Throwback Thursday Books – The Penguin Principles

In 1985 Lyle Schaller wrote that “one of the most urgent problems facing Christianity on the North American continent is the product of a severe imbalance in the population.” Not biblical illiteracy. Not theological incompetence. Not good old-fashioned mendacity, greed, and lust for power. No, Schaller wrote, the population is out of whack.

“Our culture includes an excessive number of people who enjoy making others feel guilty and too few adults who can laugh at themselves and their foibles,” Schaller continued. “The most highly visible dimension of this imbalance,” he concludes, “is the overabundance of adults who gain considerable pleasure out of a huge variety of efforts to make their pastor feel guilty about being less than perfect.”

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Thus Schaller begins his introduction to one of my all-time favorite books, The Penguin Principles: A Survival Manual for Clergy Seeking Maturity in Ministry. David Belasic and Paul Schmidt published this hilarious, wise, and insightful little gem in 1986.

I was ordained and began serving a parish in 1984. So, the book came out just at the time I was experiencing the first of numerous cycles of disillusionment with pastoral ministry, with the congregation, and with myself as a pastor. One of my seminary professors recommended the book to recent graduates as a salve for our pastoral souls, a needed infusion of humor, and a plea for perspective from pastors who take themselves all too seriously.

“Perhaps the audience that will benefit most from the wisdom contained in this volume,” Schaller wrote, “will be the recent seminary graduates who have the opportunity to study it during that journey between departure from seminary and arrival in the first pastorate.” I got my prescription for this vocational medicine a little later than that but certainly early enough in the process for it to do me a world of good. It’s easy to read the little book at one sitting, and I did that – each year for nearly every year of my active parish ministry.

Now, I come back to it from a perspective I could not appreciate earlier. “Another audience for this book,” Schaller continues, “is composed of ministers nearing retirement, who, as they look back over their years of faithful and devoted service, are still puzzled over why so often things did not turn out as anticipated.” Once again, I’m a bit behind on the calendar, but not fatally so. “The book will enable them to reflect on their pilgrimage,” Schaller assures the reader,” with insight, laughter, and new satisfactions.”

Quite right.

But why, the authors ask in their opening pages, the “Penguin” principles? “Penguins seem to have that unique dignity that many people expect of the pastor. Yet,” they write, “as dignified as penguins seem to be, they look so ridiculous as they waddle around on the ice.” Belasic and Schmidt note that penguins are sensitive to heat. They have very treacherous enemies. They are relatively small and defenseless beings. They have a powerful homing instinct. And “No matter what happens to penguins, they keep their heads high.” Pastoral penguins, the authors suggest, have an “alien dignity” from God.

It is worth noting the Penguin Principles here. While you can get the gist of the book in five minutes, the stories, insights, and self-deprecating humor are worth the full read. The principles are:

The Five Percent Principle: “Despite the pious things we say, at any given time, less than five percent of any group of people in the church is operating with purely Christian motivation. The other ninety-five percent is asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

The Inverse Insight Principle: “Most of the time, in the world of the church, things are not what they appear to be.”

The Ecclesiastical Friction Principle: “There is a friction in the church that burns up enormous energy, consumes endless hours, smothers creativity, impedes progress and often creates quite a little heat!”

The Creative Ignorance Principle: “In the ministry it is better not to know some things, even if you have to forget them forcefully.”

The Tweaking Principle: “They’ll only do it to you if you let ‘em.”

The Pastor Principle: “The ultimate principle for pastors is a ‘tough love’ that looks beyond the irritation of the moment and in the strength of Christ loves people as they are.”

These principles are a clever compilation of wisdom from our theology, psychology, and sociology of church life. We church folks do not check our sin at the door on Sundays or any other day of the week. People are complicated and often don’t even know their own real motives for doing what they do. It’s easier to say no than yes, and once a position is assumed it will usually be defended to the death. With knowledge comes responsibility. Good boundaries make healthy people, healthy pastors, and healthy parishes. Following Jesus and pleasing people rarely take the same path. When those paths diverge, following Jesus is the path less traveled but the one we must take.

