Applause And the Ministry
When asked to reflect on why pastors like Ted Haggard fall morally, preaching guru Fred Craddock said that it stems from the fact that many pastors never learn to deal with favorable attention. 'Never at home or in seminary did anyone teach me how to handle applause,' Craddock said. 'You don't think about it when you're coming along because you never imagine yourself getting applause for anything. Then when it happens, you say, Hey, I can get used to this. Pretty soon, you've got to have it. So your surround yourself with people who silently applaud you for one reason or another. And then your life is gone.'
When I was preparing for the ministry, I often sternly asked myself whether or not this was a real vocation or another dramatic role I was taking on as a way to distract myself from other life issues. I was not offended, therefore, when a member of the MFC (Ministerial Fellowship Committee) asked me the same question during my interview/interrogation for fellowship.
I have been in the theatre since I was in elementary school, performing in dozens and dozens of productions and playing a long list of wonderful characters. I have long been aware that performance experience has been a great boon to public ministry, as I have a disciplined use of voice and body that stands me in good stead as a speaker and presider. I can ad lib when necessary. I am comfortable with the choreographed formality of ritual. I know how to breathe when attacked by nerves, and I'm not embarrassed to sing hymns full voice.
But reading Craddock's comments today, I see that my experience as a performer also served me well in another regard: I learned young that applause is just applause -- an ephemeral expression of appreciation that arises out of the exchange of energy and cathartic emotional experience. For the amateur performer, it is the only payment for weeks of serious effort and commitment. Yes, it is exciting and even glamorous. But it is not the foundation of a lasting relationship, and it is most certainly not an antidote to the essential loneliness of the human condition.
Many times I have come home to an empty house or apartment after having entertained hundreds of people on the stage that evening, only to think that by that hour, most every memory of my performance would be utterly gone from those who stood in an enthusiastic ovation at 10:30 p.m. I always savor the intimate moment of the curtain call because I know that within minutes, the theatre will be empty and dead of energy and that I will go home wrung out. Just as in church, they may love you when you're there, but you're going home alone. There is no bitterness in this fact; it is just a fact.
I have to seriously question the basic maturity of any pastor who isn't honestly acquainted with the wide, beautiful and desolate prairie between people's acclaim for a job well done and the true condition of his or her own soul before God. What is our prayer life for but a reflective walk across that prairie, guided by grace alone? If we're not walking that prairie on a regular basis, what in the world do we have to say to our people in the first place that's worth a fig?
Applause doesn't come to a minister or an actor because one is so great. It comes because one is brave and stupid enough to use their talents on behalf of the gods of comedy and tragedy, to enter into the spirit possession that is theatre and ministry, and to conform one's body, mind, soul and spirit to the dictates of their calling. To me, cries of "Brava" often translate as "Thank you for being willing to do this, so that I don't have to!" To which I say, "Thank you for running a company/driving a truck/raising a family/serving in the military/selling insurance/working in a hospital/teaching children so that I don't have to!" Cripes, ministry is among the rare professions that get recognition at all in our culture!
I am stymied by Fred Craddock's disingenuous claim that ministers are never prepared to receive favorable attention. Nonsense! From the moment we announce our intention to pursue the ordained ministry, we receive all kinds of attention, and most of it positive. Oh my, we must be so spiritual. We must be special. We're so exotic. We are warmly congratulated for our first terrible outings in the pulpit. We are paid honoraria and the appreciation of families for muddled eulogies, rambling, incoherent wedding homilies, and botched pastoral counseling sessions. No matter how poor our writing, we get front page of our church newsletters every week. People ask us to pray for them, assuming that our heart is in the right place, that the words of our mouth and the meditations of our hearts are acceptable in the divine sight. How can Fred Craddock say that we're not prepared for adulation? Any seminarian who is even slightly paying attention will notice that he or she is fairly barraged with unearned praise from the moment we enroll in our M.Div.program. No matter how much we flail about with extended attacks of self-doubt and extravagant insecurites while preparing for ministry, we must know -- musn't we? -- that religious communities mostly want to provoked to deeply admire and esteem their pastor.
So, Fred Craddock, you may be right-- maybe ministers too easily become sad addicts of adulation and attention -- but not because we haven't been led to expect it. Because we've failed to tell the truth about how much applause we get that we don't deserve, and because we're too enamored of martyrdom models of ministry to honestly confront that fact.
I think it's too simplistic to say that Ted Haggard fell from grace because he surrounded himself with starry-eyed fans. Do we actually think he would have made different choices if he had had regular criticism from friends and parishioners? What form of criticism, exactly? And is this to say that it is somehow a congregation or a religious community's responsibility to maintain a pastor's integrity by the magically right combination of praise and critique? How, if that pastor can't or won't hear it?
Applause is a wonderful thing. Everyone craves recognition, praise and thanks. In the ministry, however, we should remember that applause is not so much evidence of our greatness as it is evidence of a good peoples' desire to have a praiseworthy pastor. The only response to applause is to try to live into it, and in doing so, a good dose of fear and trembling is always in order.