Reading Time: 11 minutes (Yoal Desurmont.)
Reading Time: 11 minutes

Not long ago, I ran across this blog entry from Thom Rainer. He recently worked as the leader of LifeWay, the failing printing and propaganda arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). After he left there, he immediately plunged into his second career. A recent podcast he ran in service to that new venture accidentally revealed some huge, dealbreaking problems in Christian churches. If you ever found yourself teetering on the fence about this religion, then this post is for you–because that problem and Thom Rainer’s solutions to it represent exactly why many thousands of people every day reject Christianity, and also why they should.

(Quoted material comes from the sources, as always. I don’t scare-quote Christians.)

The Podcast–and the Reason

The podcast we examine today can be found here at an archived link. It’s not very long, only 25 minutes or so. Thom Rainer’s guests on it include Jonathan Howe and Mark Clifton. Howe does a lot of busy-work for the SBC, including SBC-related podcasts and writing for LifeWay. Clifton works for the North American Mission Board (NAMB) in revitalization-related efforts. So they’re made men, company men, just like Thom Rainer is–loyal to the SBC above all else.

Normally, I don’t like these sorts of podcasts. And I didn’t like this one much, for that matter. Still, I’m glad I listened to it.

See, Rainer’s listicle-of-the-day concerns “five of the biggest disappointments in church revitalization and replanting.” He directed his listicle to pastors, of course–his blog generally aims for that target market. So here, he describes pastors’ areas of disappointment.

Number 1 on that listicle is “when your big supporter becomes your big critic.”

I wanted to know what that involved.

What Cas Expected vs. What Cas Got

Immediately when I saw that item on the list, placed at #1 on it no less, my mind went to work figuring out how that might happen.

I expected it to mean that maybe the pastor’s biggest supporters perhaps become disappointed. They expect one style of leadership but receive another. Or perhaps the pastor fails to hew to some doctrinal line like they wanted.

I could easily see how a layperson might greet a new pastor with high hopes, see those hopes dashed to the ground, become unhappy as a result–and from there, grow very critical. I’ve seen that happen in the online roleplaying games I’ve played and administered. Sometimes players wanted stuff that admins could not make happen with their skillset, time, and codebase limitations. Or a game’s admins got caught cheating (or giving the appearance of it). If such touchy situations were not thoroughly addressed, then yes, players often pulled a total 180 from support to criticism.

However, that was not what Rainer meant here. I was being way too generous and optimistic.

What he actually meant was this:

Congregation members sometimes act super-duper-supportive at first around a new pastor because they think they can manipulate him, then turn mean and nasty when he refuses to be manipulated.

“More Often Than You Can Ever Possibly Imagine”

This podcast blew my mind. I mean, in many ways I know perfectly well that most Christian church groups range from tolerable to dysfunctional beyond all imagining. And I know that much of their diseased, Mean Girl dynamic stems from power-jockeying–flexing it, seizing it, stealing it, guarding it, and growing it.

Even knowing all that, this podcast took me places I was not expecting to visit. Mr. Captain noted with wry mirth that it only took me about 30 seconds of listening to start swearing at my monitor.

Here’s how the podcast guys describe the process by which a big supporter becomes a big critic:

  • This kind of pastor-grooming “happens more often than you can ever possibly imagine.”
  • Younger, less experienced pastors fall prey way more often and more easily to this grooming.
  • Manipulative laypeople support new pastors purely because they think they can persuade–or strong-arm–the new leader into doing what they want.
  • People on hiring committees can be especially rough this way. They expect the new pastor to feel indebted to them.
  • Most churches have a few big donors. These donors are not at all above using their generosity as leverage to get what they want.
  • Pastor groomers think of themselves as “the puppet-maker who’s gonna run the show through you [the pastor].”
  • The groomers lay it on thick with how totally supportive they’ll be to the new pastor. They simper and fawn over him, but act very differently when he’s out of earshot.
  • When their efforts fail, the frustrated groomers become critics. Their task becomes driving out the pastor so they can get a new one who is hopefully more amenable to their control.

The speakers had a few interesting anecdotes to back up their observations. Clifton said he “constantly” falls for this grooming. Howe agreed that it’s easy to fall for it.

One of them smugly joked that sometimes hiring committees seek “their man” instead of “God’s man.” 


More Dysfunction

That first item represents the worst of the dysfunction described, but the rest of the list fares little better.

#2 involves the hiring committee lying to their applicants about the state of their finances and facilities. Seriously. They flat-out lie. The pastor signs up to lead their church, then shows up to discover that the facilities are just this side of about-to-get-condemned or the church is neck-deep in debt. Apparently these pastors don’t get take-backsies.

#3 describes how the main core of a pastor’s support tends to disappear over time. At least here the podcasters admit that a pastor can lose goodwill by disappointing his flocks. What interested me more was how they low-key give this impression that the church consists of several powerful cliques with varying degrees of support for the pastor.

