Yesterday I read this blog entry about lying pastors and I have been chewing on it overnight. To sum up the article, the author was in a conversation with other United Methodist pastors and the question was posed, "When is it necessary for pastors to lie to people?" He answered that it was never necessary, at which point the entire table disagreed with him with comments like this:
- You can’t tell people in the church the truth. They can’t handle it. We are there to protect them.
- Yeah, the church I serve has some really dark skeletons in its closet. There is nothing good that would come of letting people know what really happened.
- And you know for a fact that we can’t tell people in our churches a lot of what we learn at seminary. They don’t want to hear it, so we tell the same old stories the same old ways to keep everyone happy.
- Mostly it isn’t lying; it’s just not telling the truth.
I was frankly shocked that the pastors would suggest that lying is not only somehow "OK" but even necessary or required for ministry.
Two of the reasons they posed that lying was necessary were to protect the congregation and to keep the peace. I remember an incident in college when my fraternity brother David Schaff came to me and said, "You first introduced me to Jesus, but I don't see you living that kind of lifestyle right now."
He didn't protect my feelings. He risked our friendship and his standing in the fraternity. But it was absolutely worth it, for him as well as for me.
They posed that lying is necessary to maintain confidentiality; that if you tell someone that this isn't their business, that they will assume the worst. Which is worse, breaking confidence, lying about the confidential material, or having someone assume the worst? I pose that "this is none of your business" or "this is confidential" is a whole lot better than giving false information, no matter what sinful gossips are going to make of it. Just because someone is going to react sinfully does not justify us sinning in the first place. Jesus told his followers that if someone strikes you on the cheek [sinful behavior], turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you [sinful behavior] and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. What he is saying is that our behavior should not be contingent upon the behavior of those around us.
The real danger here is this: the very notion that pastors must lie, even if there are gray areas where truth-telling seems dangerous - this belief forces the creation of two classes, one that is somehow "above the rules" (those would be the lying clergy people) while the others (laity) must obey God's rules. There are already enough divisions between clergy and laity, and we members of the clergy are too often put on pedestals (and we often contribute to that) and/or held at arms length (as "acceptable outsiders"). These only lead to a lack of trust, a distrust that our profession has earned over many years of lying to our parishioners.
I have been told that the reason so many people appreciate a pastor's visit so much (especially in the hospital or in times of deep distress) is that for those moments, we represent God to them. I personally believe that this isn't just the job of the "pastor" but is also the job of anyone who carries the Holy Spirit within him or her. God blesses us to be a blessing; to represent Him in the world. What kind of representation do we offer when we feel like we need to break one of His Commandments? And how can we expect people to trust fully in God if we're representing Him through deceit?