A Minister Not a Martyr
Ministers can refuse to be martyrs. They can refuse to sacrifice themselves on behalf of people or institutions who either ignore them or who toss their help rather rudely back into their faces.
I am not talking about social justice work. There, although the odds of success may be low, the effort has its own rewards. Without many peoples’ efforts, the arc of the universe will never roll the way we all need it to go. It is an arc, not a wheel, and it often needs a push to bend it toward justice.
Throughout the centuries, many people of faith have been martyrs. They have put their bodies and their lives on the line for what they believed. From Michael Servetus who was burned at the stake by John Calvin in 1553 to the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Luizzo who were murdered in Selma, Alabama in 1965 , more than a few Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists have given their lives and their livelihoods for this faith. Today, Unitarian Universalists have stood and marched for justice wherever human dignity has been at stake, risking beatings, arrest, prison, deportation, and also death.
I am not talking about that kind of martyrdom. That kind of martyrdom makes a difference. It is a risk well worth taking if you have the courage.
No, I am talking about the more mundane martyrdom of sticking too long with congregations that use ministers as punching bags, launching personal attacks with regularity. There are reasons congregations get that way, and it isn’t because the people are inherently evil. They often have a lived history of boundary violations, sometimes committed by religious professionals. They haven’t learned how to set their own healthy boundaries, and rarely limit the destructive activities of church bullies. They fear authority of all kinds and don’t really understand congregational polity and representative democracy. It is a sad system, and like in all forms of healing, they have to understand that they have a problem before they can even begin to heal.
All congregations are not like that, of course. All groups of people have issues, and all behave badly at times, but the truly problematic congregations have long established behavior patterns and are well known for being difficult. Thankfully they also are relatively rare.
Ministers go to such congregations for a variety of reasons. Some are fresh out of seminary, geographically limited, and desperate for a job. Many a promising career in ministry has been cut short for the new ministers that make that unwise choice. Many ministers also think they can do what no one else has been able to do. That is simply hubris, and even strong egos will wind up taking a beating as old patterns simply continue to play out.
Ministers also stay too long in those congregations because they see some improvement. They think things will get better, and in fact, sometimes they do, but how much better is really good enough? They also get attached to the people, ministry is about love after all, and their heartstrings wrap firmly around the tender souls of the majority of the membership. “How can I leave these people?”
But in the end, the other question must be asked, as Mary Oliver did, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
There are other places to serve, other people to love, other ministries to do, and other places where it will be easier to make an actual difference. As Kenny Rodgers sang, “You got to know when to hold them, and know when to fold them.”
There comes a time when even ministers need to walk away.
And not that we need scriptural permission, but even the Bible advises us to do so.
“Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet.”