Can Pastors Swear?

June 6th, 2011

I recently watched a few segments of the TV reality show, “Kitchen Nightmares.” Chef extraordinaire Gordon Ramsay travels the world jump-starting struggling high-class restaurants. It's an extremely intense process in which he comes at the entire kitchen crew and doesn't hold back in confronting them. The participants know they have to take the ranting and raving from him because their businesses could go under if they don't accept his severe evaluations. I found it fascinating because he manages to elicit extreme levels of emotion, such as profound compassion, fear, anger, and near rage from the crew. He draws out a whole range of feelings, including tears, by having them meet in the late night hours or predawn when they're exhausted and vulnerable.

I imagined him processing staffs of dying churches, which might be the help some congregations need, but the guy gets angry and cusses big time. He would likely be ousted after the first blasphemous outburst! And we all know you can't spout expletives in church, right? . . . Right?

Before my retirement, some of my most frightening recurring nightmares had me at my last church and I'm unable to stop preaching in the first worship service of the day. The sermon goes on and on until members begin pointing at their watches and then shaking them at me. Eventually they start leaving the sanctuary, but I can't stop. The nightmares got worse on occasion when a pew sitter would jump up and shout “Shut up, dammit! You've rambled for over two hours,” and I holler back, “Go to hell!”

If a preacher doesn't happen to believe in hell, could he get away with such a disturbing outburst in the light of day while wide awake? In times past he would likely be out of work by the following day. We clergy can refer to the term 'hell' in the pulpit in a biblical context but we just can't utter it on the job when we're at our wit's end.

How far can pastors push the envelope when it comes to using controversial expletives without losing their jobs? I never did it but I always wanted to ask my congregations if it's ever okay for ordained ministers to cut loose with curses on church property when they are boiling over with anger. Where does such intense clergy ire go when it isn't released on the church site? I'll tell you where it might burst out . . . in the preacher's parsonage. The first word emitted by our firstborn was a distinct “Dammit!” How did she ever come up with that? We lived next door to a Presbyterian pastor who hated mowing his lawn and let it be known . . . but I don’t think that was it.

I can't count the times I held back in my decades of ministry from letting out a choice curse at a contentious meeting, or when things went really badly behind the scenes between services, or during them for that matter. There were a few mean-spirited members throughout my tenure whom I felt should have been cursed at but I resisted the impulse. My hunch is they knew I was aching to cuss them out and they were likely aware they deserved it.

I recall a time when I served as an associate pastor in a large church. The first week on the job, I was assigned to record prayers for the phone ministry. The senior pastor wanted two-minute messages, no more and no less. It had to be exact for some reason. While working one late night in a sound booth above the sanctuary I was tired and on my tenth try to record this perfect message when I lost it and screamed “Dammit!” I stepped out of the booth around 11 pm thinking I finally nailed it and headed home. Once home, I decided to call and listen to the prayer. It was near perfect until it ended with an emphatic “Dammit!” and I may have referred to Jesus somewhere in there. The church was a good 40-minute drive from my home and I made it in 25, but not before a distraught parishioner managed to call in for a much-needed prayer. The next day the senior pastor removed the responsibility for that particular task from my job description

I think passionate pastors and lay leaders ought to be permitted to cut loose with profane exclamations occasionally inside their temples or at least on the patios. What if by suppressing the urges to vent the stress escalates, heart muscles are compromised a bit and the damage cuts off about one or two years of one's life? Could it be we're built to swear at times and if we fail to express our fair share of expletives bad things can happen to our bodies? Perhaps the need to vent never leaves us; it just gets stuck in our stomach or brain for all time if we hold back.

Maybe that’s why clergy are generally in such poor health.

What do you think?

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