Even if you know all the principles by heart and have had them pounded into your head by hard experience, the book is so worth the one-liners. Some are painful proverbs from the public domain. For example, “if the temptation to give advice is irresistible, the ability to ignore it is universal.” Or the classic from Luther – the one “who desires the public’s ear must endure the public’s mouth.” Never in human history has that been truer than now.

Pastoral penguins flourish when we accept the genuine humanity of our parishes and people, when the “ideal church” is not understood as the adversary of the “real church.” We do best when we look in the mirror daily and embrace the humility enforced on us by the mysteries of the human heart, human community, and God’s grace. We will survive better if we make allowances for self-delusion (ours and that of others), conflict, sloth, and all the other of the seven deadly sins. We are best served if we hold our desires for success and approval lightly and our trust in Jesus tightly.

I have often reminded myself of the words of Winston Churchill in this regard. Following World War II, someone was commending him on his success and the marvelous turnouts for his speeches and other events. Churchill noted drily that whenever he was impressed with his own popularity, he remembered that approximately twice as many people would likely show up for his hanging! That’s the spirit of the Penguin Principles.

Each principle gets a chapter of wry observations and rueful stories of pastoral adventure and misadventure. The chapters conclude with Items for Reflection/Study/Action.” In these sections, the writers take their tongues out of their cheeks and invite the readers into some serious vocation work, rooted in biblical witness and solid theology.

I hope you will not conclude that this is nothing but a cute little book filled with snarky sniping and dark inside jokes for parish professionals. Each of the Penguin Principles has its “law” side (in good Lutheran theological categories) and its “gospel” side.

For example, as we reflect on the Five Percent Principle, thank God for the five percent! The Inverse Insight Principle trusts in the guidance of the Holy Spirit because our own understanding is often wrong. The Friction Principle is not absolute but allows us to see growth in the midst of the struggle. The Creative Ignorance Principle depends on and reinforces the vocation of the Priesthood of All Believers. The Tweaking Principle reminds us that “even a mighty oak was once only a nut that held [its] ground.” The Pastor Principle reminds me that God is God, and I am not – and that’s the good news!

The book is written from the perspective of two white, male, mainline pastors who served in congregations when Christendom was far less frayed and fragmented than it is now in the United States. So, it has numerous cultural limitations. It is written from a clear Lutheran framework in theological terms, although it doesn’t make a big deal of that. That doesn’t make it irrelevant to other traditions, but it is a reality in the book. The matrix for the principles is an established, old-line Protestant congregation which for the most part no longer exists or is on life-support. That’s all true.

Yet, much of the wisdom in this little book still “works” for me. I was the target audience for the book, so that’s not surprising. And as Schaller noted in his introduction, I’m still the target audience as I reflect on four decades of life in professional church leadership. Much of that journey is shrouded in the mists of memory and the mysteries of human interactions. In retrospect, I wonder how anything productive ever got accomplished along the way.

“Precisely!” Belasic and Schmidt would say, I believe. “Remember the Penguin Principles,” they conclude, “and waddle off into the fray!” Fair advice for life in any time, place, or vocation.

Text Study for 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 (5 Epiphany B 2021): In Praise of Persecuted Preachers

So, what’s a pastor good for anyway? That seems to be a question that bothered some of the earliest Christians – and not in a helpful way.

The section leading up to this text (1 Corinthians 9:1-15) responds to the Corinthian question about why they should pay Paul to proclaim the Good News to them. In this section, Paul makes clear to his readers that he’s not doing it for the money. Instead, he begins that section by declaring his freedom as an apostle, which is rooted in his firsthand encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ (see 1 Corinthians 9:1): “Have I not seen the Lord?

This bone-deep sense of vocation is hard for most contemporary readers either to believe or appreciate. I have had conversations with a number of parishioners over the years who simply could not accept that I was doing something that – if it had been up to me – I would not be doing. We live in a culture where personal choice is paramount (at least for the privileged). To do something under compulsion seems to most people at best stupid and at worst immoral.

