Loving the Herods

There’s this guy, a member of a church. He’s not fictional. He’s real. He makes my friend cry in her office after he’s made her feel less than human.

It happened like this: he came into her office. To me, her friend, it sounds like he barged into her office and then declared, “Did you know you don’t like people?” This very real church member went on to explain to my friend that she played favorites. He rejected her shyness and then made her cry. Really, who wouldn’t cry? No one in the life of the church had approached her about this. Instead, he took it upon himself to tell her that “all these people” have a problem with her. Moreover, she apparently had a problem with them. He stood there, watched my friend cry, and expressed his compassion by saying, “You’ll get thicker skin as you get older.”

First, for obvious reasons, he earned his title: Man Who Makes Me Cry. Whether it was over his complaints about Youth Sunday or her shyness, she referred to him in this way – until one day on the phone with another friend. On that day, in the midst of her rantings and ravings about this non-fictional church member, she called him a persecutor. It got worse. She got so upset, she called him Herod.

It seemed to fit. And so, it stuck.

This persecutor has a female counterpart. She got her name from another pastor calling a friend in frustration and rage, and with a few angry tears. Miles away, in another church, there is a woman known to her pastor as Mrs. Herod. Again, it seemed to fit. After all, it felt like Mrs. Herod was truly seeking to chop off her pastor’s head. And so, it stuck.

The problem, as my friend explains, is that Mrs. Herod seems “outwardly supportive” to the point that she will throw off her pastor “by saying or writing something so kind and lovely.” Ironically, this is how it started with Herod too. That pastor always thought Herod had her back. Obviously, they were both wrong. Herod didn’t have her back and Mrs. Herod was not always kind and lovely.

You don’t just get this kind of name in passing. You have to really earn it. You have to really upset the pastor over and over again. You have to really put some edge in those off-hand comments, as Herod did when he remarked, “If I were a minister, I’d be the first one here and the last one to leave.” There is no appropriate response that can address this kind of remark. Herod and Mrs. Herod don’t want to hear it. Mrs. Herod is more than willing to send you an e-mail to address her issue, time stamped for December 31, 2008, with a subject line reading “Disappointed in You.” It doesn’t matter that her pastor was on vacation. It doesn’t matter to Mrs. Herod that her pastor works hard to maintain appropriate boundaries.

And so, pastors who are usually careful about name-calling start doing just that. They start name-calling – not to their church members’ faces, of course – but in every phone call they make to those few friends that understand that Herod and Mrs. Herod deserve their names.

Now, I’m willing to be diplomatic. I’ll try to see this from all angles. It’s possible that Mrs. Herod’s behavior is symbolic of the gaps that still exist between clergy and those they serve. While many clergy firmly understand and uphold their boundaries, this doesn’t always mean that our church members understand. They think their clergy are supposed to be available when they’re not. They think that they can help, and so they offer tidbits of wisdom like Herod does about growing a thicker skin. Isn’t that fantastically helpful?

It’s also possible that Herod just has issues with all strong women. It’s certainly possible that he lashes out at all women that have a place of prominence in the life of his church. However, that doesn’t forgive him for his behavior any more than it allows for Mrs. Herod to “help” her young female pastor. As young woman clergy, we don’t always want help. We always want support.

That’s when the phone rings. Mrs. Herod is at it again. Now, I know what you’re thinking. We should not call our church members names – even with colleagues. I don’t care. Get over it. We still do it. It keeps us sane.

Calling them Herod or even Mrs. Herod is not the same as the quiet comments you share with other members of the staff about particular church people, like the man that worshipped with our church for a couple of years that I swore to be the spitting image of the sorcerer Gargamel of the television cartoon Smurfs. I didn’t mean to disrespect this man with this striking similarity. I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t affect my interactions with him, but it was really just a coincidence that I noticed and even commented upon with my colleagues. I didn’t share this reflection with him though. I didn’t offer it and watch him react – as Herod might have done.

In the Gospel story, Herod slaughters innocents and tries to trick wise people. This church member is no different. He stands in his pastor’s office and watches her cry. Of course, she doesn’t want him to see her this way. She would much prefer to be strong and confident until he leaves her office – but that’s not how it happens. He gets to see it. Every last tear my friend cries.

This is not the same kind of behavior as the woman who rushes up to you three seconds before worship starts to tell you that her son’s tractor trailer overturned last night and killed him. It’s not even the same as the church member who told his son that I was a “doll.” The Herods are another story.

Even though they exist in churches that are far from my own, I know the type. It’s not just because I’m young or because I’m a clergy woman like my friends. I know the type because they exist in every church. Because of our call to be the type of community where all are loved because God loved them first, the Herods are out there – and my job is to love them. I don’t want to love them. I find it incredibly hard to do. Still, Jesus reminds me that I’m called to love them and so I try. I try very, very hard, but in doing so I might call them a name or two behind their back.

