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Ethics and Religion Talk: As you've aged, have you grown more hopeful or more cynical?

After serving for as many years as you have as clergy, do you think you're become more hopeful and optimistic? Or rather cynical? I hear and read so much about people leaving the clergy due to frustration with their flocks, boards and policies.

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“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

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Linda Knieriemen, a retired pastor of the Presbyterian Church (USA), responds:

I served for 30 years as a pastor and am grateful that my age and circumstances allowed me to retire three years ago at age 65. I feel less optimistic but more hopeful. That is, my hope is based on the long view of humanity with our Creator which my faith tells me will be good, peaceful and fulfilling. I doubt I will see the the end of the story but only this wide, troubled and chaotic middle. It is my responsibility to participate in activities that support that long term outcome. My optimism, however, is waning. On a day to day basis there is more war, more political polarization, more aggressive racism and less basic civility. All of these matter to me, but any treatment on behalf of justice and peace feels less effective, exhausting and lonely. 

The Rev. Sandra Nikkel, head pastor of Conklin Reformed Church, responds:

I have matured in my call and in my capacity to love others. I have a saying: I am a shepherd of God's flock and I love my sheep, even though some of them bite. The truth is that ministry, like marriage, gives us an opportunity to grow and mature. God's purpose is that through our ministry and through our marriage, we are perfected in love and service. So, I try to take every opportunity to remember that. And I treasure the times of encouragement so that they carry me through the times of discouragement. I try to remember that I am the Lord's servant and that this is His Church and that in the same way we as parents have been entrusted with our children, God has also entrusted us with the church we have and He expects us to make room for Him to guide us, provide for us and sustain us through each and every challenge we face. So, I try to never leave him out of the ministry I do. If I take my place of servant, He will take His place of Lord. Finally, I remind myself that the end result is always up to God. "Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. " (Psalm 127:1)   

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

I am so very grateful that my role as Pracharak (Outreach Minister) of our local Hindu temple allows me a ridiculous amount of autonomy. I haven’t dealt with our board in ages. If there is any political intrigue or factions, I am gleefully oblivious to such. 

I am very optimistic about our growth, family involvement and increasing our impact on the community. I suspect that one of the reasons for my bright outlook is that the paradigm of Hindu temples is quite different from most other congregations. There are no sermons in our ceremonies. We do offer occasional lectures by guest speakers, but otherwise, there are no political or social issues that easily divide us. This is not to say that there never any controversies, but certainly not enough to diminish my optimism.

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

I am an optimist and I have been inspired by my congregation. I am well aware of many ministers who are frustrated by the congregation they serve. I have at times been challenged and stretched but we have overcome those moments. I cannot speak for other ministers, but I think being an optimist gives me the ability to continue my calling. I feel very fortunate and blessed to serve my congregation.

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

Reformed Christians believe that the true Church of Christ “hath been from the beginning of the world and will be to the end thereof” (Belgic Confession, Article 27). We do not despair or fall into cynicism over the present state of the Christian church, whatever challenges, weaknesses or corruptions seem to be in the picture. The apostle Paul, perhaps more than any other leader of his generation, was aware of the challenges and difficulties that beset the church in those times. Yet he drew this conclusion: “Nevertheless, the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, the Lord knoweth them that are His" (II Timothy 2:19). Christ is building His church from generation to generation, and He is a wise master builder (Matthew 16:18). 

But what you say is sadly truethe Christian ministry is in a state of crisis. The burgeoning number of seminaries in all parts of the country keeps the supply of new ministers flowing, so little thought is given to the many who leave their office in a state of exhaustion and discouragement. Likewise, a blind eye is turned to the many church members who drop of out of the ranks because they can no longer accept the public positions of the church on social and political controversies or the growing gap between what our Savior teaches and how His followers live and behave in society. It would be false to give the contemporary church a clean bill of health, but it may be too soon to write an obituary.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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