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A hot take on the hot takes
There is a minor storyline in The West Wing episode “The Women of Qumar”, where - after a meeting with Toby, the White House Communications Director - a World War II veteran asks Toby who he might talk to about helping a fellow veteran get a new wheelchair, as the typical channels (the VA, Medicare) aren’t working. Toby doesn’t know, but happens to mention it in the Oval Office, to which the President replies, “we have got to straighten out Medicaid” and goes on a tangent about red tape and the origins of federal benefits, which is Toby’s cue to leave.
The President’s aide watches, and when the President stops speaking, the aide says “you know, that story about red tape and Medicaid was interesting, but…” He isn’t inclined to go further, but the President presses him. “But the man just wanted a wheelchair.”
This came to mind as I read hot take after hot take about The Article that’s going around - written by Presbyterian minister and author Alexander Lang, in which he writes about why he is leaving ministry, and leaving his (to us) large congregation.
Now I’m not inclined to link to the article - I’m pretty sure if you’re one of my readers, you’ve encountered it. It’s been shared, and shared, and shared. There’s honestly nothing new in this article, which is very much like any number of articles, posts, and videos created by clergy who are leaving in what is known as ‘the great resignation’ - what’s new, probably, is that Lang has a big platform from which to say these things.
In the three days since Lang published his piece, there have been seen easily a couple dozen hot takes, all of which are valid. They range from “ministers have to attend to spiritual practice” and “ministers need to be in relationship with other colleagues and friends” and “why is this guy getting airtime?” and “organized religion expects too much of clergy” and “organized religion is the problem” and of course, “capitalism is the problem.”
Now some of those hot takes are indeed about the care that clergy must take to attend to their own spiritual and relational needs; that’s real, and that’s why we prioritize opportunities to connect with other religious professionals at retreats, lunches, and conferences. It’s also why we struggle in small towns in isolated parts of the country, especially if we are single, or not white, or queer, or young.
And yes, the hot take about why this article (by a published author who is a straight, white man of considerable means and privilege) is annoying, as though no one heard the thousands of us who are not straight, or white, or male, or of means, say the same things. Which, this hot take rightly notes, is indicative of the underlying issues of patriarchy and white supremacy culture.
The hot takes that go big - capitalism, organized religion, patriarchy, etc. - are also correct. The issues of ‘the great resignation’ don’t emerge out of a vacuum, but rather from centuries of tradition that privilege the few who are called (framed often as chosen by God) to be the spiritual leaders.
The man just wanted a wheelchair.
Let me explain.
In every single essay, post, video, and conversation about ‘the great resignation’, clergy talk about conditions on the ground with leadership. Including Lang’s, where he talks about the congregant who “worked at the highest levels of state government and he felt politics were less toxic than volunteering for a leadership role on the board of his local church.”
That’s not a new idea, but that one sentence honestly stopped me in my tracks, when I think about how toxic state and national politics can be.
Which means that when we look only to the hot takes that are about pulling oneself up by their bootstraps or blaming the enormous, systemic problems, we are missing the actual, on the ground problem: the toxicity in our congregational leadership.
The need isn’t more sermons and books and workshops about the big problems, because like the veteran’s need for a new wheelchair, the issue is right there, in front of us. It’s right there in our congregations this minute, waiting for leadership to notice that maybe the way they run the business of the congregation is unhealthy for the minister, for the system, for the people. The toxicity looks like triangulation. It looks like scarcity. It looks like unrealistic expectations. It looks like a lack of kindness. It looks like a retail expectation of an organization and a leader who is anything but.
And look - I’m the first to say (and I often do) that the work to do better isn’t always easy, and it isn’t… if you’re relying on the way things have always been done or on the way our culture has taught us to be. It isn’t easy when there are people complaining and being poorly boundaried and causing strife because they don’t know another way to get their needs met, as though the church is the only place where that can happen.
But honestly, it IS easy, when you make the small moves that shift that system. When you speak openly and transparently. When you show kindness. When you approve and support the time and finances that religious professionals need to take care of themselves. When you lead the congregation out of covenant, not out of a return on investment. When you take time, every day, to be certain you are focused on the common endeavor of this counter-cultural thing we call faith.
And then, when we do that, every day in our interactions with and for our congregation, we might notice that we are helping to address the bigger issues. And maybe keeping our religious professionals rather than discarding them or burning them out.
The man just wanted a wheelchair. Let’s find him one.
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