Consumerism penetrates the pulpit

Consumerism, riding the crest of the wave in American society, has washed over the rock of the church and bids fair to carry out to sea the pastor who ignores "account ability."

Margie Schutte is a free-lance writer who lives in Asheville, North Carolina,
Gone are the days when ministers, physicians, teachers, and other authority figures were considered sacrosanct. No longer does the donning of ecclesiastical garb or a "calling from God" automatically qualify one for a position of infallibility in the eyes of thinking laymen. Consumerism, riding the crest of the wave in American society today, has washed over the rock of the church and bids fair to carry out to sea the pastor who ignores accountability.

Accountability, the key word of the consumer movement, has come to permeate modern life. Firestone is forced to recall tires worth $250 million. Ford is challenged in court on the Pinto's safety. Politicians find themselves facing voters who want to know why they have taken certain positions—and who vote accordingly. Patients are insisting on more explanations from health professionals.

Years ago the role of physician to patient (and the role of minister to parishioner) was similar to that of parent to child or authority to subordinate. What ever the doctor said was accepted and followed without question. Today, for complex reasons, the patient is assuming an increased responsibility for his own health and is expecting an equal voice in the health-care delivery system. Patients are demanding access to information about their health, medication, treatment, and costs, much of which was once the privileged domain of the physician, to be dispensed at his discretion. However much one may long for the "good old days," it is as Thomas Wolfe stated, "You can't go home again."

What chaos would result if health professionals chose to ignore these role changes, pretending they did not exist! Yet in many cases, the clergy seems most reluctant to acknowledge this sociological phenomenon, except in a theoretical sense. Obviously, not every aspect of social change is divinely inspired or even beneficial. On the other hand, to pretend that it does not exist is to handicap seriously one's effective ministry.

Recent articles in MINISTRY and other Ministry, July/1979 religious publications have stressed the role of the minister as a spiritual leader; his primary task is not to be an administrator, businessman, or errand boy. Routine church affairs, it is pointed out, can and should be handled by the laity, thereby freeing the pastor for a spiritual ministry. One would be hard put to argue against such a position. In fact, it is safe to say that most church members would welcome a stronger spiritual emphasis and direction from the pulpit.

In spite of burgeoning consumerism, many church figures seemingly have failed to study the times adequately and are trying to keep one foot planted firmly in the past while reaching out to the benefits of the present. Such pastors cling to their desire to be the authority figure in certain chosen areas of church life (often unrelated to spiritual matters), while at the same time they ask the laity to shoulder more of the responsibility. Thus a double standard often exists in the interpretation of roles and expectations. Many pastors apparently want to maintain a parent-child or authority-subordinate relationship with their flock while paradoxically expecting their parishioners to function independently enough to assume greater responsibility for operating the church.

As an example, a pastor states to the church finance committee that in order to free him to devote his time to spiritual leadership, its job is to handle all financial matters in the church—fund raising, the annual budget, contacting members for commitments, and authorizing expenditures. The finance committee agrees that this is a worthy goal that will strengthen all areas of church life. How ever, shortly after delegating this responsibility, the pastor decides the church needs new office furniture. With out consulting the finance committee he purchases the furniture and has the bill sent to the church treasurer, although there is no provision in the budget for the expenditure.

In another case, at a business meeting the pastor presents a proposal to the members for an addition to the church plant. The members vote to accept the proposal and they specify the type of addition, size, and materials. Later, without approval of the building committee or the church body, the pastor initiates changes in the approved specifications. The next year he may accept a call, leaving the church membership the task of raising the extra funds required by his individual decision.

Besides causing resentment, such a lack of accountability confuses the roles of pastor and laity, capriciously altering their relationship from that of an adult to an adult to one between a parent and a child or an authority figure and a subordinate. Pastors who act thus are saying, "I want the privilege of making decisions (even in nonspiritual matters) but without the corresponding responsibility." What such a minister fails to realize is that his parishioners would probably accept him either as an autocrat or as a more democratic leader. But what they will not accept in this age of consumer ism is for him to define his role both ways, changing back and forth whenever it is convenient or suits his purposes. Pastors who delegate increasing responsibility to their members must be willing to relinquish the authority in those areas that will enable the member to implement his responsibility. Without this willingness, a double standard exists. Privilege and responsibility must go hand in hand.

Where accountability is ignored or denied, the laity will suffer a crisis of confidence in their pastor; his spiritual ministry to them will be greatly diminished. The members of such a minister will inevitably question, "How can I believe what you tell me about God, when the message is so garbled in the important area of our relationships?" The very foundation of honesty and Christlike interaction upon which the church was formed hangs in the balance until the crucial issue of privilege and responsibility is settled.


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Margie Schutte is a free-lance writer who lives in Asheville, North Carolina,

July 1979

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