Tonto was always there for the dirty work.
Among the hazards of the ministerial role is one I have come to think of as the Lone Ranger syndrome. It is a problem that arises both from the expectations congregations often have of ministers, and from our own expectations regarding our work.
The characteristics of the Lone Ranger are disturbingly like those that congregations tend to expect of their ministers. He is brave, strong, wise, honest, virile, and he always rides off without waiting to be thanked.
He is also masked, a distant sort of authority figure, ultraclean in a white hat on a white horse. He never rolls in the dust or is humiliated in combat, never looks foolish or makes a mistake, and does not show negative emotions such as rage, despair, guilt, or sorrow. He is always cool, calm, and collected behind his mask. He is the leader, giving direction and expounding truth in an authoritative voice.
Unfortunately, congregations are not alone in harboring such expectations. We ministers tend to want to be Lone Rangers. After all, we have silver bullets unavailable to other fighters of evil. The Bible contains all truth necessary for salvation, and we are its interpreters. Jesus is the answer, and we are his representatives. Why should we not, then, expect to ride off into the sunset having righted wrong and conquered evil?
But frustration usually attends our attempts at Lone Ranger ministry. We use our silver bullets to defeat the world’s evil, and they do not work. We give the answers in preaching and teaching and counseling, but people do not respond. We work to solve problems, but evil persists. We are ineffective and disillusioned.
I find a comparison of the Lone Ranger to his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, helpful. Consider Tonto’s characteristics. He is a member of a minority race, looked down upon by the population in which he lives, he plays the servant role, does the dirty work, takes a beating during the pair’s adventures. He is companion to the Lone Ranger, not vice versa.
Nor is Tonto masked. He is the common person who can mingle without notice in the crowd. He does the scouting, listening patiently, incognito and unnoticed, yet openly present for any who wish to know him. He talks little but acts with a swift competence. He is strong, brave, and effective like his counterpart, but without his status and power symbols.
It seems to me that much of the frustration, confusion, and dissatisfaction in the ministry comes from the Lone Ranger syndrome. The stereotype of the minister as closed, masked, and distant is all too familiar. When our behavior and manner of relating to others take on these characteristics, the Lone Ranger syndrome begins eating away at our ministry.
Perhaps the problem stems from a mistaken sort of Lone Ranger Christology. The church labeled Docetism a heresy in its first centuries. The creeds were written with the specific purpose of affirming the full humanity of Jesus Christ as well as his full divinity. Popular religion, however, much prefers to emphasize the divinity and downplay the humanity.
Some years ago I taught a course to three large classes of teen-agers, using the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. What came through repeatedly was the surprise and delight of these youths as they discovered that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. They had been taught that Jesus was like the Lone Ranger, always clean and serene, never experiencing anger or frustration or disappointment, never subject to the struggles of human existence. No wonder congregations expect their ministers to be Lone Rangers.
The real tragedy, however, is the extent to which ministers accept and promote that image, then feel frustrated and guilty because it cannot be maintained and is not effective. Perhaps our difficulty is fundamentally theological. Perhaps our view of Christ, and by extension, our understanding of our own ministries, has been docetic.
Tonto, as was noted, is associated with common humanity, having no status apart from his own humanness. The New Testament insists that Jesus’ power and authority were manifest not in his distance from humanity, but in his total immersion in the human condition. It is his willingness to join us in our weakness and suffering that makes him our Lord and Savior.
The ancient affirmation in Philippians 2 speaks of “Christ Jesus, who … emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men …”
What touched the young people through the rock opera was the way Christ’s divinity shows through his humanity. God’s authority and power in him became clear precisely in his response to human circumstances and suffering. They no longer saw him as a storybook character unrelated to real life, but as real, fully human like them, yet by God’s power triumphing over the human condition.
Similarly, we who are his ministers cannot be instruments of God’s authority and power except as we take “the form of a servant.” We too must be human, not hiding behind masks, pretending a perfection we cannot maintain, keeping our personal lives and struggles carefully curtained. Only as our parishioners know us as real persons will they trust us with their deepest needs and ask about the strength that undergirds our lives.
While Jesus did a lot of teaching during his ministry’, we are saved not by his teachings, but by his birth, death, and resurrection. The New Testament letters make virtually no mention of his teachings, focusing almost exclusively on his act of self-giving love for sinners. What he said in his preaching ministry draws its final authority from what he did in silence.
Our speaking should carry a similar authority, based not in robe and collar and pulpit, but in self-giving actions by the influence of God’s Holy Spirit. Talk of love carries weight only in the aftermath of loving acts.
Too often we ministers have been lured by our own egos and by unrealistic congregational expectations into a comic-strip role of masked and costumed superiority in contrast to our Lord. He spoke with authority, not as the scribes, because his love was genuine and transparent in his actions. We too may speak with such authority, but only as we shed our Lone Ranger mask and honestly and lovingly share our lives with our people.
WILLIAM R. MCELWEEDr. McElwee is senior minister of Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Trenton, New Jersey.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more