In this OnFaith Forum, Disbelief in the Pulpit, we asked contributors: What should pastors do if they no longer hold the defining beliefs of their denomination? Do clergy have a moral obligation not to challenge the sincere faith of their parishioners? If this requires them to dissemble from the pulpit, doesn’t this create systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion? What would you want your pastor to do with his or her personal doubts or loss of faith?
Pastors and other religious leaders charged with the care and spiritual nurture of a congregation have no greater responsibility than relating to their congregations honestly. When honesty is the norm, seldom will the congregation be caught off guard or surprised by its religious leader’s doctrinal beliefs or ethical principles. That being said, however, the situation is neither as simple nor as easy as it seems.
In today’s world of schisms in all major religions, though a religious tradition does not change, the leaders of the institutions in that religious tradition change. Such was my experience as a pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention founded on the “historic Baptist tradition.” In a pre-announced political movement aimed at taking over the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, fundamentalist Baptists successfully ousted cooperative leaders in the convention committed to the priesthood of every believer, the autonomy of each local congregation, church-state separation, and a congregational polity.
New leaders were elected and unprecedented emphasis was placed on creedal orthodoxy, biblical literalism, pastoral authority and a form of religious freedom that permitted entanglement between institutions of religion and government. My personal conviction was shared by many long-time members of that Convention: “I have not moved away from the convention, the convention has moved away from me.” Indeed, my Baptist identity would have been compromised by remaining a part of that movement.
At no time during that transitional period did I not speak to the congregations I served openly and honestly about what was happening and how it was affecting me. Currently, I do sermon feedback sessions that allow members of the congregation to question what I have said from the pulpit. Regularly, I challenge members of the congregation to evaluate what I have said and to form their own biblically-based conclusions about it.
Differences of opinion do not destroy a congregation; they may even strengthen it. However, a lack of communication between people with different opinions can be seriously destructive. Dishonesty can be damaging beyond measure. Nowhere should efforts at communication be stronger than between a religious leader and those whom the leader serves. Out of such interaction comes mutual respect and spiritual growth for all involved.
Finally, if careful communication ultimately reveals that a religious leader no longer represents or advocates the theological and moral views of a particular congregation, the leader has a responsibility to resign. Such action preserves the integrity of both the leader and the congregation and represents a commitment to authenticity that is absolutely essential to spirituality.
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