Over the course of my sabbatical I was able to interview seven different pastors, asking questions about their ministry perspectives, experiences, insights, and other things.
One question I asked each pastor was this: "It seems like we’re very polarized in America – some of it driven by politics. How do you respond to this in your ministry?" Here are the responses I got...
Pastor #1 (Methodist - UMC) -- I’m a very liberal person. I have a really hard time when any kind of Bible references are used that seem to stand over against who Christ was. And for me Christ was always on the side of those who didn’t have, those who were looked upon with no respect – that’s who He was and who He related to. Our politicians today always seem to be in some kind of stance over against that – all of them. The gospels become a self-serving shtick – a self-serving thing for people to use. If they truly understood who Christ is, how could they say and do some of the things they do? It undermines integrity.
Pastor #2 (Lutheran - LCMS) -- For me, I share my perspective and why I hold it. The polarization of America also has to come with a respect for the other side. What I sense is that we have a segment that screams for tolerance but are some of the most intolerant voices in our country. If you’re going to demand it you should present it towards the other side.
Also I like the country song that says, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” The Bible says to let your yes be yes, and your no be no. And I keep in mind the relationships. I come from this angle, but that doesn’t mean I dislike you because you disagree with me.
Pastor #3 (Congregational - NACCC) -- I try to urge everybody to be moderate in how they hold their beliefs. Ideology is like a backbone or a spine. You can have it rigid or flexible, but it’s still the same backbone. We have people who have pieces of the backbone, and it’s so rigid they can’t bend or flex.
I don’t want to tell people not to believe what they should believe, but to be much more flexible in how they live out what they believe. In my ministry, I listen, I love, and I allow people to have space. Even if they disagree and I know it, I still allow them to have that space. I have people in my churches who are far more liberal or conservative than I am. Every now and then people think, “You’re gonna get mad at me and I’m gonna have to leave.” And I tell them no; you have a place at the table.
Pastor #4 (Congregational - CCCC) -- "I take a reformed Calvinist view. We as Christians can’t hide from politics. We have to allow people to engage the culture and to talk about it. I don’t believe we should be fighting about it. I don’t see anything wrong with having political discussions in church, as long as things are done in a decent way.
Polarizing to me is one source of divisions. It’s us versus them. I don’t think that’s healthy.
I think that the church’s role is to change society. We’re not to be separatists. We’re change agents: We’re out to change creation. My favorite image is where Aslan is on the move to change Narnia. Our role is to transform and change. That means having someone who follows Jesus who is going to be a Democrat or a Republican. It means don’t run away from organizations. That’s the best way to put it."
Pastor #5 (Baptist - ABCUSA) -- I try to be a listener to the people who are polarized. And I try to challenge them whether they’re on the extreme left or right with dialogue, and with questions that I hope will help them rethink their positions. And I try to preach and teach that there should be a dynamic middle, not the extremes.
The middle is dynamic. The extremes are very rigid. And that’s one of the biggest challenges to the gospel in America. The right is very strong in American religion now. The left is near absent.
But I try to challenge in a way so that they’ll listen. I don’t say that they’re wrong. I try to help them to discover other peoples’ perspectives and to find meeting ground, common ground with people they’re opposed to or against.
And I try to have them come back to the gospel – to appreciate the faith as something other than a political football. This is different for me. It used to be I would’ve tried to use it on the left, but now I don’t like it on the right or the left. I think it does a great disservice to human beings and to the social fabric. But to say that I’ve got a system where I can bring people to reconciliation and seeing eye-to-eye, I don’t know I’ve got that way figured out either.
Pastor #6 (Congregational - NACCC) -- Politics should respond to peoples’ needs. It should be the processes of systems that meet peoples’ needs. If we fail to do that, we have failed in our politics.
I’m silent about a lot of things – maybe too silent. Garrison Keillor had on his radio program the Mayo Glee Club from Carleton College. They were singing the tune and idea, “I’m eating instant Ralston in a Quaker Oats town.” That describes me in every town I’ve been in. But I never made it an issue – because if I do that then I’m shut off from really ministering to them.
Of course if there’s something that’s important, that’s different. There are times when you have to speak. For example, I was in [Indiana] when they executed Timothy McVeigh. I was opposed to the death penalty. There is a time to speak. We had different rallies where they had them speak against the death penalty. There have been times when I’ve done this.
I have hosted the programs for the Martin Luther King Day. One time the local symphony played. I was active in the NAACP. There were times when we were quietly involved – in marches &c. But I never want it to come to the place where it would divide the congregation on issues that are marginal. Allow the people to be who they are.
When I was pastoring in one town there were four mayors. I was friends with all of them. God led me to be their friends. Three were Democrats, and one was Republican. We never got into politics even though they were city leaders. But we got into some issues – human rights &c.
Pastor #7 (Methodist - UMC) -- I believe in addressing this. We draw too many lines and not enough circles. Jesus doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. I imagine the scene at the great banquet where people are placed directly across the table from someone who voted differently and are left to ask, ‘How on earth did you get in here?’
Richard Rohr has written on the dualistic mindset – where everything has to be good or bad, right or wrong, etc. So many things don’t need to be judged. A couple examples:
1) Joe Biden – I don’t need to see him as a person I agree with or disagree with. This is man who just lost his son.
2) Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner – Maybe it’s none of my business? If we spend more time loving people, the world will be a better place.
I don’t preach about social issues. I listen to a lot of my pastor-friends; all they talk about are social issues. Looking back at the time of Jesus: the Romans were terrible oppressors, and Jesus didn’t address it. There was vast homosexuality, and Jesus didn’t address it. The same issues as today were present. In the church when we make it the main theme we lose people, and the Kingdom of God isn’t like this.
Personally, I was raised in a Republican household – but I don’t identify with that today. A lot of money is put into the systems and it has to do with maintaining that system. An example: The flat tax is a good idea, but it’ll never happen because it robs Congress of the ability to give privileges to people through tax breaks.
We elect a lot of people who set out to do good, but either they don’t last long or they get sucked into the problem end of it. The church’s role is to provide an alternative: The church should be a haven for all people to feel welcome, whether I like them or not.