The Ukiah Daily Journal

Pastor comes to terms with his backwoods roots

- Terry Mattingly leads Getreligio­ and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississipp­i.

Growing up in West Virginia, the Rev. Michael Clary always wondered about some of the archaic language his elders used, words like “yonder” and “reckon.”

Then he learned that his grandfathe­r — a steel-mill worker and country preacher — had memorized the classic King James Bible by listening to tapes during his long drives to the factory. He had a sixth grade education, and if he couldn't spell something, he could still quote a verse that contained the word and then find it in his Bible.

All that Scripture soaked in — deep. Thus, “I reckon” wasn't just another way to say “probably.” It was New Testament language, such as: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”

These Appalachia­n roots caused pangs of shame during graduate school, said Clary, who leads Christ the King Church, a Southern Baptist congregati­on in Cincinnati.

Soon after that, “I was pastoring a fast growing church in an urban environmen­t, and a spirit of elitism had infected us,” he wrote, in a Twitter thread that went viral. “The people we felt free to mock were conservati­ve, uneducated, backwoods fundies. … They lacked the theologica­l sophistica­tion and cultural insight I had acquired while doing campus ministry and studying at seminary.”

The bottom line: “I had moved on. I was better than them. I was more learned and cultured. I had `seen the world' and they hadn't.”

Clary said he wrote those “words with tears in my eyes.” Reached by telephone, he explained that he was facing the kinds of church tensions that arise while defending traditiona­l doctrines in a flock located a few blocks from the University of Cincinnati. It's hard to be “winsome” — a buzzword today — while trying to remain faithful in a bitterly divided culture.

That's precisely why this painful, personal Twitter thread — republishe­d as one text on several websites in recent weeks — rang true, noted John Stonestree­t, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Right now, many religious leaders may need to rethink “our chronologi­cal snobbery” while facing declining post-pandemic church statistics and evidence that “cultural influence” can be fleeting.

“In Pastor Clary's case, seminary credential­s and missiologi­cal savvy replaced the hard-won wisdom of faithful mentors and elders. In mine, theologica­l study brought a confidence that, in many ways, became arrogance,” said Stonestree­t, in a Breakpoint radio commentary written with Kasey Leander. “Many others have succumbed to the increased cultural pressures of our age, embarrasse­d by moral conviction­s that were considered nonnegotia­ble throughout Church history. The eye rolling, head shaking, and moral grandstand­ing soon follow.”

Clary stressed that he wasn't trying to minimize the importance of theologica­l education or to claim that modern pastors don't face different challenges than those who served in the past. However, anyone who wants to discuss “hard times” needs to pause and reflect on the realities faced by generation­s of believers.

As he thought about his own family, “it began to dawn on me: I was standing on the shoulders of giants,” he wrote. His greatgrand­father, for example, built his own church deep in the mountains and “lived to be 102 years old and was healthy and energetic up to the very end. In his 90s, he would take fruit baskets to the `shut ins' of his church.” Strengthen­ed by a marriage that lasted 74 years, he “stayed true to the Lord and to his calling for 80 years.”

Thus, at the age of 48, Clary wrote that he “repented of my arrogance. I repented of my self-righteous attitude towards `that old time religion.' … There are many points of doctrinal disagreeme­nt that I would have with my grandfathe­rs. But these were men who suffered & knew how to suffer well. … Men who finished well and stayed true.”

The problem, of course, is that it's impossible to turn back time and express the proper gratitude to his ancestors, said Clary, over the phone.

“There are so many times when I am facing challenges as a pastor, and I would love to talk to my grandfathe­r and my great-grandfathe­r. There are questions I want to ask them, now that I know that I don't know everything. … I think I'm ready to respect their answers.”

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