Abdicating Leadership Roles

As we approach the time of the year when schools normally reopen, some teachers and teachers’ unions are making their views abundantly clear. Some are staging body bags in front of their district buildings while others are signing their wills and leaving them on the steps of city hall.

Not only is this melodramatic, rivaling the emo-fits of angst-ridden teens, it is a profound dereliction of their leadership roles in society.

But before we jump on a group of teachers who think going back to class this fall is certain and bloody death, several pastors and churches made the same public declaration without the stage props, which is surprising given how many churches can’t get through a Sunday without them. They decided, many of them before summer hit, not to meet at all until 2021. To their credit, apocalyptic teachers waited until the semester’s beginning to stage their untimely assumption of room temperature. These pastors and churches folded at the first waft of fear.

Pastors and churches who have already made this decision have also failed their role as spiritual leaders in society.

Let me be clear about a couple of things*. Some churches are in counties and states where lockdown policies forbid the public gathering of churches. Outside of making the decision to openly defy civil authorities, these pastors are in a horrible position. Other churches have the herculean task of reopening under strict guidelines when they were accustomed to thousands of people casually meeting every week. That is a logistical nightmare. I am not taking about churches that cannot meet, or who have not solved their staffing complications. I am talking about churches who can meet, even at reduced capacity, but who have decided not to.

Why are these decisions an abdication of leadership roles?

Assuming an official role in society comes with an array of presumed skills, moral guidelines, and assumed behaviors. Imagine visiting your dentist. What do you assume they are able to do for you? You rightly assume they attended and graduated an appropriate school. You guess they have a degree in dentistry, not Critical Fat Studies. You also assume that their office will guard your medical information in appropriate ways, and not use your photos on their Instagram account to mock people who don’t floss. And on it goes. The role presumes certain qualifications and behaviors.

So it is with teachers. Teachers are trained to educate kids and young adults, often in very specific and highly skilled ways. Their roles are necessary and complicated, so citizens pay teachers assuming a certain set of skills, moral guidelines, and assumed behaviors.

Teaching always comes with some level of risk. Kids are always sick. Parents are always grumpy and demanding. Some kids manage conspiracies of false accusations to get teachers fired. COVID-19 is not the first time teachers have been expected to fill their roles with a degree of risk. Citizens pay teachers to play a specific role in society and assume the risk and the teachers I have talked to want to teach, even if their unions want them to strike.

To demand to be paid by citizens for not fulfilling that role is an abdication of leadership.

The demand to be paid for not fulfilling your role in society is an abdication of your leadership.

The role of pastor comes with the same kind of institutional structure. There is (at least, there should be) the expectation of a certain kind of education, moral boundaries to their public and private lives, and certain behaviors that mark them off as the kind of individuals who are spiritual leaders in congregations and cities.

Like a lot of pastors, I also spent time with the doors of our church closed, scrambling to find the best ways to pastor and help people through unprecedented times. We ramped up our online offerings and held more Zoom calls than anyone cares to remember.

We, like so many others, did our best. But that wasn’t church. We were among the wave of many churches who opened as soon as we could. We had (still have) number restrictions so we got creative to host as many as we could in ways that were as safe and accommodating as possible.

Pastoring also entails risks, and we took them. A lot of you have taken many of the same risks I have as a pastor. I have dawned hazmat suits to visit congregants on their deathbeds with sepsis. I have been at the bedsides of home hospice care patients in rooms that were far from squeaky clean, held their hands, and leaned in close to hear and be heard. I have been with post-op patients excited for me to see – up-close – their still blood-red scar tissue. I have even sat in my office with families who have developed a deep-seated hatred of each other, knowing that physical altercation hung over us like a hair-trigger guillotine.

If there is a bad bug going around that has a 99.8% recovery rate, I’m going to take that risk. If we know who is in the most danger of this virus – and we have known that since March – then I am going to make that clear to my congregation, following reasonable guidelines to keep as many people as safe as possible.

But my public role as pastor requires that I offer a chance for people to gather together to worship, encourage each other, and be encouraged to bear witness to their neighbors. My public role as pastor entails the neighborhood seeing us open and operating as safely and wisely as possible – just as open as their grocery store and favorite casinos.

Leadership often requires no less.

*I know this post can die the death of a thousand qualifications. In addition to these reasons, some pastors oversee congregations where most of their people are in a high risk category, so they have chosen to not meet or radically change how they meet. Though we sometimes need to be prodded to be courageous leaders, this post is not a slight on pastors in incredibly complicated situations.

My public role as pastor entails the neighborhood seeing us open and operating as safely and wisely as possible – just as open as their grocery store and favorite casinos.

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