Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Church Gossip: 1/8 Vent; 7/8 Practical Pointers

Beneath this headstone
A lump of clay,
Lies Arbela Young
Who, on the 24th of May
Began to hold her tongue.

                                English epitaph quoted by Charles Swindoll
                                in Killing Giants, Pulling Thorns

 Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.
For anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness . . . .
If someone believes he is religious but does not bridle his tongue,
and so deceives his heart, his religion is futile.
                                                James 1: 19-20, 26

                There was a notably healthy moment in a recent meeting of the Ministry Development Commission. Unrelated to the topic of the meeting, one person asked me, “Is it true you have closed our church in Tonopah?” I truly am not telling this story to vent (well not just to vent), but to teach a point I hope will be helpful in our congregations.
               “No,” I said. “I did not close our church in Tonopah.” I went on to explain that St. Mark’s has for several years had an Average Sunday Attendance of 2, that there are a 4 people who attend on occasion – 2 of them actually keep the church running. Those 2, the doers, have moved to Henderson. Before moving, they called a congregational meeting to ask the other members to take over. The other members declined. I am doing my level best to recruit a priest from out of state to move to Tonopah to revitalize our work there.  As I understand Episcopal polity, bishops do not close churches. What happens in Tonopah is up to the Standing Committee, but we are doing our best for the mission in Central Nevada. I am quite hopeful we will see new life in coming months.

                I explained all this, but the person who rightly asked the question, told me that the word on the street is “The bishop closed Tonopah.” And it was fairly clear, after my explanation, that others on the Committee still suspected I was somehow behind the closing of that congregation. They had heard it on the street, in the pews, the sacristy, or the parish parking lot. Where there is smoke, there is fire, right? And so the suspicion will be a little bit greater among small rural churches that the bishop wants to close them because they are small and rural. There is also a suspicion among large urban churches that I want to close them because they are large and urban – but that’s another story.
                Moral: rumors undermine the church. In this case, small congregations are made to feel threatened and devalued. Suspicions of conspiracy spread. Trust is eroded. Some people don’t trust me because they think I am a church killer; I don’t trust some people because they may be the ones spreading the rumors. Since I don’t know who is actually saying these things, I am apt to suspect people who are perfectly innocent. A little chunk of ice is thereby dropped into our relationship. The few spreading the rumor understand each other to be the good guys sitting in judgment on the bad guy or bad guys. And so the church is divided between the ostensibly good and the ostensibly evil.  The opportunity to join in such rumor-mongering is enticing. It has an energy to it almost as delicious as scandal.

                 I tell my own story because I know it best and am free to relate it in more detail without compromising anyone else. But I am not a special target. This is how we often treat each other. I once met with a church group that was uniformly angry at a particular person. They were mostly angry about things they had heard he said or did. As to most of the allegations, I had no personal knowledge of what actually happened. But as to those events I did know about, the version of facts the group was angry about differed significantly from what the eye witnesses had told me. In a few cases, the group was in sync with the version of the story told by one person but not by the other.  Ultimately, the facts did not matter as much as the story that was told. The version people repeat and the version people choose to believe has the power to build up the community or to tear it down.

                I cannot count how many people I have known who were driven out of churches by gossip. The congregation almost always loses the person who is the target of the gossip and it usually loses a few more as collateral damage. Gossip is an effective way to keep the church small – and yes there are those in almost every congregation  who like to keep the group small enough to be cozy, and in some cases, small enough they can control it. The agenda (usually unconscious) to drive people out and disrupt community is, in my experience, the most common reason people start negative rumors. Sometimes those motives cause people to repeat them – but more often, the repeaters and spreaders of rumors are even more unconscious. They are caught up in the energy of being in the know and letting others in on the secret. Such sharing creates a pathological but seductive intimacy. “How beautiful upon the mountain are feet of the bearers of good news” (Isaiah 52: 7) but “popular in the valley are the faces of the bearers of bad news and dark acts.”
                So what to do about it all? If one is inclined to start or spread destructive rumors in the church, it would be better for that person’s emotional and spiritual health that they hit the pause button to check their motives. The problem James cites with rumor-mongers is that they “deceive their own hearts.” If one really wants to split a community, undermine a spiritual leader, cast the church in a bad light, then they should fire away, take their best shot – but do it consciously, with intentionality. Another option would be to look back to the source of their anger, find what is really bothering them, and go to the person who has offended them and look for some resolution. By the grace of God, that is possible. I have seen it happen.

                And when we hear the rumor, what then? The member of the Ministry Development Committee did a very healthy thing. First, she checked the facts. Second, she let the person targeted by the rumor know what is being said and give him (me) a chance to respond. Here are some steps a rumor recipient might take if they want build up the family of God and strengthen the mission.

1.       Ask the rumor spreader the source of the information; and go check the facts.

2.       Ask the rumor spreader what his or her purpose is in sharing this information with you.

3.       Urge the rumor spreader to talk directly with the target of the rumor.

4.       Talk to the target of the rumor yourself to let them know who is saying what about them. The secrecy of gossip is poison to the community; so shine a light on it.

5.       Notice any urge you may have to join in the gossip game, check what it is you might get out of it, and ask yourself if there is a less destructive way to meet that need.

6.       Take the rumor, the rumor monger, and the target of the rumor all into prayer. Pray for truth and reconciliation in the community. Pray for your own serenity and differentiation in the midst of the challenge.


Matthew said...

Some unsolicited advice: I think one way to minimize gossip is to have as much tranparency and openness as possible. People are less likely to gossip about something transparent. People are lured into the idea that something is secret. When I was on the vestry of Christ Church Las Vegas I had the radical idea that every vestry meeting should be taped and be converted to mp3 and put on the internet. Didn't go over very well, sadly. Some people say that people would be less frank and forthcoming but I think that maybe people should not say those things in the first place if they are not willing to have them broadcast. Maybe standing committee meetings should be taped and put on the internet? Ditto commission on ministry or COOL? State governments manage to hire effective leaders subject to the open meeting law. I apologize if the information about Tonopah was posted somewhere and I did not happen to see it. Thus, in the example that you gave, it would be nice if it was posted somewhere on the internet PRIOR to this conversation taking place. Someplace that said explicitly that two of the four people in Tonopah were the doers and others did not and that they moved to Henderson and that you are trying to find a priest for Tonopah. Then when this type of conversation comes up, you can point to official sources that contain the truth. Just my two cents. Matthew Wright

Bishop Dan said...

Excellent insight.