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Proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ is not a career path for Paul. He had chosen the opposite path, as he himself describes. He was working as a persecutor of Christians, not a proclaimer of the Gospel. He notes this directly in 1 Corinthians 15:9 and in Philippians 3:6. If it were up to Paul, he’d be doing something else. Instead, a necessity has been laid upon him. This necessity is of such power that he says he would be miserable if he didn’t respond to his Divine vocation.

In my experience, people who enter the ministry of the Good New of Jesus in order to find happiness and self-fulfillment are often deeply disappointed. I find it analogous to the vocation of having and raising children. People who have children in order to find happiness and self-fulfillment are routinely disillusioned.

It’s not that Christian ministry is a source of unrelieved misery. Nor is it the case that parenting is an awful burden. Each vocation offers joy, meaning, purpose and satisfaction. But anyone who enters either vocation learns quickly that the heart of ministry is putting aside self for the sake of loving service. Truth be told, if it were up to most of us, we’d be doing something else.

But we can’t. Not won’t. Can’t.

Following Jesus leads us on a path of “downward mobility” as Katherine Grieb puts it. This emphasis, she writes, “is particularly needed in Corinth, where the Christian communities have become persuaded that success in church leadership means a high salary package, impressive credentials, and dramatic miracles. Paul insists instead,” she continues, “that the marks of a true apostle (someone who has been commissioned by the crucified and risen Lord) are evidences of suffering for the gospel and the power of enduring love in the face of rejection and misunderstanding” (page 159). So much for prosperity preaching!

If Paul were doing it for the money, that would be his reward. Instead, he knows that he has been entrusted with a “commission.” It’s hard to translate the word accurately here, but perhaps a better translation would be “office” or even “stewardship.” He uses the same word in 1 Corinthians 4:1. “Think of us in this way,” Paul writes, “as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” That verse should be kept in mind as we read today’s lection.

Nor is Paul doing it for the acclaim or honor, quantities which might have been even more valued in first-century Greco-Roman culture. “If I proclaim the gospel,” Paul declares, “this gives me no ground for boasting.” In Galatians 6:14, he makes it clear that there is only one thing about which Christians can rightly boast. “May I never boast of anything,” he says, “except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

We don’t know the background complaints for the section in detail. But I can imagine what they might be. People who have no money are unlikely to complain about having to pay Paul. The pushback likely comes from the same wealthy patrons who will draw fire in chapters 10-13 for eating all the best food at the Corinthian love feasts. Why, Paul, should we pay you to criticize us and how we live? Keep that up, and we’ll cut off your allowance!

Parish pastors know that conversation well. There is often the veiled threat – only rarely spoken – that straying outside the lines of establishment acceptability may result in an abrupt change in employment for the preacher. As I have said elsewhere, I am at least as guilty as the next pastor of self-censorship, soft-pedaling, vague generalities, and outright avoidance of confrontation in order to maintain my income, home, and career. Sometimes that might have been the course of wisdom. Sometimes it was certainly the course of cowardice. Retirement is an incredible luxury for which I am grateful to the Church daily!

Paul chooses to be unencumbered by any obligations to interest groups or entitled agendas. He proclaims the gospel “free of charge” so that he can make full use of his authority in the Gospel. In theory, at least, that is the only authority that ministers of the Gospel possess (and in theory, at least, the only authority they need).

That authority, rooted in the Word of the Gospel, apart from any institutional power or leverage, is rarely understood or acknowledged these days. It is even more rarely respected – in the Church and out. It is comforting, I suppose, to know that Paul had the same issues with entrenched and entitled power and privilege in the earliest congregations as well.

Richard Lischer was concerned nearly twenty years ago that the Church was “cautiously distancing its ministry from the word of God.” In place of the word were lodged a bland professionalism and a fuzzy pluralism. “Stripped of its word, however, the ministry disintegrates,” Lischer notes. “Without its organizing principle of acknowledgement, the pastor’s calling relapses into the chaos of busywork. The minister,” Lischer says, “is sliced, diced, and cubed into a thousand contacts and competencies but left without a heart of passion in the word, without a vocation” (page 168). Lischer remembers the memorable title of Joseph Sittler’s essay in this regard – “the maceration of the minister.”

