9073902720For those of you pastors fortunate enough to serve a congregation full of thoughtful, intelligent, “progressive” people . . . the Lord be with you.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my NPR-listening, free-range eggshell-composting, “Who would Jesus bomb?” bumper sticker-sporting flock. Love them to pieces. Still, those of us with more Priuses than pickups in our church parking lots have to admit that some unique problems emerge with a crowd like this.

For one thing, nobody cares what color the carpet is. Or the bathroom walls. Or the pastor’s office. (They let me paint mine orange!) When our congregation was ready to paint our worship space and bathrooms, we simply told the best-dressed woman in the congregation to choose all the paint colors. We figured if she could pick out nice clothes, she could pick out nice paint. And she did.

I suppose that on the surface this lack of petty squabble might seem like a good thing. But in the realm of pastoral responsibility, petty squabbles aren’t that tricky. I mean, if people moan about the carpet color, you can just treat them like five-year-olds: “Thank you for sharing your opinion. It seems we have many carpet color options and our choice will neither accelerate nor delay the second-coming. I promise. . . . Moving on . . . “. Then we pastors can complain about those parishioners (anonymously) behind their backs.

If, however, people in your congregation take issue with the fact that, hypothetically speaking, you suggested (in your well-written and theologically provocative sermon) that perhaps it was a good thing for Eve to eat the fruit . . . you might actually have to talk to them about that. You have to have a real, honest, respectful, discussion regarding biblical theology. Which will make your head spin and your spirit stretch in ways they never would discussing carpet.

So, point one, “progressive” congregations make you talk about issues of actual theological and spiritual significance—which can be super annoying.

Point two, “progressive” congregations get hung up on grammar. I have to carefully proofread all my sermon manuscripts because I know that if I use “lay” instead of “lie” I’ll loose half of my people. Our church treasurer bugged me for two weeks because he thought a call to worship we used should have had hyphens. (He was right.)

And then there was the congregational meeting to approve the mission statement. You might think that such a thoughtful group of people would enter deeply into a discussion of ecclesiology when determining its purpose for existence as a community and institution. You would be wrong.

Perhaps in a grammatically perfect world would have hinged on the finer points regarding the nature of koinonia. But we do not live in a grammatically perfect world. We live in the United States. Where we speak English. Which is a confusing language where comma placement is dependent upon which style you are using (MLA, APA, CMOS, NRSV . . . ).

To look out on our congregation any given Sunday morning, you might imagine that it is a fairly homogenous crowd. But the truth is we are quite diverse. The people have masters and PhDs in a wide variety of disciplines—all of which apparently use a different style, meaning they all put their commas in different places. So factions quickly formed at this meeting: the no comma before the “and” vs. the comma before the “and.”

O.K. I’m being a little melodramatic here. The factions pretty much consisted of one editor each. And after we had all heard more than we ever wanted to know about comma usage, I had to talk to those editors like they were five: “Thank you both for sharing. It seems we could either use a comma or not use a comma there. Our choice will neither accelerate nor delay the second-coming. I promise. Moving on . . .”

And see, now I get to talk about them anonymously behind their backs. So I guess I shouldn’t have complained in the first place.

Joanna Harader

18 thoughts on “The Perils of Pastoring “Progressives”

  1. bwhahahaha! I have served these people! They looooved to tell me when I inadvertently slipped up and used a “he” to refer to God. More consequential than comma placement, but still…ah, not typical.


  2. An answer for the dilemma of “no comma before the and vs. the comma before the and.” Look up the Oxford comma, which deals with that very problem, and explain that using a comma before “and” is optional — sometimes it makes a difference and sometimes it doesn’t. When it is not necessary, it makes no difference in anyone’s understanding, but when it matters, it’s there to save the day, if you use it religiously (pun intended). So use it every time. (Yes, I was an editor in my pre-seminary life, and I have taught grammar, punctuation, and writing for adults.)


  3. Joanna, I have to pick on you in public, given the nature of this article…
    Do you really think you will “loose” people if you “use ‘lay’ instead of ‘lie,'” or will you “lose” them? Woman thou art loosed! 🙂


      1. 🙂
        Thanks. I have many fond memories of being there years ago. I’m glad to be in touch with a few people there again. My mind is traveling…. I was thinking about your connection with my pastors and what they might think about you proselytizing…. That made me remember a pastor’s spouse years and years ago who said that we shouldn’t be “prostituting” for the church!! (Yes, she meant to say “proselytizing.”) That was so funny!….. Lots of wide eyes that morning!


    1. O Bonnie. Thanks. You give me too much credit I’m afraid. The truth is that “lose” and “loose” is my most common spelling/grammar error. And it is a pet peeve of my husband’s. I guess I should have him proofread next time.


  4. What’s the point of this post? Is it that it is easier or better to serve one kind of Christian than another? The writer puts “progressive” in quotation marks, which easily marks the writer as “regressive.”

    If that is true that it is “easier” to serve one kind of Christian — that the Gospel is reserved for relatively passive truck-driving gun owners — the writer should really consider whether he/she was called to the Gospel or just didn’t have enough talent to be an architect.


    1. I’m looking for a “LIKE” button, Gen. That’s a beautiful prayer. I also pray for those ready to pounce without reading carefully enough to realize “Joanna” is likely the name of a “she” and not a “he.”


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