Thesis 2: We're Still Buying Indulgences

This post is the third in a series of meditations on each of Luther's "95 Theses." You can view all posts in this series here.


"2. This word [repentance] cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests."
Simply put, Luther is trying to separate the (trans)act(ion) of buying and selling indulgences from the act of true repentance, or as we spoke about in the last post, a true rethinking (re-penso/pensareof one's thoughts and actions, something Kurt thinks we too easily separate.

I wonder how far we've really gotten in the past 500 years in terms of remembering that all the baptized are members of a royal priesthood? Don't we still largely rely on Sunday morning worship to "feel better" about the distance we've felt from God all week? We go to worship to feel rejuvenated, or to continue in our exploration of Latin nerdiness, made young again. Of course, this is not always a bad thing. Feeling rejuvenated by the presence of God and God's people is a good thing. However, I fear it is the only place we seek out that presence. I fear that we count on the preacher, the ushers, the videos, the worship band, the pre-written prayer to conjure the Spirit for us like some genie from a bottle.

We let the church do the work that we should be expecting of the Holy Spirit. We plan the agendas of our worship services so tightly that we squeeze out any cracks through which God could enter unexpectedly.

Think about how well we pay our pastors at larger churches that are growing in number. Is this not a new form of indulgence? Are we paying them to pastor, or to be fantastic task administrators and public speakers?

Think about the way we set up our sanctuaries for worship. Do they not perfectly resemble the setup of a classroom of the industrial revolution, though research has shown for decades that columns and rows of purportedly passive vessels receiving the teacher's words (or the Word!) is good for on-task work and obedient behavior, rather than social exchange.

We are setting up our sanctuaries to reinforce individualism, passivity, and obedience, rather than social exchange, relationships, and new thinking.

What if we did worship (maybe just the teaching time) in small, clustered groups spread out around the sanctuary? What if we did worship "in the round," similar to the way that Quakers frequently worship? Many of our newer churches are forgoing pews in favor of chairs anyway.

What if saw our priests (We call them "elders" in the United Methodist Church.) as facilitators of the worship experience, rather than the main attraction? At our more attractional/extractional churches, we focus the advertisement of the worship hour, and indeed that particular local church on the whole, with a sermon series, complete with a logo, a promo video, and a slogan.

I know I'm not breaking any new ground here, but it bears repeating: How is this not the same thing that a normal business selling a product would do? And even if we admit this about the way we communicate our churches' existences, why have we accepted this as the norm? Why do we shrug our shoulders at this mimicry of our American way of doing business?

The church is not a business. Mimicking the business world to grow our churches is dangerous.

So, back to Luther.

He saw major problems and opened dialogue. I pray we will allow ourselves to discuss these things civilly. The times when I've brought these concerns to light with others have created bristly, defensive postures that close off conversation. We are taking cues from the world of selling products. I find this difficult to argue against. So, what does that mean for us? What should we do about it? What should we do differently than other revenue-generating institutions in order that we don't fall into the traps of our consumer-driven culture?


  1. I recommend reading "Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition" by Roman Catholic lay scholar Gary Wills for some brilliant work on how the church moved from the priesthood of all believers to a formal clergy class.

    I hadn't thought of six-figure-plus salaries as indulgences, but this is an interesting comparison. I feel very uncomfortable when I find out a pastor makes more than the median income of his or her congregation. When I was offered the appointment that i turned down, the first words out of the mouth of the District Superintendent wasn't relevant information about the ministry there, but my compensation package of around $65,000.00. The median income for Lincoln, Missouri where that church was is $25,600.00 (even as a half-time student pastor in Texas, my compensation was about $38,000.00 in a town where the median income was $25,900.00).

    When there is that great of a gap between the pastor's salary and that of the community, I feel like it creates a barrier of expectations. Who pays a person over twice the median income of the community to be a facilitator? No one. You pay a pastor that much to be the main attraction...and when the pastor is the main attraction, that means that neither Jesus or the Gospel is. It's like a professor of mine from Perkins who was a Buddhist Master said: it's like a finger pointing at the moon, but everyone looks at the finger instead that at which it's pointing.

    Going back to Luther's thesis, Protestants no longer look at the sacrament of communion as a means of saving grace (confession and satisfaction being the steps taken to prepare for communion). I think that in the Protestant church we find our saving grace from the sermon (or worse yet, the preacher). We pay him or her the big money, and sometimes the pulpit is front and center, if not, that's where the preacher stands and talks.

    I wonder exactly how much the money screws things up. Even without taking a salary as the pastor of simple church, the spectre of money still hangs around. We've had at least once conversation about paying me as pastor. My pastoral padawan wants to do ministry for a living. I've struggled with going back into paid ministry. I think we have a heck of a challenge ahead of us trying to re-imagine ministry outside that of selling, consuming, and revenue.

    1. LOVE that quote from your perkins professor!

      and yes, i hear you on the tension of being paid to do ministry. i struggle with the same thing your padawan does. but like so many other things these days, i'm trying not to hold an either/or stance on the whole issue...i.e., one on side, being paid to do ministry and thinking that this therefore corrupts the work...and on the other side, not being paid to do ministry, and people therefore feeling you have to work a job you don't feel called to just to make enough money to do the "real" work you do feel called to. there is absolutely a third way here, but i don't yet know what that is.

      so, can one make income from doing full-time ministry and not feel dirty about it? would being paid the median income for your field in your setting mean that your work was somehow more authentic?

    2. I agree with you that there's a middle way (you can take the man out of Methodism...). I'll let you know when I find it if you promise to do the same. I think, personally, I have to explore the full range before I can find the middle way. I'm willing to entertain again financial compensation for pastoral work, but I imagine that the means for determining how that compensation would work exists in a model not yet invented. I say that because it would be a covenantal model and not value/commodity based like compensation models are derived now. In other words it would be based on needs of the pastor and family to live at a reasonable level of necessity/comfort. In this model, a pastor will never get rich and he or she will have to never want to be rich. I think a financial expectation for both a pastor and congregation would be one on which no individual or family is completely financially independent, but the needs of all in the community would never be endangered. But the key is, the pay should never mitigate the relationship between pastor and congregation, because ideally, the pastor is a member of the congregation (unlike how the UMC does it).

      I think pastors are set apart to do the work of deep theology and guide from there. If a pastor is also set apart socio-economically, then how does one lead? I had the reverse problem at the Gathering. So many folks there were from much higher socio-economic status then what I was being paid at the time (Beth and I were in red financialy every month because of the housing situation we were forced into by the Conference). I had a hard time relating to people who had a relationship to wealth that seemed alien-like to me.


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