“I am a Christian, not because someone explained the nuts and bolts of Christianity, but because there were people willing to be nuts and bolts.”
This quote is attributed to Rich Mullins, from the docudrama Raggamuffin which tells the story of his life. It’s a touching story of one man’s struggle to find grace. You can watch the film on Netflix streaming.
I really love the idea of people being the “nuts and bolts” of Christianity. I’d love to go to a church like that. But my experience has unfortunately been very different. Regrettably though, I don’t think my experience is atypical. I wish it were.
In my experience, in every church I have been a part of, over the course of many decades, across many denominations, both liberal and conservative, and even different continents, over and over it was the pastor alone who was expected to be the “nuts and bolts” for everyone. There was talk about how we should do this, too, but the reality was that it was just one guy (who on some rare occasions happened to be female).
This is reflected in the name “pastor” which means “shepherd, ” implying that the rest of us are basically sheep. The pastor cares for the flock, and the fear is that if any of us leave church we will fall away like a little lost sheep.
Our faith and morality will crumble if it is not held up by our shepherd. The catholic idea of a “father” is basically the same. They are the father, and we are all dependent little children.
This infantilizing creates a learned dependency where adults learn not to think and act as moral adults. If anything, the role of a pastor should be the opposite. It should be to empower people to think morally and to be those “nuts and bolts” in a loving community.
But this unequal “division of labor” is not just a major disservice to the congregants. It is also deeply unfair to the pastor who is saddled with an impossible burden. They are typically expected to be an example of moral perfection. Consequently, they fear to voice any struggles or doubts or failures they may have for fear their congregation may turn on them. The result is not only that they hide their real struggles (and like the rest of us, they of course have struggles, too), but they often work themselves to the point of burnout.
J.R. Briggs, in his book Fail catalogs some alarming statistics:
- 1, 500 pastors a month leave the ministry forever due to burnout or contention in their churches.
- Pastors who work fewer than 50 hours a week are 30% more likely to be terminated.
- 70% of pastors say they do not have a single close friend.
- Medical costs for clergy are higher than for any other professional group.
- 50% of pastor’s marriages end in divorce.
As if this all was not enough, many pastors feel obligated not only to serve as a teacher, but also to act as a marriage counselor, social worker, therapist, addiction specialist, community organizer, and a host of other jobs that — I can tell you first hand — you learn next to nothing about in seminary. It’s then not at all surprising that, as Briggs notes, 90% of pastors say they were inadequately trained to cope with their job.
In short, pastors — in trying to take on all these jobs — act as if we were living in the middle ages when the local pastor really did need to be all these things since there was no such thing as mental health experts or doctors back then. But we don’t live in the middle ages. To take this all on now is just nuts. Pastors don’t know how to deal with clinical depression any more than they do a ruptured spleen.
What pastors (and the rest of us as equal members in a community) can do is love people. We can be a friend. That is something that is deeply important, and something a therapist or social worker can’t do. Loving people is not a job you get paid for or get a degree in. But love is the central thing that Jesus said should characterize our lives as Christians.
It’s important to note that this should be understood as a deeply important addition to the vital work that mental health experts provide, not a replacement. When you are sick, you need a doctor, but you also need human care and support.
People with terminal or debilitating illnesses can often feel cut off from life and dehumanized. That’s why it’s so profoundly important in our struggles to have that human connection. We need people to support us, to stand beside us, to bring a casserole, or call on the phone to see how we’re doing.
That’s what the “nuts and bolts” of our faith are all about. This is not the job of one person, it is the job of all of us in a community.