#4, which we’ll cover in more detail in a moment, reassures pastors that their invisible friend will help them–but only if they drill down hard on Jesus-ing hard enough. The reverse, that churches decline through lack of Jesus Power, holds as well for them.

#5 discusses all the infighting that occurs around a church closure. The speakers describe how congregations will sometimes keep a church open way too long, spending way too much money keeping it alive. “Jesus” doesn’t tell them it’s time to pull chocks and go.

Jesus As A Mean Girl

In #4, the podcasters outline why a church might decline despite a pastor’s very best efforts.

At the outset they tell us that a pastor who Jesus-es hard enough will always succeed. ALWAYS. Without fail. Period. Correct doctrinal beliefs + over-the-top fervor + proper devotions = Jesus-ing harder = success, always. Their god wants their churches to succeed, so he’s hovering right there waiting for them to dance the right way to make their food pellets drop into their cages.

Thus, pastors seeking “so many short, quick solutions” will find only disappointment and failure. The speakers did not outline what a short, quick solution might look like. But they did insist that pastors need to celebrate and give thanks to their god for the “weekly victories that come along.” I guess that’s the Christian version of non-scale victories?

What really surprised me was the speakers asserting that their god allows churches to suffer serious declines so members and pastors alike stop “finding their joy in numbers,” or to force Christians to “trust in him” more. They make their god sound like a Mean Girl himself–jeez, way to remind people that Christians build their god to suit themselves! A declining church is one that has utterly failed in the Great Commission that these same Christians think their god demands of them. But their god is miffed at them for not dancing exactly the way he likes best, so he’ll just let them starve.

Later on, the podcasters also indicate that pastors gain street-cred through the size, strength, and growth of their churches. We knew that already, of course; it’s interesting to hear them admit it. But that’s a topic for another day.

The Fight For Power.

This podcast painted a portrait of endless squabbles for power. Who will decide what the church does, how it will use the money donated to it, and who will lead what projects? What doctrines will they buy into and how will those doctrines affect members’ everyday lives? Whose ideas will the church adopt, and how exactly will it adopt them?

These questions represent big, huge, pressing matters to the members of authoritarian churches. Most of the people in these churches lack real-world power–so they find it in these groups. Some of them spend decades growing a base of power that allows them to rule their groups like petty lordlings from feudal days.

Little wonder these same Christians fear to their bones the idea of their religion becoming culturally-irrelevant! Every church that closes represents an entire set of cliques that suddenly have nowhere to flex their power. For that matter, the power they fought so hard to gain and hold becomes meaningless outside of one particular venue. If they join another church, their jockeying must begin again–and probably from scratch.

And the podcast informs us that even in the closing of their church, a congregation seeks to flex power. They couldn’t support their congregation themselves, no, but they get very angry all the same about the idea of “their” facilities being sold to another church group. The podcasters lament that “the adversary has turned that church into an idol for them.” They sigh that “we just have to release that church to the lord.”

They also stress this point: if the church Jesus-es hard enough at the end, their god will totally make sure their facility goes to the correct new group.

“Giving With Strings”

Of course, they do mention–briefly–how totally un-Jesus-y it is for congregants to use their generosity as leverage. See, high-rolling congregants often tell the pastor that if he refuses to obey their commands, they’ll leave–and they’ll take their money with them. Pastors end up having to bend the knee to these donors–and to court them like lovers as they decide who will receive their tax-deductible largesse.

This entire situation, according to the podcasters, is totally ickie and gross and how dare they. “That’s giving with strings!” one cries out.

Oh? So “giving with strings” is bad now, is it? Hmm?

Cuz it seems to me that churches themselves never give anything away without it having strings attached. Need food from the church’s charity pantry? As a personal friend of mine discovered, you might be compelled to sit through a sermon before being fed. Need free childcare for the summer? Hope you don’t mind them stealth-indoctrinating your kids. Oh, that bus ministry? It’s done in hopes that the kids will eventually drag their parents into church, or at least that they’ll grow up to continue to attend as adults (and tithe).

Churches don’t do anything for anyone without thinking of their own bottom lines. They get mad when people take free stuff and don’t turn into tithing members.

But okay, fine. It’s super-bad if a congregant does to their pastor what their church does to literally everybody else.

Freedom for me, but not for thee: it’s the Christian way.

I have so many questions now

Man alive! I have so many questions.

Why doesn’t Christians’ magical invisible friend tell pastors when someone insincere butters them up? Because these guys all acted on the podcast like they were gobsmacked by insincerity every time. Both Clifton and Howe insisted that whenever they caught a manipulator in the act, this was always the very last person they’d expect to do such a thing. At first, they said, they always doubted the rumors that someone was manipulating them. It sounds incredibly easy to trick pastors into believing that a show of support is genuine. Why isn’t Jesus tipping them off about something so important?

