Tag Archive | politics

Personal, Pastoral and Political

I’ve been pondering about my presence on social media lately.  Interestingly it was the Women’s March that prompted it.  I did quite a bit of thinking before attending the march, sorting out my thoughts.  On the way to NYC my 17 year old daughter, along with some of the other people we went with, asked, “Why aren’t you wearing your [clerical] collar?”  I answered,  “Well, I’ not going to this march as a pastor.  I’m going as a ‘regular’ person.”  They responded that they thought it would be a great message to wear it and show that the Church was supporting people, but I told them that I didn’t think it would be appropriate.  If I were going with a church group that would be different, but in this case I just didn’t think it was right.  Not for me anyway.  (I saw many pictures of pastors at the marches and I have no judgment about the decision they made – I did what was right for me.)

Since then I’ve had a few occasions to reflect on the distinction between what I do as a pastor and what I do as private person separate from my calling/occupation – as well as my presence on social media as a person and pastor. The United States’ 2016 election has especially brought this to the forefront since I have become more vocal than I have probably ever been  in my whole life.  My mother has reminded me a few times recently that I’m a “pastor,” and although I’m not quite sure what she means when she says this, I guess she means that as a pastor perhaps I shouldn’t be so loud about my political views.

There are no clear-cut rules for what a pastor can and cannot do or say politically, although there is a LAW regarding non-profit organizations (which churches are).  A church cannot endorse any political candidate or party, which I wrote about in this post before the election.  As I wrote then, I completely agree with this.  But other than this law, there isn’t a lot of guidance.  Through my years in ministry (this year I’ll celebrate the 22nd anniversary of my ordination), I have come up with some guidelines for myself, which, like all things in life, are still a work in progress.

1.  I will never stand in the pulpit and endorse anyone EVER (even if it wasn’t against the law I’d still think it was wrong).

2.  As a pastor I’m called to serve people of all political leanings.  I have parishioners who are solidly liberal and those who are firmly conservative.  I know there are people in my congregation who voted for different parties.  I am pastor to all of them.  And as their pastor I love all of them.  Even if we may not always understand one another perfectly we ARE called to love one another.  And on the personal side I am not one who lives in an “echo chamber.”  I have friends and loved ones who vote and think differently than I do.  This is good for me and them.  Being with and relating to people who think differently than we do helps us clarify what we believe and at the same time learn from each other.  I have been challenged at times, made to expand my thinking, and even proven wrong and admitted it. Sadly, I think this kind of give-and-take is sorely lacking in our current political climate and both the left and the right are to blame.  We have to find a way to talk WITH one another instead of “over” and “past” each other, and foster relationships rather than making excuses to not like each other.  I take Jesus’ call to love my neighbor seriously, and that includes my liberal neighbor, my conservative neighbor, my socialist neighbor, my libertarian neighbor and my non-political neighbor.

3.  As a “regular person” I am, however, entitled to have political/personal opinions/beliefs and express them.  For me, it is ALSO the case that my opinions/beliefs are grounded in my faith in Jesus.  As a Christian, Jesus calls me to love my neighbor, care for the sick, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, provide for the orphan and widow etc… (John 13:34 and Matthew 25:31-40).  Sometimes these issues are brought up in our national life as Americans – and when they are, I will do my best as a disciple of Jesus and as a pastor to stand for what he has taught and commanded.  To say as a “pastor” I shouldn’t speak up (or get political) when I see injustice done to my neighbor is to ask me not only to neglect my vocation as a pastor, but my call as a Christian.

4.  Social media is great and awful at the same time.  For example, when I set up my Facebook account there were very few guidelines for pastors and professional people on how to do this.  Now, my denomination (ELCA) gives very helpful guidelines, but it’s hard to go backwards.  My denomination recommends that pastors not “friend” people in their congregations, and I understand that completely.  Sometimes social media is a good outlet to vent with friends (especially those far away) – but parishioners may not feel comfortable reading their pastor’s rants or not want to know so much about their pastor’s political or personal views.  I haven’t really gotten any pushback from my congregation because I have been with them for a long time and I (hope!) they know I love them and that our relationship is based on more than posts on social media or political/personal views.  But I would’ve done things very differently if I had known then what I know now.  If I go to a new congregation I will create separate professional social media accounts to give both my parishioners and me some space from each other while still cultivating a supportive sharing dialog.    It’s a new world that we’re all still trying to maneuver, me included.

