A new priest at one of our small town churches goes to a local gathering place. He tells the people he is the new priest at St. Swithens. The locals ask, “Are they still fighting?”
A layperson at another small town church tells a friend where she worships. The friend says, “I’ve been to several events there. Every time, your church members are gossiping about people here in town. I wouldn’t want them to know much about me.”
Most of the church people I know are pretty good folks. Members of faith communities are statistically healthier, happier, and more likely to do civic good where they live. There is plenty of objective evidence that we are doing something right. So here’s what I wonder about: Why is there also so much unhealthy behavior in congregations: selfishness, power grabbing, cultural insensitivity, undermining, manipulation, stinginess, and a whole list of moral failings? People who have been practicing Christian spirituality their whole long lives, people who love the Lord and receive the sacraments behave in ways no self-respecting garden club would tolerate in its members. Truth be told, it shakes my faith – not in Christ, but in Christianity. The only proof of any religion is that it makes people better. I’m not sure we are doing that as well as we might. People outside our walls are outside our walls because they don’t like what they see going on inside our walls. They are not entirely wrong.
The Epistles (and the New Testament in general) teach that Christianity is a group project. Our Bible is a guide to how we are to behave toward each other so that we can be the ongoing incarnation, the Body of Christ in the world, the human channels of God’s love and mercy. “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” the song says. That’s what I don’t always see us doing very well. Again, most church folks do quite well and churches do plenty of good. But the good we do is eclipsed in the eyes of outsiders by all the petty badness – emphasis on petty because we misbehave in big ways over embarrassingly small issues. So what’s up with these good people doing bad things?
My hypothesis: a big part of the problem is good intentions badly implemented. Meaning well actually gets us in moral trouble. “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.” We start with this right principle: The Church should accept, befriend, and embrace people the rest of the world does not. Some churches understandably don’t do that. But most of us do accept the outcasts. The problem is: what then do we do with them? This is where the trouble starts. To make them feel welcome, we put them in charge – not always formally, but de facto.
Dennis Maynard’s book, When Sheep Attack, is about how small minority groups in congregations can destroy a pastor’s ministry and run him or her right out of town. That isn’t all they do. Vocal minorities do all manner of mischief in faith communities. Maynard characterizes the small minorities as pathological. But the problem isn’t the pathological minorities. It’s that the congregation as a whole defers to them. The least healthy people in a congregation often seek to control it and are able to do so precisely because all the nice church folks want to appease them. Love means doing whatever it takes to make the crazy folks happy. The result: a nutocracy. Maynard prescribes pretty aggressive responses, a sort of surgical removal of the malignant cells. I don’t’ think that is either right or effective. But his analysis of church dynamics is on the mark.
The implicit cultural norm of churches is to not only tolerate but to appease unhealthy behavior. Some clergy undertake to police those behaviors, but those clergy don’t usually survive long. The policy of appeasement always wins if the ordained leader is the only person trying to change the system. The worst part of it is that by cow towing to bad behavior in our midst, we encourage our weakest members to act worse. And people who might behave well in the rest of life learn that church is the place they can act out their worst selves because church is where they can get away with it. The normative behavior of a congregation does not look like the Kingdom of God and the people do not function together as the Body of Christ.
So how might we turn this around? The first generation Christians understood their fellowship as a crucible of moral and spiritual transformation, a place where we are changed. My pastoral consultant once said to me, “Programs don’t change people. People change people.” True enough, but how can we organize our relationships in way that allows us to make each other better instead of worse?
I have three basic suggestions for starters:
1. Behavioral Covenants. A tennis court needs boundary lines. We all need to know where they are. It doesn’t work nearly as well for an authority figure (the pastor for example) to draw the boundary lines. Then the pastor becomes the enforcer and will soon be driven out by a congregation that never owned the boundaries. We need boundary lines drawn by the community itself. A clergy leader can facilitate a process of setting behavioral norms, but cannot be the lawmaker. Gilbert Rendle has written a helpful little book, Behavioral Covenants In Congregations, available from Alban Institute. It is a guide to how a congregation can establish its own healthy boundaries. Of course, people are imperfect. We will hit the ball out of bounds from time to time. Any of us will do that. But the community that has drawn the boundaries will recognize when the ball is out of bounds and can remind the out-of-bounds person of the norms for discourse in the community. Examples: What kind of communications can be done by e-mail? What communications need to be face to face? What is it appropriate to say about someone who is not in the room? What kind of communication is appropriate for confidentiality? Which are unhealthy secrets? Having answers to those questions in advance can make a huge difference. I know of one congregation that went from crippling civil strife to vibrant health and growth thanks to such a behavioral covenant. I know another that weathered a short failed rectorate without falling into blaming each other, again because of a sound behavioral covenant.
2. Circles Practice. Attentive listening, intentional speaking, and mindful relationship do not come naturally, especially when we are enculturated to act contentiously. These practices require skill and discipline. We can teach people these skills in church. These are basic skills for virtuous participation in the human community. Christians ought to be good at that; so the Church ought to be in the business of training us. There are a variety of approaches to these practices. I started with Industrial Areas Foundation broad-based community organizing where I learned one-on-one and small group relational meeting skills. I moved from there to Parker Palmer’s Circles of Trust work. The main book is Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness. Training is offered through the Center For Courage & Renewal. http://www.couragerenewal.org. The clearest, most usual friendly book on how to do such a process may be The Circle Way by Baldwin and Linnea. The World Café is another approach to this kind of respectful discourse. http://www.theworldcafe.com. We can intentionally create safe place situations for honest conversation. We can cultivate healthy, wise habits like speaking from curiosity instead of judgment. These are processes we can use to deepen and improve relationships, build character, and strengthen our communities to become what we were meant to be.
3. Alternative Models Of Decision-Making. We could combine behavioral covenants and circle practice to change our ways of making decisions. That would profoundly transform the power dynamics in congregational life. Today, most congregations have two decision-making processes – the formal visible one and the informal invisible one. Formal visible decision-making is done in public meetings with Roberts Rules. Motions are made and voted up or down. It is a contest with winners and losers. But we rarely actually make decisions that way. When we do, conflict has become hotter than the system can bear for long. Usually, those formal public meetings just document the decisions that have been made informally. The informal invisible process is consensus achieved by finding the lowest common denominator. The person in the room who is hardest to pacify wins by getting his or her way. A third option is to pull the informal process into public view and talk things through in a healthy way using a circles practice like World Cafe. We can find an authentic consensus of those operating inside the boundaries.
These are just three starter suggestions for how a church might shift its culture. We can become the kind of community that people want to join because we are a safe place to be ourselves and explore new truths, a place that challenges us to change without coercing us with guilt. We can become clearer channels for grace. But it won’t happen without an intentional decision to undertake a process of deep change in how we go about being Church.