Although it’s been awhile since we left our “cult-like church,” it seems like almost every day, we think of yet another aspect of our experience there that was at best odd and at worst unbiblical.
Since, as I’ve explained in a previous entry, our former church was extremely pastor-centered and pastor-focused, most of these things have to do with (and this is obviously not his real name!) Pastor Smith’s (or his wife’s) behavior, rather than with what other church members did. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out where these behaviors fall on this “was-it-merely-strange?-or-was-it-unbiblical?” continuum. Some things seemed to have started out as silly little foibles, but over the course of our tenure at this church, grew progressively more blatant, to the point where they then became unbiblical behaviors. Other items were probably unbiblical from the very beginning.
And then there are certain peculiarities that we still haven’t quite figured out.
One such behavior that falls into this “gray area” was Pastor Smith’s practice of asking for personal gifts for his family. Once again, as I see this statement written out in black and white, it suddenly seems obvious that it wasn’t actually such a “gray area.” But for whatever reason, it never bothered us while we were attending this church! I doubt that it bothered any of the other members, either, because everybody seemed to enthusiastically participate in the gift-giving.
The way this played out at our former church was thus: approximately twice a year, either around “Pastor Appreciation Day” or right before Pastor Smith’s birthday, we’d receive a letter from someone at the church reminding us that there would be a special card shower the next Sunday in honor of the event. When we first started attending this church, the letters were from the “Executive Pastor.” He happened to be Pastor Smith’s brother-in-law, but somehow, THAT family relationship didn’t make the reminder letters seem like solicitations. Usually the letters would contain the exhortation that the Bible said to, “Give honor where honor is due,” a reference (I believe) to Romans 13:7.
On the given Sunday, there would be a time, usually after praise and worship but before the sermon, when the Executive Pastor would make a short presentation about how much we loved and appreciated Pastor Smith. There’d usually be a standing ovation (which, to his credit, Pastor Smith would eventually attempt to re-direct to the Lord). Then music would play, and pre-selected people would stand at the front of the sanctuary, holding beautifully decorated containers. The congregants would all troop forward and place their cards in these containers while Pastor Smith looked on, beaming with appreciation at the gesture of encouragement. Like I said, this practice, although different from anything we’d ever known at our previous church, never really bothered us. Probably because we truly loved Pastor Smith.
To help explain this particular type of “pastor love,” allow me to quote from a previous entry:
The thing was, when he’d stick to Scriptures, he was a great preacher—insightful, original, wise, and articulate…
…he was, after all, a very dynamic individual with great force of personality that was coupled with a sharp, curmudgeonly sense of humor. When he preached, he conveyed a unique earnest sincerity. I still don’t doubt for a moment that he himself believed in everything he preached. I still think he was honestly convinced of the validity of his own prophetic gift, and of how much the people needed his ministry. His earnest sincerity made you WANT to cheer for what he said, made his audience WANT to show their support for him.
Pastor Smith is a charismatic man, and he walked in a certain fatherly authority which made everybody want to please him. So it almost seemed natural to give him semi-annual card showers. This practice continued the entire time we were members there, and it never really gave us pause. It didn’t matter that Pastor Smith wore obviously expensive clothing, lived in a million dollar mansion, and drove the latest $70,000 (a conservative estimate) Mercedes. We loved him and didn’t mind honoring him.
We received similar letters of reminder around the time of Pastor Smith’s wife’s (the “First Lady’s”) birthday, too. Her card showers played out in basically the same fashion. And again, this really didn’t trouble us, although we knew she enjoyed a lifestyle that only the upper echelons of society ladies were privileged to enjoy. She had her own Mercedes sports car, designer clothing, housekeepers, and all the perks that went with being rich, but out of our love for Pastor Smith, we liked to bless his wife, too.
Then Pastor Smith’s two young-adult sons (who had been installed in church staff positions several years before, when they were still teenagers) both got engaged, and when one of them got married out of state and a post-wedding reception was announced, things seemed to take a bit of a turn.
On a Sunday morning, during his announcement of this reception, Pastor Smith declared that his son and bride would much prefer wedding cards over wedding gifts, because they’d already accumulated all the items on their registries. Then, to clarify what he meant, Pastor Smith said, “So, slip a little cash into the cards you give them!”
