Facing a Troubled Congregational Past

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This coming week at our fall classis meeting we will discuss an overture to make some changes to Article 17.  The request comes out of a concern for the ministry of the church: we have been given a ministry of reconciliation and yet in our practice of Article 17, reconciliation and healing seem so problematic.  I hear the concern.

I am reminded of many stories heard over the years of church and pastor conflicts.  As long as pastors are people living among people, we will encounter the sins of individuals and the limitations of each person impacting community life.  As long as we have families we will see family dysfunction finding its way into the dynamics of community life. And as long as we live as a community in which we depend on each other we discover the failures of our community life.  Conflict will occur.  And we carry that history into our tomorrow.

I have observed that as churches call, there is an underlying anxiety that often accompanies the process.  Scratching beneath this anxiety reveals hurt, disappointment and unfinished business of previoius relationships.  It is as if the community is simply saying  “not again”.  I have seen job descriptions which reveal time management concerns, pastoral boundary concerns, and power concerns.  The job descriptions are saying work hard, don’t break trust, and remember that council is in charge.  Digging underneath reveals stories of the congregation’s concerns with previous pastors.   The latent disquiet can loiter for years. These lingering legacies constrain and potentially damage future relationships.

Maturity in congregational life requires recognition of this potential impact of our history.  Naming our anxiety is a start.  If we name that we think pastors are lazy, at least we know that this can impact our judgment.  If we name our distrust – rooted in previous experiences – we can recognize its presence in our current relationships.  If we examine our fear of charismatic leaders, we can evaluate our resistance to their leadership as it begins to take shape. 

Maturity in congregation also requires taking responsibility for our sins.  Naming them can be difficult.  What is of particular concern are failures to protect healthy process and dynamics in the congregational system.  Whether it is bullying the congregation, failure to get appropriate budget approvals, avoiding difficult issues, or simply not taking responsibility for the vision of the congregation, the council’s failure hinders healthy congregational life. 

Maturity in congregational life means living forgiveness.  We proclaim forgiveness, and yet it is easy to treat people as unforgiven.  We define a person according to past sin, not as one loved by God on the way to healing in the kingdom.   When we treat a person as unforgiven, we place a burden on their shoulders we do not care to lift.  Forgiveness begins with seeing all through the lens of the cross.

Every congregation has a history – even the youngest.  Maturity in congregational life requires constant attention.  Accepting responsibility for the past is part of the process. Naming the problems, accepting the hurt, and accepting responsibility for our part is included. 

Soon Classis will meet.  Whatever the outcome of the discussion, the need will remain: pastors and congregations need to face the brokenness of our history and the sin evident in our communal life.  Forgiveness needs to be given and received.  Taking responsibility for our hurts needs to be taken.  Grace needs to flow through community life.  There is no magic formula, no process that can guarantee the desired outcome.  Changing Article 17 of the Church Order may mandate an attempt, but it will require leadership to engage the process.   That leadership should find its advocates among the elders.  

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Excellent call to be a peacemaker! Some thing that I struggle with. ThankYou

Community Builder

An Article 17 should not be seen as a negative thing! For minister or for church. It is a recognition that both have problems or issues that need to be addressed. It is a wake up call for everything that they need to get some help. When an article 17 is carried out and the classis steps in with the two committees, they should make sure the church completes it's "counselling" over time. And the minister needs to receive his/her counselling as well. An article 17 is not the fault of a pastor, nor is it the fault of the church. It is a together thing. Both need help. Both must seek help. Both must receive help for what is wrong.

For many years I looked at churches that went through the Article 17 process as problem places. And ministers who endured an Article 17 as problem pastors. Now that I'm on the other side, I see most Article 17 pastors and churches as honest people who have come face to face their issues. They have acknowledged their brokeness and their frailties. And if they have honestly looked at it, they are now addressing their short-comings and they are upfront with the help they need, and they are honest with who they are. There is little that is hidden now.

I would much rather take a call to a church that has just undergone a true Article 17 where Classis has been involved in following the Church Order guidelines to the full extent and where an interim pastor has come in to address concerns and to work through solutions with the council and the congregation. Why would I want to go there? Because this is a church that has been hurt, but they are now healing and eager to do the right thing. That is part of the sign of a healthy church... it's honest with itself and with the people they serve and the pastor who they want serving them.

Participant

I have witnessed a number of article 17's from the classis perspective, and the number seems to be increasing (I have no stats to back that up though).  It is not intended to be negative but it is more difficult for a pastor to find a new call to a church with an article 17 on their resume.  I am wondering if this is slowly or quickly becoming a more convenient way for a church and pastor not to work through their conflict and come out the other end together.  What I have seen is that by the time the situation comes to Classis for its input, the pastor and church have already in essence finished their separation agreements.   Would a Classis ever have the courage (if appropriate) to instruct a congregation and pastor to not separate but to work it out, with all the support that would be needed to do that hard work?  My feeling is that Classis delegates are there to give final approval with some instructions, to a process that is going to head in one direction no matter what.  I would welcome some new insight into article 17 processes and perhaps some way that a Council and/or pastor has to seek Classis help at the starting point of considering what to do next.  Who is not asking for the help soon enough in these situations?  Are we willing as sister churches in a Classis to truly submit to the collective wisdom of the larger body in this matter.  We may send in an interim pastor (when available, there are too few of them) after the split is done.  Perhaps we need to send someone into the setting before the split can begin?  Councils, pastors and congregations need help sooner in these situations.

In the congregation I serve, we are working on a review process that will help both Council and myself identify areas needing attention in me and my ministry and in Council's ministry work.  My advice to pastors and Councils is to be proactive and seek out this feedback in a helpful and structured way when things seem to be going well!  My hope is that by doing so, we start building a culture of openness and self-assesment along the lines that Neil mentioned.  As a pastor I have a peer group that I meet with on a regular basis and we have gotten to the point that we can challenge each other when we are wrestling with some aspect of our pastoral work and our lives in general.  That took a couple of years to build up.  I would never do ministry work today without some close and open support group who understands ministry pressures and is willing to be vulnerable and honest (no denial) with each other.  I wonder if perhaps Elders need something similar in their leadership work? 

Anyway ... I would like to hear how that overture goes ...

 

Colin.

Community Builder

the overture was referred back to the committee to deal with a number of questions.  It will be brought back to Classis at the March meeting. 

Neil