So, what’s a pastor good for anyway? I think pastoral leaders need to offer a message in answer to that question at least once a year, and perhaps more often in this secular age. “The pastoral office is God’s way of helping the church to discover its true vocation in the world,” writes Lischer. “It is God’s gift to the church. The office of pastor was never meant to create a hierarchy of privileges in the body of Christ,” he continues. “It is not that sort of gift…The most fundament mark of the office of pastor, then…is the special gift by which it enables the people of God to discern their call.”

Paul may be free from extraneous encumbrances, but he is not a free agent in his ministry. He is “free from all” as he writes in verse nineteen, but he has enslaved himself to all for the sake of gaining some. He puts this another way in 2 Corinthians 4:5 – “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” Paul has an inescapable vocation, given by the Lord firsthand.

Grieb expands on Paul’s imagery in a useful passage. “To understand the force of Paul’s image,” she writes, “we must recall how the institution of slavery functioned in the ancient world. The labor of the slave’s body provided leisure…for the owner. Paul is arguing,” she concludes, “that the service of the leader functions to create freedom for the community as a whole” (page 160). In Corinth, this means that the privileged, the positioned, and the powerful must make room for the rest. Paul will not settle for less.

Paul describes his efforts to reach those outside the congregation “by any means possible.” That likely produced additional complaints from those already on the inside and in charge. Paul, we’re the ones who are footing the bill. So, stop spending all your time and energy on those unworthy poor people who don’t have two pennies to rub together. Remember which side of your bread is buttered and who is holding the knife.

Paul may be a slave to the Gospel, but he won’t be a hostage to the privileged, powerful, and propertied. In his commentary on, Frank Couch writes that Paul “speaks helpfully to a present-day society that often approaches life — particularly church life — through the lens of a self-centered, self-protective sense of entitlement. It is easy to assume that God favors church people over “unchurched” people,” Couch continues, “and to act as if church people do not need to think about how their own practices and attitudes might unhelpfully assure that those “unchurched” people will stay that way. Too often,” he laments, “we give those outside of the faith no reason to feel invited or welcome to become insiders.”

Lest you think I’m stretching a point here, let’s look at the categories of people Paul chooses to embody for the sake of proclaiming the gospel and gaining some. Jews, lawful people, lawless people, and the weak – Paul says he has become “all things to all in order that from all I shall save some” (my translation). We might expect one more element paired with the “weak,” that is, the “strong.” But they are not mentioned. The omission is pointed and precise.

This omission takes us back to the opening chapter of First Corinthians. “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters,” he writes in verse twenty-six, “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” Not many were wise or powerful or noble-born, but some were. These appear to be the members of the community who are making a stink about a variety of issues impinging on their perceived privilege. Paul does not become strong in order to gain the strong. Instead, we read in 1 Corinthians 1:25, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

So, Paul, why do you do it? No one is completely selfless, after all (perhaps this was a murmured comment by some of Paul’s detractors). You don’t get all the moral high ground, Mr. Apostle. There must be something in it for you too.

Quite true, Paul seems to reply. I am doing it all for the sake of the Good News. As I do it, I find that I am a joint partner in the faith, hope, and love the Good News produces in me and in my listeners. It’s no accident that the word the NRSV translates as “share in its blessing” really is yet another form of the Greek word koinonia. Even as Paul benefits from the Good News, he does not do so alone. It is only in the partnership of the Gospel that Paul finds a reward.

Paul is not naïve about the potential costs of preaching the Good News in ways that afflict the comfortable. He knows that a cross may stand in the middle of such a path. Grieb quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in this regard. “Christianity has always insisted,” King wrote, “that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.” Preachers of the Good News need not seek out suffering for its own sake. Resistance, rejection, recrimination, and retribution will find us often enough.

