But you can’t say that


I noticed a book while perusing the virtual Amazon shelf (no substitute for a real, musty-smelling local bookstore, but for a mom who just put her little one to bed, it’s nice). The book was Ten Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You: (But Can’t, Because He Needs the Job). I was almost sold, but, you know, with a title that sexist, I just couldn’t bring myself to click the shopping cart (Why didn’t the good people at St. Martins Press think about that?).

Yet, it’s an intriguing title, for the simple fact that it’s shamefully true. As church leaders, we keep our opinions to ourselves. I know I’ve held my tongue. When I graduated from seminary, I fell in love with this tiny church in Cajun Louisiana. South of Lafayette. In the swamps. So far south that the church balanced on stilts.

When I showed my seminary professors the beautiful church that I was going to, their brows furrowed with concern. One took me aside and warned me, “Carol, you can’t go there. You’re way too liberal. In two years, we’re going to be dredging you up from the bottom of a swamp.”

Gulp. I went anyways. After all, it was the place where my husband and I both had churches waiting for us. As a clergy couple, job placement for two is terribly difficult. And…what was it? The massive oaks? The melting cedar knees? The dripping Spanish moss? The foot-stomping music? The rich food? I can’t explain it, but magic hangs in the air there. People speak beautifully–I’ve never heard such idioms. I was called.

Of course, I spoke out when things like this happened. But there were so many things. Racial tension, ecological destruction. I was exhausted, so within my congregation, I found myself choosing my battles. In the community, there was so much antipathy over a collared woman that I ended up biting holes through my tongue. On good days, I consoled myself, assuring myself that I was being prudent. On the bad days, I was miserable.

I’m often told, from people on all points of the social spectrum, “You can’t write about that.” Or, “You can’t talk about that.” “Your book will never sell.” “You’ll offend half of your readers.” “You’ve got to build a broader audience.” “The Evangelical book market is too big. Don’t scare away the Evangelicals.” “Even progressives want to know that you can talk about these issues without talking about the issues.” “You’re going to end up on the cover of the Layman” (that’s our denomination’s fundy rag).

It’s been very interesting to hear the advice I’m getting from different writers, consultants, and opinion-makers. It’s all good guidance. I appreciate the warnings. It’s enlightening, too. Yet I wonder, is this why so very few people are saying important things? Do they all need the job that much?

But here’s the thing: I can write about what I want to. I can move in whatever direction the Spirit blows. I can talk about important issues all day long. You know why? It’s not because I’m particularly courageous, or brave, or even hard headed. I hate conflict as much as the next pastor.

I can say what I want to because of my church. They intentionally make the pulpit a space in which we can preach what God leads us to preach, without repercussion. We don’t have to tout the progressive party line either. The pulpit’s not a liberal propaganda machine.

We occasionally freak out the visitors, and I often hear, “I didn’t know you could talk about that in church.” But, for the most part, our congregation doesn’t want a screechy parrot in the pulpit, who only knows how to echo the opinions of others. They want to be challenged with something that keeps them thinking and debating.

And, I tell you, it’s an extremely invigorating place to be.


8 thoughts on “But you can’t say that

  1. This would be another good post: What Ten Things Do We Want Our Congregations to Know.

    I think that churches that allow people to speak freely are increasingly the growing ones. Or maybe I hope this is true.

  2. I wear my two write-ups in the Layman as badges of honor. I remember thinking with the first, “I have arrived!”

    With the second they got my name wrong, said I was Firstname Middlename from the Presbytery of Lastname. Good Lord. Is fact-checking some kind of liberal conspiracy or something?

  3. just wanted to let you know I couldn’t leave a comment under your last post.

    wanted to say re: Lutherans, we have been guilty of saying the same things. But sometimes people me, “they don’t know what it means….i.e. they think Joel Osteen is a good theologian.”

  4. RM,

    TWO write-ups? You are a rockstar. And I need details.

    And Jan,

    You’re right. You talk about it all the time on your blog–the need for authenticity. So what do you think? Which one comes first? The courage to be authentic, or the space in which that trust can grow? Some church leaders work in an environment where they feel they just can’t be honest. Is that insecurity something that goes away after more years in the pastorate?

  5. I don’t know anything about the Layman. As a Lutheran, what should I hope to make the cover of? That is the existential question. And I haven’t. made the cover of anything.

  6. No. I was never the covergirl for the “Lame Man” (shoot! I promised myself I would not engage in any nastiness on this topic). It is a lofty goal though, isn’t it?

    And, since you don’t know, Diane, it’s the eternal newsprint watchdog of our denomination. I think it’s largely funded by sources outside of the denomination, and it’s very widely distributed. No subscription needed. It goes out to elders, pastors, etc. Even though our denomination is still sending letters to the pastor who resigned five years ago, the Layman got my name right the first week I was installed.

    The problem is that they often exaggerate, and lie, and call our General Assembly apostate, and stuff like that. And even though everyone knows the source…it’s difficult watching friends get smeared within the pages….

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