On that particular Sunday, I have to say that despite my loyalty and love for the Smiths (both of their sons were nice boys), we were a bit shocked. It seemed like Pastor Smith had crossed some sort of line, some sort of unspoken barrier of good taste. I mean, everybody KNOWS what a “card shower” means. Most people are fully aware that you don’t just give a card but also perhaps tuck some money into the card. It seemed rather gauche that Pastor Smith had actually spelled out that they wanted money.
But hey, it was Pastor Smith, and it was OK if he lapsed every once in awhile and exposed his rough edges. We looked the other way.
Then, the very next Sunday, Pastor Smith made the same announcement. Timmy Smith (again, not his real name) and his new wife were going to be honored at a wedding reception the following Sunday evening. Don’t go rush out and buy them a gift. Rather, give them a nice card and, SLIP A LITTLE SOMETHING IN YOUR CARD!
That Sunday, although it wasn’t our family’s practice to discuss our pastor, both of us couldn’t help ourselves. We agreed that Pastor Smith seemed awfully desperate to garner money for Timmy.
But again, we shrugged it off.
Pastor Smith often joked, in the midst of his sermons, that when he repeated something three times, it was because he was Trinitarian. Well, this Trinitarianism carried over into his personal life.
Yet again, on the following Sunday, for the THIRD time, Pastor Smith exhorted the congregation not to give presents but to put money in their cards for Timmy Smith’s reception.
Now that I look back on it, I’m pretty sure we couldn’t have been the only people who were a bit put off by the thrice-pronounced directive for what was, after all, supposed to be voluntary gift-giving. Nonetheless, at Timmy’s wedding reception, a whole table was piled high with wedding cards.
People had fallen in line anyway and followed Pastor’s instructions like good soldiers.
The three blatant commands to put money in Timmy’s wedding cards were followed, some months later, by a letter announcing that the “First Lady” would be honored for her birthday the following Sunday. Unlike previous letters, which had ostensibly (and I say “ostensibly,” because Pastor Smith had ultimate authority over EVERY mailing that went out from the church) come from various other church staff members, THIS letter was from Pastor Smith himself. And once again, in the same really specific manner, Pastor Smith mentioned in the letter that the First Lady would really appreciate it if we were to include a monetary token of our love for her.
Again, apparently nobody minded, because lots of people participated in the First Lady’s birthday card shower. At the time, WE didn’t even mind.
But now that we’ve been away from the church for awhile, the Smith family’s whole practice of asking church members for personal gifts suddenly strikes us as ODD. Even though it was always in the form of a “reminder,” at the very least, it could NOT have been in good taste, especially when these reminders began coming from Pastor Smith himself, rather than another staff member.
And now that I think about it, it probably wasn’t biblical either.
At the very least, you’d have to say that this was a practice that exposed the Smiths to some very dangerous temptations. For instance, it seems pretty obvious that it must have opened the door for them to favor rich (or more generous) people more than they already did. Could they really NOT remember that someone like Kitty Moreno (see “Favoritism, part ii” below) had given the First Lady a significant cash birthday gift? Wouldn’t it just be human nature to find yourself swayed to give a bit more attention to the people who gave you big presents than to those who had just written a note?
You also have to wonder why the Smiths feel so free to solicit gifts for themselves. It sure doesn’t seem like they NEED any more financial “blessings.” It’s safe to say that they lead a more luxurious lifestyle than at least 98% of their congregation. Could it possibly be that years of unchecked “final authority”—with no accountability to anyone but “the Lord”—have simply blinded the Smiths to good taste, made them completely oblivious to the fact that they now come across as greedy for money, something the Bible clearly forbids?
If so, I’d have to say that we in the pews are at least somewhat responsible for the Smiths’ oblivion and insensitivity. The fact that Pastor Smith is a dynamic, charismatic individual with great force of personality is really no excuse for how we all fell in line in our willingness to pander for his favor.
The Bible commands us to exercise discernment. In our failure to do so, we’ve become enablers, blithely helping the Smiths down what the Bible says will ultimately be their own personal road of destruction, if it continues unabated. Sadly, their young sons are not too far behind them. In fact, I’m afraid they both have a completely overblown opinion of their actual talents because of the overly generous congregation’s unwarranted standing ovations and willingness to cut them slack and accept everything they do since they’re Pastor Smith’s “boys.”
In our willingness to check our brains at the church doors, we’ve created a monster. We can only blame ourselves.