You Cannot Pastor for God and Mammon

Essex vicars Sam Norton and Tim Goodbody have both posted about the difficulties of their tasks as Church of England incumbents. Sam memorably compares his job with piloting a plane and trying, not always successfully, to avoid crashing it. Tim, apparently facing similar issues, writes of the stresses of balancing “great new ideas” for the work of a parish with the preferences of “the elements of the congregation who make it their business to keep the church the same as it has always been.”

Tim also speaks of this as “the paradox of collaborative ministry”. But I disagree. I tried to disagree with a comment on his post, but Tim quite reasonably responded

Sorry mate, I reserve the right to be the only one who rants here; if you want to rant feel free to do so at GW

I wonder, would he have allowed Jesus to comment on his blog? Certainly not along the lines of Matthew 23! But I am taking his advice and responding here at Gentle Wisdom, and in more depth than in my rejected comment. Judge for yourselves whether this is balanced or a “rant”.

This is how it seems to me, from the limited details which they give and from my own experience of life in various Anglican churches: the problem which Sam and Tim have, and which probably nearly every Church of England incumbent (i.e. pastor in charge of a church) has, is that they are trying to reconcile the wishes of those who genuinely want to serve God with the wishes of people who do not. The latter are people who, while claiming to serve the true God, are in fact serving other gods like mammon (materialism), their families, their culture and traditions, or their personal comfort. For example, it is clear that Tim’s “elements of the congregation who make it their business to keep the church the same as it has always been” are not serving the God who makes it his business to make all things new.

Now this is not a peculiarly Anglican problem. Many other church congregations are mixed multitudes of the same kind. But it is perhaps especially serious in the established Church of England because of its parish system and its claim to represent in some way all the people of England. These make it all the harder for a vicar to suggest that a difficult congregation member find a different church where they might be more at home.

Of course I realise that it is not possible to divide congregations neatly into those who serve God and those who put other gods first. Any attempt to do this is bound to fail, not least because many people are genuinely torn between two different allegiances. Indeed we all need to examine ourselves to check that we are not slipping in this way.

Nevertheless there must be something wrong when an incumbent gets to the position that Tim is in, in which he has to reject “great new ideas” “because he knew he would get it in the neck from the elements of the congregation who make it their business to keep the church the same as it has always been.” Of course not every great new idea is from God. But if Tim is finding himself rejecting ideas which are from God to avoid criticism from people who quite clearly do not have in mind the things of God, then I would want to suggest that he has abandoned serving God for serving the gods of his congregation members. This is not at all to single Tim out, for his point is that this is what the Church of England system more or less forces incumbents like himself to do.

To put it bluntly, what is happening here is that the servants of mammon and of other idols are being given a veto over the work of God in his church. This cannot be! As Jesus said, it is impossible to serve both God and mammon, and that applies also when that service is directed through their worshippers. So every pastor, in the Church of England and elsewhere, needs to decide which they will serve, the true God or the idols of their congregation members. If they try to serve both, not only will God’s work be thwarted, but also a plane crash is inevitable.

Yes, of course a pastor needs to show love and be pastorally sensitive towards those difficult or unbelieving congregation members. But that is quite a different matter from allowing them to control the church. Jesus was pastorally sensitive to individual Pharisees like Nicodemus and Simon, but he didn’t bend an inch to their model of religious practice.

So I call on Tim, Sam and all others in similar positions to take a stand for the “great new ideas” which they really believe are from God, and ignore the protestations of the “keep the church the same as it has always been” brigade. Or if they are unable to do so because those people have a majority in the PCC or whatever, or because those in higher authority, bishops etc, intervene, then they should accept that their position is untenable and resign. Perhaps they will be forced to conclude that the Church of England is not the place for them if they are not to compromise their position.

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:
“I will live with them
and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they will be my people.”
17 Therefore,
“Come out from them
and be separate,
says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you.”
18 And,
“I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”
7:1 Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.

2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 (TNIV)

P.S. In case any of you wonder why despite this I remain an Anglican, I will point you to this post. I wrote it nearly two years ago, but I stand by most of it now. The main change since then is that there is now a greater chance of me moving on from my current congregation in the rather near future.

