Monday, September 28, 2009

Where have all the clergy gone?

In his Sunday [9/27/09] column [Rockford Register Star] Chuck Sweeny asked the question – “Where have the clergy gone?”. He commented that area clergy used to be active in most of the major issues of community life – education, housing, women’s rights, racism, and, the many well known problems associated with poverty. However, in his view, there has been almost silence in the most recent years.

Chuck’s question arose out of a conversation he had with Jesse Jackson while the latter was in Rockford relative to the shooting death that occurred in a local church. Jackson had expressed a desire to have local clergy join in support for an investigation that would affirm justice for all involved – the police, the family of the man shot, the members of that parish, and the greater community.

Others have voiced similar thoughts and impressions.
Just 40+ years ago the Rockford Minister’s Fellowship and the Rockford Clergy Association worked together to improve race issues that had arisen in regards to public housing.
Area clergy worked closely with varied women’s group so as to better insure women’s rights, especially related to reproductive rights. Concerned Clergy for Problem Pregnancies worked several years prior to Roe v Wade in assisting women as they sought counsel and help in seeking abortion services.
Clergy were involved in soliciting marchers when the Hispanic community sought to raise our consciousness about immigration.
Clergy were involved in seeking, and supporting, candidates for election to the Rockford School District Board – candidates who would begin the hard work in moving beyond the lawsuit that had placed us under Federal supervision because of racist practices towards our children.
The annual Crop Walk was such a big deal that law enforcement would get involved with the logistics.
Good Friday Services often involved up to seven clergy at numerous sites throughout the community. These mutual efforts were a loud reminder to all citizens that the religions had more in common rather than the few areas of disagreement.

The important question might be to identify what factors might have brought about such change? Certainly there have been “hot potato” issues with clergy on multiple “sides”. Yet that, alone, can not be the causative factor.
Clergy were on opposing sides during the Vietnam War – yet were able to stay in dialogue.
Clergy were on opposing sides when it came to integrated housing – yet worked together to identify ways to achieve justice.
Clergy disagreed about abortion, yet a majority could remain in discussions on the development of greater access to birth control and the development of better women’s health services.

Some say that today’s clergy are more inhibited by fear! As membership, attendance figures, and giving in many congregations have declined, some clergy often have greater concern that their behaviors might exacerbate those declines. Still others have reported “threats” of negative consequences, from ‘powerful’ members, if the pastor took a public position opposite from that held by the member. [And, in a time when many younger clergy carry a higher debt load from schooling and have an employed spouse who can not as easily move – the consequences of such threats may seem more real!]

Another possible reason reflects a seeming lack of ability to engage in intense academic and emotional debate – and yet stay in relationship with those on “the other side”. This is an important challenge now for members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The recent action at the 2009 ELCA Assembly regarding acceptance of gay or lesbian persons in committed relationship affirms an approach that respects “bound conscience”. We may disagree – even up to 180’ – but, recognize that each other’s position comes from serious study of all available data from all fields of study, and comes after serious time spent in prayer and meditation.

Others would, no doubt, suggest other factors that have served to keep clergy from cooperative dialogue about and involvement in major public issues in the community. Hopefully, those “others” will take the time to share their views.

Because – unless the religious leaders work together in discussions about the many issues, the community will decide we are irrelevant! That would be a terrible price to pay!