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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Hizzhonor the Pastor?

While much of the focus on the Chicago mayoral race has centered on former Obama aide Rahm Emanuel, a heated debate has emerged about another candidate, the Rev. James Meeks, pastor of a Southside mega-church who has announced that, if elected, he would continue to serve as pastor of his congregation.  It didn’t take long for pastors, pundits and politicians to begin weighing in on the wisdom and the appropriateness of this idea.

What about the separation of church and state?  Can serving as pastor of a church, even if it means only Sunday responsibilities, be adequately accommodated into the busy schedule of a big city mayor?   Is formal employment by and accountability to a particular religious tradition and congregation incompatible with serving as mayor of all the citizens of a city with all of their religious diversity?  Arguments can and have been made on both sides of these various questions, but the jury in Chicago still seems to be out.

Some have detected a racial bias in the debate, asking why it would be inappropriate for Pastor Meeks to spend his Sundays with his congregation while no one objected to Mayor Daley spending Sundays with his family, attending church, or playing golf.  After all, there is a long tradition, particularly in the African American church, of pastors serving as elected public officials while maintaining their pulpits.  Pastor Meeks is, they point out, currently an Illinois State Senator and manages to balance both responsibilities effectively.   Why not mayor?  No doubt some of the anxiety is a result of differing cultural expectations.  While not a universal understanding, most predominantly white congregations assume that the pastor they see in the pulpit on Sunday mornings will be the pastor who visits them in the hospital Monday afternoon, counsels them in his or her study on Tuesday evening, and leads the weekly Bible study on Wednesdays at noon.  Some predominantly African American congregations would share this perspective; others would not.

But there is nothing in the Bible mandating this kind of pattern and a long history of bi-vocational pastors and “tent-making” ministries throughout the history of the church supporting the notion that pastors need not, and in some cases cannot devote all of their professional energies to a congregation.  The concern that having a pastor serve as mayor blurs the line separating church and state seems especially specious to me, resting on the assumption that only the ordained bring strong and articulate theological views to political activity.  Not only is this untrue, it is personally and theologically demeaning to many laypersons in political life who seek to shape their public role and guide their policy decisions on the basis of their faith convictions.

Some churches bar their clergy from holding public office.  Father Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest, was famously instructed by the Vatican in 1980 to give up his seat in Congress.  But in the end, it will be the members of Rev. Meeks’ congregation who will need to decide whether they want their pastor available to them only on Sunday in worship.  And Chicagoans will need to decide whether they want their mayor preaching in a single Christian pulpit every Sunday.

A fundamentally different question, however, that I would want to ask Rev. Meeks, is this:  How will he exercise the prophetic vocation of the pulpit while simultaneously serving as mayor?  Certainly one of the responsibilities of preaching in any tradition is that of speaking truth to power, bringing to bear the insights of Scripture on the key public issues of the day.  A city’s chief executive, like a governor, or a president, uniquely represents political power in a manner quite unlike the way a member of a legislative body does, whether it be a board of aldermen, a county council, a state legislature, or the U.S. Congress. It is one thing for a pastor who is also an alderman to challenge from the pulpit the city’s power structure over issues related to public safety, spending priorities, economic development, etc.  It seems to me quite another thing for a pastor who is also the mayor to lift up a similar prophetic voice when he or she embodies quite personally that very power structure.  How does one speak truth to power when one is the power?

Rev. Meeks may have a compelling answer to that question.  The members of his congregation are certainly capable of judging whether their pastor should also serve as mayor.  And the residents of Chicago can make their own judgment about Rev. Meeks as well, including whether they believe his political views, espoused either in his pulpit or on the floor of the State Senate, are best for the city.  What concerns me is the integrity of the prophetic vocation of the preacher, and whether the proposed arrangement inevitably compromises the freedom of the pulpit to address those whose actions and decisions bear so mightily on the just welfare of the city.  That, it seems to me, is the distinctive question that those in the church ought to be considering.

John H. Thomas

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