Magazines 2019 Jul - Aug Caring for politicians in a harsh culture

Caring for politicians in a harsh culture

03 July 2019 , 2019 Jul - Aug By Preston Pouteaux

A pastor and a politician point to a better way

It was around our dining room table, the air still warm with the savoury reminder of dinner, that our two families shared our niceties. Stories and laughter, updates and epic family tales as we McAllisters and Pouteauxs cleared the dishes and moved to the living room. The kids went downstairs and we scooped some apple crumble into dessert bowls, but there was something else happening.

I didn’t know it, but Bruce McAllister, our beloved MLA, was in the throes of the greatest political decision of his career. Sitting in my living room and sipping tea, Bruce held his secret.

At that time nearly five years ago, I didn’t know Bruce well enough to ask the deeper questions, and he didn’t trust me enough to tell. As a community leader he’d become celebrated for keeping conversations on the level, but now that he had become a politician he more often had to hold his cards close.

It is a strange weight we put on our politicians when we ask them to hold it all together and carry their burdens alone. This secret was about to change everything for him.

Those early family meals, and the painful journey Bruce had to take in the years that followed, forged between us a friendship that transcended the 24-hour news cycles, outlasted seismic shifts in government, and ultimately opened both our eyes to a troubling trend in Canadian politics.

We now firmly believe politicians need care as much as nearly any profession in our country. Sadly most politicians find themselves isolated in a polarizing culture that commodifies and dehumanizes politicians.

Bruce experienced this firsthand as one of the people at the centre of a pivotal political moment in Alberta’s history. The weeks and months after his decision became some of the hardest of his life.

In 2015 two major parties were exploring ways of coming together. A plan was drawn up and presented to several MLAs to bring unity to fractured politics. While the goal of merging two parties was good, and ultimately achieved, the timing and approach was off. In a single day nine members of one party, including my friend Bruce, crossed the floor to join another. What they hoped would be hailed as a brilliant and necessary move to unite proved instead to be disastrous. These politicians were called the nefarious nine, traitors and worse. One day, while Bruce was jogging with his dog before church, he ran past graffiti calling him "Judas."

From celebrated representative to the recipient of the foulest vitriol, Bruce entered an experience in politics few of us will ever endure. It was devastating and it got worse.

In the following weeks battle lines were hastily drawn in our community. People were either against Bruce or for him. Headlines and reporters were circling like vultures ready for a piece of news. The wildfire spread painfully close – in our own church, where Bruce and his family had long worshipped, he was met with looks and whispers. It revealed to all of us that below the surface of our community was a boiling political fervour. The story grew beyond Bruce – it became about much more.

Bruce remembers those early days and how our relationship was forged in that political maelstrom.

"I was deeply wounded and I remember sitting together with you in my truck, overlooking the lake and asking, ‘Could God turn this around?’ This brought me to my knees."

"My heart was for my community and so I gave up my career to represent our community as their MLA, but I was broken and felt a failure. What I went through was so hard. I had to shelter my family, I lost weight and carried an anxiety I could not shake. I used to read the news and then I found that I was the news. I’m not sure anyone could completely prepare for that."

I am not a god

Our politics have placed unreasonable and unhealthy pressure on our politicians and governments to provide more than any human or institution can offer.

Doug Griffiths was the former Minister of Municipal Affairs for Alberta and has visited nearly every small town and neighbourhood in the province. When I asked him what his experience was like, he said, "Twenty years ago it was commonplace to show up in church and ask God for a miracle. Now we go straight to the town office and demand one by Friday."

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Griffiths explains that while people used to turn to the Church and God for larger-than-life questions, and to seek answers in community and prayer, today politicians and governments are viewed as the source of all solutions. "Unfortunately, we have traded away statesman who challenge us to rise up and own the responsibility for building our communities and nations in favour of politicians who promise to help us and do more for us," he says.

"That has created a sense of powerlessness in the public, who look to elected leaders to solve social problems for us." Griffiths believes this to be a dangerous new development in our public life because "Building a real connected community is not done by governments, or laws or programs. It is done by people who care about each other at their core, and help to lift each other up. That is community. It cannot be created by governments. In fact, it is lost to governments."

Today Griffiths leads an organization that helps communities rediscover the power they have to turn their city or town around. "Building community is the single most important job on Earth," he says.

When politicians fail to live up to godlike standards to solve every local problem, some people may respond with anger and bitterness.

Today Griffiths leads an organization that helps communities rediscover the power they have to turn their city or town around. "Building community is the single most important job on Earth," he says.

When politicians fail to live up to godlike standards to solve every local problem, some people may respond with anger and bitterness.

They deserve neither our impossible expectations nor our rage-fuelled hatred.

It is a caustic set of expectations that harm politicians, communities and the very fabric of our country. Politicians are not God, but they are certainly made in the image of God. How we treat them should reflect both these profound truths. They deserve neither our impossible expectations nor our rage-fuelled hatred. We must relate to our politicians in a new way. We do not need to demand more from them. Instead they need far more from us.

Much depends on our strong democratic systems and those who represent us. This year is as good as any for us to offer an unusually radical gesture of hospitality to our political leaders, parliamentarians and civil servants.

Better screening or better care?

