Ask me in Ten Years and Politics in Church

So, as a preliminary comment here, this is the weekly reflection I most worried about posting when I started posting these each week. I didn’t know how I would edit the original text to fit into this format and still seem fairly friendly. I ended up just removing about a paragraph worth of stuff. Congregational politics are tough. Sadly, I think many church goers are apt to blame the victim when he or she stops attending church rather than taking a long look in the mirror and asking what caused them to leave. People, generally, don’t leave church for no reason. Some people find information about a church’s history and that causes them to leave; those are difficult situations. Some are wronged by other members of the congregation, yet we choose to blame the person who stops attending for being offended by the comments. “Well, he/she chose to be offended” some might say. And while that is true to a certain degree, there must still be some hard looking in the mirror to determine what went wrong. In this particular case below, a person was wronged in ways I won’t mention, he was shunned, and stopped attending. Yet many want to place blame on him for leaving even though he was wronged by a huge portion of the congregation. The details don’t really matter. It’s the concept. Ask why people leave the church…I just deleted a sentence…I was going to say, again, that “you” should look in the mirror to determine if you did anything to cause this person to leave, but then I remembered that you’re perfect and that you’d never under any circumstances do anything that would cause a person to leave church. So, don’t worry about looking in the mirror, just point some fingers and find out how everyone else caused this person to leave, and then make sure to place the blame back on the person who left because he dared by offended by your perfection.

OK, on to the original text…

I read some interesting passages in different books. The first passage was in James Cone’s Black Liberation Theology. I got a very strong through the chapter that I read that Cone was doing everything he could to change God into a 1970’s African-American. To me he was walking a very, very fine line of molding God into his own image rather than working to mold himself in God’s image. When we do that in our own lives, I feel like we start walking a dangerous path. I also suppose this is why there are so many different denominations out in the world. Each group interprets God just a little differently. The question, however, is whether or not denominations or individuals are trying to mold God into their personal theological image or if they are molding into His? I have to remind myself of this. God is not necessarily who I want Him to be. He is who He is and has always been. I have also had to try to separate my own personal views from my theological views.
Second, in my Christian Ethics class, we read about genetic embryo modification, in vitro fertilization, and other forms of “unnatural” pregnancy. One of the questions our professor asked was how would we deal with a person in our congregation or our lives who came to a different moral/ethical conclusion than we hold? This question is very relevant for me given that my goal is chaplaincy. I may have individuals come into my office seeking council who have very different ideas of what is moral or immoral. Within this context, I think I will have to recognize that my moral/ethical opinion really does not matter. It does not matter if I think a particular situation a person is going through fits into my definition of what is moral or immoral, so long as it does not violate any regulations or laws, of course. My job will be to make sure each person gets the help that he or she needs regardless of whether or not that persons moral/ethical standards line up with mine. That was the comment I made in the discussion online with the semi-humorous side comment about asking me in ten years how this approach has worked for me as a chaplain. I really hope that this is one of those ideal views I can hold onto and remember as I go about ministry. It doesn’t matter what I think is moral, it matters that I can give a person the help that he or she needs at a given time.
Keeping in line with this, I made another comment in that same class about how we must simply be someone who facilitates the Spirit guiding others. We are not able to cause a real conversion in someone, we simply have to give them the “water” so that they can drink it. But if they decide not to drink it, we simply have to keep providing for them until they make the decision to change. We have to show each person that we are there for them and care about them unconditionally.
Beyond this reading, I met with a man this week who has not been to church in several years. His reason for not coming is that he was driven off several years ago by a particular family in the congregation and how they treated him. [comments removed] This is really my first experience with how congregation politics can damage others. It really is quite sad to have to sit and listen to a story like the one I heard and not be able to do anything to change the local culture going forward. I wish there was more a I could do to change things.
It was very interesting how the different readings came together for me this week and how I can see how relevant those readings and principles will be for me in my ministry. I certainly think the ministry involves much more gray area than I had originally anticipated.


