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Chapter 6

Chapter 6.  The Snake in the Dove

"Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."   Matthew 1-:16

"For the children of this world are wiser in their own generation than the sons of light."   Luke 16:8

    Public attitudes and personal values encourage pastors to win for themselves the reputation of Nathaniel, "an Israelite in whom there is no guile."  A calculating clergyperson is as welcome in the pulpit as a dishonest banker in the vault.  Preachers who openly campaign for more prestigious pastorates or episcopal office are the butt of ill-natured jokes when the brethren (and sisters) gossip over coffee at clergy conferences. 

    When I proposed this serpentine thesis - that the pastor should get smart and know everything he can about what is going on around him, do a little holy snooping - to a trio of Rockefeller Foundation students,1 they accused me of being a "sneaky Christian," which to them was a contradiction in terms.  Colleagues in the professional ministry have boasted that they did know know and had no desire to find out what individual members contributed to the church. Some have prided themselves on their own refusal to play the numbers game with the Internal Revenue Service, and, instead of carefully listing deductions for things like clerical collars, have taken a standard deduction.2 And at least one pastoral soul, my own, felt a twinge of guilt about his Schedule C, in the face of such innocence. 

    Shepherds also long to be doves.

    But the effective pastor will learn from the snake, which was endowed in the minds of the writers of Scripture with great craftiness: "Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made."  As it turned out in Genesis 3, the snake was too smart for our and its own good, losing its legs for two bites of an apple.  What I believe our Lord means to suggest in his admonition about being as wise as a serpent is to cultivate craftiness, subtlety, and smarts, not to subvert but to enhance God's will.

    Take for one exceedingly mundane example that creation which stands in the center of the church office, the mimeograph machine, about which fatherly preachers of a less automated generation warned novice parsons, that the infernal machine was to be avoided, like the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Actually, in my experience that machine has been as beneficial as the tree of life, the ink from its drum a rival to grape juice as a sacred fluid.  From its beneficial revolutions have flowed a stream of words, holy and humorous, which have helped hold and mold the Christian fellowship. Any instrument so vital to one's ministry ought to be studied carefully, as if it were the Apocrypha, if not the Bible. Its operation, care, and maintenance should be given some of the pastor's prime time.3

    Take an equally mundane but far more serious example of the minister's serpentine education, a slithery passage through the jungle East of Eden, the thickets of church finance.  No item on the agenda of a gathering of church folk more clearly reveals their basic commitment than the columns of figures the treasurer hands around. As usual Jesus has anticipated this insight: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."4  Or as any street-wise child can repeat in a slightly longer version than this: "Money talks." Budgets, in other words, speak louder than creeds.  Compare the amount reserved for flowers, touch-tone phone service, printed bulletins, office furnishings, and a professional gardener with the benevolence line. It is fine to sing loudly, "Christ for the world";  it is quite another matter to believe it earnestly enough to pay for it.  The effective pastor will master budgets and audits and all of the other financial shorthand giving directions to the church's treasure and heart. The generous offer of mathematically astute lay people - "Oh, pastor, you shouldn't have to worry about money" - should be enough to alert the instincts of guile in the knowledgeable pastor who knows that if he should not know, he really should.5

    Take now a "spiritual" issue, one at least that pertains to the clergyperson's field of expertise, people: the wise pastor will fling wide the Pandora's box of human motivation and examine the unbecoming contents. Read Sigmund Freud. Sample the magazines at the checkout counter of the local supermarket.  View the movies at the local theatre, the whole alphabet variety. I gained reputation in one parish for checking out the customers at the corner bar as I passed it en route home with pizza. The effective pastor will know where his people are, their heads and their bodies, how they get through their days, what they imbibe, through their eyes as well as their trachea.  Jesus traveled this route, through the market place, to inns where common folk refreshed themselves, to humble homes and holy temples, to the foul smelling refuges if lepers; and perhaps from his travels he learned the unhappy truth about us which should be inscribed on the back of each pastor's ordination paper, that "out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander."  It may be reptilian information, but the pastor must know it if he is to do the pastoral ministry effectively.

