The same strengths that make a man a strong and effective pastor, left unchecked, can also make him a terrible tyrant. Once he's there, it's almost impossible for him to change. He's become insulated and powerful, Michael Jackson at Neverland, surrounded by spineless yes-men and obsessed with the sound of his own voice. When your pastor becomes your oppressor, we ourselves are quite often to blame for having made the pastor our idol to begin with. At the end of the day your pastor is merely a human being, as are all fathers. Imperfect, struggling with his own humanity, his own flesh. This is why it is so critical for you to pray for your pastors and hold them up. I’m not looking for a perfect church. But I am looking for, and can reasonably expect to find, a church that meets some minimum moral and ethical standard.

I was leaving.

In those days, when church actually meant something, leaving a church was a major step. Nowadays, people change churches like they change socks, but once upon a time people stayed in their churches until they were carried out by six. My pastor was a tyrannical old school patriarch who was worshipped and adored by the congregation. I, too, worshipped and adored him. And when he did jacked up things, when he treated me like a step-child and bullied me whenever he noticed me at all, I made excuses for him. The day came when Pastor asked for an offering and at this particular service he asked people to give sacrificially, to empty out their wallets on faith. Well, being fifteen years old I didn’t own a wallet and I didn’t have anything to put in it. But I had a quarter. A quarter I’d been holding onto in the vain hope of buying a copy of Spider-Man or Batman comic books. But I was always obedient to my pastor and so I reached in and gave everything I had, that quarter. You see, that was my weekly allowance—a quarter. Somebody’s laughing now, but you have to understand I was poor. I didn’t know I was poor, we kidded ourselves about being middle-class, but if you are cold and hungry and have holes I your shoes, you’re poor. And, on that day when I gave that quarter, my last quarter, my only money for the entire week, the pastor mocked and ridiculed me. He accused me of being selfish. Of holding back and being disobedient. He promised me the Lord would never bless me because I refused to submit to the pastor’s authority.

All of which struck me as contrary to scripture, which sent up flags for me. See, I read my Bible and I studied and I knew the difference between things that were consistent with Christian doctrine and things that were just the pastor talking out of his hat. The more I listened, the more I scrutinized the pastor, the more I realized how far out of sync he was with the purpose and will of God. The gifts of the Spirit—love, peace, joy, longsuffering—the pastor exhibited none of those qualities. To the pastor, I was a lackey. I opened the church five days a week and locked it up at night. Each time I had to set up and break down the massive P.A. system, taking these huge cabinets down two flights of steps to hide them from junkies and thieves. Every single night, at least five nights a week, I had to break down the pastor’s son’s drum set and load it into cases, the drag those cases down those flights of steps to hide the set from thieves. Every day, I unlocked the church, went downstairs, dragged the drums upstairs, dragged the P.A. system upstairs, wired everything up and had everything ready for when the pastor came strolling in, like a king pimp, some other flunky carrying his briefcase which contained pretty much nothing.

I was fifteen years old and exploited by this moron. But God was teaching me right from wrong. God was teaching me His word. And things were changing inside.

I tried talking to Pastor, but he was too busy, waving me away. Not interested. Go get me this or that. Ultimately, I realized I didn’t belong there. That this man may have indeed once been a man of God, but the Spirit of God was not within him. And it was appropriate for me to move on.

Standing in his office, the pastor called me a liar. I’d told him God said it was time for me to move on, but he said I was lying. He was convinced my grandmother (who despised him) had orchestrated this. Paranoid, he was certain of enemies conspiring to strip him of his members and resources. But his worst enemy was himself. Any fool could see the pain on my face, the pain in my eyes. But he could not. He would not. He railed on and on about my lies as his wife walked in.

Pastor’s wife removed her white mink and, without even looking at me—I mean, she never looked in my direction—she said, in a half-hearted manner, “Oh, Chris, don’t go.” She was folding her coat, putting it into a gift box or something, and all I could think of was the tears streaming down my face and the obvious pain I was in and lady can’t you stop folding your damned coat for even one minute?!?

And that was when I realized what a fool I’d been. This man, this church—it was all a hustle. It might have been a church once upon a time, but now it was just a hustle. Find a handful of folks and live off their tithing. This was my pastor. This was the man who so wounded me that now I am suspicious of ALL pastors and consider ALL black pastors guilty until proven innocent.

Which brings us to the subject of the moment.

I was watching the DVD reissue of 1992’s Malcolm X these past few days, which confronted me with a few truths. The relationships in the film took a certain arc, with Malcolm Little searching, from Act One through most of Act Two, for someone to replace his slain father. Whether it was West Indian Archie (played to perfection by Delroy Lindo who was subsequently snubbed by the Academy), or Baines or The Honorable Elijah Muhammad (marvelously realized by Al Freeman, Jr.), all three of those father figures let Malcolm down and, in the end, Malcolm realized he was, in many ways, fatherless.

