Church Abuse, and other forms of discipleship


By Joe LaGuardia

I have a confession: I abuse my church.

By abuse, I don’t mean it in the contemporary sense of the word.  I mean it in the traditional sense, like when your grandfather abused those old work boots by wearing them in and putting them to work over the last four decades, boots scarred from a hard life forged in the protestant work ethic.

When I say I abuse my church, I refer to the challenges that push it beyond familiar comfort zones.

Jesus asked his disciples to bear the cross in order to follow him; without a few crosses to overcome, the church cannot have celebration.  Where there is no grave, there is no resurrection, according to theologian Karl Barth.

In this context, abuse is a part of discipleship.

There are several ways I abuse my church. For one, I abuse my church when I challenge it to bear the cross of intergenerational ministry.  In a culture that caters to every age group, some churches separate the generations in worship and ministry.

Large congregations cannot get around this model of ministry.  Nevertheless, the notion that families need a break from one another when they get to church is overrated.

Research proves that families can grow in faith more effectively by following Christ together.

Holly Allen and Christine Ross, in their book Intergenerational Faith Formation, demonstrate how this type of ministry benefits families.  Since all people yearn for belonging, it is “the best way for people to link narratives, communities, mentors, traditions, and practices” of a common faith.  It is “essential to Christian formation and the development of mature faith.”

I also abuse my church by making it bear the cross of responsibility.  Sure, I can preach sermons that provide all the answers to life and tell parishioners what to think, but this program of indoctrination only goes so far.

Indoctrination may dispense useful information, but it rarely teaches people how to think theologically and critically for themselves.

We ministers are not able to return home with churchgoers and read the Bible for them.  When we pass on and get to the pearly gates over yonder, our pastors will not be with us to help answer Peter’s quiz questions.

We need to hear directly from the Holy Spirit, not just words about the Holy Spirit from a third party.

Once responsible, I abuse my church by refusing to put on a performance during worship.  Quality worship is born from within.

Nor is worship about “getting fed” (notice, this phrase is always in the passive tense).  Worship is about celebrating where God is at work in our lives, a response to the grace that we have witnessed.

No amount of Bible study, singing, preaching, or ministry activity can “feed” you.  Only Jesus is the Bread of Life and the eternal wellspring that quenches our longings for the Divine–and our worship to God flows from a soul filled with love and overwhelmed by the Holy Ghost.

It was the philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, who noted that all of us are worshiping God whether in the pulpit or the pew.  God is our audience.  Clergy are the mere conductors of the orchestra of the saints.

The last way I abuse my church is to beckon it to bear the cross of missions.  God calls the church to reach beyond its own walls and avoid becoming an escape from the rigors of life.

Again, we confuse function with intent.  Church is intended to be a resource for the journey, a mere launching pad for reaching out to share the gospel with others in the world.  It is not intended to be either a final destination or a social club.

Every church can take the broad way that looks comfortable, but it is the way that leads to destruction.  The narrow way of discipleship, which leads to life, is strewn with crosses, risks, and demands for vulnerability.  Like Grandpa’s work boots, it exhibits a journey of abuse and hard work, of ownership and maturity.

Jack of all trades, master of none


By Joe LaGuardia

An advertisement from a church looking for a new pastor read:

“Wanted: Pastor for small church.  Must excel in preaching, teaching, pastoral care, administration, leadership, vision setting, missions,  ministry, church growth.  Also, ten years experience a must.”

A satirical ad, similar in tone, added: “Pastor must know politics, how to dry tearful eyes, handle every major life crisis, and have the answer to life’s hardest questions.”

All kidding aside, I know churches that expect all of this — and more — from their pastors.

I am convinced that full-time pastoral ministry is one of the last professions in the world in which a person has to practice multiple skill sets for a salary well below that of other professional occupations.

And I have heard stories from pastors in which they have not lived up to these expectations and experienced depression and anxiety.  So, why do thousands still take this job?

Leading a church is exciting and fulfilling.  We preach even if it means having to administrate sometimes, and we like to be present during life’s greatest challenges and celebrations even if we can’t answer all of life’s questions.

Yet, we pastors must be clear when things get out of hand.  I knew a pastor in Atlanta who had his secretary schedule everything for him.  That way, the pastor never had to tell anyone “no” when a request was made.

If there was a death, however, the pastor did everything to be present.  He would cut vacations short or fly home.  He would cancel seminars in which he was key-note speaker.

“The only time you are excused from being with family during a death is if you’re on a cruise in the middle of the ocean,” he stated.

Times have changed since that pastor led a church.  Now, pastors are not the first people called during crises.  In fact, many pastors find out about life transitions or hospital stays from second- or third-parties, or even social media.

Gone are the days when the pastor came immediately to the hospital in an emergency because many pastors have to negotiate their time with co-rearing children or holding another job to make ends meet.

Expectations still linger nevertheless, and I have a personal anecdote that still bothers me to this day.

Years ago, I got an email from a grandparent whose grandchild was in critical condition.  This was before smartphones, so I didn’t intercept the email until mid-afternoon.

Also, I was busy all day caring for my son who had a high fever while my wife was at work.  I checked the email right before we left for the doctor.

My plan was to check in with the family as soon as we got back home, but when I checked again I found that the grandparent left an irate email.

He was hurt.  He felt abandoned.  He asked where I was in their family’s greatest time of need.

Then: “Never talk to me or speak to me again.  You are no longer my pastor.”

My church knows my persistence when it comes to relationships, so I didn’t give up.  I tried to reach the family all week.

Despite my efforts, I haven’t heard from them since.

Although many pastors are now trained to set boundaries, give clear expectations, and adhere to well-developed human resource handbooks that establish contact protocols, we still try to be all that we can be.

Other times, we simply fail to meet expectations.

When most of us come to a new church, the first thing we do is find ways to make our church have more realistic expectations.  It’s better for a church to have a pastor that sets boundaries than to be a church who gets stuck with all of the pastor’s therapy bills.  Boundaries benefit all of us.