One of my favorite sayings in ministry is, “this is not about that.” That is, whatever the presenting issue is (a complaint about a tablecloth shortage for an upcoming dinner, for instance), is really about something else that won’t be as apparent (worries over finances that have resulted in no tablecloths). People decide it is easier to voice the former than deal with the latter. The “this” is usually external and the fault of someone or something else. The “that” involves addressing something in the congregation’s life together.
Getting to the real issue involves a great deal of honesty and imagination, and may involve a larger shift in direction that seems scary and uncertain.
Philosopher Rene Girard proposed that this is why people look for scapegoats. A group seeking relief from anxiety will subconsciously designate one person or subgroup as the cause of its problems. If only they were removed or marginalized, the thinking goes, then we could finally move forward. Doing this is easier than addressing the underlying issues in which everyone has a part.
It may not come as a shock that churches do this. Most of the church conflicts that I’ve been hearing about since COVID have placed an enormous amount of blame on the pastor. So many colleagues have recently departed pastorates because individuals, factions, or entire congregations have opted to make their pastors the scapegoat for lower attendance and funds, new health and safety guidelines, declining programs, and/or unrelated personal anxiety from other parts of their lives.
Each of these issues has many more dynamics at play. The pandemic hastened many trends related to shifting religious affiliation and participation that were already happening. Still, churches are finding it simpler to blame their pastors instead of working to name and deal with the real cause.
And it’s not only that churches (or groups within churches) are placing most or all of the blame on their pastors for these things. It’s also that they’re doing so in the rudest, most destructive, most abusive, and most anti-Jesus ways they can come up with: secret board meetings, anonymous letters, sudden firings, new restrictions or cutbacks on compensation or benefits, social media smear campaigns, and inappropriate treatment of the pastor’s family are a few ways in which this has manifested.
The result is a higher degree of burnout, transition, and (in a certain amount of cases) seeking of non-ministry employment among clergy. From the stats to which I’m privy in my own work, we don’t have as many pastors available for open ministry positions as we once did, and this cycle of scapegoating is only making it worse. For those who have chosen to remain in ministry, an increasing amount of pastors are trying to serve in their new calls while also tending to the bus tire marks across their backs from their previous experience.
Meanwhile, after the scapegoated pastor departs, the church thinks it’s solved the problem, not yet realizing that the problem will still be there when the new pastor arrives.
If faith communities have the courage and the patience to get their hands dirty, fess up to their anxiety, and do the work of self-reflection (including apologizing to their former pastors), that would make so much more of a positive difference for the church. It would increase their chances of doing faithful and effective ministry and outreach. And it would produce a lot fewer scapegoats.