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14 replies
  1. MaryAnn
    MaryAnn says:

    And sometimes loving them means saying “You may not speak to me that way.” Jesus commanded us to love ourselves too.
    Thanks for this article, Elsa, though I’m sad there’s a reason for it. I had a really visceral reaction to it, probably because I know a few of these types.

  2. friend
    friend says:

    I hope and pray for the ability to say “you may not speak to me that way” and then not cry when the response is even more inappropriate than the first comment.
    I know these characters well, and I suspect we all do, and yet I also hope no one else has to know them.

  3. A Minister Who Cries
    A Minister Who Cries says:

    Thank you for this article. I wish it were not so, but it is. Praying for the day when I don’t need to take “an early lunch” and go home and cry, but also thankful for others who understand the need to do so and to call a friend to vent.

  4. This Hits Home
    This Hits Home says:

    I wish I could say that I’ve never known any Herods. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
    Prayers for all who cry. And especially for my colleague, who is crying today thanks to a whole group of Herods.

  5. Alex
    Alex says:

    My good friend and I talk about a former parishioner of hers as “Mr. Sharpie” for the mean notes he would write to her using bold black strokes of a Sharpie-brand magic marker. As a birthday gift for her a couple of years ago, I ordered her a box of personalized Sharpies: “Rev. Jane Doe”.
    Great article. I think the names are necessary to take some of the power out of this particular brand of cruelty.

  6. Steph
    Steph says:

    The Herods I have encountered have couched their abusive commentary in religious terms, as if that made their behavior and words OK, or even righteous. Using religious language as a weapon is a trait I’ve seen far too often, and too many have been hurt by it, lay and pastor.

  7. ann
    ann says:

    fantastic piece, elsa.
    i’ve heard of parishioners’ last names being turned into verbs by not only clergy but by their fellow congregants in order to cope with thinly masked cruelty passed off as religiosity. so, say someone’s last name was smith… “oh, you just got smithed. it’s happened to all of us at some point.”

  8. Amy
    Amy says:

    I struggle with “She Who Shall Not Be Named” who innocently asks questions that ultimately undermine my leadership. Despite several conversations and repeated attempts at reason, this issue stems from her complete disregard for my office and her dislike/distrust of my youth.
    I won’t be changing the situation – just working on changing me.
    And, yes, there are private times where steam still needs to be blown off!
    Thanks for the article. I wish the church was immune from this kind of thing. But alas…

  9. Joy
    Joy says:

    Thank you for this, it helps me to realize that the “Herods” of my parish are not my fault or some sort of anomaly. Thank you!

  10. Jane
    Jane says:

    I am over forty so I have hesitated to comment but I am wondering how others think that members of a congregation should let a minister know that some perceive her as playing favorites. Like most people, I find criticism, no matter how it is delivered, painful and my first defensive instinct is to dismiss the criticism and the critic. But usually there is truth in the criticism that I need to consider. Dismissing criticism without reflection and dialogue with the critic seems inappropriate to me for pastoral leaders.

  11. Betsy
    Betsy says:

    Ouch! This hits a bit close to home and is partly why I am beginning fulltime hospital hours and getting to leave my parish ( slowly and gently but still leave). I got tired of crying all the way home in my car and tired of the ” we are just helping” passive aggressive notes. I don’t love my Herod right now. Maybe it makes me the worst priest ever.
    There’s some really angry lonesome chracters in church. And I could not make peace with that.

  12. Elsa
    Elsa says:

    I think this hits close to home for many of us — in fact, I know it proves true for men in ministry as well as those over 40. This is one of those experiences most pastors have and leaves each of us feeling like the worst priest/pastor/minister ever.
    I also find that many of us (though not all) seek the support of colleagues. I believe that is what this publication and its connective ministry offers. When we publish an article, we seek to build each other up so that we can proclaim the Good News. I think you raise good questions, Jane. I hope we all reflect, pray and discern without merely pointing fingers at the Herods among us. More than anything, I hope we all have a safe space to do that reflection.

  13. teri
    teri says:

    Jane, I think the issue is all in the HOW…coming to the pastor and saying that all these anonymous people who haven’t bothered to come forward to any other church leader think something, and saying it in a condescending manner like the one described here, says to me that this one man has an issue. If there is a real issue, it would need to be addressed the way any other conflict should be addressed: face to face, no anonymity, with compassion and humility. If that’s not possible, then through the channels of the church (personnel, pastor/parish relations, etc) would be appropriate. But to walk into the office and say “did you know you don’t like people?” gets the person nowhere except the fast track to Herod-land.
    As a pastor I am grateful for my colleagues and friends around the world and through this community that help me process these things and find the helpful parts while discarding the stuff that’s only meant to hurt or further Herod’s personal agenda.


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