As played by Denzel Washington, Malcolm X came off as quite a bit naïve, a strange dichotomy between his Muslim firebrand and the lost boy searching for his father. If you believe this narrative, Malcolm was far too trusting of these men, deferring his judgment to theirs and dismissing the little things, the little clues, that, for all of their great attributes, these were just mortal men. Just flesh and blood. In the film, his disenchantment with these men devastates Malcolm. And, while one father figure only pretends to try and kill him (Archie), Malcolm’s death was ultimately inspired by, if not directly ordered by, father figures who claimed to be moral leaders (Baines and Muhammad).

It is interesting to note (and, again, I refer to the film as real life is often less well-ordered than a screenplay) that Archie never claimed high moral principals. But he loved Malcolm and confessed, years later, that he’d never have actually killed him. While Baines proselytized and recruited Malcolm in prison before adopting him into his own family. “I’m telling you God’s words,” he said, with fierce conviction, “not no hustle.” And yet, in Spike Lee’s account, it was likely Baines and not the ill and increasingly isolated Elijah Muhammad who green lit Malcolm’s assassination—beginning with the firebombing of X’s home, which potentially could have harmed his wife and children as well.

I have never met my father. Never had him bounce me on his knee. Never had him teach me how to ride a bike or hit a baseball or throw a perfect spiral. Never spoken to him on the phone. Never read a letter from him. He lived (and likely continues to live) in the same city, at times in the same borough, where my mother, my sister and I struggled just below the poverty line. There were many nights I wondered what kind of man could know he has children close by and not care, not even be curious about their well-being. I knew then as I know now that, if I had children of my own, I would camp out on the mother’s doorstep if I had to, but I would never let anyone or anything separate me from my kids. Whether I had a dime in my pocket or not, I would, at bare minimum, be there. I would give everything and risk everything to make sure they knew me and that I was a part of their lives.

So, I recognize a great deal of Spike Lee’s Malcolm in me. Imbued with a moral center and far too trusting of those who claim to be like-minded, I’ve spent four decades looking for a father, only to find a host of West Indian Archies, a few Baineses and at least one or two Elijah Muhammads. The failure of these men, of these brothers and fathers, to adhere, unflinching, to some consistent and uniform ethical code has, time and again, disillusioned me to the point where my hope—in man, not in God—has been tremendously diminished and I feel all but totally alone in the world. Which means I must be the crazy one, to believe not only in religious tenants but in ethical and moral standards of conduct. To believe that, at bare minimum, my word ought to mean something. That I should not lie. That I should know the meaning of the word ‘honor.’

“I’m telling you God’s words, not no hustle.” I had begun to think that Colorado Springs was the most corrupt and dysfunctional center for black ministry I had ever seen. But then reports began coming in from all around the country, people crying out in pain and acknowledging the problems within their Christian community mirrored those of our own. Our biggest sin, here, is stagnation. The black church here exists cocooned within a time warp, a bubble in which time has stood still since Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination. There is fairly little difference between the church services now and the church services then. The crusty old deacons get up ever Sunday and rotate tired versions of the same half a dozen songs they always sing. Even sadder, the kids get up and, emulating the deacons, sing tired versions of the same half a dozen songs the deacons always sing. This is because nobody here actually listens to Gospel music at home or in their car; they have absolutely no clue what new praise songs are popular from Donnie McClurkin or Kurt Carr or Israel Houghton or others. In my former church, here, I have never, and I mean not once in nearly ten years, heard the praise song, “Stand” sung there. Not once heard, “In The Sanctuary,” “Lord We Lift Your Name On High,” “Air.” I played “Shout To The Lord” once and they just looked at me like I was crazy.

The pastor was completely indifferent to introducing new music and new concepts to the congregation. The congregation follows the leadership and example of the pastor. As a result: we have stagnation. The church content to simply be what it is: an anachronism. A boat anchor. A powerless Elks Club where the people are comforted by not being challenged in any way. They are happy to be what they are: the church on the corner. Completely unconcerned with the world around them. If you held a gun on these folks, they couldn’t tell you the names of any families who live on the same block. Who live across the street. They don’t know who lives in the neighborhood their church is located within and, much worse, they don’t care. They got a good deal on a piece of real estate and that’s where they built their church, indifferent to the community the church is located within.

The moral and ethical failure among leaders in the black church here are staggering. And they are difficult for me to enumerate here because many of my friends—people who should just know better—are caught up with these people, committing at least the sin of omission. Of seeing what we want to see.

