Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Can a Church Member Disagree With Her Pastor? (let's hope so)

Today I got a phone call from a church member who read yesterday's blog post. She wanted me to know that she disagreed with me about Obama (she didn't say anything about Jeremiah Wright). Essentially she told me why she didn't like Obama as a candidate and had several good reasons for her opinion. What I appreciated most about our conversation was that she started things off by stating, "I wanted to let you know my opinion which I believe I have every right to hold, just as you have every right to your opinion." What great words! Why can't every conversation start off that way?

I found myself nodding my head when I read Diana Butler Bass' thoughts on why the media seems unable to comprehend that a church member (Barack Obama) could go to a church and not agree with everything his pastor (Jeremiah Wright) says. She wrote:

The current media flap over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor, strikes me as nothing short of strange. Anyone who attends church on a regular basis knows how frequently congregants disagree with their ministers. To sit in a pew is not necessarily assent to a message preached on a particular day. Being a church member is not some sort of mindless cult, where individuals believe every word preached. Rather, being a church member means being part of a community of faith—a gathered people, always diverse and sometimes at odds, who constitute Christ's body in the world.

But the attack on Rev. Wright reveals something beyond ignorance of basic dynamics of Christian community. It demonstrates the level of misunderstanding that still divides white and black Christians in the United States.

As a minister, I'm not sure I could handle the responsibility of every one of my church members agreeing with me. I don't want to be responsible for what other people think. I am relieved to know that church members take what I say, consider it based on their own experience, and then make a conscious decision as to whether or not they agree with me. It just seems like a healthy thing for church members to disagree with their ministers from time to time.

I get worried about churches where agreement with ministers is expected and even required for membership.

In the case of Jeremiah Wright, as I wrote yesterday, I think the image presented in the media over the last week of Wright is little more than a caricature. It seems entirely possible to me that one could attend Trinity and disagree with some of what Wright said and still be deeply moved by the many other good things he said and did. Accounts of Wright's ministry and that of his church offer moving testimonials to their work in the depressed inner city of Chicago. I was intrigued by Martin Marty's account of his experiences with Wright and with Trinity. Marty is a noted church historian now retired from the University of Chicago.

An interesting statement came out from Dean Snyder, the pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington D.C. (Foundry is the church Bill and Hillary Clinton attended when Bill Clinton was president, although Snyder was not the pastor at that time.) He makes some excellent points about the need for those outside the African-American community to hear the prophetic voice of the Black Church, including that of Wright. I point out Marty's and Snyder's opinions of Wright as examples of people of faith who are not African American but were inspired by Wright even if they did not agree with him always. Cannot the same be allowed for one or any of Trinity's members?

For that matter, cannot the same be said of a member of my church or any church? I hope so.

I also hope that I have an informed enough opinions and deep enough thoughts so that there is something from me worth disagreeing with. Far worse it would be if I offered nothing controversial or provocative in an effort to make everyone like me. What a sad and pointless that would be.

When the video snippets of Jeremiah Wright first got airtime, a few church members came to me and suggested we destroy the video of our church services just in case their children wanted to some day run for political office. I responded that I feared not saying anything prophetic enough to get their kids in trouble.

Grace and Peace,


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