During my first call I had some significant disagreements with the members of the congregation about the direction of the congregation. At one point the president of the council resigned so that he could have a voice and vote since the chair of a meeting has no vote. When I asked him why he told me “I have such a strong disagreement with you about the direction of the church that I feel it is my duty to ‘buck’ you and vote against all changes”. Looking back some six years later I realize that I may have been right about “mission” and “vision” but I know I was wrong about the way I dealt with the council and congregation.
I first gained support for my “side” and we would talk about why we were “right” and the other side was “wrong”. At the same time the other “side” would gather and do the same thing. When it came time to go to council and “fight” for our position we wouldn’t listen to each other. We weren’t open to the other person, they became an “enemy” and I must say that neither side obeyed Christ in “loving our enemy”. We didn’t see the other as created in the image of God and redeemed by Christ. They became someone in our way and in my most self-righteous moments someone in God’s way since they were against the “mission and vision” of the church. When someone is “against God’s ways” it is easy to attack them as “Pharisees” and feel good about it during the process. What I forgot is that Christ died for each person in the congregation and in that they are His and I was to treat them as such.
What I have come to realize is that God does care about the mission and vision of each and every congregation. God cares about what we do and don’t do. I have also come to realize that God cares deeply about who we are as people and as a congregation. He cares more about who we are (that is the kind of people were are) than what we do because what we do flows from our character and inner life. If we are people who are greedy then we will act accordingly, if on the other hand we are generous then our actions will be generous. One of the primary works of the Holy Spirit in the Christ follower is to transform our inner life so that we are as St. Paul would say, “lead by the Spirit and not the flesh”. So while I may have been battling for the “mission” of the church I was revealing my lack of Christ-like character and we as a council weren’t behaving in ways that gave glory to or testified to the greatness of God. The following are a few of the insights I gained from those meetings and my time there.
1. Psalm 103:8 “ The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”.
God’s nature is mercy, grace and slowness to anger. Often in our meetings we are not merciful with each other. We assume they are wrong and attack the idea with all our energy. This is the way we were taught in a competitive educational system but it is not the way we are to be with each other. We need to give each other mercy and grace since God in Christ has shown us mercy and grace. When someone brings and idea, no matter how off the wall or offensive it may seem we are called to listen openly and honestly and give the community a chance to discuss the idea without attacking the person. We need to learn to keep our anger in check. Too often we are quick to anger when God is slow to anger.
Steadfast love is a love that is not easily dismissed or discouraged. It is a love that can be count on and that weathers storms and the test of time. In God’s case it is a love that never fails. This is the ideal that we strive for and what the Spirit is working within our hearts for the brothers and sisters in our community and within the world. The greatest commandment is to “love God and love your neighbor”. After too many of my council meetings I left feeling not loved and I am sure that the people I fought with didn’t feel loved either. What a great failing. We should strive to love each other.
2. Luke 6:37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn and you will not condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.”
Matthew 6:12 “And forgive us our debts and we also have forgiven our debtors”
We are forgiven people in Christ. God has secured our forgiveness on the cross and has bound himself to that promise. We are called to experience that forgiveness and to live out of the abundant mercy, grace and tenderness that forgiveness brings. In my conversations with the council I was not forgiving, merciful or tender. I was hard, sharp, pointed and accusatory. While I proclaimed the forgiveness of sins each week and presided at communion it was clear that I was not living forgiveness. I was not tender with each person in the congregation or the council. I judged others because I thought they were slow and just “didn’t get it”. I would “debrief” my meetings and what I was really doing was gossiping and judging people, saying things like “they don’t care about the congregation or Christ’s mission in the world.”
Our meetings should be seasoned with tenderness and bathed in forgiveness. When we over speak, lose our temper of become accusatory we should be quick to recognize this and seek to restore our relationship. Jesus says, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24) It seems to me that God cares more about our relationships than our ritual worship because restoring relationship is worship.
3. 1 Peter 5:5-6 “All of you clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ’God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble and oppressed’. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”
One of my seminary professors made the comment once that he thought all ELCA social statements should begin with “we might be wrong but,…”. What this does is recognize that we do not see perfectly and yet still need to move forward discerning what we believe is best. Some believe this would be wishy-washy but it is true, we might be wrong about a number of issues. What this statement really does is put an aspect of humility into the process. I was convinced that I was right on all of the mission and vision issues in my first congregation and I may have been. However, I was prideful in my approach and dealings with the members of the council. I was not willing to listen to them, ask follow up questions for clarity or even rethink my own approach. I simply countered each point (with the scriptures when needed) and then went away wondering how they could be so dense as to vote against me. What I failed to do was to help cultivate was an atmosphere of discernment, discovery and discussion. We did not work together to listen to Christ’s voice; instead we fought to have our own voice heard. All of us were prideful in our approach.
One of the results of our battles was that we became an angry group of people divided into “camps” or “factions”. Instead of being a place where “Christians are known by love” we became simply another dysfunctional institution. Visitors to worship could sense the tension and they were unlikely to get come back. Due to our fighting and lack of love we developed a highly anxious and unkind atmosphere in the congregation. As a result our regular members lessened their support of both finances and time leaving us with less people and less money. We blamed each other for the decline in worship attendance, money and parishioner involvement. Things from that point only went from bad to worse. The conflict showed that our spirituality was immature and that we really didn’t love each other. Both sides lost.
Looking back I would like to have had a better emphasis on who were Christians and I would have liked to strive harder to deepen our relationships with Christ and one another. I would have liked to been a person who stove to live differently in the midst of conflict and not succumb to the temptations of anger, gossip and over reaction. I hope in future conflicts I will remember those lessons and I hope I am growing into a different person.