The Antifragile Pastor

Written by on December 10, 2018

Guest Post By C.R. Wiley

A lot of ink has been spilled on the subject of fragility, particularly when it comes to young people—you know, safe-spaces, and coloring books on college campuses, and all of that.

And while I could add my voice to the chorus, I think fragility is more pervasive than this. I suspect that most people, from every age cohort, no matter where they live, feel more vulnerable than people used to feel. They feel fragile. And there is an irony here, because in many ways we’ve never had it so good. We’re wealthier, healthier, and safer than ever. So what’s the trouble?

We’re more dependent than ever, that’s the trouble. Deep down we know we can’t take care of ourselves. Many of us have never had to. We’re cared for, planned for, and provided for by large, matronly institutions intent on removing all the uncertainty from our lives. I think it is fair to say that we live in a toxic matriarchy.

I recall a sitcom in the 70s called, “HOT L BALTIMORE” (the “E” had burned out on the sign). The hotel was filled with quirky residents, one of whom was a widow named Mrs. Bellotti.

Mrs. Bellotti had a grown son in diapers named “Moose”. He never came out of their apartment, and he was never seen, he was just heard, stomping around above the lobby of the hotel. Mrs. Bellotti nurtured and defended him with her powerfully enervating mother-love to a laugh track. Toxic matriarchy can make a fool out of you.

Good things can go bad, and even motherhood can go too far. This is what I mean by toxic matriarchy. A toxic matriarch fosters unnatural dependencies. Her nurture keeps people soft, vulnerable, and child-like. But as I am sure you have guessed, what I am describing is bigger than a few controlling women. Toxic matriarchy has been institutionalized. It’s everywhere. Forget all that stuff about patriarchy. Patriarchs say things like, “grow up”. We haven’t heard that message in a long, long time.

The Church is a mother, too. We should thank her for nurturing us. But we also have a father who expects us to grow up. And like good sons, there ought to be a day when we defend our mother, even from herself. And for that, a healthy measure of independence is needed.

Many pastors are too fragile to be depended upon for that. I don’t mean they’re fragile emotionally. I mean they are vulnerable, primarily to a loss of livelihood (such as it is—not many of them make much).

This makes it harder to tell hard truths. Telling the truth, may I suggest, is what makes a pastor a man. (Paradoxically it is also what makes the Church a good mother.) And it is also makes a pastor a professional. Professionals profess. That’s the vocation.

Once there were three vocations that made truth their profession: law, medicine, and the ministry. Later the disciplines of academe were added. Ensuring the security of professionals is what tenure is for, either on the bench—when it comes to judges—or in academe—when we’re talking about college professors. (Medicine’s truth is self-evident.)

It would be nice if pastoral ministry had some sort of tenure track. But it doesn’t. What you need to do is make your own. So, if you’re a pastor and you find yourself afraid to say what you really believe, here is some advice on developing your own form of tenure.

You should begin in your head.

If this subject is addressed at all in the literature this is where things begin and end. And while there is more to be said, this is a good place to start.

Three disciplines come to mind: memento-mori, trust, and self-denial.

Memento-mori is Latin for this endearing thought: remember that you will die. And that is a good thing to remember, not just because it keeps you humble, it can also help you tell the truth. It works paradoxically: by owning your fragility you transcend it. Fear is essentially the emotional that denies death. But once you accept death’s inevitability a strange calmness can characterize your life. Since you’re going to die anyway, you might as well die telling the truth.

For Christians mememto mori is followed closely by trust. Death doesn’t end our story. We’re not Buddhists, you know. We look forward to an afterlife.

Naturally, we can’t see it; it’s something we can only perceive by faith as through a dark glass. Still, we have Christ’s resurrection to go by. And that’s a promise of more of the same. I had an acquaintance years ago that worked with street gangs. Occasionally his life was threatened. His riposte was, “You can’t threaten a man with heaven.” That’s what I’m talking about.

Last of all, there is self-denial. This is similar to memento-mori, but in small doses. Through self-denial we learn to live without the things we can’t imagine living without. This was the strategy of John the Baptist. What can you take from a man who has already removed everything you can take? His life, of course. But John was ready for that, he had practiced dying a little bit everyday.

Now, when it comes to actually dying, most pastors would like to put it off for a while, especially if they have mouths to feed. This is why you can only derive so much inspiration from John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Saint Anthony. Those were single men. They could afford to die.

So, from here on out I will be talking to professional truth tellers who have mouths to feed at home. What can you do if you’re a pastor, beginning today, to become less-fragile?

One of the more helpful writers I’ve come across in this regard is Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In fact, he’s the guy that coined the term anti-fragile. I got it from him.

I won’t be able to do him justice here—not enough space. But I’ll try to give you a sample.

Taleb is the best-selling author of a number of books in something he calls his Incerto series. The book that made him famous is The Black Swan. The reason for its success was a black swan called “the subprime mortgage crisis”.  (The publication of the book coincided with the event.) The Black Swan is about random, catastrophic, unpredictable events—things that are not supposed to happen but inconveniently do, like a black swan, a bird that by definition shouldn’t exist, but does.