“It has been nearly ten years since I put my hand on the Gospel Plow. Much of this time has been spent chasing people. I chased people who I thought to be anointed. I chased people that I knew had charisma, hoping that their effect on people and their people skills would rub off on me. I chased people figuring that association would bring acknowledgement. I have yet to really know what captivated me about these people. People you just can't take your eyes off of. People you just have to look at and don't know why. People who command attention when they walk into a room and everything stops because they have arrived. All I've learned is that I wanted to be more like them. I wanted to be the guy with the influence. I wanted to be the guy that when speaking, others would hang on every word. I'm not saying that I had to have power, but I wanted to be a person of consequence and authority. Well ten years later, I have grown tired of running after these people. These people who really don't care to acknowledge you no matter what you do for them. No matter how much you stroke their ego, or no matter how much you tell them how good they are at what they do. No matter how much they continue to impress you, and take you to higher heights, I've learned that some people just don't understand the attraction that you have to them. I suppose in some way, I just wanted to be mentored. And, like Elisha when he met Elijah, he knew that his life had changed forever. It took one meeting. One glance. One word spoken and exchanged; things would never be the same. And he made sure that they would never be.”
  —The Reverend Neil M. Brown

I was at a pastor’s anniversary Sunday, the second of apparently three or four weeks of services honoring the x-number of years this great man has served his community. As I sat there listening to the accolades, I kept asking myself how many souls had been saved in the past year? How many lives changed? What specific impact has this ministry, this pastor, made on this community in the past year? I wanted them to open the books, I wanted to see the numbers. I wanted to know how the church had grown, what strides had been taken. What sick visited. I wanted to know how many had left or wandered off from the church and what specific efforts the church had made to see to those peoples’ welfare and to correct the problems that prompted them to leave.

Up on the screen there was this presentation slide show illuminating this pastor’s great life and work. Problem was, I’d seen it before. At the previous pastoral anniversary. And, likely, the one before that. The slideshow I was interested in wasn’t playing. The slideshow I wanted to see was the one that showed me, in detail, what actual ministry—not choir rehearsal and game playing, what ministry—had been conducted by this man in the past year. What qualified him for an entire month of singing and dancing and praising his (not God’s) name.

Fresh off of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, I sat like Malcolm, unsmiling, observing, my hand to my cheek, watching this circus. The preacher was preaching and these teenage girls sitting in the pew behind me were carrying on a loud conversation, indifferent to the preached word. Giggling, then guffawing loud enough to be heard at the pulpit. Yet not one usher, not one church mother—no one had the spine to tell these girls how disrespectful they were being to God. So I did. In no uncertain terms. And people turned and looked at me because I had raised my voice while the preaching was going on. But I wasn’t embarrassed, I wanted those girls to be embarrassed. I wanted the girls’ parents to be embarrassed and I wanted the ushers and the deacons—all people whose charge this was—to be embarrassed. Not embarrassed that the girls were being inappropriate and disrespectful, but embarrassed that this church was spending a month celebrating a father figure who had inspired so little in his young people. That these girls knew so little of God and did not fear God and did not respect God. I told a sister recently that her children spoke volumes about her. That what I like about her most was how well behaved her children were, and how they were developing into decent and thoughtful adults. Your children say more about you than you know. So much so that, while speaker after speaker extolled the virtues of this pastor, the real truth of his ministry was being told in the back pew.

“I’m telling you God’s words, not no hustle.” It is rumored that, in this church, the pastor has his mistress on payroll. It is common and public knowledge that, in this church, the pastor has a convicted sex offender heading his music staff. The pastor’s indiscretions are the stuff of urban legend. And, my guess, the many offerings lifted at the many services given in this man’s honor over the month-long “anniversary” goes right into his pocket. “I’m telling you God’s words, not no hustle.”

There are precious few leaders I could possibly follow here. First and foremost because I am, frankly, smarter than 90% of the pastors here. And if that sounds arrogant to you, I hasten to add that, simply by reading this far into so lengthy an essay, by reading anything at all, for that matter, my guess is you are smarter than 90% of the pastors here as well. Here in Ourtown, men of intellect simply pursue other courses and avenues in life. They become bankers and run hospitals and mortgage companies and construction firms. The overwhelming number of pastors I’ve met here (with a few notable and curious exceptions), are men I wouldn’t hire to run a kennel. They don’t have vision enough to make a hardware store successful, yet we’ve placed our trust, our very lives, into their hands.