9 thoughts on “You Cannot Pastor for God and Mammon

  1. Peter, you are right, of course.

    Not every “great new idea” is truly from the Lord, either. Many times, the traditionalists believe they are holding on to the true doctrine or practice, and sometimes they are correct about that. Often, it comes down to differences of emphasis rather than specifically God-given or non-God-given agendas. But many, many times, tradition is held by now-lukewarm members, while new ideas are suggested by newly “hot” members who see areas where present practices are ineffective. I think that last sentence expresses the same outlook as you do.

    Never having been a pastor, and not being an Anglican, I can’t speak to that part of it, but every idea should be evaluated for its spiritual truth and effect. I agree with you that compromising truly God-generated ideas because they buck organizational constraints or traditions is not good. However, everyone who is active within a denomination will struggle with the group’s unwillingness to accept ideas they believe are godly or with the group’s willingness to take on ideas that seemingly come from outer space.

    Having been involved in US Pentecostal groups, I have found that often, there are more ideas than there are resources to invest in them. When the pastor decides to back the new idea, he frequently alienates the biggest financial supporters in the congregation, leading to those members departing for another congregation. It isn’t that backing tradition over newness is good, but sometimes it is the difference between having a building in which to meet and being dispersed into home-based study groups.

    For what it is worth, your comment is not a rant at all.

  2. Thank you, W^L+. Yes, of course there are financial constraints on what pastors can choose to do, especially if those who oppose them include significant givers to the church. But deciding what to do in a church on financial grounds is arguably an even clearer case of serving mammon.

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  4. Thanks for this Peter, it ties in with something I’m thinking a lot about at the moment which is whether it is actually possible to be both holy (or, ‘on the path of holiness’) and also exercise administrative leadership within the church. I suspect that the answer is no, but also that some people are still called by God to do the latter.

  5. Sam, that’s an interesting point. Yes, I suppose there may be those called to work within the system, as within any thoroughly worldly system, as salt and light in the darkness. But if so they should recognise within themselves that that is their situation. I don’t think that is what Tim was doing, but perhaps I should let him answer for himself. As for you, well, you need to decide for yourself. Are you called to be a leader in the true church of God or to be a Christian witness in a part of the world which has the label “church”?

  6. Welcome back Peter! Firstly I do not see this as a rant. Rather it is normal service being resumed. Challenging and searching comment calling at times perhaps for honest self searching.

    As for my immediate take, an incumbent, pastor or whoever must honestly seek the Lord and lead his/her congregation in that direction. Of course the important question is where is God leading that congregation at that time. What we have always done may very well be mammon to use your phraseology. Alternatively the new and wacky – to be a little provocative – might itself be a sympton of our secular age with its emphasis on instant results, feel good , get excited etc. Any of us can honestly believe yet be sincerly mistaken. Honest searching and prayerful discernment will always be required and all of us may find our preconceived ideas challenged. I have found that on various occaisions – and in various directions.

  7. Colin, you are right, of course. The pastor’s responsibility is to find out “where is God leading that congregation at that time”, and to lead in that same direction – which may be into wacky new ideas or may be more of the same. What upset me was that this didn’t seem to be what Tim had in mind – he seemed to suggest that an incumbent should follow the direction not of God but of “the elements of the congregation who make it their business to keep the church the same as it has always been”, whether or not God was leading in the same direction. I hope Tim didn’t mean it quite like that, but that is how it came across.

  8. I didn’t mean it like that. In fact if you read carefully i’m actually talking about someone else “getting it in the neck”, rather than me (even though I do sometimes get it in the neck, often rightly!)

    I wouldn’t say i follow the direction of those who are in the brake van, but i have to be aware of and gracious about them; that doesn’t mean i will always kowtow to them, if ever, but I have to take them into account, because I believe Jesus did that.

    if he is reading this or the FMH he’s welcome to comment!

  9. Tim, sorry if I misrepresented you (and sorry to be slow replying – I have been away). Of course you need to be gracious to these people. If you don’t follow their direction, that is good!

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