Several years ago Pope Benedict XVI tasked three trusted cardinals to investigate as deeply as necessary the Vatican’s internal culture. He wanted to know what prompted a Vatican butler to steal incriminating documents and then leak them to a journalist. Only two men know what is in the final report that came from this investigation: Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. So on December 22 Pope Francis responded to this internal investigation by addressing the Vatican Curia in a message that was direct, sharply stinging and very bold. In it he gave 15 Ailments of the Curia.
Over the last four days I have counted down each one of these “ailments” from number fifteen to number five. Today I share the last four.
No. 4 Planning too much
The pope said, “Preparing things well is necessary, but don’t fall into the temptation of trying to close or direct the freedom of the Holy Spirit.”
This charismatic Jesuit pope is a man who walks in the Spirit. He loves deeply and especially loves the gospel of forgiveness and joy. He knows the joy of freedom in the gospel from personal experience. He radiates grace and peace. He prays freely and with his closest friends in the same manner that you or I would if we trust others. His friends, some of whom are also my friends, tell me a consistent story of a man who is at peace, a man who lives in the Spirit and true freedom. Thus Pope Francis is a man who is always prepared for a meeting or event but never closed to the promptings and energies of the Holy Spirit working to accomplish the spontaneous and that which is the fresh, new thing.
As much as we talk about this in America we have built bureaucracies that hinder true freedom that are as impregnable in their own way as the culture of the Vatican. If you do not believe this try to graciously, lovingly and faithfully challenge the Christian subculture in which you find yourself. You had best grow deep in your own soul before you try or you will be dead almost overnight.
No. 3 Becoming spiritual and mentally hardened
“It’s dangerous to lose that human sensibility that lets you cry with those who are crying, and celebrate with those who are joyful.”
If anything marks a great deal of pastoral leadership I have witnessed over the last 23 years of travel and work across the entire church in this nation it is the “hardness” of so many hearts. Leaders have careers and not a “calling.” They are professional but not pastoral. They are doing the right things, in many instances, but in a way that has lost heart.
Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Is this not a bare minimum for real pastoral care? Holding an office, showing up to work, preaching a good sermon; none of these constitute spiritual and mental softness before people. Be vulnerable and you can serve. Be reserved and secretive and you will touch no one at their deepest level.
No. 2 Working too hard
Now, to be honest, this one slays me with a thousand cuts. I have never been accused, so far as I know, of being lazy. I have been accused, by my wife and best friends, of never letting up. In recent years I have learned a bit but I have so far to go. I do not have a clear “stop” switch at times and it has cost me a deeper relationship with God and his peace. I continue to strive to correct this ailment in myself.
I must say that this cuts two ways. I see a lot of “lazy” leaders who think they work hard. They may put in some hours but they do not know what hard work really is from what I can see. But the reverse is a deadly trap and I have fallen into it.
No. 1 Feeling immortal, immune or indispensable
This is one of those statements that reminds me of the old line that “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it is a duck.” I do not feel this way about myself but I “sense” it often in church leaders. The more important their external role appears to be the more they become the indispensable person!
Our church culture has fostered this by building churches around strong and gifted leaders. We empower them to feel they are indispensable. Then when something happens to them the church begins to fall apart.
Last Sunday evening, as I talked to my pastor friend who was pushed out of the ministry for no good reason, we began to converse about a church in an area of metro-Chicago that has experienced profound numerical growth. I said, “While I am sure they have reached some non-Christians I believe most of the growth is from other churches.” My friend then said, “I meet people almost every week who come from (he named three churches) before they ended up at this growing church.” These three churches were all thriving, growing churches a decade ago. In a short span of time they have all been racked with division and loss. One had a pastor who lost a child to suicide. When he did not “recover fast enough” people grumbled and his work was eventually done. The church has never recovered. The second was a strong, conservative flagship congregation in the region. Forty years ago it had an influx of life and people under the preaching of a highly regarded man who became a professor of homiletics. After serviving a “take-over” by a gigantic church his congregation is on “life-support” today with some hope of slow recovery. The final church of the three was a church I knew well and preached for several decades ago. It gave birth to one of America’s best known churches. The pastor dealt with deep depression and got help. For a season the church was sympathetic but over time it did not work. The people left and this once thriving church is nothing like it was twenty years ago. In all three of these churches the problems were not doctrine, moral failure or really bad pastors. The problems were rooted in the DNA of the church. Leaders felt their opinions mattered most. People were not able to process struggle in the lives of leaders and they failed.
I could narrate these kinds of stories again and again. I believe they all paint a sad portrait of immense breakdown. We have entered a kind of “Babylonian captivity” in church culture. The pastors who thrive in this cultural context either become indispensable or they become joyful servants who do not care what others think about them at all. In either case we all suffer during this period of spiritual “captivity.” I am personally resolved to support my pastor and church unless moral breakdown, or outright denial of Christ, became the accepted norm. I do not think the other options are good ones at all.
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John, thank you for putting the personal into this, it is a great reflection for us as we move forward. I would like to share this with my parish, do you have a summary of the full fifteen? If not, may i put one together using your posts? (With full creditation )
It was a joy Rick.
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Thank you John for these posts. I’ve had a busy week but tried to at least skim these articles. I appreciate you very much brother. When I read your assessments of our current church culture, it sadly rings true and disheartens me. Yet at the same time, it points to the hope of a better way. Since America has slipped into this present “captivity”, it seems best to ask where in the world God is expressing himself wonderfully through the Church? Are there portraits that can be found in other lands that could help mentor us back to a vigorous church life? I sat with a Puerto Rican actor a few nights ago who had more faith in his finger tip than most pastors I have chatted with in the past ten years.
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