They say confession is good for the soul. And we are still in the season of Lent. So, what better time to engage in a little self-flagellation.
It turns out I did not need to go back forty years to find an example of a clergy poison pen letter. I needed to look no further than my own family photo album where my wife has carefully preserved an embarrassing letter I wrote to the parish I was about to leave in January 1982.
I had arrived sixteen months earlier full of vision, energy, and enthusiasm, mixed with a large dose of arrogance, to serve as assistant curate. I was about to leave to take my own parish as rector. It was not actually a letter I wrote to the parish; it was my annual report and I was saying goodbye.
In my defense I was only twenty-seven-years-old. But my words packed a punch of guilt, shame, and manipulation that few frustrated clergy could equal.
It started out well enough, but went down hill after the second paragraph. I had begun by listing the things about my time in this parish for which I was grateful. But then I loaded up in paragraph three and laid out my real feelings.
At the same time, I have a certain sense of sadness and perhaps even of failure. I am sorry that not more people were able to take advantage of the David Watson Festival and to experience the really profound ministry of David and his team while they were here in Winnipeg. I am sorry that I have not been able to generate more enthusiasm for the Cursillo movement within this parish. Cursillo is a true expression of Christian Community, and a marvelous opportunity to learn more about the Christian faith. I am sorry that we were not able to convince more of you that you should give Horace Russell a try and experience more of the Parish Life Conference. I am sorry that I have not been able to do a better job of involving more of you in the rewarding task of sharing in Sunday School teaching – in God’s eyes I am sure that the forming of young Christian lives through Sunday School, is very high on the list of saintly tasks.
I am very mindful, looking back over last year, of the debt which we owe to many keen and involved individuals.
The similarities between this letter and the forty-year-old version I posted this morning are chilling. My words are filled with regret, disillusion and anger. My fragile twenty-seven-year-old ego is splattered all over these words. The good people of the parish had let me down. I interpreted their actions as indifference and lack of commitment. I took personal affront at their “failure” which of course became my failure. It was all about me.
Clergy insecurity is a toxic potion when inflicted upon an unsuspecting congregation. The temptation for those of us in leadership in the church to use people to fulfill the demands of our professional life and to flatter our ego is almost unavoidable unless we have done far more spiritual work than I had managed when I was twenty-seven.
I do not believe I would write words like this today. I understand now that God does not call people into the church to fulfill my vision or measure up to my expectations. Church does not exist to flatter my ego.
The church exists to encourage people to open their hearts to the presence and action of God at work in their lives and to find the freedom of the Spirit in their hearts. The clergy role is to model deep trust in that work, and confidence in God’s faithful guidance. There is nothing more we need to do than support the unfolding of that beauty which is innate in each person.
I do not want to write poison pen letters. There is enough poison in the world without me adding my own toxins to the environment. I know I have people in my life now who would immediately challenge me if this kind of tone entered my correspondence today. I am grateful to these people for their bold truthfulness in my life. I pray they will always be there to help keep my egoic agendas and attachments in check, so that I might share in the liberating work of God’s love.