by Loren Seibold | 26 August 2022 |
Several weeks ago I yanked up my COVID roots and took myself on a trip. It felt like I’d come out of a dark cell, emerged from solitary confinement into daylight.
I got invited (actually, I kinda invited myself) to the home field of the Seibolds in central North Dakota. I say home field, because there isn’t a hometown there anymore. In fact there are no Seibolds there anymore: Grandpa and Grandma Seibold’s home place, where our big family used to gather, is now a bean field. The church itself is surrounded by corn and canola. What was once the village of New Home, about halfway between Sykeston and Woodworth, is a cornfield too, its memory preserved only in the Adventist church’s name.
I could be alliterative about the smells, the skies and sunflowers, or onomatopoeic about roaring tractors, zooming four-wheelers, or whooshing winds—but I’m not creative enough to keep that up for long. So I’ll settle for just noting the graciousness of my hosts, New Home Church elder Larry Stolz and his wife, Joye, whose only fault was being overly solicitous of my every need.
And of course the kindness of the rest of the people in my little home church for listening courteously no matter what they thought about my sermon.
It wasn’t that Carmen and I have been completely isolated during the last two years. In between outbreaks of the current biblical plague we’ve taken a few car trips. We’ve eaten out sometimes (we choose to sit outdoors, to reduce our chances of getting sick), and we have a spot out in the Hocking Hills where we picnic and walk.
As for church, we decided for several defensible reasons—contagious disease being one—no longer to attend a local church in our mortal flesh. Instead I founded an online study group called the Adventist Today Sabbath Seminar about two-and-a-half years ago, and that has provided us with marvelous Christian friends—some of the nicest people we’ve never met.
So August 6 was the first time since July of 2019 that I’ve preached in public as a pastor. It was the first time that I’ve rubbed shoulders with real people in a church community.
It was a rather potent, poignant reminder that I am, and have long been, a pastor.
Let us talk about the a difference between being a pastor and being a churchman. Being a pastor means to me caring about people and giving them hope through the beliefs, symbols, activities, and community of our shared faith.
Being a churchman is something else—related only tangentially. A churchman believes that God is largely interested in the reputation and success of The Church as an organization. (I can still, I think, say churchmen because there are very few churchwomen—though when they do get into church leadership they tend to adopt the role of the churchmen that preceded them. The power of organized religion reshapes us in its image.)
God’s interest, in this model, is to keep the corporation functioning. In order to make that work—to pay the bills, to insure “unity,” to preserve our reputation, to keep The Church growing into something big and important—control is a priority. Since it is control in the service of God, it is by necessity control in the name of God. The Church speaks in God’s voice—things like “God wants us all to….” “The Bible tells us that we must believe….” “It is obvious that God wants us to give….” “Ellen White says that we must….”
The two—church and The Church—get smudged together until they can hardly be distinguished one from the other: doctrine from spirituality, or religion from faith or even (please God, forgive us for this) God from The Church, and God’s will from the pronouncements of quasi-divine church leaders.
Serving The Church is how modern Christians break the 2nd and 3rd commandments: by exalting the church instead of listening to God, and speaking in the name of God.
I am not a churchman. Ted Wilson is a churchman. Mark Finley is a churchman. Loren Seibold is a mere pastor. (Whether I am, or was, a good one, is for others to decide. I tried to be conscientious, though I always doubted whether I was a good enough.)
I’m not trying to gild myself with purity and unselfishness over against these pedestaled men; I’m only saying that the model that I found myself in had more to do with people and their needs than with organizations.
A parenthetical observation: I puzzle why pastors are so eager to become churchmen. Rarely does anyone turn down a call into an office. Do they dislike the work of pastoral ministry? And why do so many churchmen still believe they are pastors even if they’ve not functioned as such for most of a lifetime?
But even pastoral ministry is fraught with the dangers of Churchmanship. I had parishioners who weren’t content with prayer, relationships, encouragement, and instruction. One of my congregations pushed me out because a few felt I wasn’t a “real” enough Seventh-day Adventist, by their definition. It was a discouraging end to a pastorate that I thought had been rather successful.
All this comes back to this brief reflection on my experience of returning to a few days of being an in-person pastor.
I talked with my lifelong friend Sheri (who met up with us at New Home Church) afterward about all those we’d encountered during the weekend. The meet-ups with so many old friends were joyful and heart-filling.
But traveling along the same track were so many sadnesses, too. Cancer, elderly dementia, lost jobs, broken families, deaths, a suicide. Many of us are getting old; the more years, the more accumulation of sadness, regret, sickness, and discouragement. I needn’t detail every heartbreak and fear: make your own list and you’ll cover all those we took note of.
All of this came to me as a reminder of how desperately people seek comfort in companionship with others. The word is “community,” and I know it is so overused as to be drifting on the margin of meaninglessness.
But dig into it a bit more. Even if you’ve not seen a thoroughly admirable church community for a while, imagine one. Acts 4 does:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.
