I shared some thoughts about what clergy wish their congregations knew but are hesitant to share out of fear. Now I want to reveal what several laity have said to me when I’ve asked them what it is they wish their ministers knew but are afraid to share with them out of respect, fear of hurting feelings or a myriad of reasons.
These reflect some honest, occasionally painful conversations. Actually, these conversations have been happening to me for nearly 30 years. The list could have been much longer. Thoughts shared here hint at deeper issues that, if left unattended, have the potential to lead to significant conflict, disenchantment or worse. Let all clergy who have ears, listen.
- My life is not easy. I need hope, help and healing most days. The idea that everyone you meet is leading a life of quiet desperation applies to the people in your pews more than you seem to know. Some days it is all I can do to show up and appear semi-coherent. When you ask me to serve on the reception committee without even bothering to ask about my troubled son, don’t be surprised when I come up with a dozen excuses for declining. It’s not because I’m not committed or don’t love God. I just need you to see me and notice me and my pain.
- Challenge me. Despite an over-full life, I crave being part of something bigger than I am. Some days it seems like you are more interested in playing it safe and drawing a paycheck than speaking boldly on behalf of the God of the universe. Please don’t make the life of faith sound so trivial. By the way, please stop trying to make us all happy. It can’t be done and it runs counter to the gospel. Besides, it will kill you and stunt my spiritual growth. Invite me to get out of my comfort zone and discover the abundance that Jesus talks about in John 10. Push me but always remember point No. 1.
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- Lighten up. The world will not end if we try something new and different. Your inflexibility is not congruent with what you tell us about God and his imagination and creativity. We’d like to get out of some of our ruts, and we need your leadership to help us think and act differently.
- If I get to church, please do your part and see to it that things are done well. If I get out of bed on Sunday morning, dress the kids, pass up some quiet time with my spouse or come out on a rainy Monday night for a committee meeting, please see to it that you have done your part to be prepared, professional and organized. Nothing is as discouraging or frustrating as the feeling that ministers take for granted that people will just show up, no matter the quality of the program or event. Not true.
- I’m less and less interested in rote faith. I’m more and more interested in dynamic, world-changing faith. Have you noticed that my eyes glaze over when you drone on about budgets, but light up when I have a chance to actually touch a life and impact the world? You should pay attention to that. Tell me more about the God who transforms life.
- Get some therapy or coaching or something. This is not said out of pettiness, but out of genuine love for you. You have some blind spots and you are not perfect, so why not ask for help and guidance? You would do yourself, family and our church a huge favor by discovering or admitting your flaws and working on them. We see them but don’t really know how to help you with them. Your authenticity is your walking testimony. Thank you for trying to narrow the gap between who you are in the pulpit and who you are in the aisle at the grocery.
- I wish you listened more and talked less. Please, if you hear nothing else, hear this one.
Does this resonate with your world? As a former pastor and now a parishioner, I hope these words are truthful and helpful.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.