November 2nd, 2010
07:00 AM ET
Editor's Note: Mark Barger Elliott is Senior Pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and author of Creative Styles of Preaching. His blog Faith in the World identifies stories of hope from around the world and places where religion intersects everyday life.
By Mark Barger Elliott, Special to CNN
The clergy have been under the glare of the news media’s klieg lights recently and the sight has been jarring to say the least.
For Americans, the most high-profile example of unwanted media attention is of course Rev. Eddie Long, pastor of a 25,000-member Atlanta church, though he vigorously denies the allegations against him.
Some recently scandalized European religious leaders have gotten less attention in the U.S.
Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball and The Big Short) wrote in Vanity Fair about a trip he took to research the financial collapse of Greece. In his travels he stopped by the famed Vatopaidi Monastery and was amazed to discover the financial slight of hand of Fathers Arsenios and Ephraim, two monks who he says displayed all the cunning of Enron’s Jeff Skilling and Kenneth Lay.
The two apparently duped the Greek Ministry of Finance out of a millions of dollars.
In April, Belgian Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, resigned after admitting to child sex abuse.
As a Christian pastor, I am troubled and embarrassed.
I wonder what opinions those outside my tradition must have of our clergy.
Does an agnostic house painter in New Orleans who was considering returning to the church decide now to stay away because of the accusations against Eddie Long? Does a Hindu cab driver in Athens believe Father Aresenios is the face of the church? Does a Muslim short order cook in Brussels watch the story of Roger Vangheluwe on Al Jazeera and conclude all clergy are pedophiles?
Closer to home, do church members in my congregation wonder what I am hiding?
How can we clergy explain such egregious transgressions?
I have thought of two possible culprits: the work and the person.
As a pastor I identify with the pitfalls of "the work." Fifteen years ago I took vows "to love God, my neighbor, and to serve the people of God with energy, intelligence and imagination."
Today, however, my job description reads like the director of a mid-size non-profit. A million dollar budget needs to be raised and a monthly payroll of 12 employees met. To tread the churning waters of shrinking resources and demands for excellent programs, I take classes on strategic planning as often as classes on the Bible.
I'm not proud of this. But I suspect that many clergy face the same temptation to view the church more as a business than a spiritual community.
What to do?
One option is to intentionally separate the clergy from the church's financial matters. Teaching people about God’s love while shaking a fundraiser’s tin cup seems to ultimately undermine one’s credibility. People suspect a bait and switch.
On the other hand, as Harvard professor Robert Coles wrote in a famous essay addressing a crisis in the field of psychiatry, "I think our most pressing concern is less the matter of our work than the manner of ourselves."
This is where the second possible culprit, the person, comes in.
Yes, the work of ministry pulls clergy in a million directions but cooking the balance sheet and sexual crimes point to a disease of the spirit and soul.
This is "the manner of ourselves."
How do we explain the moral transgressions of a profession charged to teach morality?
In my years as a pastor I have witnessed marriage vows made and betrayed. I have visited those in prison and those trapped in a prison they have made for themselves. I’ve prayed with the lost and the found, watched fortunes flow and ebb.
"Broken" is a word that describes many of the people I have been privileged to walk alongside as a pastor.
I have also spent a great deal of time with other clergy; from preaching stars who soak up acclaim for their oratory gifts to pastors in inner-city churches barely making ends meet.
Here's my observation. Clergy typically fall into one of two camps.
Those who, in the face of the brokenness that surrounds them, come to identify their own brokenness and in humility choose to "live with the questions," to borrow the poet Rilke's phrase. This person is reluctant to offer quick answers to the hard questions of life.
The other camp is clergy who choose instead to offer confident solutions to life’s struggles. The clergy I have watched transgress their ordination vows typically fall into the second camp. The temptation is to shift from speaking about God to speaking for God. When that line blurs in a pastor’s mind, all bets are off.
What can Christian clergy offer to the agnostic house painter in New Orleans, the Hindu cab driver, the Muslim short order cook?
The Jewish prophet Micah once wrote how people of faith are to "act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God." That is as succinct a definition I know of what it means to call oneself a Christian.
It’s also reminder of the standard we clergy must claim and cling to if we are to restore trust and once again bring honor to our sacred calling.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mark Barger Elliott.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.