We live in a time when bishops and pastors get emailed death threats for speaking the Good News of reconciliation in Christ across boundaries of race, gender, orientation, class, and nation. We live in a time when the Gospel of Jesus Christ is hijacked by white supremacists and pseudo-Christian nationalists to serve violent political agendas. We also live in a time when some Christian preachers are exhibiting courage in public in ways not seen perhaps in this country since the years leading up to Civil War – at least not in white churches. We know this is a way of life in Black, Brown, and Asian churches, but perhaps some of us are finally catching up a bit.

For that proclamation and for those preachers, I thank God. And I pray for their safety, sanity, and security.

If such preachers were doing this for money or notoriety, or even for safety and job security, they would certainly pick a different message. But they cannot. Woe to us if we do not continue proclaiming the Good News!

References and Resources

Aaron, Charles L., Jr.

BAGD, page 190; page 608.

Couch, Frank.

Daubert, Dave. The Invitational Christian. Day 8 Strategies. Kindle Edition.

Grieb, A. Katherine. “’The One Who Called You…’ Vocation and Leadership in the Pauline Literature.” Interpretation 59:2, April 2005, pages 154-165.

Henrich, Sarah.

Lischer, Richard. “The Called Life: An Essay on the Pastoral Vocation.” Interpretation 59:2, April 2005, pages 166-175.

Metzger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.

Tucker, W. Dennis.

Wenger, Timothy. The Freedom of a Christian 1520, (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.

Weathering the Whitelash

Today I am grateful for my colleagues in congregational leadership who are bravely leading their congregations out of Jim Crow Christianity and into the light of real discipleship. The verdict has not yet been returned, of course, in many white Christian congregations. Which “JC” will we choose – Jim Crow, or Jesus Christ?

Dr. King noted that our Christian worship services represent the most segregated hours in American life. That was true when he said it sixty years ago, and it is still true now. In many parts of this country, that segregation has worsened rather than improved. We continue to harvest that bitter crop week in and week out as Christians remain divided by the color line.

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“White Christian churches have not just been complacent; they have not only been complicit, writes Robert P. Jones in White Too Long, “rather, as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality. This project has framed the entire American story” (page 6). Jones wonders, as James Baldwin asserts, whether some of us Jim Crow Christians have been “white too long” to do anything different.

That’s not a matter for past history but rather for current policy and practice. “Even after the last white American who grew up in Jim Crow America has died, the legacy of white supremacy will survive because, after hundreds of years of nurturing and reinforcement, it has become part of our culture and institutions, Jones notes. “Sometimes it lies dormant, but until it is excised, it remains potentially active in overt and subtle ways” (page 224). This legacy is active and overt in the voice mail and email boxes of a number of white mainline parish pastors today.

I can hear between the words of sermons in the past few weeks (and sometimes quite clearly) that a number of mainline pastors have been hammered for expressing their honest scriptural and theological views of the events of January 6th, 2021, and related realities. They are experiencing what some writers now label as the “whitelash” – the aggressive response by the system of white, male, supremacy to any public challenge.

Some of my colleagues have been cancelled by local media and other platforms. Some have been threatened, covertly or overtly, with removal from their pulpits. Some have been accused of making their congregations and worship services “unsafe” for what is either veiled or open white supremacy.

This last bit is just the church-ified version of calls for political “unity” and for “moving on” from sedition. This “nothing to see here” perspective assumes that racial justice talk in the Church is new, suspect, and likely heretical. That is hardly the case. Mainline preachers know that many of us have censored ourselves for years, decades, centuries, in deference to a particular structure and expression of white, male, hegemony in our churches. The change is that some of our pastoral leaders can no longer keep silent.

Some white preachers have spent lifetimes of un-safety while the white, male, supremacists have ruled without question. I found that every week I needed to weigh something I would say against whether it would generate dissatisfaction that might lead to complaints and ultimately removal. I confess with shame that in most cases I excised or soft-pedaled or camouflaged the “objectionable” parts of the message so my voice mail and email would remain relatively untroubled. I am in some measure of awe at those active white preachers who choose the path of courage at this moment.

