Horror of horrors! “American trust in clergy members hits new low.” So says an article at CBS-DC as it explains a recent Gallup poll. According to that Gallup poll, “Americans’ rating of the honesty and ethics of the clergy has fallen to 47%, the first time this rating has dropped below 50% since Gallup first asked about the clergy in 1977. Clergy have historically ranked near the top among professions on this measure, hitting a high rating of 67% in 1985.”
Should such findings lead pastors to adapt how they serve in the Office of the Holy Ministry, or lead parishioners to be suspicious of the work and conduct of their pastors? While pastors certainly should take care to lead “a holy life,” they ought not seek the approval of men.
Reacting to the Poll
The CBS-DC article gives only a brief overview of the Gallup poll before extolling the “virtues,” according to the American mainstream media, of Pope Francis.
The Gallup poll states, “If views of a certain profession have changed, it usually has been a function of scandal surrounding it.” It then concludes: “The Catholic priest abuse stories from the early 2000s helped lead to a sharp drop in Americans’ ratings of clergy, a decline from which the profession has yet to fully recover.”
CBS-DC then contrasts that conclusion with Pope Francis, whom Time magazine named its 2013 “Person of the Year,” and who ostensibly “has changed the perception of the 2,000-year-old institution in an extraordinary way in a short time.”
In what way has Pope Francis supposedly changed that perception? CBS-DC claims, “he has urged the Catholic Church not to be obsessed with ‘small-minded rules’ and to emphasize compassion over condemnation in dealing with touchy topics like abortion, gays, and contraception.” Translation: In the eyes of the American mainstream media, Pope Francis seems to teach and work in a manner more copacetic with their thinking. (Whether Pope Francis really is changing the ways of the Roman Catholic Church remains to be seen and is beyond the scope of this post.)
So, let’s be cautious of such opinion polls. Such polls tell us more about the media who report them because, after all, positive or ordinary news rarely makes good headlines. Also, such polls may serve primarily to shape mindsets and only secondarily to report facts and trends. More than that, such polls also reveal what it takes to seek the “approval of man.”
Clergy Do Need to “Be Above Reproach”
That said, the recent Gallup poll can serve as a clarion call to all clergy, especially those of us who take our ordination vows seriously. One of the final questions asked of a man being ordained (and installed) in a Lutheran congregation is: “Will you honor and adorn the Office of the Holy Ministry with a holy life?” (Lutheran Service Book: Agenda, p. 166, emphasis added) As the Gallup poll would indicate, there is always room, and need, for improvement.
St. Paul gives this instruction to those aspiring to and carrying out “the noble task” of “the office of overseer” (pastor):
Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil (1 Timothy 3:1-7).
Ask any pastor, Lutheran or otherwise, and he will no doubt hear St. Paul’s words as a salutary, albeit unrealistic, ideal. “That’s such a high standard! Who can measure up? We clergy types are sinners, after all.” Indeed, we are! And yet we are not relieved of the solemn duty of honoring and adorning the Office of the Holy Ministry with a holy (“set-apart-for-God’s-purposes”) life. St. Paul’s words still provide our sought-after “character description.”
The Gallup poll zeroes in on the priest abuse scandals of the early 2000s. We could easily add pastors divorcing their wives (or being divorced by their wives), clergy indulging in internet pornography, clergy quarreling with each other, or clergy being less than charitable on social media (see Pr. Joshua Scheer’s excellent article here). We could easily speak of a pastor spending so much time at the church or on various church-related matters that the congregation becomes his “wife,” his true wife feels like “the mistress,” and his children grow up virtually “fatherless.”
When opinion polls suggest that trust in clergy, especially in matters of honor and ethics, is on the decline, pastors most certainly should listen up. St. Paul reminds us that a clergyman “must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” Yes, brother pastors, people are watching. Just as children learn much by the example of their parents, so also people in the church and in society learn much by the example of the clergy.
Yes, clergy truly are poor, miserable sinners who sin in thought, word, and deed. They fall short of the glory of the “noble task” of their office. And they too—perhaps more than most!—need and receive the forgiveness of sins brought into the world by the Savior who reveals Himself as “God in man made manifest.” That same Incarnate Lord Jesus died and shed His innocent blood to redeem sinful, faltering pastors. That very forgiveness of sins—and trusting it with heart, soul, strength, and mind—enables pastors to “honor and adorn the Office of the Holy Ministry with a holy life.”
“Do Not Be Surprised!”
Having admitted our pastoral shortcomings and relied on Christ’s cross-won forgiveness, let’s also encourage our pastors. The Gallup poll serves as a call to repentance, yes, but it need not compel us to seek “the approval of man.” As St. Paul exemplifies for us in Galatians 1:10, we do not seek the approval of men, especially by way of opinion polls. Instead, we seek the approval of God Himself.
John the Baptist serves as prime encouragement for pastors. Crowds were flocking to John to hear him preach and to be baptized by him. Then along came Jesus the Christ. According to John 3:25-30, some of John’s own disciples worried that many were leaving John in order to follow the “new guy,” Jesus. To the naked eye, John’s approval ratings were dropping. John, though, saw things differently. He said, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27) and then he reaffirmed that he was not the Christ. Then come John’s immortal words: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
A faithful, Gospel-centered, Christ-preaching pastor receives only what is given by God, both in his call to shepherd the flock and in his “approval.” A faithful, Gospel-preaching, Christ-centered pastor need not be worried about the approval of man-made opinion polls. Rather, that faithful pastor must actually decrease in order that Savior Jesus may increase.
Jesus Himself encourages pastors by alerting them to the fact that they will not do well in approval polls. He said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19). The world may hate, or at least be suspicious of, faithful pastors, but our Lord Jesus chooses faithful pastors “out of the world.”
Finally, let’s encourage pastors with St. Paul’s words:
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God (1 Corinthians 4:1-5).
Pastors are called, not to be successful or approved by men, but rather to be faithful—faithful as Christ’s servants, eager to be approved by Him and Him alone. Pastors are called to be stewards (managers, administrators) of God’s “mysteries,” His Word and Sacraments.
Notice how St. Paul does not even judge (render an approval poll on) himself! He knows that pastoral work is done “in secret,” so to speak. Pastors do not know their successes or failures until the Last Day. In fact, we can even say that God actually hides pastors’ successes in order to keep them from pride.
The truth of the matter is that pastors are not called to be successful in the eyes of society or the media, nor are they called to rank high in cultural, media-driven opinion polls. Rather, pastors are called to be “God’s men,” faithful to Him in proclaiming the message of His salvation accomplished through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
For faithful pastors, the only “approval poll” that truly matters will come on the Last Day and from the lips of our Lord Jesus:
“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).