I have a feeling this isn’t the last time I’ll be pondering on these things.  I think everyone could stand a little reflection on where our views/beliefs come from, how we can best live them out, and how we relate to those with different views.  How do we proclaim what we believe in love?  How do we love our neighbor with whom we disagree?  What are the lines we cannot cross?  And even then, how do we love our enemies?  I’m still working on this, sometimes getting it right, sometimes failing.  That’s discipleship.

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No signs on my lawn

My sixteen year old asked me a question recently that stirred up great debate between all three of my children and me as we were riding in the car.

16:  Mom, why don’t we put a [political] sign on our lawn?

   gary_johnson_two_evils_yard_sign trump steinhillary-clinton-yard-sign

Me:  We can’t.

16:  What do you mean “We can’t?”

Me:  We live in a church-owned home, and because it’s church property, not our private property, we can’t.  It’s the separation of church and state.

16:  That’s not fair.  We should be able to tell people what we believe!

Me:  As individuals that’s true.  And if you want to put a sign on your bedroom door IN the house, or a sticker on your phone, or wear a t-shirt “go for it.”  But we can’t put a sign on church property.

All three chimed in, agreeing with their sister that it wasn’t fair, and that they have as much right as the neighbors do to advertise their allegiances.  They felt penalized for living in a church home since it stifled their desire to advertise. Understanding that they didn’t sign up for being pastors’ kids, I sympathized with their dilemma.  But that doesn’t change the reality.

Anyone who knows me personally knows I can be very outspoken.  I don’t think anyone who is my friend on Facebook or follows me on Twitter could wonder about my political leanings.  But stating opinions on my personal Facebook profile is ENTIRELY different than putting a sign on the parsonage lawn or talking about how I think people should vote from the pulpit.  Even on Facebook I have not and will not tell people who or who not to vote for – I think that’s wrong anyway, leaving the pastoral aspect out of it completely.  I may be very vocal about who I’m not voting for (believe it or not I haven’t said who will get my vote), but I leave your decision up to you.

I take the separation of Church and State very seriously.  Some pastors skirt the edge.  They can’t cross it because of something called the Johnson Amendment, which you can read about.  Some even support a certain candidate in this presidential election because they promise to do away with the Johnson Amendment (I leave you to discover which one).  I think that’s dangerous.  In our much of our society religious institutions still hold an important place.  In some congregations what the pastor says “goes” because they are very authoritarian.  For a pastor (or rabbi or imam…) to stand in worship, where their words carry significant weight, and TELL people who they should vote for – and in some cases that they’re damned if they don’t – is just WRONG.  In the Christian tradition, the pulpit is the place for Jesus to be preached – and while Jesus was certainly political, he was political in the sense of fighting for those who were the “least of these” NOT those in power.  Jesus would throw his weight behind the poor and homeless, not Clinton or Trump.  If churches are able to put up political signs in front of their buildings and raise money for candidates, we become instruments of Caesar, not Jesus.

I’ve been a pastor for over 20 years.  Sometimes the restriction of the Johnson Amendment has been frustrating, as it is now.  But I am not sorry for it.  It keeps me true to the gospel instead of my own desire for political power or to hold undue influence over others.  It doesn’t mean I won’t talk about larger issues within politics – after all, I just said Jesus was political.  But there is a BIG difference between saying, “Jesus calls us to serve the poor, so what are we doing about it?” and, “Vote for ‘so-and-so.'”  One is a call to action, inspired by Jesus, for the sake of others – the other is a call to create a political base for the consolidation and promotion of a certain political power.  As a pastor, I am called to do the one, but not the other.  And if the other option becomes more important to me, then I should resign my position.  Now, one is certainly able to be a “Rev” and run for office in a political party – look at Mike Huckabee or Jessie Jackson.  But they do NOT serve specific congregations.  And if I lived in my own home instead of a church-owned home I could litter my yard with signs, but that is not the case, much to my children’s dismay.

So, if you’re my literal neighbor, and wondering why you haven’t seen a sign on my lawn, now you know.