In environmental circles, Extended Producer Responsibility means manufacturers are responsible for the cost of the whole life cycle of their products. I wish we had the same for preachers: we should be held responsible for the harm done by theological maliciousness and pastoral malpractice, even decades later.
A repeated trauma
It happened again. My church in downtown Seattle has a steady stream of visitors, including members of the LGBTQ+ community and Exvangelicals who have been harmed by the churches of their upbringing.
So about every other month, I have a quiet emotional sit-down with a visitor and hear their story of exclusion or harm done, and the years of pain and self-doubt they had suffered from bad exclusive theology by someone in authority. It’s always a struggle to keep my rage simmering at other pastors who have hurt people for decades after their words. I wish there was something we could do about it.
But now at least I know what I want to call it.
Parallel: Extended Producer Responsibility
In climate justice circles, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a movement to hold manufacturers accountable for entire lifecycle of their products, from gathering materials to production to consumer use to disposal/recycle. By definition:
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) as an environmental policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle. An EPR policy is characterised by:
- the shifting of responsibility (physically and/or economically; fully or partially) upstream toward the producer and away from municipalities; and
- the provision of incentives to producers to take into account environmental considerations when designing their products.
While other policy instruments tend to target a single point in the chain, EPR seeks to integrate signals related to the environmental characteristics of products and production processes throughout the product chain.
One example in America is in Maine, where companies have to pay for the recycling of electronic equipment they produce, leading to 105 million pounds of electronics recycled in Maine over a 15-year period.
Basically, manufacturers and producers have to consider the recycling and buyback cost of their products at the end of their life cycle, leading to either recycling programs or longer intended use of their products.
The Hack: Extended *Pastoral Responsibility
Using this as a metaphor, perhaps we need to define EPR in another genre: the church.
An Extended Pastoral Responsibility would say that pastors should be responsible for the harm done by hateful theological claims, such as those that denigrate or oppress people groups like women, LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, etc. EPR would apply to the preacher or those who practice that professed theology. Pastors need to think about the effect of their theologies, not just how good it feels to have the crowd hate the same people they do.
The extreme examples are easy:
- Church pastors who say homosexuals should be put to death should be tried for murder if their congregant does something terrible.
- Pastors who say women are inferior to men should pay the compensation cost when women are given less pay by men-owned businesses in their congregations.
- When there is a clear 1:1 cause and effect, determining pastoral responsibility is easy.
It’s harder to assign EPR when we only see the effects after decades of pastoral neglect and theological malpractice as visitors timidly step into a safe worshipping space. These people bear the burden of years or decades of uncritical claims about who God hates or of outright hateful theology, whereas the pastors and preachers didn’t bear those burdens. But from sitting with visitors month after month, each one can remember the preacher or even the sermon that haunted their spirits and erected barriers to them seeking church again for years or decades.
I wish pastors could be held responsible for their bad theology. Because the burden of harmful theology is on the recipient and on the church community much further downstream from the toxic preacher.
Personal and Pastoral
I know the weight of this responsibility because I have caused harm.
When I was a newbie minister, I prayed with a family at the bedside of a young man taking his last few hours of breath. I said something along the lines of that it was good they were able to be here to journey with him together as a family. The man died, and a month later, his widow and I were planning his memorial. She told me she could not believe that I had said in the prayer that something involving her husband dying was good. There was nothing good about that. There was no silver lining in that moment to lift up. It hurt her and it took courage to speak up. We talked, I apologized, she got closure—and I learned that the words I say as a pastor have a profound impact and I should put in the work to be intentional with how I speak in those moments.
Imagine if I said such harmful things on the regular such that the one harmed had simply left and had no closure or healing for years or decades. I should feel terrible about that.
And maybe I should also be responsible.
I’m not responsible for marriages I officiated that end.
I’m not responsible for youth I confirmed that receive criminal records.
The baptisms or Eucharists that I have offered sacramental authority over are not negated by my sins.
But I am responsible for teaching and preaching the grace of God known through Jesus Christ, rather than hatred of women, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, and other people groups.
This preached hatred happens regularly in direct or subtle ways at evangelical and fundamentalist pulpits throughout the United States, even a few in my own denomination of The United Methodist Church.
As a pastor, I am charged to test my theological claims, and do the work to rid myself of racism, sexism, and homophobia, lest I pass on my bias as Gospel truth.
I don’t know how to extend monetary or legal responsibility for hateful preaching and misanthropic theology to the preachers of those terrible things. But I do know the cost of their careless (or very carefully crafted) words is paid by former congregants years or decades later, and that’s not what they opted into.
Preachers should be more mindful of the harm done by their preaching and teaching, and some form of Extended Pastoral Responsibility would go a long way to healing the church and starting reparations and amends with those the church universal has harmed.
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