Earlier, I found a Southern Baptist Bible study that blames cluttered hearts for evangelicals’ lost enthusiasm for Jesusing. Though the study’s writer chides pastors in particular for having cluttered hearts, it reminded me of all the other similar blame games played in Christianity when someone complains that their results don’t match group recruiters’ hype. In broken systems with flawed messages, group leaders would rather lay that blame anywhere but where it deserves to be.
(A broken system is one that can no longer fulfill its own stated goals. Instead, its leaders now use it as a vessel for the growing, perpetuating, and guarding of their own power. From the introduction: The newest Lifeway survey about volunteer work (and PDF); Lifeway’s 2022 pastors’ survey about church growth (and PDF); Lifeway’s other 2022 survey about personal evangelism. Here’s the SBC’s 2023 Book of Reports; the Guidestone report starts on p. 48 of the PDF file.)
(This post first appeared on Patreon on 5/23/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too, and should be available by the time you see this! <3)
Everyone, meet Mark Dance, who blames pastors’ cluttered hearts
Yesterday, the official website of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Baptist Press, ran a Bible study post. They titled it “FIRST-PERSON: Is your heart too cluttered?” It addresses SBC pastors who feel like they’re drifting away from what evangelicals call their first love.
(This Christianese term comes from Revelation 2:4. It means both Jesus and Jesusing, which must always be the highest priority for evangelicals.)
The post’s author, Mark Dance, is hardly a disinterested bystander. He got his start in the SBC as a pastor. For years, he did his time in various churches in the Southeastern United States. In 2014, he joined Lifeway Christian Resources. His role there seems to have primarily focused on pastoral development. I strongly suspect he’s a friend to Thom Rainer on some level, too, since he shows up three times in the comments on a 2014 post Rainer wrote about sea changes in church hiring trends.
In 2019, the Oklahoma SBC state-level convention hired him to do much the same thing for Oklahoma pastors. There, he also served in something called the Church Relations Group.
Most recently, in January 2022 Dance became the Director of Pastoral Wellness for the SBC’s financial-planning subgroup, Guidestone Financial Services.
Quite an interesting—and logical—trajectory for Mark Dance
At the time of Dance’s hiring, Guidestone had literally just created this brand-new position. In their hiring announcement, Dance’s new boss Hance Dilbeck said:
We recognize that when pastors are well in every aspect of their life, their financial security becomes even stronger.
Yeah, and we’ll see about that.
What we’ll be examining today is an excerpt from Dance’s soon-to-be-published book Start to Finish: The Pastor’s Guide to a Resilient Life and Ministry. Dilbeck contributed its Foreword.
Interestingly, Dance writes in his book that its proceeds will entirely go to Guidestone’s charity program for retired SBC pastors and their widows, Mission: Dignity. Retirees with a certain tenure and income cutoff (or the widows of pastors meeting the same criteria) get a small amount of monthly assistance in times of crisis. For widows or retirees with 25+ years’ tenure who are living alone and rank below the SBC’s income cutoff, that amounts to $525 per month. (Source: Page 50 of this PDF of the SBC’s 2023 Book of Reports.)
(And I’m betting that a pastor with that tenure who deconverts or disaffiliates from the SBC won’t see a penny from Guidestone.)
Their cluttered hearts will make them weep
Specifically, today’s Bible study hails from Chapter 3 of Start to Finish, which is titled “With All My Heart.” The chapter’s subtitle frets: “Is My Heart Too Cluttered?” And as we see in the Baptist Press excerpt, it too begins with a Bible verse, Luke 8:14:
The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. [New International Version]
Accordingly, Dance names “three common culprits of a cluttered heart: worry, wealth and wants.”
These three culprits, Dance tells us, “can choke out our spiritual growth.” He laments an all-too-common problem for evangelical pastors:
One close friend who is a pastor once lamented to me, “Sometimes I wonder if my walk with God would be easier if I weren’t in the ministry.” Yes, even church work can choke out our spiritual growth. Every pastor I know wants their spiritual growth to outpace their ministry growth, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
To fix the problem of worrying, Dance prescribes talking to the ceiling:
If worry is suffocating your faith, stop now and prayerfully meditate on this passage. Ask God to guard your heart and mind with his peace.
He also advises pastors to seek out accountabillibuddies who’ll warn them if they’re getting too bogged down by worry.
And right as I read that sentence, just like that, I understood completely why SBC leaders want this guy in charge of their pastors’ health and dignity. Oh, he is good.
Wealth produces cluttered hearts too, apparently
This section is super-short, and I can see why, too. Very few SBC pastors will ever have too much wealth as a concern. Most SBC churches are quite small. Their pastors are lucky to see 70 people showing up on Sunday morning. Almost none of those people donate any kind of tithes on their income.
