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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The Friends Who Guard and Grace Our Lives
A friend and colleague from my parish days in the ‘80’s in Easton, Pennsylvania surprised me with an email this week. Having read about personal changes and challenges in my life, he wrote to offer a deeply appreciated word of encouragement. We haven’t communicated in at least fifteen years, but our friendship had never really been forgotten. Jim was the rector of the Episcopal Church down the block from First UCC. Our offices shared a back alley and the two of us, along with a Lutheran and Presbyterian colleague, were the heart of a vibrant ecumenical relationship that had a significant impact on our little city.
More important, though, than the projects and programs our four churches initiated, was the friendship these four pastors shared. We enjoyed each other’s companionship, studied together, reflected on ministry in our battered city together, shared each other’s joys and sorrows, prayed for each other. Jim, Harry, and Steve no longer are a regular part of my life; retirement, relocation, new responsibilities reduced our contacts to Christmas letters, if that. And yet they continue to be a lively part of my little corner of the communion of saints. I still draw strength from the spiritual and emotional vitality of those friendships.
I thought of the meaning of these friendships as I read the summary report of a study released this week on the clergy abuse crisis, commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Conservatives will be disappointed because the finger is not pointed at homosexuality. Liberals will be disappointed because blame is not placed at the doorstep of an all male, celibate priesthood. What is highlighted – at least in early press accounts – is poor training in the seminaries, poor and indifferent oversight by bishops, and a culture of radical change and permissiveness in the wider society during the 1960’s. Many priests, it seems, were ill equipped to handle the tectonic shifts occurring in church and society, and were poorly served by those who should have been expected to adequately prepare and support them.
These headlines hardly scratch the surface of a report certainly far more nuanced in its conclusions, and it will no doubt be hotly debated by scholars, clinicians, and advocates of all ideological stripes. It was striking to note, however, that of the abusive priests surveyed, the vast majority, almost 70%, were ordained in the 1950’s and 1970’s, years of dramatic change in both US society and the Catholic Church. These priests were being prepared for a church that looked very different from the one they ultimately ended up serving. Living alone in rectories built for a community of priests, ministering to cities undergoing radical social and demographic change, and serving a church that was ricocheting between progressive and traditionalist theological and liturgical commitments is a recipe for trouble of all kinds. Loneliness is no excuse for abuse. But even if a priest’s external behavior is impeccable, the inner erosion of joy can be devastating.
Mainline Protestant clergy have certainly not been immune to these enormous pressures. My generation of clergy, ordained in the 60’s and 70’s, has watched our institutions decline, societal attitudes vis a vis the church radically altered, and the self-understanding of the ministerial vocation change dramatically. Trained to lead and maintain vibrant, growing social institutions, many of us have found ourselves watching the foundations crumble with the future of our congregations, denominations, and seminaries uncertain at best. Frankly, we haven’t been at all sure what we should do. Cultural disestablishment is undoubtedly a good thing for the church. Few thoughtful pastors want to return to the certitudes of the 1950’s and the ascendance of societal respectability over radical fidelity. But leading through the transitions can be difficult at best, wrenching and demoralizing at worst. It can be a lonely struggle through the years, retirement an increasingly a bright beacon, and that loneliness stalks even married or partnered pastors, threatening to upset the moral compass.
Jim’s email reminded me of precious friends over the years who have accompanied my ministerial journey, drawing me from isolating anxiety and inviting vulnerability when my tendency is to avoid any more weakness in the face of a professional world that already seems on the edge of collapse. These friendships can’t inoculate a pastor against moral missteps, failures, even sin. But perhaps they can help us avoid the true abyss. And they remind us that we are never alone even in the loneliest of times, that our solitude is always populated with these saints who speak across the years and the miles, “How is it, dear friend?” There may be no more important lesson to teach our students, and ourselves, than this. Thank you, Jim!
John H. Thomas