"Every 26 minutes a pastor leaves ministry never to return." This stunning headline appeared in an email forwarded to me from a friend. I did the math. This works out to about 1700 every month.
What on earth is going on? I thought pastors were among the happiest people on earth! But then again, so are church-goers, right? And yet church membership is on the decline. What could be the cause? Burnout?
"BETRAYED: The Clergy Killer's DNA," a 2012 documentary film, reviewed online by Mike McManus, suggests something much more sinister. The film aims to uncover an element of evil it suggests is lurking largely undetected in congregations around the world.
As one pastor put it, "So many ministers are being destroyed by evil and evil people in the life of the church who are willing to take the throat out of the pastor." Another adds, "It may be one or two or eight to ten in a congregation who give themselves to evil purposes for their own narcissistic benefits." A third asserted, "These people who act with viscous[sic] hearts are often called clergy killers."
Moreover, the film asserts that virtually every congregation has them, though they are usually very few in number, only a tiny percentage of the total congregation. The purpose of the film is to serve as a warning to both the clergy and congregations to wake up and handle the dangerous undermining elements that would attack and drive away the good in our churches.
While I don't think it is helpful to personalize evil to particular people, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to observe that three different mental elements sometimes appear in many church congregations – some with helpful aspects, others not so much.
The first takes the form of an energetic, inspired, willingness to work - call it the “GoGo" mentality - where great effort is devoted to prayer and genuine good works in support of the church and its mission. But sometimes this energy and devotion is undermined by a sense of human do-goodism. Church activities take on a life of their own and the God-link - where divine Spirit is the source of all good ideas and the power of performing them - is lost. Church work becomes a burden and fellow members seem more like opponents than colleagues engaged in achieving common goals.
Then you have what we can call the "Blue Sky" perspective, expressed by well-meaning, good intentions and hopes for the church. But lacking any particular vision, purpose or drive, this mental state is easily influenced by the opinions of others or by the threat of any dark cloud that tries to disturb its sense of harmony.
A third mental condition involves foot-dragging and resistance to progress or change. A good name for this is the “NoNo" mentality. Beyond negative, this condition sometimes appears benign and even supportive of the leadership and direction of the church; but it's not. It sometimes uses the method of pleasant persuasion to influence others to its cause which, often unbeknownst even to the one expressing it, is to stop forward movement and effectiveness of the church in the community.
The NoNo attitude takes the joy and inspiration right out of church through a barrage of spoken and silent negativity. In many instances, it is ignored or simply tolerated until it accomplishes its task of undermining progress. NoNo behavior might destroy a pastor's reputation to get him or her ousted from church. In other cases it so discourages the GoGo and Blue Sky thinkers that they abandon ship precipitately or simply drift quietly away.
When these scenarios play out, congregations think they are only dealing with a local issue. But now it's being examined as a global phenomenon.
So what's really at work here? And what can we do about it?
The Bible refers to evil as devil, Satan, or the Adversary. Neither Satan nor evil is an actual person. The devil or evil is a false claim of power or opposition to God who is actually universal, omnipotent good – the only real power. Evil is a pretender. It is supposititious, referring to its fraudulent nature as designed to deceive.
This is exactly how evil is described in the Genesis 3 allegory that explains evil and its origins. In the allegory a talking serpent tells a lie and seduces Eve into disobeying God and doing its bidding. Having fallen for the suggestions of this talking serpent herself, she in turn uses her influence to convince her husband to follow her down the same path.
I suppose we sometimes forget that, although fictional, these characters are not defenseless in the allegory. Eve and Adam knew what they were supposed to do. But they accepted the arguments of a subtle serpent instead of promptly and resolutely shutting them out. And of course as the story goes, there were sad consequences that followed that decision.
I think this allegory points out a couple of things.
1) Evil isn’t personal.
While we might see ourselves facing the downside of one of those thought patterns in church (GoGo, Blue Sky, or NoNo), we can make a correction. Personalizing evil or taking personal credit for good in church is never healthy. But separating evil from person and letting God as the source and power of good guide the church and its members always is. With watchfulness and moral courage we can throw off the serpent of negative influence that would disrupt our church experience. We may blame a snake all day for what we perceive to be wrong in the church, but there comes a point when reason takes over and we must admit that talking serpents aren’t real. We don’t have to be duped.
2) Good is the only real and permanent influence.
After the whole complicated story of evil is told, Adam and Eve are discovered in Christian Science to be only matter-based beliefs suggesting we all have built-in character weaknesses, as if God actually created us that way. The real account of our origin and condition is given in Genesis 1, where God’s man is revealed through spiritual light and revelation to be formed of Spirit, and thus to be entirely spiritual and good. The real man, created by God, has dominion over every creeping suggestion of evil. And through our prayers and alignment with this true view of man’s origin, we can wake up to the innate power of good as the only real and lasting influence on the church.
Christ Jesus did. He dealt with the mental assault of suppositional evil in what is referred to as the "temptation of Christ." (See Matt 4.) The devil, aptly referred to as the tempter in this scenario, promised what it couldn't deliver if only Jesus would fall down and worship this deceiver. Jesus didn't waste any time considering his options. He forcefully renounced this pernicious suggestion saying, "Get thee hence, Satan." The attempt to persuade him to abandon his mission and forsake a waiting world was thwarted.
Mary Baker Eddy, discoverer of Christian Science and the first Pastor of the Church of Christ, Scientist, had learned through experience that individual well-being, safety, and progress in the church come from guarding the door of our thinking. She urged her students to follow the Biblical injunction to "let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 2:5)
One paraphrase of that is “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.” (Peterson, The Message) Christ Jesus knew that he and those around him were Spirit-made and empowered only by divine Good. He couldn’t and wouldn’t be deceived to follow a path that would be self-destructive or a danger to others.
Being aware of this divine goodness in us and our fellow church members makes us strong and courageous. It keeps us focused on our true mission in the world and God’s vision for His church. Filled with goodness which comes from God, our divine Mind, we are naturally shielded from evil suggestions and find that we can stay the course, helping our brothers and sisters to stand for good in church and progress in the community.
Mrs. Eddy explained, “The self-seeking pride of the evil thinker injures him when he would harm others. Goodness involuntarily resists evil. The evil thinker is the proud talker and doer. The right thinker abides under the shadow of the Almighty. His thoughts can only reflect peace, good will towards men, health, and holiness.” (The First Church of Christ, Scientist and Miscellany, 210)
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As the football playoff games started up yesterday in the States, a Facebook friend said that when asked if she prays for football games, she responds, "Yes, I do! I pray for the home team!" I chuckled, because I had just had similar thoughts that morning about my church - I pray for the "home team" of spiritual seekers who attend.
Not everyone interested in spirituality is drawn to church. I, however, am an avid churchgoer. In fact, what keeps me coming back is a little rule in our church about prayer. Prayers in Christian Science churches are to be "offered for the congregations collectively and exclusively." (Church Manual 42:1)
Now one might say, wait a minute! Why a rule instructing who or what to pray for in church? Why wouldn't you pray for yourself, your sick pet, or for harmonious elections in the Congo? The answer relates to what we are up to the rest of the week.
I have practiced Christian Science professionally in
some form since 1979.
But my journey with
Christian Science started
in a Sunday school
where as a young child
I was taught the Scriptures and some simple basics
of Jesus' method of
scientific Christian healing.
A significant experience
at the age of twelve
opened my eyes to
the great potential
of this practice.
After impaling my foot
on a nail,
I prayed the way I had learned
in Sunday school.
the pain stopped
and healing began.
By the next morning the wound had disappeared completely.
the great potential
of Christian Science,
there would be no