(Gross or net? Got Questions refuses to say, but I’ve personally heard evangelical leaders insist on tithing on one’s gross income—for “gross blessings” as opposed to “net blessings,” as my first Pentecostal pastor once put it. Either way, gross or net income, almost no church members donate even close to that level.)
From anecdotes I’ve heard, such small churches often rely very heavily on one or two big-money families who finance almost everything through their donations. And those big donors always expect a goodly return on their pseudo-investment in the form of catering to their whims. If these small churches’ pastors can’t attract high-rollers to their congregations, then they must seek out day jobs of their own to afford their churches’ upkeep and their own salaries.
Of the two paragraphs in this subsection, one declares that Elvis Presley “died by essentially choking on his wealth.” The other blames pastors for “get[ting] caught in the trap” of wishing they made more money:
“If my salary was more” and “If the church budget was bigger” are statements that show that our trust is more in riches than in the King. Someday all our stuff will end up in the dump, in storage, or in our kid’s garage.
It sounds like heart-cluttering concerns about wealth are really more heart-cluttering worries about a particular lack thereof. But forget it, he’s rollin‘.
Again, I see exactly why Guidestone wanted this guy as their point man for pastors.
Pastors just wanna sin, apparently
The third arm of Dance’s blame game is “Wants.” And he translates this as “an unquenchable sensual desire.” Apparently, SBC pastors suffer enormously from this desire:
As you well know, hedonism and materialism are alive and well in today’s culture and are an ominous threat to our churches and pulpits. Sports, school activities, work and hobbies often have a stranglehold on our lives. Our obsession with achieving and acquiring leaves our hearts barren, exhausted and empty.
As pastors, we are tempted to focus on the measurements of ministry success rather than on Jesus. Our egos sometimes crave bigger crowds and more attention, yet our primary motivation should be the love for Christ that drew us to our ministry call in the first place.
Uh oh! So it’s not a desire for unapproved sex, but rather a sensual focus on things that are not sufficiently Jesusy.
How dare they!
Of course, the SBC itself—and evangelicalism generally—view performance metrics as vitally important in judging a church’s performance. Pastors whose churches don’t show external markers of growth and success (like membership growth, donations, baptisms, new construction, etc) get side-eye from other Christians. Jesus must not be blessing that church—or its pastor. And generally speaking, evangelicals never experience a shortage of guesses regarding just why Jesus isn’t helping that church—or its pastor—succeed.
That’s why the SBC maintains databases of external performance, and prints them every year in their Annual Reports. For obvious reasons, they can’t measure Jesusing itself. All they can measure are performance metrics. And so they do exactly that.
Segue: Heathens’ hedonistic impulses don’t automatically result in cluttered hearts
This part always reminds me of the massive difference between me, as a hedonistic heathen, and Southern Baptists’ tribalistic and false beliefs about hedonism. The day I got my gorgeous little 1995 Miata MX-5, I was overjoyed. And I stayed that way.
For the entire time I owned that car, there was not a single day that I saw that lipstick-shiny car and didn’t just burst with joy over it being in my driveway. I had a Miata-shaped hole in my heart, I reckon. Once a Miata drove into it, that hole was perfectly filled.
So I was not barren, exhausted, or empty at any point regarding car ownership.
You could repeat that sentiment for my other big purchases. I buy with intentionality and purpose. Sure, some people compulsively buy stuff to fill the gaping black holes in their hearts and give them a ghostly semblance of a personality through consumerism. However, most people don’t.
Once again, Southern Baptists’ accusations say a lot more about them as people than they do about the accusation topic in general.
The ending prayer for Jesus to magically cure pastors’ cluttered hearts
At the end, Dance offers up a prayer that ought to magically cure pastors’ cluttered hearts:
PRAYER: Jesus, I admit that my earthly desires have gotten in the way of my love for you. You are my joy and my salvation. Nothing is as great as serving and loving you. Lord, purify my heart from the worries of this world.
But it sounds a lot more like a mangled attempt at positive affirmation than anything else.
Positive affirmations are supposed to refocus our thoughts on a topic that is causing us trouble in our lives. If we habitually use negative self-talk, learning to use positive affirmations can feel clunky and unnatural. But over time, we get used to this new way of engaging with ourselves. And just reframing situations in a more positive way can seriously influence our mental well-being.
Way back when, my tribe of Pentecostals called this style of affirmation speaking truth to power. See, the affirmation was already true in a spiritual/imaginary sense; we simply wanted it to look true in reality too. Nowadays, I see evangelicals calling it manifesting or affirming their beliefs. Either way, affirmations like the one Dance presents here are a big part of evangelicals’ method of engaging with the world around themselves. They seek to change how reality looks by describing it differently.