Pastoring, here, is likely the best hustle many of these guys can get. It is a rare month that some “reverend” doesn’t wake up one morning and decide he’s been called to pastor. He rents out a storefront, gets five folk to follow him and lives off of their tithe checks. Then he sets up a full slate of “annual days” where he and his crony pastors pass that same hundred dollar bill back and forth, talking about “I'm gonna start this offering off with a hundred dollars.” The overwhelming majority of pastors and ministers in this town lack preaching power. Their preaching has no power because there is no anointing there. The lack of anointing is fair and reasonable evidence that something is wrong in their spiritual walk.

Ministry, here, is mainly about the circus. About the show on Sunday. Not a whole lot happens between Monday and Friday, and finding the pastor during the week can be a lot like reading one of those Where’s Waldo? children’s’ books.

There is so much nothing, so very much nothing, going on here, it is absolutely criminal. Pastors, paid as full-time pastors, regularly behave more like retirees, living a life of leisure and perfunctorily performing the odd wedding and funeral as required. There is virtually no evangelism going on here. No door-to-door knocking. In fact, when a local pastor here actually did send us out, two by two, to knock on doors, we were greeted with suspicion—thought to be Jehovah’s Witnesses or Moonies or something. It was simply unheard of for a black church to walk through a black neighborhood and be involved with the residents there.

A blind eye and deaf ear is turned, regularly, towards known matters of corruption and impropriety, especially among the clergy. So much so that the ghastly moral failures of our leadership here have become accepted as commonplace. A pastor fathers a child out of wedlock and nobody bats an eye. Salaried, “full time” pastors and youth ministers keep specious “office hours” and nobody seems to notice. A church here appointed a woman as assistant pastor—a risky and courageous move at the time. But this sister has done nothing, nothing at all, to inspire and galvanize the women ministers and ministry to women here in Ourtown. I am, frankly, unsure of what she does, outside of participating in the routine pageantry the church is so mired in. My highest hopes for her, for what her appointment would mean to this city, have so far proved fruitless as either her agenda is being routed somehow, or, my suspicion, she has no agenda at all.

Everybody here seems to be out for the money. It all seems to be about getting that offering plate passed on Sunday so checks can get cut. In other words, my guess is at least 70% of “ministry” in the black church here is really all about hustle. About keeping the bills paid and lining the pastor's pockets.

A landmark church, here, the first black church established here, recently lost their pastor. A well known and well-respected minister (with a wink towards his legendary indiscretions), this man was beloved by the community—white and black. But, after his funeral, the church appointed an interim pastor (money) and a pulpit search committee (money) to begin the process of searching for and flying in (mo money) candidates to apply for the pastor’s position. The thinking here is, clearly, they want to make a careful choice for successor of so beloved and respected and honorable a man. Which misses the point the late pastor had already chosen his successor. One of a handful of men in this town I can truly call “pastor” without feeling I’ve insulted God. An outstanding local pastor, well respected within the community, this man fairly exudes love, patience, kindness, temperance and intellect. There has not been even one hint of scandal in his life. His church’s books are open. He insists his church tithe, as a church, into other ministries. He shares his facility with a Hispanic church. He has the wry smile and quiet demeanor of a champion chess player. The Holy Spirit within me rejoices whenever I have occasion to shake the man’s hand.

The venerable and historic church that lost its leader absolutely refuses to call this pastor, in spite of the fact this pastor was discipled by the late pastor and was the late pastor’s hand-picked choice to succeed him. It is perhaps rebellion towards the late pastor (who ran the church with an iron hand) or fear of the new pastor (who either has no vices or has hidden them so well that the church hierarchy can’t use them against him) that keeps the church running in circles and spending tens of thousands of dollars in an effort to NOT call the most qualified and God-sent successor—who, ironically, is literally within walking distance of the church.

My suspicion is it is all about power, control and, ultimately, all about money. Now that certain men have attained power within the historic church, they will fight tooth and nail to retain that power. They will be wholly unwilling to surrender it, most especially to someone they cannot control or corrupt.

Saddest of all, the people, seeing this nonsense going on, elect to do nothing. The people behave as though they were powerless. Which is a continuing mystery to me. I mean, all a church body has to do, in order to effect change, is stay home. Or go somewhere else. It’s really just that simple. Tired of the foolishness going on in your church? Tired of being blocked and taken advantage of by your church leaders? Organize a boycott. If enough of the regular membership simply STOPPED GOING THERE, one of two things would happen. Either the leadership would be voted out, or the church doors would close from lack of financing.

It just amazes me that people continue to attend churches they know, for a fact, are run by corrupt people. Churches they know for a fact are misappropriating funds, or where the pastor is clearly and evidently and knowingly committing sins. I just don’t get that church where the organist’s mug shot is on the national sex offender registry, and where tithe money is regularly paid to someone the pastor is having an affair with (or has had an affair with in the past). This is not a secret. This is common knowledge. Why do people still go to this church?