Are pastors so desperate for work that they don’t turn around and leave the moment they realize the hiring committee lied to them about important stuff like the church’s debt situation? I suppose they must be exactly that desperate. For that matter, do pastors just not do any research at all into the new area before moving there? Why isn’t “Jesus” telling them something’s not right about the situation?

How is it so easy for hiring committees to turn into power struggles and to use their influence over the new pastor as described here? None of this sounds like a divine, omnipotent god guides any of it. It sounds more like Mad Men-style harassment, with everyone using whatever power they can cobble together to subjugate and abuse anybody they can.

Why do the people who should most display Christian virtues seem to do so the least often? But that’s kind of an all-the-time question, and one we’ve answered many, many times. That one, at least, we kinda know. Without a real live god to animate their religion, there’s no way whatsoever to get from Point A to Point B with Christianity’s worldview. Consequently, Christians have been hunting bears with umbrellas since their religion’s invention.

(Bonus Questions: How many pastors give in to this control? Sounds like a lot do. What are those churches like?)

And the Big Kahuna of Questions

This whole emphasis on Jesus-ing harder bothers me immensely. I wish it bothered Christians more than it does. It should be obvious that nobody in these dysfunctional churches is actually living up to the ideals of Christianity. Thom Rainer and his two pals here all believe that the trifecta of Christian authoritarianism ensures that a church will succeed.

But Rainer himself says that “somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 churches in America” close for good every year. That’s between 19-27 churches every day. It’s probably a bit high of an estimate, but still, that’s a lot of churches not Jesus-ing right. And what about churches that grow, yet do not operate the way that Thom Rainer thinks is best? I suppose that, too, is the doing of Satan himself–and not simply that these other churches do a better job of recruiting and retention.

Are we seriously to believe that that many churches somehow fail to Jesus correctly and properly? Is their god so willing to let churches fail because he’s in a snit over them not doing something perfectly? I thought he knew people weren’t perfect. And if they couldn’t Jesus hard enough to save their churches, how are they going to manage the trick after the closure to make sure Jesus sends the correct group to buy their building(s)?

These nutjobs blame Satan for a lot of stuff, but it’s beyond obvious that no demons need to lift a clawed finger for churches to collapse. Simple human greed and fear account for everything we observe there.

The real question really becomes why Christians think anybody would want to join the churches these podcasters describe.

Where The Horror Stories Originate

When we evaluate a group to join, we obviously want to look at how they treat newcomers.

Knowing what I do about the purely nightmarish culture in most authoritarian churches, I’m no longer surprised at all to hear horror stories erupting out of them. The more authoritarian a church leans, the worse its members behave toward everyone they think they can get away with mistreating–and the more focused they are on currying power and schmoozing the powerful.

When new people join up, existing Christians want to be sure they come in at the lowest rungs of the ladder of power–and are in no position to shake things up for them. Since they’re visitors, too, likely they’ll have no affiliations with anybody holding real power in the group–which means they’re safe to abuse.

When we hear about church members getting angry over others sitting in the pews they’ve earmarked for themselves, or read this huge list of similar misbehavior by lifelong Christians, that’s a dynamic we should be alarmed to see.

Thom Rainer thinks he can help churches revitalize. Without major sea changes in the congregations’ behavior and attitudes, it ain’t gonna happen. Some visitors might overlook the behavior of Christians themselves in evaluating the pros and cons of joining their groups, but it doesn’t seem like most would be so undeservedly generous.

And ain’t no gods making Christians into even marginally safer and more functional groups.

A Gang of Temporarily-Embarrassed Despots.

In the real world, we know the dangers of giving power to those who can’t handle it and aren’t ready for it. We know a bit about how to curb the power of cliques in businesses. And we have procedures in place to try to ensure that the powerless do not get swamped and trampled by the powerful. None of these are perfect, of course. Nothing could be. But we try.

However, authoritarian churches resist all of that knowledge. They won’t take real-world steps to protect anybody–because those very steps would, of necessity, limit the power they themselves might one day win and wield. It reminds me of something John Steinbeck wrote, especially the last bit:

I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist. Maybe the Communists so closely questioned by the investigation committees were a danger to America, but the ones I knew — at least they claimed to be Communists — couldn’t have disrupted a Sunday-school picnic. Besides they were too busy fighting among themselves.

Nipping At Their Own Flanks.

In their endless quest for more power, Christians will even destroy their own churches–and their own religion’s chances in the future.

Of course, these exact same Christians think the world would be ever-so-much better off if they controlled all spheres of it. They can’t even govern themselves according to their own rules. They can’t even live up to their own hype. But they think they’d do great at administering the lives of every single person on Earth.

Maybe they need to brush up on that whole look to the beam in your own eye first thing. While their own house is this filthy, they don’t get to try to tell anyone else how to keep theirs.

A pity we can’t talk them into cleaning their own houses up before they think about inviting guests over to dinner.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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