Magazine article The Christian Century

The Banality of Clergy Failure

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Banality of Clergy Failure

Article excerpt

I'VE TRAVELED a long way. I'm the preacher from across the pond who has dropped everything in the face of tragedy, reached out, and said, "Sure, I'll come to the funeral. How could I not? I'll use air miles. And yes, I'll preach. Be glad to."

At the funeral I'm surrounded by old friends, parishioners, and acquaintances. And then comes a word of recognition: "Sam!" And she's before me, thrilled to see me, full of memories, energy, sadness--about the tragic circumstances--but also bursting with appreciation for my ministry, my moving sermon, and how marvelous I was when I used to be here--all the things pastors pretend people shouldn't say but in fact crave.

And this: I haven't a clue who she is. My mind goes blank. I'm in a different world now, showing hundreds of other people how important they are to God, and--if that's too remote--important at least to me. And maybe my head or more likely my heart can't take any more people, because when I run down my mental checklist of those whose names I may not instantly recall but whose lives I nonetheless deeply cherish, she isn't on it. She's greeting me as if I changed her life, and I'm failing to keep up the pretense that her name will come to me any moment.

Her face falls. Plummets. She's crushed. Here was a pastor, it had seemed, who was different than the others--whom she trusted, to whom she'd poured out her soul (surely if she'd done that I'd at least recognize her), whom she'd put in the trophy cabinet of people who would never let her down. And I just had. Not by some public or private fall from grace, but by something more personal, more painful, more pitiful--by forgetting her.

Half a minute later I glimpse her husband, and glints of recognition dawn. I think I recall that beard ... But the damage is done. The lie is exposed. I'm all surface and no depth, the pastor who can put on a show but deep down doesn't care enough to remember, who made her feel special but when she was no longer useful moved on elsewhere, who could talk but didn't walk. Maybe God, in the end, was like that too.

This is the banality of clergy failure--that we put ourselves between people and God. That we tacitly assume God is distant, remote, occupied, distracted, and so we, to compensate, must be present, intense, hearty, and inspiring. We must be more human than God. God can't possibly remember this woman's name, her complex story of not having and then having children and their complex story. …

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