The crushing yoke of a deconstructionist pastor
Pastoring without Jesus is just hopeless
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In a recent post on his blog, Alexander Lang wrote a detailed explanation for why he chose to step down as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Arlington Heights, Ill. Like so many other modern pastors, Lang laments, he could no longer endure the typical shepherd-sapping burdens of the ministry, burdens such as “the immense stress of the job” and “feeling lonely and isolated.”
Initially, many of the personal challenges Lang describes lined up with my own experiences as a parish pastor for 15 years. However, the more Lang described these particular challenges, the less convinced I was that we were sharing the same afflictions. I know what it’s like to feel momentarily exhausted at the end of the day after praying with a member in his darkest hour. I don’t know what it’s like to feel as though I have nowhere to unload the weight of my parishioner’s burdens. While I’ve been frustrated by the unclear desires or unreasonable demands of idiosyncratic members, I’ve never felt as though my “boss” is “every person who walks through the door of [my] community.” I only worry about one boss, the Triune God.
Why have our experiences been so different? I don’t think it’s because I’m a better pastor than Lang. I think it’s because I’m a pastor and he is something else entirely. Read through Lang’s essay and you’ll notice he doesn’t mention Jesus a single time. Look at his website’s “about” page and you’ll see this is hardly an oversight. “Restorative Faith is a progressive Christian movement designed to rescue the Christian faith from antiquated doctrine and recast Christianity in a new light,” he tells us. “We are here to break down the Christian faith one piece at a time so we can rebuild it into something that is actually worth believing.”
The stated aim of his deconstructionist charge makes it easy to pinpoint why Lang found the pastoral ministry so much more exhausting than I do. In describing his compassion fatigue, he writes, “I know intimate details about their lives. … I want to know if they are struggling or making progress. I want to know if I can offer resources to help. What you don’t realize is that, over time, the accumulation of all that knowledge starts to weigh you down.”
Lang sees himself not as a an undershepherd called to comfort his sheep with the message of Christ crucified but as a Christendom-scented psychologist charged with fixing his patients. For pastors, the compassion fatigue problem is easy to solve. Yes, it can be exhausting to carry the sorrows of your people. But that exhaustion fades with every word of Scripture reminding me that I don’t have to keep that weight. I get to transfer it into the pierced hands of Christ whenever I point my sheep to their Good Shepherd who has killed their every sin and promised to dry their every tear. Lang doesn’t want to hand that load over to Jesus. No wonder he’s exhausted.
Likewise, this is how Lang describes his pulpit-related frustrations: “Most Christians don’t want their thinking challenged. They come to church to reinforce what they’ve believed their entire lives. … This is the exact opposite of how I function. Although I always try to end my messages with a sense of hope, my goal was to make you think. … I have no problem dismantling the traditional Christian belief system in service of logic and reason.”
For pastors, it’s certainly deflating when members complain that your sermons are either too wooden or theatrical, too personal or too dry. But nobody is forcing your members to show up, so aesthetic preferences aside, most of them are there because they want to hear the gospel, which means it’s a rare thing to hear that your sermons are too Jesus-y. Keep preaching the cross, and you’ll get far more praise than criticism.
For corporate raiders, however, it’s a different story. Whether or not Lang’s tenure at a congregation of the theologically liberal PCUSA can be fairly called a hostile takeover, it’s safe to assume many of his pew-sitters still wanted sermons that offered a few gospel crumbs instead of the company’s new decontructionist purpose statement. No wonder he couldn’t survive being starved of validation by the people he was starving of Christ.
In all of this, Lang didn’t get worn down because he was a pastor. He got worn down because he chose to be something even more difficult—a low-rent therapist and low-stakes CEO conducting business in the sanctuary of an institution whose Christian heritage he wanted to tear down.
“My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” As Alexander Lang continues his journey of tearing down Christian orthodoxy, I pray he stumbles across these words of Jesus and learns the great paradox of the pastoral office: The only thing heavier than wearing the yoke of Christ is not wearing it at all.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —Barbara
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