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.