Many challenging professions have a culture of care. Chaplains and pastors have offered pastoral care to firefighters, police, soldiers, professional athletes, doctors, nurses and even corporations and the royal family. These chaplains are available because often important and hard work requires the careful and attentive presence of a pastor. If a football team deems pastoral care off the field as having significance for work on the field, then we might think that caring for other vital roles in our society is well worth our time and effort.

Last year a Toronto Star columnist wrote about moral failings in the lives of two Members of Parliament. The headline from Nov. 29, 2018 reads, "The Clement and Grewal scandals surely show that Canada needs better screening of its MPs." The piece explores the necessity of ensuring MPs are fit to access sensitive information, and how we might better know which MPs are up to the task.

While some politicians may be unfit to serve at the outset, many ethical failings of politicians occur under the pressure cooker of political life. Instead of screening and trying to predict who will withstand the pressure, perhaps we need to offer support to our parliamentarians while they carry the heavy burdens of their work.

What if politicians facing big political decisions, ethical challenges, moral burdens or complex pressures were able to find the care of pastors to walk with them in the midst of their hardest experiences?

Our politicians are worth every care because the weight they carry is tied to the well-being of our country, our provinces, and our cities and towns. Imagine a political climate with fewer scandals, better decision making, more co-operation and a healthy posture towards wisdom. This is the kind of culture making in which we who are called to love our neighbours ought to be abundantly proficient.

The Church in Canada has in many cases been unable and illequipped to care for political leaders who in turn have felt unable or illequipped to reach out for support. Our country and the people who represent us at federal, provincial and municipal levels deserve more, and the Church in Canada can surely be more to each of them. We may not need to call for better screening – we need to offer better care.

But down He reached

Bruce McAllister and I have developed a growing trust, and we joke a bit about this unusual connection between a pastor and a politician. He said this simple friendship turned into something that transformed him.

"I took the mask off," Bruce says. "I am now more comfortable in my skin, not so easily offended or wounded. You came along to help me see that I’m not a failure, to see the good for me when I could not see it myself. We would sit by the lake and you walked with me, you were proud to associate with me when others were not. You helped me trust again."

pastorpolitician2.jpgIt is increasingly polarized in Canada with shifting allegiances, complex social issues and the ever-present voices of media.

God met Bruce, and like many of God’s beloved in the story of God’s people, God rescued and set Bruce upon a solid place. This is the work God seems to do, and is doing, in the lives of those who lead us. It is our calling to join Him in lifting up our representatives, not tear them down.

How we relate to our political leaders, even in times of strong opinions and political leanings, says a lot about what we believe about the lordship of Christ, and the redemptive work and role of the Church in Canada.

Today Bruce McAllister leads a thriving advocacy organization and communications firm which is informed by his years of public service. Looking back he offers a few words of wisdom for those of us who would care for parliamentarians, legislators and politicians.

  • Recognize that politicians are people. Dehumanizing leaders and representatives does not advance important conversations in our country and fails to honour the inherent value of those who serve in these challenging roles.
  • Do not vote in anger. Overcome strong emotions with compelling and clear reasoning. It is right to disagree and hold politicians to account, but leave anger and bitterness at the door where possible.
  • Talk to a politician outside the key talking points. Talk about nonheadline issues and get to issues that matter to you. You might be surprised to learn your local representative might have a lot of helpful insight on unique challenges, so listen and respond well.
  • Allow your local politicians to be normal with their families, especially those with young children. Respect the impact public service has on spouses and children.
  • Politicians have thick skin, as they should. However, they also need friends, colleagues, churches and communities where they can let down their guard, rest, worship and enjoy others without worry. We must make our churches an especially welcoming place for public servants of all stripes to find peace and renewal.

Our political climate is increasingly polarized in Canada with shifting allegiances, complex social issues and the ever-present voices of media and Twitter vying to shape our opinions. It is in this environment the Church in Canada is called to speak wisdom, move at a Spirit-led pace and attend to our leaders with deepening intentionality.

Instead of siding against politicians or working to sway their votes in some functional and mechanical way, we might do well to befriend our leaders, be trustworthy partners who instill hope, and be the voices of encouragement and care they need if they are to lead us well.

Much depends on our strong democratic systems and those who represent us. This year is as good as any for us to offer an unusually radical gesture of hospitality to our political leaders, parliamentarians and civil servants.

A God-sized vision for politics in Canada will always play out at human scale. This is where Jesus changed the world – face to face. Our work is not at the party scale, provincial scale or national scale. Our work will always be at the scale of one person caring for another. The kind of Canada we want emerges between two neighbours, and in my story, between a pastor and a politician.

Preston Pouteaux is an author and pastor of Lake Ridge Community Church in Chestermere, Alta.

FT ON THE GO

We think this article would be great to discuss with your small group or Bible study. We encourage you to make copies and share a brief discussion using these questions. To share electronically just point group members to www.FaithToday.ca/CaringForPoliticians. Let us know how it goes!

  1. Preston Pouteaux writes about "the strange weight" we put on politicians. What expectations do you have of elected leaders?
  2. The article alludes to our culture viewing government and politicians as the "source of all solutions." How do you view the role of the Church in speaking to and helping solve community challenges?
  3. What has been your experience interacting with politicians? How might this article shape your interactions going forward?

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