Week 3

This week I saw a very interesting mix of school and real life. In the Christian Ethics class I am taking, the material this week is on euthanasia. We visited a family who’s son suffered a gunshot wound to the head in November and is now paralyzed, can’t speak, and is minimally functional in a way that we might call normal. It is very interesting to deal with that as a real issue rather than some abstract concept. Now, this is not to say this family ever considered taking him off forms of life support, he seemed to be able to breathe on his own while we were there (he is stable enough to live at home). Nor am I trying to say that I would recommend what the discussion this week would have called passive euthanasia, that being stopping medical treatments necessary to prolong life. However, that does not mean, to be sure, that another family may not have considered that. It does not mean that a well-meaning physician or even, perhaps, a pastor would not have recommended they abstain from additional treatment at some point in time during the previous few months. Seeing ethical things like this in real life is interesting. Before the reading week, the topic was abortion. Thankfully, I did not have any first hand knowledge on one of those. But I have to sit and ask myself how will I deal with these issues once I am, hopefully, a chaplain somewhere?
Along these same lines, I met with the Navy chaplain on my base during the reading week. He and I discussed some professional development ideas and also talked about some of the unique aspects of military chaplain ministry. We talked about how some folks are “spiritual hypochondriacs” in that they always feel like something is wrong ,are always negative about life, and so forth. He told me with some real honesty that these people can be very difficult to deal with on a regular basis but that we have to be sure that their needs are being met. He also told a story about one of the most unique situations he’s dealt with. He was chaplain on a deployed ship a few years back and had a situation where a male member of the crew had sexually assaulted a female crew member. He said that on the first night he spent quite a long time in the hospital with the young lady who had been assaulted and the next day he had to go visit the young man in jail. Both of them were under his care and he had to help them both. He, again, was quite honest that this is something that would virtually never happen in the civilian counseling area, but is something that chaplains can have to work through. This was one of the more productive professional development conversations that I have had since beginning this journey.
Finally, I had to help on Thursday with some transportation of missionaries. I drove for an hour with this one good young man and it was interesting to hear him talk about things. Asking questions like “can we try to be too perfect and is that a bad thing?” Certainly I don’t really have the answer to that but my opinion is that, yes, we can try too hard to be perfect if it starts to take away from family and life in general. Our basic conversation on this was that you can try to be dedicated in following the commandments from God without trying to go well above and beyond in attempting to be perfect. He and I also talked about what he wants to do after his mission in life. He wants to be a doctor…noble career, but I find that virtually all folks who are serving want to be something like a doctor, dentist, lawyer, or upper business type. Though I would never say this to them I sometimes ask myself “doesn’t anyone just want to be a ditch digger?” Not literally a ditch digger, of course. Then again, I have to suppose that it depends on where they are from, most of the guys we have now are from urban areas in Utah (though this particular person was not) so have that mindset. I suppose a young man coming from rural Wyoming or somewhere like that would have a different idea of great work. Also, when I talk to these folks, my pride in my military service comes out. I almost always recommend folks try for military service because of the education finance benefits that come from what we do. I actually find this quite rewarding, giving brief counseling to these folks. I sometimes wonder if they even remember what I say (or perhaps if they even care) but I like to think that I have a reasonable amount of experience that I can share with folks. Hopefully they think I’m intelligent and find a little bit of value in what I say. This was certainly a good week for personal and professional growth.

Searching for “IT” at Church

This week I had what I consider to be quite a breakthrough spiritually. A little background on how this happened. A friend of mine from work and I had talked about playing this golf course that is very good (like top 50 out of about 17,000 in the world good) but we had never played there. We started talking about it a bit last week, he called, found out the offer a military discount, and all of a sudden, we were booking a starting time and planning to make the drive over. We get there and the course just lacked that “it” that makes something really connect. I’d seen pictures of the course, talked with people who had played, seen professional events played there, and so forth, so I had huge expectations about the course. I did not feel like the course quite met those expectations. As I said before, the course lacked “it.” What I mean is that the course lacked that thing that you can’t quantify or really describe that makes certain movies, songs, speeches, or other things really connect with you beyond just the words and mechanics.
I had a thought pop into my mind about this and wondered if we sometimes do the same thing with church? Are we too busy looking for that mysterious “it” in our churches that we miss some of the great things about the church? I think that often times we do get too busy looking for “it.” This goes beyond being able to feel the spirit, that is something that I think we should be able to recognize. Looking back, I feel that perhaps the gentleman I described last week who I feel has left the church was too busy trying to find “it” to stop and notice what was great at church and what was great in his life.
Second, I had to ask it having these huge expectations about something can affect what we think? Looking back, the golf course that we played was almost certainly one of the 5 best courses that I have ever played. How much of the course and the journey around it did I miss because I had huge expectations and played around expecting to find “it” in order to meet those expectations? Again, I surely feel like this is the case in churches. We work so hard to get new, unchurched people into our congregations, but how well do we temper their expectations for what the church will be and what it can provide? I think we talk our churches up into this level of greatness that is nearly impossible to attain. So, when we get new folks, they come in expecting greatness that might never happen, either because of “reality” or just their perception. But what happens when they leave disappointed? Ideally, they give the church another chance and stay around. But in reality, we know that is not the case most of the time. A person is disappointed and then decides to leave. We have to be sure in these cases that we are not setting expectations so high that people end up leaving with heads hanging in disappointment.
I used this in a lesson we taught today to a guy who was recently baptized in our congregation (I actually performed the baptismal ordinance, the first one I did). I brought up a passage from Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book where she writes about telling the new members of her congregation honestly that they will eventually be disappointed in something the church does. She asks them to commit at that time to stay around when such a thing happens. That’s an interesting point of view to have, but quite truthful. I put it that way to him at church today. This congregation will disappoint him if he stays in this area for long enough (he’s a student, so he might move in a year or so). I also told him to keep his expectations reasonable. Don’t set the expectations so high that they’re impossible to meet. I felt like it was necessary to tell him honestly that churches are not perfect. That might seem like common sense, but I wonder if that is the honest message we give to folks.
So that was a pretty big step for me spiritually. I need to make sure my expectations are reasonable in all areas. Churches are not perfect no matter how much we might want them to be. I can’t let my expectations to cause me to look off in all directions for the mysterious “it” while the greatness is there looking me in the eyes.