By sitting there, by writing those checks and empowering this corruption, you share in the blame. Look, if you don’t know what’s going on, that’s one thing. But, once you suspect, you need to inquire. If those inquiries are met with resistance, you need to investigate. If that investigation bears fruit, then you, as a Christian, are compelled to act.

Too many of us stay in churches where we know corruption exists simply because it’s our church. It’s always been our church. Many defiantly say, “I’m not gonna let nobody run me out!” which is fine, but if you’re just sitting there—knowing sin is in your church’s pulpit and doing NOTHING ABOUT IT—then, seriously, you are just as bad as they are. Worse because you’re a coward: afraid to speak out, afraid to stand up against corruption.

Too many of us simply go to church, week after week, hoping for a change, waiting for a change, praying for a change. While not realizing, knowing, or perhaps caring that change will never come until we ourselves change. Until we ourselves are in a right pace with God. Many of us cannot speak to this moral corruption because we ourselves our not moral. Because we ourselves are corrupt. Because we have followed the pastor’s example—anything goes—and that our own moral standard is in disarray.

How many of us have family and secret devotions? How many of us tell people about Jesus? How many of us have made any effort to know people on the same block as our church? Jesus warned us against pointing out the deficiencies of others while we have not first examined ourselves [Matt 7:3]. Yet, every year, we have these celebrations. These Annual Days where we celebrate—whatever we’re celebrating, trumpeting our accomplishments. But Annual Days should also present an opportunity to reflect on our failures. On our shortcomings. It’s the only we way learn. But we never do that. And we learn nothing.

So, do we just go on? The church at a standstill. Stripped of its power. A powerless church is undoubtedly led by a powerless pastor. Every week, every day, black churches across this country search for Saul when they should be looking for David. They scan for doctorates and impressive resumes and such, missing the point that if this pastor’s resume was really that impressive, he wouldn’t be available. Pastors who are effective in their ministry are not available. They’re not on websites looking (usually secretly) to get out. If they were effective in their ministry God would breathe on it. That ministry would be growing and that pastor would be satisfied in his calling.

Meanwhile, those to whom God is truly speaking go ignored. Completely. Shut out, like the good pastor I spoke of a few paragraphs back. The stagnation, the nothingness, is self-perpetuating because, as soon as one of those old jokers dies off or is moved out, the church goes out and gets somebody JUST LIKE HIM. They stay within their comfort zone.

By and large, there is absolutely no intellectual curiosity here. No promotion of arts and humanities. Little to no discussion of politics or world events from the black pulpits here. No questioning of authority, no political activism, no hungering for truth and knowledge, no appreciation for thought and thinkers. It’s all Jesus On The Mainline. All Buckwheat and the Little Rascals idling the day down at the pond.

I’ll stop short of saying there’s no pastor in town I could possibly follow. But I will say I wish I had something else I could call these men except “pastor.” A delineation clearly needs to be made between people legitimately doing God’s work and poseurs out for a buck. The evidence suggests that the overwhelming number of black church members are simply uneducated or undereducated in spiritual matters and are disconnected from God to the point where either they cannot recognize corruption and incompetence when they see it, or they simply lack the courage of their weak convictions to put a stop to it.

Fixing the problem is easier than you might suspect. All you have to do is stand up. It’s really that simple. Vote with your feet. Stop complaining. Stop gossiping. Stop waiting. Stop shaking your head. Stand up. Right in service—stand up. If enough of us would simply find our voice, find our courage, and stand up, turn your backs to the pulpit and walk right out of service, believe me, your voice would thunder across your town, your city. It would serve notice and warning to those ungodly people in positions of leadership. As long as you just sit there, writing checks, all you’re doing is enabling and empowering them and destroying the very church you claim to love. In the final analysis, you need to ask yourself what Jesus would do. Would He just sit? Would he keep giving these people money? Money He knew was being corrupted and going towards evil things?

Many people like to use the scripture where it says let the wheat and the tiers grow up together, and I will separate them [Matt 13:29-30]. This scripture is about not judging folk. It doesn’t mean you should allow evil and corruption to take control of your church. It certainly doesn’t mean you should be financing it.

With extremely rare exception, the word of most pastors in my town is absolutely meaningless. This falls into two main categories: incompetent pastors and phony pastors. An incompetent pastor will give his word and then forget. Lost somewhere on his messy desk full of papers he is unlikely to read. An insincere or phony pastor gives his word while, even as his lips are moving, he knows full well he has no intention of honoring that commitment. I’ve seen this with my own eyes, a pastor—a pastor!—promising someone something, and, handshake ended, the person moves off and the pastor turns to me with a smirk and something to the effect of, “Yeah, right.”

