Those of us who were either raised in the Church or became active in the Church as young adults gradually acquire a working understanding of our little corner of it – an understanding filled with a certain quaint naivete that probably serves some vital function, though to be honest I am having a hard time wrapping my head around what that vital function might be. We believe that our clergy have our best interests at heart and that they see things the same way we do, and as long as we don’t push that too hard it is for the most part accurate and helps us find community and home. We feel we belong because we are surrounded by fairly like-minded people from similar socio-economic backgrounds and who (back in the day) mostly lived within a few miles of the local church building.
You would have to be living in a cave on a remote desert island (at times a pretty appealing proposition) to not be aware of the massive scandals that have ripped through the Roman Catholic and Evangelical/Pentecostal mega-church world over the last two decades. I have been reflecting for some time why those two disparate segments of the Church Universal have been having the biggest struggles with scandal. I am not suggesting for a moment that there aren’t scandals and problems in what I would call mainline Protestantism or small non-denominational churches, but the scale and scope of those “scandals” doesn’t really merit use of the term “scandal” when compared with what’s gone on in Rome and the rock star preacher circuit over the last two decades. Pastor Bob may run off with the church secretary, but you don’t generally find him molesting the boys from the local Cub Scout troop (the closest Protestant equivalent to altar boys).
I’ve agonized over the issues, the similarities and differences between the Jimmy Swaggarts of the world and the Bernard Laws of the world. Generally speaking, Catholic priests molested little boys while their bishops, cardinals, and even popes covered it up. Mega-pastors had a broader range of peccadilloes, from the aforementioned Swaggart’s preference for twenty-dollar prostitutes he could demean while he masturbated into their soiled underwear, to Benny Hinn sleeping with Paula White in Rome, to Ted Haggard’s “confusion” at the hands (and other parts) of a gay methamphetamine dealer, to Eddie Long’s bringing Roman practices to his Baptist Church, to Jim Bakker sleeping with his secretary while defrauding investors in his PTL Club amusement park – and that hardly exhausts the list. What is the common denominator, what links all of this together?
I have written before about the good old boys network that the mega-pastors have enjoyed. Almost without exception, these pastors run to defend those with whom they apparently (but only apparently) compete. It doesn’t matter how heinous the transgression – even offenses as extreme as Eddie Long grooming underage boys to become his sex partners when they get older – none of these men find any shortage of defenders among their peers. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find one of their peers criticizing them for their criminal activity. What happened to morality? Apparently, it only applies to other people? Perhaps if we examine common characteristics between Roman Catholic clergy and mega-clergy we might find some common threads.
Whether we are talking about Catholic priests or holiness code pastors, one thing is certain: depending on your perspective, either super-human or less-than-human behavior is expected. Catholic priests are supposed to be celibate. The mega-pastors are supposed to be married only once to a completely sexless woman who (along with him) sells her soul to the church and, come hell or high water, never get divorced. They are also to avoid drinking, smoking, gambling, dancing, playing cards and enjoying their missionary position only sex with a wife who wears more makeup than Janet Reno in a witness protection program (okay, so maybe the last one doesn’t require as much effort as the others do). With all of that nonsense, however, comes power and privilege.
One doesn’t properly question either mega-pastor or priest. They are seen as beyond reproach, Any eccentric behaviors are re-interpreted as signs of holiness or nearness to God. In these cultures these men – and in these cultures it is almost always men – can do whatever they want and get away with it. Also common to both cultures is the belief that the Church and its power brokers are above the law. Whether we are talking about the Roman Catholic Church or Paula White doing Benny with a strap-on, both institutions operated under a very strong code of silence that requires unquestioning obedience from other clergy. After all, the people expect their clergy to be perfect and if they are shown to be less than perfect everybody’s empire will fall – from Rome to Atlanta. I can’t even begin to fathom the kind of pressure these men and Paula White are under. When retired Roman Catholic bishops regularly admit they covered up charges of sexual abuse for years, sometimes decades, we can only imagine what kind of distorted thinking allowed them to engage in such criminal behavior without remorse.
The answer lies, I believe, in that if people tell you for long enough that you are perfect you begin to believe your own publicity.
What the Church in all its forms needs isn’t perfect people, what it needs are real people. Real people are people with flaws, warts, mistakes, problems, and all of the challenges of a life fully lived – and the honestly to admit that they struggle with the same things the rest of us do. Requiring that clergy never be divorced doesn’t give you better clergy, it gives you less honest clergy. Requiring that clergy be asexual beings doesn’t give you holy clergy, it gives you clergy with lousy marriages. Demand your clergy be celibate doesn’t give you holy priests, it gives you priests that either sleep with their housekeeper (fine with me and perfectly legal) or slap their dicks off altar boys at a pace equaled only by Jerry Sandusky’s colleagues in his prison shower room – except, unlike Sandusky, most of the priests and their bishops go to Rome rather than prison.
The Church of the future, if there is one, will require real clergy who are real human beings – warts, farts, and flaws included – and who have the integrity to admit when they are wrong and ask forgiveness. Members of the Church of the future will need to understand that there is no such thing as a perfect human being. Perhaps more importantly, they will have to surrender external measures of their clergy person’s suitability for their role and actually get to know them before pledging their obedience and loyalty. It’s a bit inconvenient and it requires an actual investment of time and effort, but the other nonsense was never really healthy religion anyway.