Pastors Suffer Fools -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

I'm a member of the clergy -- that is, I'm a pastor of a local Christian congregation.  I'm called on to teach and to care for a community of people who claim Christ as Lord.  We're not perfect people, and the institution is far from perfect.  Some congregations are pretty monolithic -- everyone looks the same, thinks the same.  But many, including my own are diverse, each in its own way.  As pastor I'm called to minister to all, even folks with whom I'm not always in agreement.  Martin Marty opens 2013 with a column responding to/reflecting on statements made by David Brooks about the role of clergy and their need to "suffer fools."  I'm going to leave it at that, but invite your thoughts in response to Marty's own reflections.
Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion
The University of Chicago Divinity School
 Sightings  1/7/2013

 Pastors Suffer Fools
-- Martin E. Marty
 Sightings is supposed to be about “public religion.” So what are pastors, ministers, priests, rabbis doing here this week? David Brooks mentioned them Friday in his New York Times column; that is a pretty public reference to a religious theme. Let’s talk of pastors as column fare, and then see what Brooks does with them. I just came from a panel in which former colleagues Robin Lovin, David Tracy, and I worked the changes on “public theology” at the Society of Christian Ethics. I contended for seeing many local congregations, where they serve creatively, as “publics,” citing Park Palmer’s reference to “The Company of Strangers.” Some parishes and synagogues are self-repressed in their monolithicity, but the live ones incorporate people of diverse opinions, politics, social goals, and more. They are, from some angles, publics, companies of strangers.           
I spent one of my (so far) eight decades in parish ministry, and still live off much of what I learned there. Admittedly, the culture and church have changed vastly since then, but I try to stay in touch with those in the professions now in a time when “the institutional church” is undervalued and dissed. I recall as a pastor having appeared and spoken up at school boards, zoning boards, hospital boards, housing boards, divorce courts, adoption agencies, and more. Also, dealing with the varieties in the parishes thrust me, as it does most pastors, into the public worlds of their congregants. Enough.           
Now, to Brooks. He was playing with the phrase that headlined his column “Suffering Fools Gladly.” Being David Brooks, he dealt with it in its ambiguity and complexity. He discussed having or not having patience with those to whom one is tempted to be impolite, and worse. Brooks: “I don’t give myself high marks on suffering fools. I’m not rude to those I consider foolish, but I strenuously and lamentably evade them. But I do see people who handle fools well. Many members of the clergy do, as do many great teachers.” This caught my eye, rang a bell, and inspired this column. Exactly. Brooks went on to stress the word “gladly,” as I think he sees pastors and great teachers accepting the need to suffer fools as part of their vocation, skill-set, and make-up.           
Suffering fools does not mean being soft and sentimental. Pastors can be harsh and judgmental articulators of law. But, when in 1963 I moved from parish ministry to the professorship, my Dean and Friend “Jerry” Brauer, said, “Marty, there is a difference in your new role. Good professors have to flunk some people; good pastors never do.” This does not mean that professors have to get their credentials by being non-pastoral and great flunkers. It does mean that the message which imparts credentials to pastors teaches them to see people, foolish people, from a different perspective than they naturally would. I once wanted to provide a character reference to an arrested church member, who was of good character. His lawyer said, “The judge will ignore what you say. Clergy are ‘soft’ when character-referencing. They know evil, but they find the good, and that does not help in court.” David Brooks might have been listening.           
Dismiss “the institutional church” and its ministers, if you will, but, if Brooks is right, you will not have fewer fools. You will likely find more people abandoned, often unjustly, in an impersonal world where someone, someone, should not lose patience or become impolite and dismissive. Here endeth my post-Twelve Days of Christmas column. We can now get back to the gross and grim headline items that beckon for attention in the world of “public religion” in the seasons ahead.

David Brooks, "Suffering Fools Gladly," New York Times, January 3, 2013.

 Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at


This month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum features “Medicalized Death as a Modus Vivendi” by Michelle Harrington. Harrington argues that "an unchastened practice of palliative care constitutes a modus vivendi in the political sense. Standardized assessments and interventions purport to provide a way of coping with the fundamental questions of human existence with only instrumental reference to the diverse beliefs of religious traditions; they threaten to homogenize and manage the patient and his or her intimates according to a generic spirituality that serves clinical norms and efficient social functioning." Medicalized death, Harrington concludes, "cannot do justice to the considered convictions of Christians who profess a faith formed around death and resurrection." Read Medicalized Death as a Modus Vivendi.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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