Should Priests Ever Walk Away?

Posted on May 19, 2012

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Church membership and church discipline are usually foreign words to Episcopalians. The continual emphasis on tolerance, inclusion and their synonyms has tended to erode membership expectations made of Christians in our congregations to be little more than, as Woody Allen once said, “…just showing up.”

Sound biblical and theological resources, therefore, are few as I was putting the finishing touches to a total revision of our how we prepare believers for membership here at St. Mary’s.

Then I discovered Jonathan Leeman’s two excellent books for 9Marks: Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus and Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus. Both are available on the Kindle from Amazon.

The other day over at 9Marks, Jonathan responded in a blog piece entitled, Should Elders Ever Walk Away? that hit the mark (pun intended) so thoroughly for me that I reproduce it here in full:

In my own experience, there have been times when, in the course of a counseling relationship, it has become increasingly clear to me that I was interacting with—I hate to say it—a fool.

Yes, yes, I can be foolish, too! In all seriousness, ask my wife. But that’s just the point: God has given her to me, in part, to help me learn how to recognize my folly, so that I can repent and be wise. I pray that I would have ears to hear.

A fool, according to Proverbs, is unwilling to recognize his or her folly. Or, even if he or she verbally acknowledges it, he/she is unwilling to change: “A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool” (Prov. 17:10).

It would be worthwhile to read through Proverbs and come up with “a pastor’s guide for how to spot a fool.” But let me sum up some of what I’ve seen in my own words:

  • Either: The person loves to talk about all their grievances or hurts and will talk to anyone and everyone about it. Or: the person will only talk to one specific person because no one else “can be trusted.” (At the same time, this latter person quickly finds reasons not to trust the latest advisor, and quickly adds people to the black list.)
  • The person never takes the counsel given. He/she might outwardly affirm the counsel when we’re together. But nothing changes back in real life: “You say you want to stop getting drunk, so why do you keep going into the bar?”
  • The pattern of bad decision-making not only continues, it sometimes gets worse.
  • The person is selective about what information to share, because, ultimately, he or she is unwilling to come fully into the light or risk losing the ability to do exactly what he/she wants to do.
  • The person is unwilling to inconvenience him or herself in anyway, or to make any changes to his or her lifestyle.
  • The person shows a pattern of continually prioritizing something besides repentance (e.g. the addiction, not looking bad in front of others, etc.).

What’s more, the characteristics described here occur over a prolonged period.

Sometimes fools are outwardly successful, and their worldly success keeps them from seeing their folly. But often, they are outwardly miserable. They complain and lament and even weep with grandiloquence. They talk about “how awful” they are, “how unhappy” the world is, “how unfair” circumstances seem. And often they are right. There are awful and unhappy. And life has been unfair to them.

Still, quietly hiding beneath the surface is a granite-hard bedrock layer of pride. At the end of the day, they refuse to trust. To believe. To surrender control. They’ve made their lives an absolute mess, but they still insist on being king. It’s almost unbelievable to behold.

And somewhere along the way, maybe after two counseling sessions, maybe after twenty, you figure this out. They are not going to listen. You are banging your head against the wall. And you do better to stop spending time with them. You do better for the sake of those who are teachable and would be better served by your time (there are only so many hours in a day). And you do better to move on, frankly, for the sake of the fool. Your present system of letting them air their grievances, receive counsel, and then do nothing, very well could be strengthening their ability to ignore wisdom.

Am I saying that pastors/elders should not be long suffering with fools? No, I am not saying that. I am saying that pastors/elders (and Christians) need to realize that this is one of their options. It’s one possible tool. Once again, listen to Proverbs 26:

  • Verse 4: Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.
  • Verse 5: Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.

Sometimes you need to be long-suffering; sometimes you need to walk away.

Ultimately, humility recognizes that people are not ours to fix, which in turn means that there is not a one-size-fits-all answer. There is nothing we can do to guarantee a certain outcome. Instead, we need the wisdom to know when to stay, when to move on.

The wisdom to know when to keep trying, when to let them move on.