Week after week, year after year, ministers rise to preach knowing their flocks expect them to deliver messages that are truly inspired by God or, at the very least, somewhat uplifting.
After years facing United Methodist congregations in the Bible Belt, the Rev. Harold Bales had an epiphany about this duty -- although some might consider his candid vision a kind of ecclesiastical nightmare.
Imagine what would happen if a pastor stepped into the pulpit and said something like the following:
"Dear friends, in the past week I have prayed and prayed," said Bales, describing this scenario. "I have read my Bible, talked to other colleagues and read stacks of inspirational journals -- seeking a word from the Lord.
"Well, what I need to tell you is that I have heard nothing from the Lord this week. I was kind of wondering: Have any of you heard from Him?"
It's hard for clergy to imagine doing such a thing, said Bales, because most are afraid to be this transparent. Some fear that members of their flock will freak out and call their ecclesiastical superiors to register a complaint or, worse, to express concern that the pastor may be cracking up.
In addition to his years in what Southerners call "tall steeple" churches in cities like Charlotte and Asheville, N.C., Bales has also been on the administrative side of this kind of drama. He served as superintendent of Salisbury District in Western North Carolina and, for many years, was on the staff of his denomination's General Boards of Evangelism and Discipleship.
In other words, Bales has fielded his share of appeals from ticked-off church members, as well as having inspired a few such calls himself. A native of Knoxville, Tenn., he is now semi-retired and living in Kannapolis, N.C., where he writes columns and bites of social media for his website, TheSouthernFriedPreacher.com.
The bottom line for many pastors, said Bales, is that they are afraid to level with their people -- person to person.
"Let's face it. Your people can run you crazy. But that's really not where ministers get into deep trouble," he said. "Through the years, I have been especially interested in all the ways that ministers struggle with their own humanity. You see, they expect so much out of themselves, which can be hard since their people keep trying to hold them to standards higher than the saints and the angels."