Coming Together and Growing Apart

Continuing the Weekly Reflections from earlier in the year…
This week was interesting for me. I saw what I consider to be a rather significant breakthrough in myself and the concept of sin as I see it during a conversation with a friend. I also found out that one of the men we baptized late last year has effectively stopped attending church, though I have not yet found out exactly why that is the case. Also from Sunday I heard of a conversation with some of our leadership which fits in like with my opinion of the above mentioned member stopping attendance and it makes me glad that I left church early.
The basis for the conversation I had with my friend comes from a blog post I wrote about youth homelessness in the LGBT community in Utah. Roughly 40% of the teenage homeless population in Utah are both LGBT and self-identifying as from active LDS families. I said flat out that I feel like some of our lower level church culture, directly opposite of leadership teachings, is either directly responsible for this figure and if not directly, then responsible in an enabling role. It’s quite frankly a bad situation and I both do and do not wish I was out there to help. My friend, this was not a private conversation, it was posted on Facebook for the world to see, brings up his familiar point about acknowledging and condemning sin. He also brought up his go-to Bible passage, that of the woman taken in adultery. He always likes to whip on the final passage of ‘go and sin no more’ while basically skipping over the first part about casting stones. He believes that by my focusing on the final sentence that I do not want to acknowledge that sin is present. Over the course of the conversation, I eventually came to see, surely not an original view, that while Christ certainly admits that she was a sinner, he was willing to let them stone her to death after all, he forces them to admit that they are not perfectly clean either and they decide not to stone her. It really occurred to me that we can acknowledge sin without casting the stones at the person. We simply are not clean enough to cast those stones at another. Saying that something is a sin is completely different from saying it’s a sin and also casting someone off out of society. I had never really thought of it this way. In many ways this ties into something that I read this week in my Intro to Theology class, though I just thought about it right now as I am writing. In our book we read about something called a “principle of correlation” and part of this is that you are unable to receive answers through study if you are not asking questions. I had a question answered this week about sin. We can admit that something is a sin but still invite that person to our table as a friend. Admitting is not the same as condemning.
Secondly I had noticed for a few weeks that one of our newly baptized members had not been coming and for the few weeks before that he had been coming late. I asked the missionaries who had worked with him about it last night and apparently he has stopped returning their phone calls as well. This is the man I likened to Eeyore. I feel like two things have happened here; this is complete speculation right now, I will try and get some more facts this coming week about it. First, I feel like the missionaries tried to promise him that if he joined everything would just be “spring daisies and cinnamon.” I was slightly uncomfortable with this at the time and I have to wonder if my discomfort was correct. I feel like he was promised a great many things and those things either have not happened at all or he is in too much of a Eeyore mindset to see them. I’d like to be wrong in this, maybe he’s working three jobs every day of the week and is unable to come to church because of that, but I strongly suspect he feels like he’s been sold a load of garbage. Of course this fits in with my ever evolving concept of God as a being who is effectively unable to wholly deliver you from a situation but is able to give comfort during that situation. That seems to me to be a better message, but I don’t know. Second, I feel like we failed him as a congregation. We put this huge pressure on getting convert baptisms but them once they are baptized, we basically let them roam and do their own thing. I feel like once they see the true colors of the congregation and how we treat each other, they leave. It’s quite sad, really. I feel like I do everything that I can to make people feel welcome but there is only so much one person can do.
Finally, my wife told me today that she and her friend were talking and that there was a conversation during the third hour of our church services on Sunday that might have gotten rather heated. Apparently, a member brought up to some of the leadership that we have this huge push for new baptisms and converts but what are we doing to keep the people who are already coming? Certainly this goes right in line with what I just said about the man who stopped attending. I left after our primary worship service and did not attend Sunday School or the combined men/women’s group meeting (where the conversation happened) because my kids were being fussy. Looking back, I think perhaps God’s way of saying “you should probably leave now, stuff’s about to happen and you’ll say something unkind.” Maybe I am interpreting that wrong and they really needed to hear exactly what I might have said, but I feel like no matter how much they might have needed to hear it, they would not have wanted to hear it and would not have accepted any of it. I know it’s a poor attitude to have and I think it’s not as blunt as it seems typed in words, but I’m really glad I leave here in 3-4 months, biting my tongue every day only works for so long.
It was good to see how things came together this week. I feel like I really see the different in “seeing” sin and condemning it. I feel like I have seen the damage that making promises you can’t keep can do and it is a disservice to all parties involved. Finally I feel like I heard God speaking to me this week in a very strange, almost illogical way. Sometimes things happen and we don’t understand them. I’m becoming more and more comfortable with that and the thought that God can’t reach His hand down and deliver me from something, but he can give me the comfort to get through it and that is significant. I hope we can pass that on to more people (if it’s “correct” anyway).