Unfortunately for evangelicals, this method of engagement is completely ineffective.
Why evangelicals’ affirmations and manifestings don’t work
For the most part, positive affirmations stop us from sabotaging our own selves or engaging in self-sabotaging behavior. But to work to change our thought processes and impulses, they must be paired with real-world actions. Here’s how Healthline describes that combo attack:
Consider that nosy co-worker who always asks questions about your personal life. You don’t want to say anything to offend, but you also have no intention of answering their questions.
An affirmation like “I can remain calm even when I feel annoyed” might guide you to a habit of deep breathing or grounding exercises when you start to feel your blood boil.
These tactics, combined with your affirmations, help you get through the stressful moment until you can politely make an escape.
But all Dance is doing in his post is chiding pastors for not Jesusing sufficiently enough, then offering them a prayer to recite that simply reframes Jesus as their emotional priority. Then, at the end, he has pastors asking Jesus to “purify my heart from the worries of this world.”
If it actually worked for evangelicals to ask Jesus to magically strong-arm people’s hearts and change their minds, then the SBC wouldn’t be now in the middle of its second decade of membership decline and its fifth decade running of dwindling evangelistic effectiveness. And evangelicals as a group wouldn’t be noted more for their hypocrisy and cruelty than for their Jesusosity. They wouldn’t be acting exactly like we’d all expect any other bunch of dysfunctional authoritarians to act when they start losing cultural power.
Unfortunately for evangelicals, they worship a being who doesn’t actually interfere at all with their lives. Whatever they’re counting on Jesus to do, he is demonstrably not doing it. More than any other evangelicals in the religion, SBC pastors know very well the truth of that simple fact.
SBC pastors’ cluttered hearts will tell on you—er, them
This SBC Bible study is not about pastors actually having emotional health and dignity. Nor is it even about helping pastors to focus entirely on Jesus and Jesusing over the very real worries that occupy their lives.
Rather, it’s about pastors not blaming the SBC’s broken system and flawed message for their lack of emotional health and dignity.
Pastors are quite right to have worries and concerns. Their flavor of evangelicalism is particularly noxious. More than other flavors of evangelicalism even, theirs fails to produce decent human beings, much less decent human beings who Jesus the Jesus-Jesus 24/7/365.
In every single way, their message is flawed. Their roadmap is broken; the route it describes and prescribes doesn’t actually exist. Thus, evangelicals can’t possibly travel it to get themselves from Point Conversion to Destination Decent Human Being Who Jesuses the Jesus-Jesus 24/7/365 (and is Definitely Going to Heaven). If anyone dares question that message, they can expect copious retaliatory Christian love in response.
Worse, the SBC’s tribalistic social system is hopelessly dysfunctional and broken. Long ago, its leaders and members lost their ability to meet their own stated goals as a group. The denomination became, instead, a vessel for growing, guarding, and disseminating power within the group: for authoritarian leaders to become increasingly powerful at the expense of the increasingly-powerless authoritarian followers serving their interests.
Cluttered hearts are an important sign of a broken system’s flawed messaging
From the standpoint of any broken system’s authoritarian masters, the worst thing that could possibly ever happen would be for anyone to start questioning that system’s dysfunctionality and core messaging.
Members must view the system as perfect and sacrosanct. They must view its message as divine and so far above questioning that even to dare hint at questions gets them trampled immediately.
So pastors who can’t Jesus the Jesus-Jesus 24/7/365 must be made to blame themselves for doing something wrong within that system.
Instead of pastors perceiving that their “cluttered hearts” are an important tip-off that their system is broken and its message flawed, the SBC needs them instead to frame their perfectly valid worries and concerns as a “them problem” and not an “SBC problem” at all. And that “them problem” is only a problem because they haven’t Jesused it away through focused 24/7/365 Jesusing.
(The answer, of course, is because Christians live in the real world like all the rest of us. As such, they know exactly where the rubber of false belief meets the road of implacable objective truth—even if they don’t want to admit it to themselves.)
By framing these valid concerns as sinful worries, the SBC can phrase their charity work with impoverished retired SBC pastors and their widows as something to get concerned about after the fact, and not as a sad and all-too-common end path for retired SBC pastors and their widows that should have been prevented at the very start of those pastors’ careers.
Hooray Team Jesus! The broken system totally comes out on top once again! And the message is still totes perfect!
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Today’s inspired earworm comes from Patsy Cline’s cover of “Your Cheating Heart.”