Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"Pastor, forgive me, I've sinned."

I preface by saying that parts of the penance/reconciliation/confessional practices are skewed in some bodies of faith, however I pose the discussion that there could be benefits to encourage a more one-on-one pastor/parishioner relationship and accessibility when it comes to accountability and sin. While we may not consider this a ‘sacrament’ initially, is it not a ‘means of grace’?
I’ve been to confession. I’ve experienced the preparation of taking a good examination of my thoughts, words, deeds, and faith practices. I’ve experienced the anxiety of having to make the car ride to the church thirty minutes before service starts and wait to see that dreaded light turn green so that I can go in and make a contrite confession of my shortcomings, mess ups, sins, and struggles. I’ve also experienced the freedom that comes from a called minister of God listening carefully, without judgment, and express his/her sorrow with me and encourage me to pray a prayer of repentance to our God and go and sin no more. I’ve heard the words, ‘You are absolved from you sins, go in peace and penance to our Lord and your brother and sisters in the faith’. I’ve been reminded that my shortcomings, mess ups, sins, and struggles not only effect me, but they also effect the body. I’ve participated in the ‘sacrament of reconciliation’ both face-to-face and even behind those funny little screens. And it was wonderful! But why?

What is it about human need that causes us to want to ‘confess’ our sins? The viewing of the hottest new reality show proves that some people like to share their dirt with others. It makes them feel better…or at least popular. Those in the counseling/psychology world know that getting the ‘junk’ from ones past to the surface can be healthy and healing in one’s mental health journey. And as pastors/teachers we could share how spiritual breakthroughs and holiness of life come about by sharing our sins and struggles and being real with other and with God which results in leading us to living a life of freedom. When we are free of sin we are free to worship wholeheartedly.

Now, as to my proposal: I’m not suggesting we place confessionals in our foyers necessarily, but why do we not practice – as pastors/teachers – a more ‘confession’-like accountability with our members? I know that our members may shriek at the idea of telling their pastors their sins, but why not? If we are trusted to be their spiritual guides, their shepherds, what happened to the trust of the clergy? (I know, that’s whole different post as well.) I know many of us don’t have time to ‘counsel’ each and every person in our churches, but how different would it be both in behavior and spiritual maturity if we had some sort of process similar to that of the sacrament of reconciliation?
“Why not a protestant confessional so that every troubled person can go to his own pastor and find rest to his soul by relieving his mind of sin and sorrow and perplexity?”
Quote source:
Shall Protestants Adopt the Confessional? by George Barton Cutten

The North American Review

Vol. 229, No. 2 (Feb., 1930), pp. 200-205 (article consists of 6 pages) Published by: University of Northern Iowa
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25110950


Eric + said...

Thank you Amy for this quite insightful reflection. It has occurred to me more than once that while we don't buy in to the seven sacrament model, each of the sacraments we have rejected as sacraments have been continued in some other form... I think.

* Marriage stays marriage.
* Membership, in many ways replaces confirmation.
* Unction continues as annointing
* Ordination continues as ordination
* and confession has been combined with spiritual direction and become "pastoral counseling."

I guess, when it gets down to it, your post really identifies my biggest disappointment in ministry in my current assignment. I am into my 5th year here. Guess how many times I've had people ask if they can come to me for serious spiritual issues? ONCE!!! Once in 4+ years!!!

This is new to me. In my various roles in youth ministry, it seemed that there were always people stopping in, scheduled or otherwise with questions and concerns. Now that I am "the pastor" it seems that has all changed. Sometimes I wonder if I haven't changed. Do I project that I am too busy for that? Do I come off as unapproachable? Why don't my people trust me?

"If we are trusted to be their spiritual guides..."

This is a big "if." It is the difference between being their preacher and their pastor. I think I'm still just the preacher. At 5 years, I am one of the longest tenured clergy they have had. Have they ever had a pastor?

Anyway, there seems to be no particular point to my rambling. But thank you. I agree there is much benefit in spiritual conversation and accountability. I just don't know how to facilitate it.