This is, best face, immaturity. At worst face, it is prima facie evidence of someone being out of fellowship with God. A man’s word—a black man’s word, a Christian man’s word—should be absolutely rock solid. It’s not something he gives easily because it is a commitment he will absolutely keep. I appreciate pastors who hesitate or who request time to pray over a decision—that makes sense to me. But pastors who promise things and then don’t deliver need to find another line of work.

The church is not a hardware store. The church is not a kennel.

The church is not a coffee shop or a shoe shine or a travel agency. Running a church is not a vocation you chose by default because you’re tired of being the night manager at Home Depot. The church is about changing people’s minds. About enriching and safeguarding peoples’ lives. The church is about meeting the spiritual and physical and economic needs of people.

Even more insidious, many if not most black churches here look for reasons to NOT help. Before thy help, they check to see if this member has paid tithes faithfully and is up to date. What kind of nonsense Elks Club mentality is that? I have been hungry, and the church ignored me. I have been lonely, and the church ignored me. I’ve had no clothes, had holes in my shoes, and the church paid no attention other than to snicker if they caught sight of it during worship service. A perfect stranger has a better shot—albeit a slim one—of receiving assistance from the church’s benevolent fund than I do—someone they know. A familiar face. The black church, here, regularly lets people—faithful members—slip between life’s cracks, standing idly by and refusing to help people who have given and served faithfully for years.

This is not an an accident. This is a failure of leadership. A failure of our leaders to inspire good Christian conduct, the Two Coat conduct of our Lord and Savior. This is Pastor Saul, puffed up and full of himself, having fallen away and out of fellowship with God long ago. And this is us, ignorant and weak, too lazy to read the Bible for ourselves. Too impotent to see God for ourselves, bound by a tradition of pastor-reverence and pastor-worship. Too afraid to tell the emperor how naked he is.

I’ve been chastised for speaking about this. Some brother from Texas gave me a spanking a couple months ago, saying, essentially, “Well, I don’t know what kind of church YOU go to, but things aren’t that bad here.” Well, brother, I don’t live in Texas. Maybe your church is perfect. Maybe your church is not like this, but I know what I’m talking about. Moreover, I now realize this is the reason I am here: somebody needs to talk about this. Somebody needs to say Thus Saith The Lord. Somebody needs to call the churches here to account. If not me, who?

I also get eMail whining on with the old cliché, “You’ll never find a perfect church.” I wouldn’t want to. I’m not looking for a perfect church. But I am looking for, and can reasonably expect to find, a church that meets some minimum moral and ethical standard. I can expect, and do expect, to find church leadership that is not exploiting the flock and leading them into corruption. I can expect to find a church that does not have an “anything goes” moral standard or where the associate ministers are screwing every woman—and some men—in sight. I can expect to find a church where money isn’t being wasted on ministers who do not minister and pastors who do not pastor. I can expect the church to be an example to and bulwark of its community. I can expect the church to have moral authority and a moral voice. I can expect a church to provide inspiration, leadership, culture, support, love, family, righteousness, and peace.

I can expect to find a church that is the light of the world. Finding, instead, corruption and impotence, it is my calling, my duty, to speak out about it.

“I’m telling you God’s words, not no hustle.” What is most interesting to me is that, at that point in the story, Baines meant what he said. But a decade or more later, the narrative suggests Baines (and other senior ministers) were benefiting financially from the peoples’ donations, driving luxury cars and living in fancy houses. While Malcolm X, according to the narrative, struggled to get by and lived in a modest bare-bones home. I have to imagine that Malcolm saw things, noticed things, heard things, that he dismissed. That he was focused on serving God and living a godly life, and that he assumed his brothers and his leaders were living that way also.

And that’s the slippery slope. The little compromises. The wink and hand waving dismissal of the pastor’s little indiscretions. Of his roguish, boyish skirt-chasing. It’s making excuses for the pastor’s intemperance. For when he’s being a jerk and we all just make excuses, “Well, he’s had a rough week.” When we wait for an apology from the pastor that never comes and we just let it go. Pastors who can never admit they're wrong—that's a warning.