I can hear, as well, between the words of those who cannot or will not take the risk. There is the studied avoidance of any mention of racial justice, repentance, and repair. There is the focus on the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Those disruptions are very real for the vulnerable (most of whom are Black and people of color and women), but for many of us those disruptions are simply minor inconveniences. The Pandemic and the normal flow of everyday difficulties provide more than enough cover, however, for those of us who would really rather change the subject when it comes to race.

Many white preachers experience congregational ministry to some degree as a hostage situation. The hostage takers still seek to maintain control, but that control is slipping. So, they feel “unsafe.” For the privileged, however, equity always feels like a loss. For the privileged, however, sharing power always feels like a loss. For the privileged, however, equal protection and opportunity and access, always feels like a loss. The Good News of Jesus Christ always makes power, privilege, and position feel unsafe. You don’t get crucified by the state for being too nice to people.

Some members will leave our Jim Crow congregations as a result of honest and courageous preaching. Some of them will make a dramatic exit in order to punish the offending preacher. Those folks will find a “safe” space. There are lots of Jim Crow Christian congregations and preachers happy to embrace them and their money.

The Church has spent centuries underwriting white supremacy. In fact, we had a large hand in inventing it. Rejecting and abandoning that role will not be easy or pain-free. But we must be communities of conscience, not of comfort. “In short,” Jennifer Harvey writes in Dear White Christians, “transformation will come when white people hear well enough that we actually get it and realize that moving to anywhere new will require letting it cost us something” (page 236).

One protest will be that this is not a “loving” response. I think of the rich young man who comes to Jesus in Mark’s gospel. Jesus looks at him and loves him. Then Jesus tells him to sell all he has, give the money to the poor, and to come and follow Jesus. Then he will have treasure in heaven. The man goes away sad because he’s unwilling to part with his possessions. Jesus doesn’t stop him. And he doesn’t stop loving him. Those actions are not contradictory but rather are two sides of the same coin.

This is hard for some people, and some pastors, to take in. We mainline pastors have been “therapeutized” over the last fifty years or so. Our increasingly secular culture can’t figure what in the world we are good for as theologians. So, the culture has given us the only role that makes sense – spiritual counselor. We pastors have willingly accepted that role because it’s good to do something the world sees as useful.

As we have become more therapeutic, we have lost our public voices. People see us almost exclusively as comforters and counselors. When we step out of those roles, people are often confused. If counseling is our primary role – making people feel better about themselves and their lives – then every hard word is experienced as an error or a failure. In Lutheran terms, we have abandoned the “Law” part of the “Law/Gospel dialectic.” Unfortunately, when the Law goes, so does the Gospel.

The whitelash falls, in my estimation, disproportionately on mainline women pastors. By definition, these pastors are suspect in systems of white, male, supremacy. Add to that the demand that women always are to be nurturing, comforting and quiet. The white, male, supremacist stew becomes triply toxic. Many women pastors serve small to medium sized parishes. These are highly relational and easily dominated by a few families with money. Thus, the hostage-holding power of these households is multiplied and magnified.

When all else fails, in my estimation, there is the weaponizing of white women’s tears. If push comes to shove, one of the matriarchs shows up in my study to weep about how hard things are and how mean I am as a pastor. The males in that system are honor bound to defend the women and avenge the offense. It’s the trump card which is often played in church council and congregational meetings to devastating effect.

I don’t know if the white mainline churches will be able to weather the Whitelash of the present moment. When the whole armor of white, male, supremacy lands on a parish pastor, it’s often time to move on. If it happens enough times to enough pastors, they will find their way to early retirement and/or alternate employment. And the system of Jim Crow Christianity will be sustained and reinforced.

Abandoning our Jim Crow Christianity and embracing Jesus Christ requires self-examination and confession. It requires repentance and repair. That’s hard and painful work, but it beats going away sad and unchanged.

So, pastoral leaders, I’m praying for you today – for you to have energy and hope, courage and calm, perspective and perseverance. I’m grateful that you aren’t giving up. We need your leadership and love. And there are still thousands of knees unbowed to the Baal of Jim Crow Christianity (let the reader understand…).

Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians (Prophetic Christianity Series (PC)). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.