Take a dose of disillusionment

To be disillusioned is a positive experience. It is! Although the experience is usually seen as a negative one, nobody would claim that living under an illusion is beneficial.

Willmore D. Eva is the former editor of Ministry Magazine.

To be disillusioned is a positive experience. It is! Although the experience is usually seen as a negative one, nobody would claim that living under an illusion is beneficial. True, illusions may be temporarily helpful to our peace of mind, but in the end they are not. To be disillusioned, that is, to be released from the deception of one's actual illusions, may be quite serendipitous, let alone downright helpful. Looking at it this way, I think most of us would rather be "disillusioned" than be victims of some muddled illusion.

But with what are we to be disillusioned? With the churches and the people we pastor and with the church in general!

With penetrating truthfulness and wisdom, one of the great Christian sages of this century has observed: "Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate with ourselves." 1 Here no bones are made about the necessity of experiencing constructive disillusionment with Christian people and Christian fellowship. That is, recognizing and accepting the fact that Christian people are flawed and foolish. We are challenged to be "overwhelmed" by this disillusionment, to embrace it as pivotal, providential, and imperative to achieving "genuine Christian fellowship."

If this thinking is legitimate, and I believe it is, the disillusionment we are calling for is something God initiates in order to bring us to mature togetherness in Him. Without this quality of disillusionment we cannot achieve the authentic fellowship we long for. Nor can we be effective ministers or find any meaningful degree of contentment in the work of pastoring. Without being disillusioned with our people we may be ever disgruntled, wondering consciously or unconsciously why "the saints" are so obtuse, so unspiritual, unresponsive, cruel, and just plain ungodly! We will tend to be in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction and will probably be continually struggling to swallow the reflex to scuttle ministry altogether.

"The man who fashions [an exaggerated] visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself.... He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren.... When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself."2

It is not uncommon for pastors to "adamantly" insist (sometimes only within themselves) on their ideal of what constitutes genuine Christian fellowship and then reel under the constant violation of their ideal picture, as the foolishness of the flock again and again manifests itself.

Obviously having a vision and an ideal for Christian fellowship is vital, but it cannot function effectively without regular doses of "disillusionment." Without it a pastor is only a step from becoming a "living reproach" to the church community, an angry, ineffective leader who is literally a pain to parishioners and probably particularly to himself or herself.

Eugene Peterson deals with this issue in his excellent book, Under the Unpredictable Plant. He says, "I had to revise my imagination: these were the people to whom I was pastor. They were not the ones I would have chosen, but they were what I had been given. What was I to do? 'Master, someone sowed tares in the night.' I wanted to weed the field." "Parish glamorization is ecclesiastical pornography taking photographs (skillfully airbrushed) or drawing pictures of congregations that are [faultless]." "They [some pastors] abhor the scandal of both the cross and the church.... But it is the very nature of pastoral work to embrace this scandal, accept this humiliation, and daily work in it. Not despising the shame, and not denying it either."3

There is a great relief that arrives as one exercises this kind of forthcoming honesty, and thus embraces the kind of disillusionment we are talking about. A weight is lifted from pastoral shoulders as we come to consciously acknowledge to ourselves the ever present foibles of the saints. Thus we cease to be surprised or alarmed by them and instead accept them as a fact of life in the church. No longer does a pastor need to explain or criticize but simply deal forthrightly with the numerous challenges that arise out of these deficiencies.

It is when ministry has subtly become more of a career for us than a divine calling that we begin combing the field for the perfect congregation. Like some of our congregations searching for the perfect pastor, we begin ceaselessly scanning the horizon, hoping for a "good call." After not finding it, over time we become increasingly discontented and cynical---characteristics destined to further curtail our effectiveness and our personal satisfaction in ministry and driving us further into despair.

"The poor you have with you always," said Jesus. The truth is, we will also always have the abusive and the heartless, too, even in the fellowship of the Christian congregation. And the truth also is that we ourselves are often enough a part of such destructiveness.

I must add that taking a dose of the kind of the disillusionment prescribed here is also a fine tonic for the pain and anger we sometimes feel as we observe the mistakes and failings of "the brethren" those placed in leadership over us. Such disillusionment will ease us up so that we will relate more effectively and constructively with them and in the bargain, come to feel much better about the church we love and in which we serve.

So here's to overhauling our imaginations and the perceptions we have of our people and the church by taking deep, regular drafts of pure, uninhibited disillusionment!

1. Dietrich Bohnoeffer, Life Together (Harper and Row, Pub., Inc.), 26, 27.

2. Ibid., 27, 28.

3. Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant (William B Eerdmans Publishing Company), 22, 25, 26.

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Willmore D. Eva is the former editor of Ministry Magazine.

April 1998

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