Another book in the series is Antifragile. The premise behind that book is this: whatever doesn’t kill you can make you stronger. If you’re familiar with that idea, you probably associate it with Nietzsche, but you shouldn’t. He stole it. The greatest exemplar was actually the Lord. And he took it even further by actually dying. But his death resulted in a single seed becoming many seeds. He was antifragile. If you only have time to read one Taleb book, make it Antifragile.

For the balance of my time I’m just going to look at one strategy in the Incerto and show how it applied to me. (I won’t even be able to get to antifragility properly speaking, but the following takes you in the right direction.)

Taleb has something he calls, “The Barbell Strategy”. Here’s his description of it from a glossary found in the back of The Black Swan.

“a method that consists of taking both a defensive attitude and an excessively aggressive one at the same time, by protecting assets from all sources of uncertainty while allocating a small portion for high risk strategies.”

There are a myriad of ways to apply this to pastoral ministry. But the place to start is with identifying your assets. What are we talking about here? If you don’t know what they are then you will run the risk of losing what you cannot afford to lose.

Here are some assets that you hopefully already have: a calling to tell the truth, your self-respect, and your family. The other end of the barbell is for the high-risk stuff. And one of the things you should put there, believe it or not, is pastoral ministry.

Pastoral ministry is risky business. If you mistake it for something you can’t afford to lose, you run the risk of losing the things that you really can’t afford to lose.

Most of the people that tell you to “go all in” on pastoral ministry don’t see things this way. But “all-in” is a formula for losing it all. Going all-in is rash. You set yourself up to betray your true assets. Here’s how it works.

Guys that go all in discover after a few years that they have a wife, a few kids, a mortgage, along with some other bills, and a high-risk job that barely makes ends meet. When these guys discover how fragile they are, they become highly susceptible to suggestion.

Here’s a quick low-grade example of how this works (nothing like losing your head, but it could come to that): Rev. Smith has a highly opinionated member (OM for short) that also happens to be the largest donor in his small congregation. OM decides it would be great to have Hillsong music in worship because their music is “peppy” and the kids will like it. (OM has a son that doesn’t want to come to church anymore.) Rev. Smith knows that the music is actually sappy, besides that, it’s borderline Gnostic. So what should he do? He has a choice that seems to place the material interests of his family and his church over against his convictions.

Wouldn’t it have been a wise precaution for Rev. Smith to have so ordered his life so as to keep the material interests of his family on the same side of the barbell as his convictions?

Most guys fail to think of that until it is too late. And the reason for that is this—they think that their paycheck is what makes them financially secure. They’ve located it on the safe side of the barbell (primarily because a deposit predictably shows up in their bank account every month). But in truth, it is the riskiest thing in their lives. It can be cut off in an instant.

What they need is something of a counterweight to their paycheck on the protected side of the barbell, something that they can really call their own. Please allow me to explain with an example from my own life.

I left my last denomination for a couple of reasons. First, since I was a member of the “inner-ring” I was privy to conversations that would have made the hair stand up on the back of the neck for the average pew-sitter. The progressives were ascendant. I would have stayed to fight if not for the second reason for my departure. Given their theology I came to see that the rise of the progressives was something of an inevitability.

Nevertheless, I had good reasons to stay. I was the pastor of a growing church, and my people liked me. Besides those things, I had a wife and three kids under-ten years of age. And of course, I had a mortgage.

Fortunately those weren’t the only things I had. I also owned more than my share of commercial real estate. For years I had been building up a portfolio on the side. Some people thought that this was a risky avocation. But it was less risky than depending exclusively on the high-risk vocation of pastoral ministry for my livelihood. In fact, when the day came, my commercial real estate allowed me to stay true to my convictions without making my wife and kids pay for it.

Besides the real estate, I also had trade—I had worked as a rough-in carpenter while I was in seminary. Later I was able to help other investors liquidate their holdings before the crash in 2008. (Many of us saw that coming; don’t believe what you hear on CNBC). I did well enough to be recruited by a very large commercial agency. If I had joined them, I might have ended up in Manhattan.

Today I am happily ensconced as the pastor of a Reformed church. I’m not at all connected in my current denomination though. In fact, I’m better known outside it than I am inside it, which is just fine by me. But lately I have smelled things in the air that are eerily familiar. I smell progressives.

Fortunately, I still have my barbell. This time it can help me to stay.

C. R. Wiley is a Presbyterian pastor. He has written for Touchstone Magazine, Modern Reformation, Sacred Architecture, The Imaginative Conservative, Front Porch Republic, Scenes Media, and National Review Online, among others. His most recent book, Man of the House: A Handbook for Building a Shelter That Will Last in a World That is Falling Apart is published by Wipf and Stock. His short fiction has appeared in The Mythic Circle (published by the Mythopoeic Society) and elsewhere, and the first book in his young adult fantasy series was published by Canon Press. He has been a commercial real estate investor and a building contractor. He also taught philosophy to undergraduates for a time. He is a member of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters.  Find him at crwiley.com.

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