The "message" printed below was leaked to JSwift News Service. It was faxed and e-mailed as an attachment to mainline protestant ministers throughout the United States and Canada. The minister who wrote it, Cotton Mather, intended it to be confidential. If you read between the lines its text is quite shocking. It is re-printed here word for word:
A MESSAGE TO MY FELLOW CLERGY FROM HOLY GHOST PRESBYTERIAN ON MAINLINE CHURCH SURVIVAL
by Rev. Cotton Mather
As a pastor of one of the several "mainline" Protestant Denominations in the suburbs of Pasadena, California, I hope I can be of service to my fellow clergy by enumerating the difficulties that we share in common, of growing a church (or simply surviving!) at a time when numerous obstacles are in opposition.
I really have no definitive solutions, that would enable us to confront the problems we face here at Holy Ghost Presbyterian, but I do believe that laying out my church's challenges for my fellow clergy should 1) bring some emotional relief in knowing that they are not alone in facing the difficulties mentioned here, and 2) the presentation of common problems in an absolutely candid way will provide clarity when seeking the Holy Ghost's assistance.
Perhaps, above all, I want to make this presentation in the most informal way I know how. It is my belief that the daunting difficulties faced by mainline Christian clergy should not be discussed in some pedantic, scholarly manner-the issues are simply too critical for that-but written about in a language that undercuts pretensions to sophistication. This is good way of dealing with painful, pressing issues. In short, I want to use a language that speaks of reality and is practical. So, let's get down to it!
In order of presentation, I will discuss the competition between my church and local mega churches, a situation that is unique to my church-- how we relate to Pasadena All Saints Episcopal-- and how to treat controversial issues from the pulpit in a way that won't financially damage the church.
As is the case with many of you who read this, one of the challenges I must meet head on is the power and attraction of three mega churches in our area. These churches boast 2,000 or more weekly attendees. My sanctuary usually has only about 160 congregants on Sunday mornings. And, these mega churches have mega budgets! They are able to offer something for everyone. Their fitness centers bring people in and get them into the pews (where to be frank about it) they can open up their wallets. Their coffee bars, where nothing but the finest beans are freshly ground, provide a happy experience of Christian Fellowship. People know coffee. People feel good and warm and fuzzy with a cup in their hands. People are encouraged to take this warm feeling from the coffee into the sanctuay by carrying their cups there and sip during the sermon.
These maga churches offer classes to deal with the problems of the recently divorced, twenty-somethings singles groups, forty-somethings singles groups, how to deal with income taxes, healing emotional distress, talking with your teenager about sex, dealing with addiction problems, etc.
Among other things they do is to employ-and we must be candid about it-sexy young male and female Youth Ministers who meet the needs, not just spiritual, of community youth. I'm certainly not suggesting overt sexual contact, but adolescents do have their fantasies and if they get the kids closer to God by participating in youth programs, so be it. These youth often have rich parents.
At Holy Ghost Presbyterian, and of course in the case of mainline church clergy reading these lines, we cannot possibly afford hardly any of the large staff needed to offer such services and programs. Again, and we must be candid, it all comes down to money. As my increasingly grey haired congregation dies off, obviously, their pledges are gone. Sometimes their children, who were married in the church or otherwise have close ties to it, will step forward with their pledges. But they are not at all usually as substantial as those of their parents. It might be mentioned that we see sometimes see fresh faces in the congregation but, when we do, many are poorly dressed and, that is not helpful.
There is one hopeful development in terms of getting some cash. It is probably unique to our situation here in the Pasadena suburbs and probably will not apply to the situation that clergy are in who read these words. There is a church in Pasadena, even well known outside the area, named All Saints Episcopal. They preach "God's Presence In the World." From the pulpit the Priests sermonize about peacemaking and social justice. Sometimes, they encourage parishioners to walk in peace demonstrations, engage in non-violent protests for justice for undocumented immigrants and the like. For them, the idea that faith is just a private matter between an individual and God is not just too limiting, it is counter to the teachings of Jesus.
The upside for us, of course, is that some of the people at All Saints don't want to hear about God being against injustice and war. So, they leave All Saints for other Episcopal churches in the area. But some become members of Holy Ghost Presbyterian and, happily for us, they usually bring some money. Unfortunately, because the Presbyterian Church has gutted the traditional ritual, many former All Sainters don't feel at home with us. "Where in hell are the flowers, incense, good wine at the alter, and a great choir?," I overheard a All Saints visitor ask his wife.
