Elaine Heath on “Alien Priorities” in the Church

Elaine Heath and Scott Kisker have recently written a book in defense of a movement that, they say, is gaining ground.  The movement consists of an increasing number of new Christian communities, which are an amalgamation of the house church and new monastic models.  Though written for a UM audience, their comments will resound with anyone suffering the Mainline blues.

After the death of a dear friend and spiritual mentor, Heath tells us that she decided “to quit the club.”

“I do not mean I am leaving the United Methodist Church, although the thought has occurred to me at times.  But there are alien priorities in our midst, anomalies that contradict the soul of our tradition.”

She then tells the following story, which is instructive for the ailments of not only the local church (in many places) but also, by extrapolation, to the larger denomination:

“When I went to meet the pastor parish relations committee prior to being appointed to one of the churches I served, I came away with the strange knowledge that what that church wanted from their next pastor more than good preaching, pastoral care, the development of children’s ministry or just someone who could write a decent bulletin, was a pastor who would live in their parsonage.  That was really and truly their top priority.  The last pastor, for a number of reasons, hadn’t been able to live in the parsonage.  If a pastor would live in the parsonage, they reasoned, giving would increase, the kids who had graduated from high school and left church would come back, and everyone would contribute more stuff to the annual rummage sale.  Life would be good.  All manner of thing would be well.  I left the meeting and wondered what I was getting myself into.”

Such myopic priorities are a major contributing factor to the decline in not only our local churches but also, in an analogous fashion, to the larger denomination as well.  The “alien priorities” of security over risk, maintenance over ministry, and club over mission have become Mainline staples.  This “club” mentality is what Heath and Kisker warn against:

“It is the club of Denominationalism Posing as the Church.  Denominationalism is dead.  Self-serving institutionalism is dead.  The notion that the church is a bureaucracy that should look and act like the federal government of the United States is dead.  That which John Wesley greatly feared has come upon us.”

A note indicates that the fear being referenced is Wesley’s famous quote from “Thoughts Upon Methodism”:

“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both to the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

Alien priorities make for a dead sect.  Can new – really, re-discovered – priorities revive this part of the Body?  One thing is certain: the question is not “How do we save the denomination?”  The question is, how do we offer Christ? How do we lovingly serve our neighbors?  As Heath and Kisker conclude,

“The real question is, ‘What is the Spirit saying to the church?’”

6 thoughts on “Elaine Heath on “Alien Priorities” in the Church”

  1. I wonder what was behind the congregations concerns about a pastor in the parsonage? I doubt at its base it was magical thinking. Did the pastor living in the parsonage evoke memories of a better day in the church? Did is symbolize commitment? I wonder what the hidden thinking was.

    (Sorry for going off the main thrust of the post.)

    1. John, it’s hard to tell in the book to what degree, but I detect some sarcasm in Heath’s reflection. I am sad to report that I have seen personally and heard of many instances where pastoral tenures are sabotaged from the start because the congregation truly cannot get beyond the pastor refusing to live in the parsonage. They seem to take it quite personally.

      1. I wonder why. I wonder what is going on in the minds and sous of the congregation that make that such a crucial issue.

  2. I believe a major factor is “availability.” My parsonages have tended to be within easy walking distance of the churches I’ve served, if not right next door – as my current parsonage is. A pastor in the parsonage in such churches says, “If we ever need the pastor, he/she is ‘right next door’;” i.e., “we know where the pastor is when we need him/her.” Many of the larger churches in our Conference have sold their parsonages, and the pastors live blocks, if not miles, away from the church. The – usually, full-time – custodian then seems more “available” than the pastor, as the pastor has “office hours.” (Custodians are sometimes given the use of the old church-owned parsonage that is next door to the church as part of their compensation.) Members often don’t know exactly where the pastor lives, unless the pastor has an “open house” from time to time or has a new members’ class over to the pastor’s residence during preparation for joining.

    In one two-point charge I served, the parishioners in the church that didn’t have a parsonage were under the impression that I was spending more time in ministry to the other church than to them. When the church with the parsonage collaborated with another church to start a new congregation, the church that had not had its own parsonage was invited to become a two-point charge with another church that owned a parsonage, and they decided to take a leap of faith and double down on their commitment, and they became a stand-alone church and bought their own parsonage that was right across the street from the church.

    But another consideration is more around a concern that, if the parsonage isn’t being used by the pastor, who will use it? Parishioners don’t want it standing vacant. They will be paying heating bills for an empty building. Things could go wrong without anyone knowing it until much damage would have been done. If the church rents out the parsonage, does that risk the parsonage going back on the property tax rolls, because it is no longer being used for “ministry purposes”? And, if it is being rented out, how are the renters treating the property? All sorts of concerns come up in this regard, so that the people too easily become distracted by the mundane things that might easily be resolved – such as by the pastor living in the parsonage – and they can thereby justify not having the energy or interest to consider what we clergy might consider more important issues – joining the fight against malaria, reaching out to the homeless in the community, providing space for a non-denominational youth ministry that our church is ill-equipped to offer on its own, etc.

    I’m sure there are more reasons this was an issue for the congregation to which Heath referred, but these are at least two that I believe are often key elements to parishioners’ thinking around this issue. It has a lot of elements of the Martha and Mary situation. Martha’s concerns with feeding her guests were not inconsequential, yet they were also not to be given top priority in the moment. Getting our fellow United Methodists to set priorities according to the work of God – with which, sadly, many of them are unfamiliar and uncomfortable – rather than the work of ordinary life, over which they feel they have some mastery, is and will continue to be an ongoing concern.

    Douglas Asbury
    Northern Illinois Conference

    1. Great thoughts, Douglas. The Martha and Mary issues at the end are a real help to me. It gets at the hunch that drives my questions. All issues at a church are spiritual in some way, if you can dig deeply enough to find the spiritual concern.

  3. I agree, Douglas, though I think you are a bit charitable when you say “availability.” This could also be named, at least in some instances, control. It is an odd power dynamic to be expected to live somewhere that we have little to no control over. Healthy churches will take pride in how the parsonage is maintained and respect the privacy the family (and thus have some right to expect a pastor will want to live their with her or his family). Too often, parsonages are not maintained to any reasonable standard any yet the church is still shocked when the pastor chooses to dwell elsewhere.

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