The Taxidermic Minister


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I come from a rural community in upstate New York in the United States. It is not known for its art culture. However, one art form that is quite strong there is taxidermy. I haven’t really seen it practiced here in the Philippines. For those who don’t know, it is the art of making the skins of animals resemble living animals by stuffing them and placing them on a frame. The etymology is from the greek for “Arranged Skins.” Those who are especially adept are able to produce artwork that looks like it is alive. While some simply mount the heads on a wall, many prefer to make the full animal (whether mammal, bird, or other) “come alive.” The true artist (taxidermist) can make the art look:

  • Real
  • Alive
  • With personality
  • In an appropriate setting for the animal

Of course, that is what makes it art, because:

  • It is not real. Underneath the dead hide is wood, foam, stuffing, or other materials.
  • It is not alive, and most of its components were not even part of the animal.
  • It has no personality. It’s eyes and mouth are fake, and its posture is attained through proper framing.
  • The setting (a branch for example) is as fake as the rest… to give the illusion of being in the wild, when it is actually in someone’s house… or perhaps a museum.

This art form can, in fact, be quite beautiful. It can also be comforting. Some people will have their dearly departed pet “stuffed” to keep with them always.

This reminds me of Revelation 3 in the description of the Church of Sardis. Jesus through John states that the church has the “reputation on being alive” but is, in fact, dead. The term “reputation” means “named” or “labelled.” But another way of saying it is that the church  presents all appearances of being alive, and yet isn’t. One might call this a “Taxidemic Church.”

I want to think about Taxidermic Ministers, whether pastors, missionaries, or layministers. Appearing alive, and not dead in ministry is not that hard.

  1.  Anyone raised up in a church culture learns how to behave to be recognized as being alive in that culture. Sometimes we talk about “cultural Christians” as people who describe themselves as Christians, but live on the periphery of the church and (perhaps) lack saving faith. But the second part (living on the periphery of the church) is presumptive. A Christian who lacks saving faith are often deeply embedded in the church. They are connected through decades of habits to the church culture. They can play church as good as, or better, than anyone else.
  2. Seminary indoctrinates the future minister in how to give the appearance of a vibrant spiritual life. What to say in different occasions, the proper theological and biblical lingo, the denominationally appropriate expressions of proclamation, worship, exaltation, and piety— all give false indication of vitality.
  3. The ministry culture establishes fairly clear expectations for the minister. By “listening” to these expectations and carrying them out, a minister learns not only how to “talk the talk” but how to “walk the walk” in the eyes of those around them.

And yet they are dead. They may be dead spiritually… having no faith… or having “lost the faith.” There have been articles of pastors who were, or became atheists. Despite this, they maintained their roles in ministry. Hardly surprising. Most of us, at one time or another, have worked for a company or a person that we don’t respect (or at least don’t believe in their vision). It is highly demotivating. However, a paycheck and other perks can help considerably  Some ministers reach a point in which their relationship to their ministry culture is so enmeshed that employment outside of ministry is unlikely, or at least scary.

Some are not spiritually dead (referring here to faith) but are emotionally dead. This can occur through psychophysical burnout. Elijah (running to Mount Horeb) or Jesus (going to Gethsemene) appear relevant examples. I think it can also happen as one loses “one’s first love” (as mentioned of the Ephesian church). Some have drifted from service as worship to service as duty.

This last one is part of my problem with the common evangelical doctrine of “calling.” People have told me that to go into ministry, one must have a “clear sense of God’s unique calling to professional ministry.” Additionally, if someone is considering getting out of such ministry, others will tell them that they are “rejecting their calling.” I have problems with this for two reasons. First, it is doubtful from a Biblical standpoint. In the Bible, all Christians are called to ministry… and “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (I Timothy 3:1) regardless of whether the church, ultimately calls the person to this role. This common understanding of “calling” seems to have deeper roots in the Catholic sacrament of “Holy Orders” than in the Bible.

