Nov 24, 2014

Beware Church Smarm

Last week my friend, colleague, and occasional partner in crime, Laurie Brock, wrote a post on her blog Dirty Sexy Ministry titled "A Spoonful of Smarm Makes the Manipulation Go Down."

Smarm is one of those wonderful words that sounds like what it means. Kind of like those descriptive Yiddish words such as "kvetch" or "schmuck" or "klutz." Today it means "obsequious flattery" or "behaving in an ingratiating way to gain favor." The word itself derives from a 19th century verb meaning to smear one's hair with grease or pomade. Which is no doubt why, when you encounter it, you want to take a shower afterwards.

Laurie wrote of the emergence and dangers of smarm in church culture. As she defines it, smarm "may be false niceness, haughty condescension, or manipulative smugness." It's a way of getting what we want through less than authentic means -- saying the right things so people like us or think better of us, projecting an aura of impenetrable holiness, raising our ecclesiastical street cred by talking or writing about things people in positions of leadership "should" be talking and writing about.

Smarm is often seen on social media and blogs -- for some it's the language of the medium. The problem is that when church leaders become fluent in smarm, the whole institution is weakened. True dialogue is sacrificed on the altar of one-sided communication; conversation devolves to the lowest common denominator of the inoffensive; and pleasant conflict averse niceness replaces the prophetic voice.

There are two real dangers of church smarm in the public arena:

1) It's boring. Who wants to join a church where every other Facebook post is a holier-than-thou prayer ("Look at me! I'm holy! I care!") or an insider, secret society selfie of me in church ("Look at me! I'm wearing vestments! I matter!").

2. It runs counter to the Gospel. If we truly believe that Christ's "power is made perfect in weakness," then it's okay to be our broken selves even (gasp) in public. We don't have to pretend to be perfect or inoffensive. God is the one who brings us, in all our imperfection, to perfection through faith in Jesus. Not us! Which both takes the pressure off and holds smarm in sharp relief with the life of Christ (who, by the way, was not smarmy. Ever. Not even once.)

Want some examples of church smarm? Here are a few:

1. Parish Profiles. Your parish is not God's exclusive gift to the world. Yes, there are some exciting ministries, many faithful people seeking to follow Jesus, and much effort goes into worship each week. But most parish profiles have devolved into marketing documents. "We're amazing! We've always been amazing! We want an amazing rector!" I'd be much more drawn to an honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses and issues that have hindered growth than the usual gloss.

2. The sudden increase in social media presence by bishop nominees. Oh, suddenly you want to be my friend on Facebook? What a coincidence! Wow, I had no idea you were so passionate about climate change. Thanks for sharing all the prayers for your newfound passion.

3. Convention Resolutions. Not all resolutions proposed at diocesan conventions are self-serving or grandstanding for future political considerations. But many are. What's a good test? Applying the Gunn Rule to church legislation. The basic premise being, rather than offering irrelevant resolutions, such as decrying nuclear testing in North Korea, "Let us tell the world what we are going to do about political problems, rather than telling the world what they should do about political problems."

4. Bishop Selfies. Yes, I know these are popular and many bishops and others truly believe they are being hip and "of the people." And there's a time and a place for them. But you know what? No one else on social media cares that you or your bishop was "in the house" last Sunday. I hosted our new bishop, Alan Gates, this past weekend at St. John's in Hingham and I'm here to tell you that it is indeed a valid episcopal visitation without a single selfie being taken.

5. Liturgical Puppets. The liturgy of the Episcopal Church doesn't need help to convey power and drama and the incarnational presence of Jesus Christ. It certainly doesn't need glorified Muppets to make everybody feel better about themselves and turn liturgy into the self-help section of Barnes & Noble. This goes for any other "creative" ideas that emasculate the powerful human emotions of life, so movingly conveyed in the psalms (anger, grief, isolation) but always in relationship to God. The divine is not an emoticon!

6. Church Conflict. Remember that whole thing about how when someone in the church wrongs you you're supposed to go to them directly and confront them? The Culture of Nice (which is a first cousin to church smarm) is all about conflict avoidance. "Oh, I can't be mean or speak the truth because that wouldn't be nice and, you know, Jesus was always nice." Um, no he wasn't. Forgiving, yes, but not "nice" in the Major Frank Burns "it's nice to be nice to the nice" sense. He called it like he saw it and if we want the church to be something other than a bunch of quaint buildings, we need to go and do likewise.

7. #tweetlikeabishop. Not to pick on bishops (some of my best friends are bishops) but using phrases such as it was a joy to be with the "good people of St. Whatever" this weekend is smarm personified. I'd rather see a picture of their rusty boiler or some other sign that your visit was "real" instead of another banal tweet letting the world know that you go to a different parish every weekend to hang out with random "good people." And I should be clear: you don't need to wear a miter to #tweetlikeabishop. Clergy and lay people do it too. All. The. Time.

Sorry if I have offended anyone with this post. Actually, I'll be authentic here: I'm not sorry. But I do hope it leads to some broader conversation. The point is, we're human. Let's embrace that in order to let Jesus more fully into our hearts and minds and souls. We can be honest, candid, authentic, wounded, and faithful -- indeed we must be. The Church needs to allow room for our true selves so that with healing on our hearts, we can pray with conviction, "Come, Lord Jesus."


Maria said...

Yes, yes, yes to 4 and 7.

Anonymous said...

Love this. But, "the divine is not an emoticon"? Sounds like a simple design challenge ...

Elizabeth said...

Thank you for #1. This has been the source of many disastrous and painful wrong calls that take ages to heal. I can't agree completely with #5. I know one clergy person, now a retired bishop, who occasionally would preach in dialogue with puppets with skill and grace that highlighted the power and drama of the passage on which he was preaching; I agree that not everyone can do this.

Daniel Stroud said...

If one blogs about an episcopal visit while advising against tweeting episcopal selfies, is that a violation?


Gale Grey said...

I've been reading a lot of posts where people are saying 'Jesus was not nice' -so then I look in the dictionary and look up synonyms and one of them is kind. And then I think Jesus was kind, at times. To me, Jesus was always authentic- sometimes nice -aka kind.
I watched a video interview with Archbishop Welby where he talked about the fact that we need to learn to disagree well. To me, because we haven't done that yet, sometimes haven't tried, we can land in swarm. I wish the church would teach us how to do this correctly. I'm sure they try, I need to listen better. But I also think about churches where they are all about 'speaking the truth in love' to one another. All the time. They sometimes land here

Meredith Gould said...

#1,#2,#6...and all the rest. Clearly and wonderfully articulated. #6...did I mention I especially <3 #6. The church nicey-nice stuff drives me wild. It's as if no one has read -- or can't remember -- all the passages in which Jesus pitches a hissy fit.