By Paul Koch –
I’ve often wondered about my own kneejerk reaction to all things bureaucratic in nature. It seems to have always been a part of my character, but it hasn’t always been beneficial. It has got me in trouble more than once throughout my life and since being ordained as a pastor, it seems to have gotten worse. Because of this tendency, I am usually outside looking in wondering why no one will take my contributions seriously. Or, on the other hand, I’m on the inside constantly being the asshole in the room (this happens more often than I would like to admit). Sometimes I simply chock it up to being a Gen-Xer and living up to my generational stereotype or maybe it’s just an unfortunate personality flaw. I’ve tried over time to embrace bureaucracy, but it just doesn’t stick. The best I do is use them like an abused girlfriend; I get what I can out of it then push it aside when it gets in the way of what I want to do.
Now, I’m not a close-minded simpleton. I don’t lack the ability to be introspective. I am confronted again and again of my own quest for glory and my sinful selfishness of which I repent. But time and again I keep arriving at the conclusion that my distrust of bureaucracy is warranted. As I examine it again, what I find is people who give advice, who set agendas, and who appear to lead, but don’t actually have any skin in the game. They have “experts,” give opinions and offer theories, but don’t actually do a damn thing.
What appears to have happened over time is a growth in the number of pastors and theologians who no longer have pulpits. Instead, they spend their days looking backward and analyzing the things that have happened in the past and then offer theories on how to move forward. This is done detached from the actual people whom their work is to benefit. In fact, in my opinion, one of the prime indicators of how terrible a church bureaucrat is going to be is how long it has been since they’ve regularly engaged in preaching, teaching, and administering the sacraments.
And I don’t mean preaching at the conference or the occasional installation service. I mean sitting by the bedside of the sick, catechizing the young and old, handing over the goods at the rail, and preaching to people whose lives you’ve invested in even when you don’t want to be. Their work tends to be all about the past or all about the future while the present doesn’t much figure in to their “wisdom.”
This is, at least, part of the concern Wingren expressed when he said,
“An authoritative Bible whose main characteristic is that it is verbally inspired is a book without a Master and consequently a book with a doctrine instead of a message, its only task to relate what God has already done instead of having to bring men into the sphere of God’s continuing activity. In that way, a gulf yawns between the holy events of the Bible and the holy events awaited in the last times. Thereby the present in emptied of content.” – Gustaf Wingren, “The Living Word” (56)
It is important to recognize this detachment from the present for what it is. It may be wise ideas, clever insights, and so on, but if they don’t actually have any skin in the game, if they don’t actually have to put their theories into practice, then it’s all smoke and mirrors. It’s like a chef that brags about how well she can cook while criticizing the cooking of others but never actually sets her entree down for you to taste.
Now, it used to be far easier to locate the voice of the detached would-be preacher. They were found in denominational church offices, and their pictures would be plastered on every piece of PR literature published from said office. But today these pulpitless pastors are everywhere. They are on blogs (perhaps even this one?), have radio shows, strut around our academic institutions and always have a lot to say about how things ought to be.
Their work is marked not by their brilliance, though they usually are quite brilliant, but by their lack of being bound into the lives of people they would rather not be bound to. In other words, they have a congregation of their own choosing that applauds their theories and nods approvingly to their clever wit.
The true test is when they find they have skin in the game, as then their future and finances are on the line. Their true colors show when they discover that they are saying things the bureaucrats dislike. When their theories begin to cause too many waves (bureaucrats hate waves), and their congregation begins to turn on them, what will they do?
Will they stay the course; will they stand firm? If so, perhaps they have found their pulpit and we ought to give them our attention and respect. But what if not? If they fold and retreat in to the warm bosom of the bureaucracy, why then we should see them as the frauds they are.
Proclamation is not a theory, and it is not done only when it suits us or feels good. Theology detached from actual people is vanity. As Wingren put it so well,
“The Word reaches the objective for which it was sent out only when it effects an entrance into men. Man reaches the spring out of which he can draw human life only when the Word of the Creator comes to him.” – The Living Word (13)
Stop worrying about those who have no skin in the game. Don’ t let those with no pulpit think they can influence yours.