Secondly, however, this understanding of calling leads to dejection and burnout. A minister is struggling with faith, priorities, vision, burnout, and such, and the “calling” card is tossed on the table essentially saying, “Too late now… you are stuck.” No one should minister because they feel trapped.

How can one identify a “taxidermic minister”? There can be obvious signs of burnout or hypocrisy… but not all may show it. Some people feel that they have special discernment to identify the spiritual strength of another. Usually, I suspect, this is more hubris than anything else. (I recall a lady coming to Baguio claiming the ability to identify the hidden sins of others. I recall her telling a teenage boy that his secret sin had to do with “sex.” Not exactly a difficult guess… and I assume it was a guess, since I can’t see why God would give out such a useless, and a bit pharisaic, gift anyway.) The skill of a minister to have the reputation of being alive, while being dead, is akin to the artistic competence of a taxidermist to make his art to make what is dead appear alive.

However, allowing ministers to “be real” in ministry rather than put on the garb (arranged skins) of culturally mandated piety and unique holiness, could help. Recognizing calling as a path of following Christ that all of us share, not just a unique vocational group, couldn’t hurt either. We are ALL on the same pilgrimage with Christ.

If the church can recognize that every self-reflective, honest person struggles with faith, including ministers, I believe we would do much better in helping all process it. I recall a time years ago when I struggled with my faith. I was able to resolve it by recognizing that faith is NOT blind trust, and that doubt is NOT antithetical to faith. My honest struggling with faith, has greatly strengthened my faith. I am glad I found resources where I could deal with these doubts without castigation.

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The Taxidermic Minister

  1. Good thoughts Bob. I had an interesting follow on thought – what happens to the congregation of a pastor who shows well, then admits doubt and quits? Or a pastor that falls prey to doubt and has to take time out? (I know personally both – one read ‘the God delusion’ – and spent 12 months in doubt – but since they were a professional and this was their career, they just covered it over for a very long time – what else can a minister do if they can’t minister? And if they are paid by the church and live in church supplied housing? He has since overcome his doubt, but he spent at least a year almost dead, but unable due to his position [and that particular church] to admit it).

    In some cases, I wonder whether we hold our ministers almost as idols – and when they fall, we also risk falling with them. We hold them to a higher (unrealistic) standard – and when they fail to live up to it, we are disappointed in them – publicly. Superiority complex on our own behalf maybe?

    I’ve always wondered whether our models of church and ministry cause as many issues as they solve. We ‘pay’ for a pastor, and then expect them to do all the work, whilst being at least as holy as the pope, hopefully more. In doing so we fail to do the work we are called, as that is what ‘the professionals’ are for! And when the professional can no longer hold up the whole body?

    • As far as a poor model for church and pastors… absolutely. Pastors often have unreasonable expectations placed on them.
      There is a similarity to professional athletes. Pro athletes are supposed to do amazing things that the fans will vicariously lay claim to as their own (“WE WON!!”) The difference is that (some) pro athletes are commonly paid insane figures for what they do. Also pros are still expected to be injured once in awhile (without being fired even though they can’t perform).
      I don’t know about whether a church should maintain the employment of a pastor whose doubts have drifted to rejection. But doubt in general should be normalized. I remember decades ago meeting some friends of a friend who candidly admitted doubt about their faith. I did not harass them, but I did note that I had no such doubts. And I suppose on an emotional level, it was true. I did not FEEL doubt. But I think looking back that I was denying doubt. After all, if I doubt, I couldn’t be a REAL CHRISTIAN, right? But dealing with doubt through volitionally rejecting it, ultimately leaves one ill-prepared when doubt comes later in new and varied ways.. Frankly, we ALL should doubt a little bit (theist, atheist… even agnostics should doubt their own agnosticism a bit). We are limited in knowledge, experience, and understanding. To deny the possibility that we don’t understand something important is hugely and destructively prideful. A healthy faith follows and trusts Christ not just in spite of doubt, but because of doubt.

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