    But once having opened Pandora's box and making an inventory of what slouches out, having seen and heard the evil people do, the pastor, like the famous monkey (not the snake!) with hands over its lips, speaks never of the specificities of his finds.  As a thoughtful colleague suggested during the turbulent hours of the 1960's when it seemed the world was coming apart at the seams: "We must learn to think irrationally"; that is, to know why people do what they do, without using such privileged information as a big stick to whack the mulish soul into compliance with the kingdom or our own facsimile of it.  In public moments the wisdom of the serpent is hidden beneath the placid and inscrutable exterior of the dove.  Only in the confessional moment, when three are alone (pastor, parishioner, and God), is Pandora's inventory divulged and examined, and then under the rubric that a demon faced and embraced by grace can be cast out.

    By way of illustrating this interchange of snake and dove, consider the episode involving a devout lay leader who for reasons of differing theology and generally volatile emotions sought to foment opposition to his pastor by visiting families of the congregation and rehearsing his charges against the pastor's leadership: the sermons were insufficiently Biblical; teenagers had been allowed to cavort in the basement hall; salaries were excessive; people less than fully Christian had been recruited for important positions in the officiary of the church. The pastor knew from whence the charges originated, from the frustrations and the sorrows of rearing a son whom the miracles of modern medicine could nonetheless not cure of hydrocephalous and consequent mental retardation. A strong case could be made that the pastor was being blamed as God's surrogate.  Suspecting this irrationality, the pastor did not use it on counterattack.  Instead he replied to the issues raised as best he could, about the Bible, adolescents, money, and salvation, as issues with their own integrity.  The antagonist and his family eventually drifted away to another church; but when the son died, the pastor was paid the supreme compliment of being asked to speak at the funeral service.  Disliked, he was not distrusted for so solemn and personal a duty.

    The serpent can assist the dove in understanding the subterranean depths of human behavior; just as it is the dove's duty to transform such information through the prism of the Gospel - its expectation of love, how it "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" - and to see others in that refracted light.

    Such subtlety is indispensable in the management of church affairs.  The good shepherd not only seeks the lost sheep, but listens to its noisy bleating, complaints about the selection of hymns, the color of the pastor's shirt on communion Sunday, the length of his sideburns, his failure to say "hello" with sufficient enthusiasm... and never to feel obliged to defend himself, if acknowledging the hymns could be swingier, the shirts whiter, the hair shorter, and the greetings brighter.6 The snake must know; the dove will be gracious in handling the knowledge.  In practical terms this principle is translated into offering excuses, good ones, for an enemy; doing more homework than anyone else on controversial issues before the local trustees or elders; remembering the appealing qualities of the deceased in a funeral oration, and being generous with his faults; singing the praises of predecessors in the pulpit, no matter what the candid opinion of that predecessor's performance.

    Wit and imagination will help: as it did on that occasion when a senior citizen presented for his pastor's close inspection a watercolor of Jesus that looked like a washed-out copy of the popular portrait by Sallman.  Making sure it was indeed the Lord, the pastor wiggled (snakelike?) out of a situation in which he would have to compromise his reputation as an esthete or, on the other hand, insult a soul who could not possibly understand the criticism.  Said the pastor critic: "My dear, I have never seen you paint better."7

    The Psalmist has a line to celebrate Godly uses for the snake, that he makes the wrath of men to praise him. The effective pastor will get the mind of a serpent and couple it with the heart of a dove.