I told one pastor here that serving under his pastorate meant I had to be wrong all the time, every time, which is, of course, impossible. Even a fool is right once in awhile. Surely I couldn't possibly be worse than a fool. But remaining under his pastorate required the annihilation of my intellect and the abandoning of my own judgment because this pastor could not ever, not even once, be wrong about anything. He was wholly incapable of apologizing for anything, and he had a terrible blind spot toward his own abusive tendencies. As a result, there was a rapidly revolving door at the heart of his ministry. If you visit a church, say, every three to six months and see completely different faces, then that church is likely losing as many members as it gains. Which is a warning that there's a problem in the pastor's office.The same strengths that make a man a strong and effective pastor, left unchecked, can also make him a terrible tyrant. The gravest problem of all is when a pastor has sunk to this level without realizing it. Once he's there, it's almost impossible for him to change. He's become insulated and powerful, Michael Jackson at Neverland, surrounded by spineless yes-men and obsessed with his own image in a mirror and the sound of his own voice.

That’s when the pastor’s fall becomes our fault. We’re not holding him up. We’re not praying him up. And we’re not holding him responsible for reasonable Christian conduct. When your pastor exhibits few if any fruits of the Spirit, he’s in trouble. The tough part about people in trouble is they are often the very last to realize it. So when you come to them and point these things out, they get defensive and nobody wants to deal with that.

Additionally, some of us have made our pastors our friends. We’re afraid of losing that friendship. The truth is, a friend is not a friend until that friendship has been tested. Until something has come along to threaten the relationship, until you’ve had a good falling out or two, you really can’t claim that person as a friend because you really don’t know how that person will stand up in a crisis. Any friend you cannot speak the truth to is no friend at all. That’s somebody you’re appeasing. There are millions of black Christians today appeasing egomaniac, lost pastors. And that is blood on our hands.

As much as it is a pastor’s job to look after us, it is our job to look after him. If your church is paying your pastor a hundred thousand dollars a year and the man is in his office, maybe, one day a week—you are enabling sin. You are throwing your money away. The guy might be a great preacher, a wonderful evangelist, but he’s a lousy pastor.

A pastor should, ideally, be like a great father. More than just an authoritarian blowhard, he should be approachable, knowable, friendly, warm, worthy of our trust and inspiring our confidence. In times of trouble, the pastor should be our first resource and first counselor. But many pastors here have literally trained their folks to not call them. A sister’s house got robbed, and she knew better than to waste her time calling her pastor. A brother has a financial crisis, but he knows better than to waste his time calling his pastor. What for?

We should be comforted by the pastor’s arrival and not fearful. I’ve served under pastors whose very arrival polarized the church, causing tension to shoot up as we waited, literally holding our breath, wondering which mood the guy would be in. Finding him in good spirits, we’d all relax and it was party time. Nice Pastor had arrived. But just as quickly, Nice Pastor would become this bitter, mean-spirited bastard who would crush our spirits even as we ratchet up our efforts to coax Nice Pastor back out of him, appeasing this dictatorial moron.

Black folks: the pastor is not divine. He is to be respected, surely, but he is not a divine person. You do not have to endure ego trips and absenteeism. Being a member of a church does not mean you become this guy’s slave. It does not mean enduring hardship or that he can treat you like a child. A step-child at that.. Submitting to leadership does not mean you have to put up with any old attitude this man wants to throw at you. We’ve become so used to the arrogant pastor, the dictatorial pastor, the High Overlord pastor, the unknowable and unreachable divine pastor, that we foolishly make excuses for whatever arrogant and self-serving behavior the man exhibits. Forgetting, as we often do, to try the spirit by the Spirit [1 John 4:1]: to compare, unflinching, the example set by our pastor to the example set by Christ. And, failing that test, to take action to protect our pastor from God’s judgment.

Denzel’s Malcolm seemed quite alone, as if to doubt God. As if to doubt his role in things and his very faith. I know that feeling. When people I trust, trusted as brothers and even fathers, begin compromising God’s word, act cruelly, or become caught up in financial or sexual misconduct while making excuses for such clearly aberrant behavior and refusing to step down or accept correction, it’s a betrayal of faith. It causes many people to lose their very faith in God [Matt 18:6], and that blood will be required of their hands. I need to distance myself from this, stop being one of the cowards cowering in corners, as I believe God’s judgment is on the way. I believe that sorting, that separation of wheat from tiers is in the offing. And the most tragically sad part of all of this is how these ministers and “pastors” seem to have lost their fear of God, of God’s judgment. Having profited from God’s grace and God’s love, they have seemingly been given over to reprobate minds wherein they believe they can do anything they want any way they want. No one is holding them accountable. No one is standing up for righteousness.

Which means, the blood of these pastors will be on OUR hands. Because we said nothing,. Because we did nothing. Because we didn’t warn them. Because we didn’t try to help them.