Always keeping in mind that losing congregants means losing money, I'll turn to this matter of how one preaches at church about matters of peace and social justice. For starters, let's briefly look at the composition of my congregation. As stated above we're getting old. This is all guess work, but I would estimate that 30% or some of the congregants get their version of reality from CNN News, another 30% or so don't really don't know anything about political, social, or economic reality, and don't care, unless it really impacts their lives, and the remainder are a smattering of aging left-leaning suit wearing hippies--now rather well-to-do-- Active Tea Party Express people, and people who are socially liberal but politically conservative.
Preaching and pleasing such a mixed group is obviously a daunting task and one which I suppose many of you face.
How on earth does one preach about the teachings of the Prophets and Our Lord as they might apply to contemporary issues without offending at least some congregants. Of course this is a potential financial land mine. Whenever possible I avoid discussing anything significant from the pulpit.
To even allude to Isaiah 61:1,2 (where only God is to be exalted and the wealthy and empires, who prosper now, will be brought low in due time) is a definite no no. That Jesus refers to this passage in Isaiah, when He begins his ministry, and says that he as come to free the oppressed and preach good news to the poor, is something that never happened, as far as I'm concerned. Seriously, what would Rush have to say about that!-- because he is the Real Preacher for some of my congregants.
Specifically, let me discuss how to deal with peace issues. When it appeared that President Obama was going to attack Syria, in the context of a particular sermon I was to give, that issue could not be avoided. So how does one handle it? What I did was to lead the congregation in prayer asking God that forthcoming collateral damage be minimal. I certainly didn't ask that we pray for peace! Not when my congregant's national anthem praises the "rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air!"
In retrospect, I was perhaps a little timid on the issue of Syria. I actually did have the opportunity for once to speak the Gospel Truth to the congregation. What I mean is that, just like most Americans, the people in the pews didn't want another Middle East fiasco. This did open up the opportunity to actually preach on what Jesus has to say about peace, loving your enemies, leaving retribution to God, and turning the other cheek. I could have easily spoken the Word Of The Lord and gotten away with it. To the congregation they would be received as nothing but empty platitudes but speaking God's Truth would have probably made me feel better. I'd feel like less of a prostitute. . .of course that's another issue, one I imagine we clergy have to all confront.
But, except for the rare Syria occasion, "Blessed are the peace makers?" As, far as I'm concerned, Jesus just as well might have said, Blessed are the pacemakers."
Turning to another controversial matter, climate change, I would certainly try to avoid discussing it from the pulpit. But, one Sunday, my text from Genesis strongly implied that man must be good caretakers of the Creation. It seemed to me that I simply had to deal with the issue of climate change. What I said was, "If you believe or don't believe in climate change, or maybe are just waiting for all of the scientific evidence to come in, I urge you to consider that….." Etc. Etc. Yes, I flattered the congregants into thinking that, in their great individual wisdom, they could decide whether global warming is real. That way I could both avoid the truth as well as gaze upon their self-satisfied countenances.
Well, my fellow clergy, you probably know the tricks of the trade to keep the pew warmers happy, as well as I do. But, if you don't know this, let me say that I like to take, what I call the "humility pose." It's the "Gosh folks, I don't have all of the answers on this but, like you, I seek God's guidance so that together we an have God's vision." Whoops! I think you just caught me doing a little bit of this in this article!
In conclusion, let's get down to it again. What we're talking about here is possible growth but mostly survival of your church and mine. We need to be realistic. Yes, blessed are the meek. But, in terms of being clergy, that does not mean being docile or submissive.
We must do what we can to compete with the mega churches, do what we can to hold on to those pledges, and, to do so, not alienate congregants by letting the Word Of God get in the way of our continued existence as mainline Protestants who, after all, do provide solace and comfort for old people about to die. At my church we greet one another in the Name Of The Lord after the service is over, go to the patio and enjoy the Christian fellowship of sharing how our church doesn't confuse politics and religion the way they do at other churches.
Maybe my congregants don't exactly hunger and thirst for righteousness and the truth and maybe I don't encourage that if it puts my church's very existence in jeopardy. But I believe that you've got to take people the way they are, that everybody has to be somewhere and it might as well be at Holy Ghost Presbyterian because it sure isn't going to be over at All Saints.
And we're still standing. We're here.