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Phony-Baloney in Church

“We have to protect our 
phony-baloney jobs here, gentlemen!  
We must do something 
about this immediately!”  
– William J. Le Petomane 
in Ã‰tudes Théologiques et Selles Flammes (1974).

The church I serve as an interim pastor has lovely flowers up front at various places on the stage.  They add a certain attractiveness to the overall effect.   They are beautiful because, of course, they are not real. 
They are crafted of wire and plastic and silk.   But, assuming you suspect the ruse, they look convincing even up close.  One touch, of course, confirms your suspicions.  So, the answer is simple: don’t touch.  They’re as phony as a three-dollar bill.  We know it.  You know it.  But, they’re pretty.  They add to overall the effect.  And, so we tacitly agree to value appearance over authenticity.

Phony-baloney flowers are just the most visible expression of a broader and less benign deception. At one level, to be sure, to say someone is a phony is simply acknowledging she or he is sinful.  We all wish we were better Christians than we are.  The urge to hide the bare naked truth about ourselves is as old as Eden.  Our mother and father hid in the bushes from the nosy prying eyes of a meddling deity.  We’re still pretty much hiding today.  (For another exploration of this, you can read The Truth about Seeker Worship)

But, the corporate body of the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth, is intended to be a place where our long game of hiding and pretending gradually gives way to brutal truth.  The painful wounds of exposure, of course, are bathed in healing grace.  But, redemption is rooted not in appearance but in authenticity.  Before we claim to be empowered to speak truth against this present darkness we must have learned to speak truth against self deception.   We cannot pretend to have arrived and claim to be still on the journey at the same time.

Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck once wryly observed that an AA meeting is more like the church than the church is like the church.  Many times, joining a church it is kind of like joining the Rotary, with the addition of needing to affirm a list of metaphysical truths.  You assume you’ll be with many of your neighborhood’s best citizens.  AA, on the other hand, demands each one joining must acknowledge terribly embarrassing personal failures.  The challenging realization is to acknowledge, for much the same reason, AA forms a community, while church is more often simply a group.

We human beings have often been referred to as social animals. But we are not yet community creatures. We are impelled to relate with each other for our survival. But we do not yet relate with the inclusivity, realism, self-awareness, vulnerability, commitment, openness, freedom, equality, and love of genuine community.” (Scott Peck in A Different Drum)

The best church leaders today lead from the top, not from the inside.  We now demand our pastors give every appearance of having achieved what we collectively wish we were.  Twenty-something ministers need to have accelerated maturity to the point they sound like they are fifty.  And, the fifty-something pastor has to exhibit the edgy vitality of a young adult.  Our preachers need to be widely read, culturally aware reflective theologian scholars of exegesis who can hold our attention while they pepper us each week with startling originality and practical applications.  Our youth pastors need to be adored by adoration-addicted teenagers.  Fabulously spontaneous without being hopelessly disorganized.

The reality is that we are not, indeed cannot possibly be, all of those things.  As I already mentioned, that is largely acknowledging we are sinners and therefore we are flawed.  The great danger we have embraced, however, is our proven ability to consistently appear to be all of those things to the churches we claim called to lead.  As those of us who work in Christian higher education know, one of the tragedies we see lived out is that churches rarely hire disabled ministers.  My suggestion is that this phenomenon is hardly limited to those with physical disabilities.  Our leaders must, in everything from appearance to character to ability to piety, look attractive.  Today's Christian leaders must be women and men who embody the collective aspirations of Christian America.

This has fostered a pattern of being, often beginning long before ordination, in which we pretend to be more than we are and our churches pretend to believe the pretense.  Several years ago, I was walking through my church lobby when a volunteer worker asked me where the extra toilet paper was stored.  I said I had no idea.  She stared at me in a mixture of disbelief and frustration.  “You mean to say you are the pastor of this church and you don’t know where the toilet paper is stored.” [Ever since then I have made it a point to know.  Just in case.  To simply shrug and acknowledge incompetence never seemed to be an acceptable option.]

This means Christian leadership often requires a disconnect between appearance and reality.  And this assumed incongruency nurtures a spiritual schizophrenia in which today’s Christian leaders are both much better and much worse than those of past centuries.

Few would dispute there is an epidemic of moral failures within the leadership staff of many Protestant churches.   What I am suggesting is the paradox that this ugly scandal of the American church is partly rooted in our demands for pastors who give every appearance of being more, not less, than what churches of past eras expected of its pastors.   Rather than foster authentic leaders, it promotes a great deal of pretending.  We pretend to be at the top of our game week after week.  And we are.  Engaged in a game, that is.  It is no wonder our fellow believers in non-Protestant traditions accuse us of a celebrity-centered Christianity.

But, while celebrities can draw crowds, genuine community is woven out of something else.  Community is the product of people who are together, not by choice, but by the certainty that they cannot make it on their own.   For these men and women, the community itself, as empowered by the Spirit of God, is a fundamental and essential part of their own redemption.  Like people walking into an AA meeting, the ticket into a genuine community is not the pretense of accomplishments but the admission of failures.  No one can lead an AA meeting other than an alcoholic.  And, in brutal speaking truth to self, everyone in that community knows that sobriety is never achieved, it is only maintained -- and often only barely maintained -- by everyone in the room.  Everyone.  They are led from the inside.

So, I believe there is an unmistakable, even if ironic, link between the church’s exaggerated expectations of its leaders and the equally unmistakable erosion of authentic integrity.  There is cause and effect between the ideal our leaders must appear to be and the growing alarm at what some of them turn out to have been.   

If you insist your flowers have to be perfect and beautiful, then you need to buy silk flowers.  Buy the right ones and they will look entirely real and you’ll never have to water them or see a flaw or worry about a wilted flower.  But, then again, no matter how they convincing they appear, you're not looking at anything that is actually alive, are you?

Or, to return to our opening metaphor: We either need to protect our phony-baloney jobs or we need to get rid of the baloney.  

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