Amy L. Williams said...

When I was 'associate pastor' I had the time of my life. People would stop by the church office where I was located and unload on me all the time. I had great opportunities to share with them and pray with them. Like yourself...now that I'm 'pastor', things have changed. How can we facilitate a time of spiritual conversation with out our parishioner thinking we are prying or trying to get their dirt?

Brannon Hancock said...

Amy: this is an excellent post. Thank you for your testimony to your positive experiences with confession.

Two thoughts in response: 1) this affirms something that I (alone) kept insisting on bringing into the discussion when I took "Pastoral Care and Counseling" for ordination through our district course of study - that part of what we offer our people is absolution - not that we forgive them, but that we proclaim the forgiveness that God has offered. We embody it. We incarnate it and make it a little bit more tangible to them. This is so important, I think, yet so sadly overlooked. By the end of the class, I do think I had persuaded the teacher (a fellow pastor on the district) of this...not sure about the other students, though! ;-) ("each one win one," right? isn't that how it works?!)

2) I am fascinated / mortified by your and Eric's mutually affirming testimony that your experiences moving from association to lead/senior pastoral roles has been accompanied by a decrease in people coming to you to open up about their sins and short-comings. I've never been in a senior pastoral role (and by the grace of God hope never to be!) but I certainly experience what you guys did as an associate - people definitely want to talk, pour their guts out, and "confess" with some regularity. I certainly feel like my people, especially those I work most closely with and have the strongest relationship with, regard me as very "approachable," and I think it's 1-part me, 1-part the role (perhaps). But I am astounded, confused and somewhat appalled that this would not be equally true, and that indeed it would be less true, when you shift the focus to a senior pastor.

Do you figure people just have a "higher" (for lack of a better term) view of their senior pastor / preacher? And why (specifically) do you think this would be the case? Just because they're the boss/leader/visionary/CEO (*shudder*)? Or because they're the one to preach the word? I mean, every credentialed minister is held to the same standards, even though we don't all have the same responsibilities...this just baffles me a bit...

Todd Stepp said...

Brannon, I think it's a "different" view of the pastor (whether it's "higher" or not, I don't know).

It seems that a lot of people either want the pastor to be a "buddy" (in which case their is little ability to act as "pastor"), or a lot of people want(?)/expect(?)/perceive(?)/impose(?) a certain distance. I think it's hard for people and for pastors to strike the right balance.

As for absolution: What about the "comfortable" words after the prayer of confession in corporate worship. That functions as a kind of corporate absolution.

On a one on one basis, I have pronounced the "absolution" during prayer with individuals during an "altar call" before (e.g., according to the Word of God, if you have confessed your sins and trusted in Christ . . . you are forgiven, etc.). - I think that has been received well and has proven helpful.

I would agree, though, I get few people coming by to talk about spiritual issues.


Matthew Francis said...

It seems to me like "altar work" in the traditional Nazarene/Wesleyan-Holiness practice is probably the most authentic, "home-grown" paradigm for the sacramental nature of confession and repentance within that Church context. This ministry is carried out by both ordained clergy and the rest of the 'royal priesthood', and (where it still operates) seems to me to be a pretty wholesome mode for God's grace to be carried, and for people to be helped pastorally along the way.

I was actually struck by the similarity of the that whole "altar work" experience to the sacramental confession and absolution as we practice it in the Orthodox Church.

Our practice is that if you have an extra priest around, they will often hear confessions during Vespers/Vigil services prior to the Liturgy - so there is the public dimension - you "go up" for confession (or to the side of the Church), and the rest of the people know you are confessing your sins, and can pray for you too. I remember thinking, "this is just like an altar call." If there are no extra priests around, Confession is more or less 'private,' and done after the Vespers or some other time - though sometimes there are people reading Psalms in the Church during confessions as well.

Lily Robinson said...

Yes, Brannon, you are approachable. I don't understand why someone would confide and confess to their pastor, only until he becomes senior. It makes no sense to me, yet I don't doubt the statistics.