Taking into account that this is most likely a story polished to high luster in the telling and retelling, let us believe that at least parts of it define what the apostles felt a church community should be: “All the believers were one in heart and mind,” for example. And this one: “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all.”
I confess that as much as I see the need—nay, the devouring hunger—for such a warm supportive community, I have too rarely seen one. Church communities seem to work best at their beginning: like new marriages, loveliest in young romance, in energetic bride-and-groomness, before the quicksand suck of life, work, money, children, and bad health pulls them in and sometimes down.
So I know there is no such thing as a perfect church. But I’m convinced that if Christianity is to survive, churches must be better than they are. I agree with Christian philosopher John Hick in this: “It is because the church ought to be startlingly better that in being mediocre it is bad.”
Among the stories I heard during my North Dakota week was how some little congregations in this region had schismed and rearranged because of conflict. How one church had almost disintegrated under the force of an angry, opinionated child-abuser, and how little help they got when they appealed to the conference. How a tendentious (and erroneous) construction of biblical divorce and remarriage divided a family. How theological abstractions led to a split in what was already a small dying group.
Brother separating from brother, lifelong friends unable to worship together, crises in already-struggling groups: this is sad because we are not talking about Loma Linda, where there are dozens of congregations to choose from, but tiny isolated groups of people who are already separated from their neighbors by their distinctive faith. And then they separate from one another, too?
Because of our hierarchical structure, people justify the sacrifice of their happiness in the local church by believing in The Church. Somehow what is happening in their sanctuary is less important because of the Really Really Important Things that the denomination represents: historical theology, Ellen White, the several fictional additional heavenly demands that only Adventists know, The Church’s need to survive and thrive so Jesus will return.
Casting a little blame
This is almost certainly an oversimplification, and may even be unfair, but I blame The Church for what has happened to churches.
I blame a century of opinionated theology descending down from the top for the theological conflicts in the pews.
I blame the hunger for growth, for bigness in buildings and numbers, for churches getting pressured to be something other than communities of faith and kindness.
I blame big churchmen (still, nearly all men) and their lust for denominational success.
In short, I blame religion for the failure of the spiritual; denominations for the failure of congregations. People are mean and petty locally because their leaders are mean and petty from on high—from how they enforce our shared theology, to their casual arrogance in how they lord it over small churches and their people, and even over whole regions.
But a corporation is not a church. A church should be something so much better, that in being a mere corporation it is bad. I believe you can’t represent both God and a corporation and do justice to either. John Hick calls the church “a necessary evil”:
It is an evil because the corruption of the best is the worst, and the church is the human corruption of the kingdom of God which came on earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Center of Christianity (1987: 66-69).
Unlike John Hick, though, I will no longer excuse the unhealth of the church just by calling it a necessity. The church isn’t Noah’s ark, as some wit has said: sometimes the smell inside really is worse than the storm outside.
Back to the local
I began this reflection to say that after ending a lifetime of being a pastor, a weekend of being a pastor again reminded me that we still need churches and pastors.
By its nature, ministry is an odd and uncomfortable role. You don’t get to enjoy a church community in the same way your church members do. It can be emotionally and relationally brutal: some elevate you to sainthood, others regard you as the antichrist. Standing in for God is a dangerous thing.
But I found ministry as a profession especially difficult because I had to represent The Church. I was never quite at peace with some of the things that The Church wanted of me, like guilting people into believing what The Church wants them to, pressuring them for money and selling The Church evangelistically in the name of God. (That I accepted money from the organization for being a pastor who didn’t like doing what they wanted me to do is my personal hypocrisy.)
In short, I’d been so discouraged by The Church (particularly after working under—way, way under—the most recent General Conference leadership) that I had forgotten how encouraging plain old church can be. It took a moment of being a pastor without The Church looking over my shoulder to remind me how much people need good communities and kind, thoughtful pastors.
The local church could be something so wonderful, but not if it keeps “crashing” on people like a computer program with faulty code. There’s some instruction that we’re missing here, something that accounts for why more people are leaving churches than joining them.
This should be the cutting edge of spiritual study right now: how to make a Christian community that both embraces sinners (which we all are) but that is reliably happy and peaceful and loving and makes people feel good to be there.
I am weary of mediocre churches. And I am embarrassed—angry, in fact—about all the fighting churches out there. There is no greater shame to a congregation than to be known as a church that makes members (and pastors) flee from you in pain and sadness.
So I say, with all the emphasis I can get into this line:
The place we Adventists need to grow is not in theological understanding—we have far more theology than we need already, much of it of no practical good to us—but in quality of church community.
God bless New Home church. May they be as happy and supportive as human beings can be to one another. May they never use theology as an excuse to be hateful and divisive.
New Home, and all the rest like it. Please, God. May we all be what you intended when you called us to gather in your name.
Loren Seibold is a retired pastor, and Executive Editor of Adventist Today.