In the past month, I’ve been accused of writing an E-pistle and telling a Children’s Story to argue my case on two different issues being debated in the church community.
RELAX: there’s no life or death struggle or apocalyptic holy war going on at Old First. Just the inevitable push and pull, the bumpiness of decision-making… and progress together… in a diaspora community where everyone has voice and vote, and, usually, more than one opinion!
In both instances, I was told, “you’re working your agenda.” My initial response was, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, I don’t have an agenda. I’m the pastor! ”
But after they spoke to me, I could see why the people worried I was using my bully pulpit. I understood how they heard what they had heard. What I presented as commitments of our faith did speak to the questions before the church (even if when creating them, I had no specific situations in mind)…
Instead, I was being your pastor. Mining the tradition for the nuggets ministers have to offer and the church shares in light of current needs and challenges. So I talked about “making room for God” and “welcoming people in need” (which ironically are the opposite sides of the same coin!).
In our brand of Protestantism, direct or detailed instructions from on high — or from the pulpit — are rare. Rather than a codex of law, a list of rules, or detailed directions, we create a community wherein people experience, begin to see, and live into an another reality. Our experiences in the faith community offer us overarching themes, guiding principles, the values of faith.
We leave the specific application of the church’s teachings to individual Christians and their conscience… to wrestle with and apply in the myriad situations they encounter.
When making decisions about our church life together in light of our faith, we have an inevitably clumsy process full of bumping, stumbling and misunderstanding, and all the grinding of the gears of our governance structures. Still, we believe, it’s the only way together we get near, or at least tag behind God’s will.
But what’s happening in your lives and around the church is how I hear and understand the Scripture. It’s how the tradition speaks to me as I pray about what I have to say to you. …So, maybe I was making connections and my case, albeit unknowingly.
In other words, I do have an agenda. I’m claiming it! It’s my job to have an agenda. That’s what it means to be a leader. Part of what you pay me for. I am the pastor. Which doesn’t mean I’m restricted to being “pastoral” in the sense of soothing and hand-holding. I also have to discomfort and agitate.
As your shepherd, my job is getting the whole flock from where it is to where it needs to go. (The metaphor doesn’t go very far: the picture it paints overlooks the lay leadership powerful in and necessary for our community, but let’s run with it for a minute.)
Have you ever seen a flock of sheep moving together? It’s not exactly a smooth operation. Peaceful, wooly lambs don’t walk silently or single file following their leader. Nor is it some corporate apparition of heaven’s calm and peace come down to earth, like a big, white fluffy cloud that’s quietly moving across the land.
No, a herd of sheep moving “together” is an incarnate plague of dirt and muck and unspeakable noise as the animals collide, trip, back-bite, cut one another off and try to run away.
The shepherd has that staff or crook, to grab them back and “tap” them (um, that’s a euphemism!) when needed. And some dogs. (I told you the metaphor doesn’t work well!) Ironically, even with all that, the sheep are safer in the herd; it’s how God means for them to move through life.
My point is: as pastor, my agenda is to help Old First Reformed United Church of Christ be the particular church God wants it to become. If it sometimes gets noisy or the dust flies, that doesn’t mean anything is wrong. If there’s some confusion, it may well be a sign that we’re moving on. I’m not afraid of limited chaos if it’s necessary to move ahead.
But please remember: I too have to translate our faith values into an articulated vision and specific steps for our getting there. And everyone won’t share my vision or like my strategies. Someone is bound to disagree with almost every detail I believe is important between where we are and where we’re going.
And that’s ok. I don’t claim to be always right. That’s why God organized our church so all its decisions aren’t mine to make! Others are involved.
When we disagree, rather than some sign of failure or impending disaster, our differences become our power and procedure for moving through complicated passages, the narrow valleys and the steep hillsides. Paying attention to our differences, respecting them, they help us plot our way together, as we try to get closer to God’s will than any of our individual opinions should claim.
Here’s my promises:
~ I’m pretty open and direct, believe in transparency, like things “on the table.” I am politically astute, but not very machiavellian.
~ I’m trying to explain and teach and prod and lead towards the best church I believe that can Old First can be. Implicit in that promise is also my intention to keep my “SELF” and any personal interests in check. If I am for this or that, can you accept, even if you disagree with me, that it’s because I think it’s best for the church? All that said, always remember: “me” is the only instrument with which God has given me to minister…
~ When you disagree with me, that’s ok. Because we have opposing positions, I don’t see you as my foe. I hope you won’t see me as the enemy either. In fact, we may each be the help the other needs.
~ When we differ, let’s make these our spiritual disciplines:
...trusting that we all want the best for this faith community;
…practicing talking directly and openly to one another about our disagreements (rather than around each other or behind each other’s backs).
It’s going to take all of us, and some patience with and understanding towards one another. Strengthening the church involves a willingness to give and take, even to be unhappy sometimes. That’s the kind of community we are. And how to get Old First where God wants us.
See you in church,