, big homo, #dyke, #LGBTQIA, and #queer to describe myself and my people.
Once at an “open and affirming” (#ONA) church I served #God through, a congregant asked to meet with me. He let me know that my use of the word queer really bothered him and he would like me to stop.
In full pastoral (and very-much-benefitting-from-my-proximity-to-white-male-privilege) mode, I used my reflective listening skills and then taught him about how the history of the word and the choice of many of us queers to reclaim it (certainly not all - there can be no all in a population as gloriously diverse as ours).
But in the end, this was a leader in a space that purported to be open and to be affirming of LGBTQIA+ people who wanted to police the language of one of those people when referring to their own people.
This was a retired, white, cisgendered male of some means who felt that his discomfort was far my important than my self-expression and personhood.
Kind of like how white people tell #BIPOC that if they will just dress, walk, sing, talk, everything “right” (aka white) then #racism will go away.
Here’s the thing about #liberation: We only get to participate in it if we are willing to put our discomforts aside, to put our very selves to one side.
Predominantly straight churches are not actually #ONA if they don’t welcome the #sissy and the #butch and the #genderqueer and the #transmasculine just as we are rather than as spectacle or to make the straight people feel good and generous.
Likewise white people do not get to claim we are #antiracist if we are actually #assimilationists, if we only embrace #BIPOC who act or sound or preach like us.
In the gospels, we are taught that #Jesus cast out demons. It seems that the demon straight people and white people (and any people who find themselves in a category of unearned advantage) need to be liberated from is that assumption that we are the arbiters of what that liberation looks like.
And it seems that we need to pay closer attention to the #Christ, because there is nothing in a story of death and #resurrection that could ever lead us to believe the work will be painless, that it will not cost us everything.