Second Thoughts after Twenty-five Years

1. Rockefeller Foundation students filled seminaries, including Union Theological Seminary, during the national agony of the war in Vietnam.  The ostensible purpose of the foundation, to attract to the possibility of pastoral ministry people (mostly men) from prestigious colleges and universities who, left to their own devices and funding, would not likely try a seminary education on for size, fit hand in glove with the draft evasion.  To meet the influx of students and the requirements of field education, the seminary recruited additional pastors in the metropolitan community to provide places for these "take a look" seminarians.  The small church I served was given three funded field workers.  Our Sunday dinner table was filled with roasts and sharp dialogue about the current theological issues, the death of God, Buckminster Fuller and optimism, and the questionable relevance of the residential church in the modern world.  Of those Rockefeller students who served an apprenticeship with me, one died tragically in Africa in the Peace Corps, another opted for a publishing career, and a third went back home to teach.  They really loved poking holes in my theological armor.  It was fun, but soon over, when I ran afoul of the psychological counselor who sat in on the bi-monthly conferences of field work supervisor and pastors in the field. 

2. Of course, some of us in the cloth go too far in the other direction, getting real snaky about one's personal finances.  The most egregious example I have witnessed is the pastor whose expense account was greater than his salary.  Professional expenses for United Methodist clergy can no longer be reported on Schedule C of the IRS return as deductions.  But such expenses are to be reimbursed by the local church when paid out of pocket with recorded documentation (just in case the IRS requires an audit).  The opportunity for equivocation and deceptive justifications arise.  Since a pastor may wear clerical garb in the pursuit of his duties, the church would reimburse him for his wardrobe.  A woman in the pastorate could charge the cost of a finely tailored business suit to match a turned around collar. The same goes for cars and office equipment and furniture used in the parsonage for meetings.  Maybe even food, if the spouse is also on the payroll.  Such behavior goes under the heading of evasive, not effective, pastoral conduct.

3.  Twenty-five years ago I hardly thought of the applications of computer technology to the work of a pastor.  In fact, for too long I cavalierly claimed that I could see no compelling use for the computer in my work.  But what did I know?!  Mimeograph machines were important but peripheral to my work twenty-five years ago.  The computer, however, is quite another matter.  I am as dependent on it as I am on central heating in winter.  When for whatever reason the computer is not functioning properly, I am like a taxi driver with a flat tire.  Seminaries require courses in clinical pastoral care.  I'll not comment here on my criticism of such a requirement.  But if anything should be required in Practical Theology, it should be Computer Applications for the Pastorate.  I'd be happy to teach the course... to help make pastors effective.

4. Jesus, ever the realist about the human condition, does not put it the other way around, the treasure following the heart.  The point seems so obvious, yet well-intentioned laypeople continue to perpetuate the English gentility's attitude toward money, that it is dirty and beneath consideration, and clergy, professional Christians that they are, should put their minds on spiritual things.  To which I have always said, "Baloney!"

5. Yet two pastors of large churches in metropolitan New York with large invested endowments resigned in recent years from their positions, to protest, they said, the time and energy being required of them to husband the financial resources of their churches.  On the other hand, the job description of the rector of the most heavily endowed church in New York City includes taking a primary role in the oversight of the church's investments.  

6. I should, perhaps, write a chapter on "Swallowing It," how the effective pastor will learn how to inhibit his natural instincts of self-defense when suffering the insults and complaints of those about whom he has sufficient information for spiritual blackmail.  Call it cheek-turning of the highest order.  But if the pastor wants to hold a church fellowship together and win the respect of the loyal opposition, such graceful giving and forgiving is absolutely essential.

7. You may be thinking that with this illustration I am drawing on yet another experience from my own life and times as a pastor.  Not so.  If I remember correctly, I am reframing in church terms a response attributed to Groucho Marx.  He was present at a nightclub where a young comedian was trying out his new routine.  It was awful.  When the novice asked Groucho for his opinion, the fellow with the wiggly eyebrows and habitual cigar replied, "Son, you'll never be better than you were tonight." Christian fundamentalists have little use for irony; but an effective pastor, no less than the Lord served, knows a thing or two about the subject.  (Which may be the subject of another chapter).


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