The Death of Perfection

Today's UPI column

So they tell us…

that the last word that the pastor said was “Why?” Seems like a good question when you wife has just emptied a shotgun into your back.

We may never really know what happened to the Winklers of Selma, Tennesee, but what is being described as incomprehensible, seems quite understandable to me. I think I can describe quite clearly why this, or something near to this, might happen in many parsonages in America.

First, I have two caveats. One - I can’t judge this particular woman – there is not enough information, and once the lawyers are involved the full details may never be known. Two – no matter what happened – nothing, I mean NOTHING justifies murder.

That said, from the reports of Mary Winkler’s words after her arrest I can see a perfect storm for murder brewing in that house and that community.

I have spent 15 years in counseling. I have been invited into the secrets of many “Christian marriages”, many of them lived out in parsonages. I can tell you that I believe that there are thousands of people; pastors, elders, deacons and their wives whose private gut reaction to the news of this crime was “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

Here is the recipe for a Christian matrimonial murder.

Start with a church culture that says that pastors and their families have to be, if not perfect, then better than everyone else. In these cultures, the pastor’s family is seen as the proof of the Gospel. If they live a blessed, Biblical life then God, the Bible and the church are proved true. If not – then they are hypocrites and all their teaching is lies. This is way too much pressure. Nobody can live up to it, but a lot of people try and ironically what that effort requires is the ability to lie and fake. Fake happy when you’re not. Fake nice when you feel crabby. Pretend concern when you are really too tired to care. You cannot admit normal human mistakes. You cannot admit lapses in judgment because if you do it reflects badly on God.

This kind of falsehood has a backlash. When you hold in ugly -- it just gets uglier. When it comes out -- and it will come out, usually towards the people your love the most -- it can be truly nasty.

Now add to this a theology that says that you especially cannot admit or fix a mistake if that mistake was a marriage or an ordination. You can’t divorce your spouse simply because they are consistently mean to you. You can’t admit that you were totally unprepared for marriage. You can’t admit that while the choice of the ministry sounded like a good idea at the time, you now have discovered that you are not cut out for it. Marriage and ministry are not choices, they are sacraments and holy callings. You can’t change your mind or admit a mistake about these things without being disobedient to God.

Stir in some theology that tells women in particular that they cannot stand up for themselves in the day to day business of life. The flipside of marriage as a sacrament and unbreakable holy calling is that women actually have a lot of power in these marriages. She can take a stand, choose her battles and win if she chooses to. He can’t do much about it either. But often the theology and church culture does not tell the woman about her power. Some matriarchs in these cultures find and wield their power, but often it is not spoken to in public – it is not transmitted to the next generation.

If you live in a culture like this, and under a theology like this, a marriage of constant belittling, criticism and bickering can be soul killing. People always look for the big bad secrets like adultery, sexual abuse or physical abuse when murderous rage occurs. But consistent verbal meanness can be just as toxic or more so. And if you cannot talk about it or get help for it, the pattern persists and gets worse. And if the toxic couple also has to pretend that their partner is a saint when they are in public, the dissonance and private rage can reach volcanic proportions.

Now take this situation and add in just a little of one or more of these common human problems: a little brain chemistry issue, a bit of postpartum depression, a childhood abuse issue, a little familial mental illness, a minor league addiction, consumer debt problems.

Add in only one thing more, a loaded shotgun in the hall closet at disaster lurks at your door.

I would be willing to bet that the Winklers never saw this coming – their family and friends sure didn’t.

Let’s learn something from this, ok? God is all about choices – any theology that makes you feel trapped is not really from God. And God’s reputation isn’t really going to live or die on your perfection. Lighten up on your clergy and their family. Set a new church culture that tells the pastor that she or he may model how to get help for problems, not pretend to live without them. Let’s start telling our young people that they can make mistakes, admit them, and fix them. Let’s tell all our children that they have the power and the right to stand up for themselves. The proof of the Gospel is less about how good your cleric is, and more about how good we can be to each other in our humanness. Let’s try harder.

Question for you - I've been quoting you in my blog ( What name or title do you prefer? Rev Senger Parsons, Rev Parsons, Ms Parsons...?

Dear Jen,

Thanks for reading the blog. It's fun to see stuff float around the blogosphere.

I am a Quaker and we don't use Rev. or any clergy title. So I guess what you used my full name Peggy Senger Parsons is what I prefer. I alphabetize it under P. - using maiden name as a middle name. I use my real name at all times on the internet - another Quaker issue for me.

once at an ecumenical gathering I arrived on motorcycle and was introduced as "The woman who puts the rev in reverend" ! lol - Didn't have the spiritual fortitude to correct that one!

again thanks for stopping and stop in anytime.
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