Politics, money and sex have eroded trust. Spiritual leaders need to return to the streets.
The United Nations' scathing denunciation of the Vatican last week over its mishandling of sexual misconduct by priests is symptomatic of a larger credibility crisis for clergy. In a single generation, clergy have gone from being some of our most revered community leaders to some of our most reviled.
Atlanta real estate developer Tom Cousins recalls that when he moved to the city in the late 1950s, he was struck by the fact that three of the 10 most influential people in the city were ministers.
"I thought it spoke well for the city," he recently told me. Last month's issue of the popular Georgia Trend magazine identifies the 100 most influential Georgians, and there's not a minister among them. More telling is that a December Gallup poll found that only 47% of Americans consider clergy to be honest and ethical — an all-time low.
Why such a precipitous fall from grace for America's spiritual leaders? At least three possible causes spring to mind:
Politics. The mixing of religion and politics has always yielded a combustible brew, but the covert became overt when the late Rev. Jerry Falwell formed the "Moral Majority" in 1980. Ensuing decades found evangelical groups looking more like "the Republican Party at prayer." Similar charges were levied about the cozy relationship between black churches and Democrats.
Money. Jesus said to give it away. But the money scandals of Jim Bakker and other televangelists left many wondering whether clergy were following the almighty dollar rather than the Almighty.
Sex. Nothing has done more to rock America's confidence in the clergy than the sex scandals of the past 20 years. It was bad enough when preachers like Jimmy Swaggart were caught playing doctor with consenting adults, but when hundreds of children said that they had been sexually abused by their priests, the stain became indelible.
Can churches change?
After all that, can America's ministers regain their respected status? Pope Francis reminds us that the answer is yes. But not by purporting to set the moral standard for the world and judging everyone who falls short. To borrow the Holy Father's own words: Who are we to judge?
If clergy are to regain trust, they must lead their congregations to become hospitals of hope and healing. Places where the hungry are fed literally and figuratively. Where people find community, not condemnation. Places to serve, not be criticized.
Pope leads by example
As Pope Francis has renounced the pomp and privilege of the papacy, perhaps we clergy should get out of our luxury sedans and start riding the bus. Out of our gated communities and into the streets.
In my city of Knoxville, Tenn., for example, a clergyman and his downtown church are considering a partnership with a high-needs inner-city school. Folks are hopeful it will save the school. I'm hopeful it will save the church.
At least one group is getting serious about renewing America's clergy. It calls itself the "Macedonian Ministries," and its members use spiritual discipline (for example prayer, fasting, Bible study) and street-savvy leadership training to retool clergy into exemplary human beings first, congregational and community leaders second.
Macedonia Ministries, based in Atlanta, brings small groups of clergy together on a monthly basis under the tutelage of a mentor pastor. There are also quarterly seminars and workshops, a national leadership retreat and a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
A third-year capstone project encourages the minister and his or her sponsoring congregation to plan and execute a project that will benefit the entire community. This is the sort of thing that will be required if clergy are to regain the trust of ordinary Americans.
America remains the world's leading power, but few would argue that she does not need moral and spiritual leadership. One can only hope that our ministers will step forward and walk the walk. You know. Like Jesus.
Oliver Thomas is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author of 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You.
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