One of the beauties of inviting a dialogue is that it uncovers realities that I hadn’t even planned on. That was definitely the case this week.
Last week I shared my experience of leading a congregation nearly thirty years ago as an idealistic, ambitious and, also, naïve and unseasoned pastor. I assumed that just because the church said they wanted to grow that it meant they were ready for the work and the changes that would accompany that growth. My mistake was that I was thinking more like an employee than a pastor. An employee carries out their employers wishes. Pastors treat churches more like patients—leading them to health, but not always doing everything the church asks for.
A number of people responded to my blog both in the comment section and privately. The one thing they all had in common was an acknowledgment that churches and groups always have a gap between their ideals and their reality. This was something I completely missed thirty years ago.
But where my readers parted company with each other was in the ways they felt that they should deal with it. A couple of readers wrote important responses about the deep spiritual and psychological work that it takes for a congregation to come more into alignment with their actual ideals. Another reader who came to the PCUSA from an evangelical tradition acknowledged that he and his wife (who are younger) often felt the targets of an exclusive church culture (by virtue of their dress, hair, talk, music, etc.), but that the inclusive theology was so refreshing as to put up with the exclusive reality. Another reader talked about creating a congregational culture where everyone’s quirkiness is tolerated and appreciated.
I appreciated the short anecdote shared by one reader who told the story of the church who wanted to know what their pastor would do to help them grow. The potential pastor said, “That depends on how much you are willing to risk. You already have everyone who is like you here.” Dang! I wished I had that much wisdom thirty years ago!
Finally, I got one email from a church member who asked me if I had written the blog directly to their church—the implication being that my story mirrored nearly exactly the conflict they were experiencing. I let this person know that I was glad that the timing was good, but I didn’t have them specifically in mind. But I do know this story plays out one way or another in most of our churches. The lucky ones work through the conflict gracefully. But, even the ones who experience conflict are still better off than the ones who never allow the tension and awkwardness of growth to seep into their church community. Those are the churches who slowly die.
M. Scott Peck, in his book The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, speaks of three stages of community.
- Pseudo-community: where everyone seems to be getting along, but by virtue of a shallow culture that doesn’t allow much real truth-telling;
- Chaos: when some person or event reveals a truth that is in conflict with the reality of the community (even if not in conflict with the values), and;
- Authentic community: where everyone seems to be getting along in a culture of vulnerability, honesty and trust.
Scott Peck makes the point that congregations don’t just work through these stages and then settle permanently in Stage 3. He is careful to point out that authentic communities eventually become pseudo-communities again as what was once risky becomes normative. Healthy churches allow this cycle to play out on a continual basis and thus, build muscles to gracefully move through the awkward chaos stage.
Jerry Sternin who wrote The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems has been quoted to say, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting.”
With regard to bringing our reality more in line with our theology Nike may have the best advice for us. “JUST DO IT!.”
Yes, there will likely be some conflict and chaos. But if M. Scott Peck is right, a little chaos is just one step away from true community.
To all the churches who are experiencing conflict because you are serious about a theology and a practice of inclusion, I say, “Bless you! You are on the right track.”
Just remember to be nice to each other along the way.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades