Support Community-Building Clergy

A convivial friend, Dan Grego, says that the future of our country depends upon whether we can learn how to help each other, outside of the market.

One of the most significant reasons that we don’t help each other in our neighborhoods is because we believe that we have to pay for real help. And because we imagine we can buy our help in the marketplace, our neighbors’ help becomes devalued or valueless.

So it is that when we are in distress, the constant advice is, “You should get professional help.”  This non-neighborly help has many names: psychologist, psychiatrist, marriage counselor, family therapist, child psychologist, grief counselor and on and on.  Sadly, we are often reduced to being guided through life by paid professionals, many of whom have never endured the problem, dilemma or crisis we face. Nevertheless, they do have a certificate on their wall.  Our neighbors don’t.

In reality, people who have had experience with the dilemma we face live all around us, and many have successfully dealt with our problem. It is this knowledge of neighbors who have successfully struggled through crisis and misery that was traditionally the source of community wisdom.  Many were respected elders.

When we respect certificates, community wisdom goes wanting.

At their best, local religious communities are a source of community wisdom. However there are clergy who threaten their communities. Having been trained in professional therapeutic techniques, these clergy act like psychiatrists. They absorb all the fears, fallibilities, crises and failings of the parishioners.

At the same time, many parishioners know from experience more about handling these personal dilemmas than does the cleric.  Instead of connecting the troubled parishioner with peers who know the way through crisis, the cleric ignores their wisdom while substituting the wares of a therapist. As a result, he strips his own religious community of its most precious gift — the members’ ability to help each other.

Fortunately, there is a healthy counter-movement.  Reverend Philip Amerson, Dean of Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary, reports that, “There is a growing awareness of this problem in the circles of those who teach pastoral care.  A movement within pastoral care circles is pushing back and encouraging pastors to look to local networks of support.”

Reverend James Conn, retired Director of New Ministries for the United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, notes that faith communities have fostered the small-group movement.  He says, “I am amazed by the degree of mutual support that faith communities are fostering these days.  Many are offering mutually led or lay-facilitated groups focused on grief, divorce or substance abuse.”

Finally, Reverend Damon Lynch, pastor of the New Prospect Baptist Church in Cincinnati, speaks to this question as a front-line pastor.  He says,

A true pastor/clergy person should not threaten the community of wisdom but should facilitate its activity.  I stopped doing serious counseling years ago when it became clear to me that the complexity of the issues people dealt with needed more than a scriptural pat on and back and a prayer.  Issues of extreme depression, rape, incest, child abuse, spousal abuse, debilitating illness, and more come across my desk on a weekly basis, and when you top those off with unemployment, homelessness and hunger, it will cause even the strongest in faith to break down.  But what keeps the community surviving are the testimonies of the survivors.  In the black church testimonies are just as powerful and meaningful as any counseling session.  In testimonies, you often hear someone just like you speak about a troubling period in their life that through the help of God and others, they made it through.  You no longer feel alone and isolated, you realize you are part of a community of hurting people who are all overcoming something.

The next thing that keeps the community surviving are the formal and informal networks.  The church is one large network made up of many smaller networks.  All churches have multiple organizations, clubs and ministries through which people live out their service to God.  There are also informal networks, the ‘meeting after the meeting crowd.’

The informal networks are where solid friendships are born and true support in time of need can be found.

I recently preached a sermon to honor Dr. King that was a sermon he preached first in 1956 and again here in Cincinnati in 1967 entitled ‘A Knock at Midnight.’  In Dr. King’s message he talked about it being midnight in the moral, social and psychological orders of our world.  In my message, I talked about how important it is to have someone you can call upon in the midnight of your life.  The church must be there; the community must be there when people face their midnights!

Reverend Lynch’s practice is a valuable example of the work of a community-building rather than a community-busting clergy. Let us hope that more and more seminaries will teach his approach to their students so that faith communities will be at the center of community renewal.

~ John ~

Home page photo: Ed Sweeney

About the Lead Author

John McKnight
John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. He is the coauthor of Building Communities from the Inside Out and the author of The Careless Society. He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development.

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