I believe some of these pastors are so corrupt they can’t find their way out. Many of them are just begging to be caught, doing things so blatantly and so out in the open that everyone can see, clearly, how lost they are. But they are too proud to come out and ask for help, and we’re too cowardly to call them on their behavior. Which means God’s judgment will surely fall on the pastors, but also on us. For our cowardice. For our silence. For writing checks to ministries we know are corrupt.

I frequently hear people say, “Paying tithes is my responsibility. What happens to that money after I pay it is between them and God.” I defy you to show me a scriptural basis for this ridiculous assertion. You have every right to know—and the responsibility of knowing—how the money is being spent in your church. This see-no-evil, hear-no-evil nonsense is a line made up by corrupt church leadership to help hide their corruption. It has absolutely no sound scriptural or doctrinal foundation. It is something we parrot because we heard someone else say it. It’s foolishness we absorb because we don’t know the Bible for ourselves and because we do not study or pray. It is a philosophy borne not out of divine revelation or inspiration but out of cowardice and corruption. It is an excuse for you to stick your head in the sand.

Playing blind and deaf, leaving your responsibility up to others, is a sin. Allowing sin to reign in your church is a sin. There is nothing even remotely Christ-like about cowardice. Our tradition teaches us to revere these men, and that reverence has, in many many cases, escalated into worship. But our task is not to worship the pastor but to worship the God he serves—so long as he serves Him. The word “Reverend” doesn’t mean you’re supposed to revere the pastor. The word “Reverend” means this person is humbled. It means this person reveres God and worships God. You shouldn’t call someone “Reverend Smith,” which suggests he is to be revered, but, more correctly, call him THE Reverend Smith, which more accurately suggests that Mr. Smith himself reveres, submits to, worships God.

“Elisha chased after Elijah. I suppose that he sat at his feet on every occasion that he could. He would make plans and change them at the last minute knowing that Elijah would be somewhere and that he would have access to the Man of God. He was excited about this guy who had now become his measuring stick. He measured himself against his character. He measured himself against his integrity. He measured himself against his prayer life. He measured himself against his accomplishments. He measured himself. He wanted to attain “the standard". He must have figured that even if this guy never pays any attention to me, I have to be somewhere near him. I have to be close to this. This is what happens when you happen to run across someone who operates with direction in his life. You become engrossed in wanting to know how he achieved it. He passes his mantle to you and doesn't even know it. He passes a glimpse of could be when he passes his mantle. It wasn't just the touch that made you curious, it was the touch that convinces you that you lived in mediocrity too long. So that job that you've held for so long, that sure thing no longer is enough when you know that greatness awaits you.

“And so that plow you used to put your hand on is not what you want you want your hand on anymore. You have to make a conscious decision to sacrifice the thing that is working for you. It's steady, it's real, it's something that feeds others, it's what others live off of. Elisha goes back and kills the oxen. He uses the wood from the plow to make an altar. He throws a good ole-fashioned barbeque. And with a strike of a match, he torches the sure thing. I'm looking for the one who's going to make me burn everything. Sever all attachments so I can't go back. Make me take the attitude that this ain't got no choice but to work in my life because I refuse to see a new future, a new dream, a new possibility, a new potential and live in it. I want what I saw!

“I want what I felt when he passed his mantle to me. I'm looking for the guy who is going to extend to me opportunity to learn, to create, to mold, to shape, to analyze, to embrace, to encourage, to become something greater in ministry to God's people. I'm looking for my Elijah... If you're out there Elijah, I'm going to the field to wait for you. I'll be plowing until then because according to the story, you have to come to me; I can't chase after you.”
  —The Reverend Neil M. Brown

When your pastor becomes your oppressor, that’s a betrayal of faith and trust. But we ourselves are quite often to blame for having made the pastor our idol to begin with. At the end of the day your pastor is merely a human being, as are all fathers. Imperfect, struggling with his own humanity, his own flesh. This is why it is so critical for you to pray for your pastors and hold them up. Turn your plate down and stand in the gap for him. Throwing money at him and giving him these obscene pageants is certainly one way of showing your love for your pastor, but the most important thing you can and should do is pray that God will keep him humbled, keep him reverend, in the palm of His hand. All that applause, all that love, all of those pageants, can eventually affect any man’s ego, with sin certainly to follow.

Most importantly, you must stay prayed up yourself, such that your motives are governed by God and not by self. Pray, first and foremost, for wisdom. For discernment. Then for courage and strength to do what must be done.

Far too many of our churches are under satanic influence and bondage. We need revival. We need the Holy Ghost to fall afresh upon us. And we need to have the courage of our convictions to stand up for righteousness, for Jesus, and take our churches back from the evil that oppresses them.

Christopher J. Priest
7 May 2006

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