I was approaching college graduation and preparing for seminary when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a shooting spree in the Columbine High School library on April 20, 1999. The news coverage played for days in my dorm’s lobby.
It was all unfathomable: the loss of innocent lives, the desire to take those lives, and the preparation (including the acquisition of weapons) that made such a massacre possible. I was not alone in my shock. Despite all the reasons people speculated for such a devastating act, it would have been hard to predict.
Fast forward twenty-four years to the latest in a steady drumbeat of mass shootings. On October 25, a 40-year-old man drove to a bowling alley and then a restaurant in Maine, killing eighteen strangers and wounding thirteen others before ultimately turning the gun on himself.
Multiple people, including his ex-wife and son, his father and brother and his peers in his U.S. Army Reserve unit, voiced concerns to authorities about Robert Card before he picked up his semiautomatic rifle. Records show he pledged in advance to carry out the shooting spree.
Regrettably, none of this is surprising anymore.
Much has happened in the years between Columbine and Maine. Gun laws have been loosened and the National Rifle Association (NRA) has risen in influence. The NRA was founded as an organization focused on sport and gun safety but now it has become a powerful lobby for an extreme, unregulated interpretation of the Second Amendment.
Mass shootings are now part of the rhythm of our national life. Satire website The Onion has a piece it repurposes for each one: “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
As a nation, we have decided that it is more important to grant individuals access to military-grade weapons than it is to protect lives, even the lives of elementary-aged children. “Freedom isn’t free,” after all.
It is against this backdrop that pastors attempt to preach the good news of God’s love, guide people in their spiritual growth, accompany them in the highs and lows of life and equip them to make a positive difference in the world.
These ministry tasks have become exponentially more challenging as people have leaned further into their own desires, aided by an economic policy that permeates nearly every aspect of American life and emphasizes doing for me and mine at any cost.
Reactions to mask-wearing during the pandemic exemplify this attitude. Many pastors received pushback to congregational mask policies from individuals who weren’t worried about catching COVID-19, experienced discomfort wearing a mask or simply didn’t want to be told what to do. All the while, these protestors were missing the point that the masks weren’t just about them but also about the safety of everyone around them.
Many sermons about loving our neighbors as ourselves seemed to get lost somewhere in between the pulpit and the pews.
Because there is this clash between gun culture and Jesus’ non-violent love, between individual freedoms and the good of the whole, ministers are largely struggling. I would go so far as to say that they are experiencing moral injury, which is relational, emotional and spiritual damage that results when we feel like we are betraying our own deeply held values.
Few pastors, at least in moderate to progressive contexts, entered congregational ministry to tell people what they want to hear, prop up capitalism and support the collection of weapons to protect everything people are holding onto.
For that matter, pastors didn’t get into their line of work to argue about carpet color in the sanctuary or to ensure that their congregations stay open long enough to bury their dead. Instead, they want to make a difference in the lives of those within and beyond the church walls and partner with God to make the world more equitable.
This work is not out of reach for ministers, though it may sometimes feel that way. It requires helping their congregation reconnect to its sense of vocation by answering foundational questions.
What is the reason we exist as a church in this time and place?
What would the impact be on our members and our larger community if our congregation didn’t exist? What is it that we value most as a church?
Are these values truly lived out, helping us discern what we do and how, or are they more aspirational?
These are big questions that deserve full-hearted attention, grounded in worship.
If pastors and churches can have these honest conversations, there is potential for a vision that is faithful, challenging, and attainable. Pastors’ moral injuries heal when they feel more aligned with their congregations and churches deepen connections among members, between members and God, and between members and the larger community. That’s where we push back on the idea that we are only in this church and this life for ourselves.
And this is real freedom: the freedom to know and be known by others in ways that help us all to live more fully in the image of God reflected in each of us.
Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed is a Professional Certified Coach who helps clergy and congregations navigate transitions with faithfulness, curiosity, and hope.