Posted by: Marie | December 18, 2009

(206) All about community – Part 1 of 3

Post #206
[Private journal entry written on Wednesday, August 5, 2009]

The last several days have been all about community for me.

On Sunday, I went to church with my mom at her new church. Then, I joined her and a handful of her friends at her house for lunch. (She lives in a neighboring town and it is only a skip and a jump to go visit her.)

There is a bit of story behind her wanting to have everyone over to her house for lunch . . .

My mom had been a member of her former church, a Methodist church, for more than twenty years. My dad was also a member of that church when he died almost 18 years ago. My mom considered that church to be her second home, her second family. Her very best friend had also attended that church for about 25 years. The two ladies were part of the bedrock of that church.

Photo by Martin Chen

About a year ago, their beloved minister resigned for personal reasons. He was having his own private struggle of some sort. He never shared his struggle with the church membership. He simply resigned and went off to handle it in private.

The church membership pulled together and went through the process of interviewing new ministers. Finally, one was selected – or, more accurately, was appointed by the district leadership. This man is in his (50’s?) and has been in the corporate world all of his life. This would be his first pastoral appointment.

Well, he came into the appointment like a bull in a china shop. He changed the name of the church. He disassembled the worship service’s musical team (keyboard, guitars, drums, vocal) and started using recorded music over the loud speaker. He started renovating the interior of the fellowship hall and started renting out individual offices and classrooms to community organizations.

He decided the ministry of the church would be focused on those in the community who were dealing with substance abuse – that the church would activity go out into the community and find those “in the greatest of need”.

The church board members, advisory counsel members and the interim minister all tried to caution him against making so many changes so soon – especially when the direction he was moving was contrary to the vision held by the majority of the membership – especially when the members were grieving the loss of the relationship with their very beloved former minister.

The biggest blow to the membership came when he announced, one day during a service, that he would be introducing the “speaking of tongues” into the services in the near future. “Speaking in tongues” is when people (audience members or the service leaders) begin speaking, out loud, in a language that is not a “human” language.

This is a very controversial subject in Christian churches. The Methodist Church teaches that individuals can use, in private, whatever prayer language they choose. They can call it whatever they want to call it. However, in public, in the services, there is to be no speaking in tongues because of the controversy and confusion it causes. The church doctrine does not expound further on the matter.

So, when this new minister declared he would be bringing the practice of speaking in tongues into the service, he was directly going against the church doctrine. And, he really shook up the very conservative, mostly retirement- and senior-aged congregation.

Some members tried to talk to the minister about his stance on the matter. It didn’t change anything. Some members went to the district level leaders and warned them of the conflict in teachings. It didn’t change anything. So, people started leaving. They left angry and hurt. Long-time friendships fell apart. Within a few months, the membership dropped from about 75 to about 20.

In early May of this year, for Mother’s Day, I attended church with my mom at this Methodist church. She had not shared with me about the conflict that was occurring with this new pastor. I was aware the former pastor had left, but I was not aware of the issues with the new pastor. (She doesn’t like to tell me negative things about the church because she is afraid it will drive me further away from the church than I already am.)

When I met the minister, I had no reason to think ill of him. Yet, when my mom introduced me to him and I shook his hand, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I immediately felt very guarded with him, like I couldn’t trust the honor of his intentions. I didn’t like his eyes. But, I didn’t say anything to my mom at that point, I just took my seat next to her in the sanctuary.

I listened very carefully to what he said – and what he didn’t say – during the service. The one word that kept coming to me was “justified”. In the service, he talked about the speaking in tongues. He talked about the planned outreach into the community, to those who “need it the most”.

Over and over, I heard “justified” in my head. He wasn’t using that word, but I heard it as an undertone – that he was justified in pushing his agenda, his single focus – that he was justified in leading with ego – that he was justified because God told him to do it – because God told him to do it.

I got the sense he believed the communication he had with God superceded the conversations God might be having with anyone else. The pastor knew what was best and what was right. There was no room for debate because he was acting on the infallible authority and direction of God. Apparently, he believed his ability to hear God accurately was perfect.

After church, when my mom and I were driving away from the church, she asked me what I thought of this new pastor. I hesitated. Did she really want to know what I thought? Really?

First I asked about the speaking in tongues – I thought I remembered from my study of theology in college that the Methodist church didn’t endorse that in public services. She confirmed my remembering. Then, I ventured into the topic of the changes I had seen, and the dramatic drop in attendance. With that, she started talking . . .

She felt isolated, sad, disappointed, afraid . . . her best friend had already left the church and she was afraid the conflict was going to cause the death of that long-time friendship as well. She didn’t like the abrupt and compassion-less personality of this new pastor. She didn’t approve of the changes he was making.

But, she didn’t feel it was morally right to abandon the church that had been her second home for so many years. She felt obligated to stay and see “it” through.

We talked about what “it” was – what was she “seeing through”? Who was ministering to her needs? To her grief?

She had signed up to support this church when it was a different church. The very identity of the church, and the rules by which it was operating, had changed – the game had switched over to a different sport without the approval of the team players.

I looked for something helpful to say to her – maybe something that would give her an allowable “out”. I could see that she wanted out but that she had not yet been able to give herself permission to disengage.

Finally, I asked her if, by staying, she was contributing or distracting from the church’s successful implementation of its new outreach program. If she was not in full support, was she maybe generating continued friction and resistance for the new pastor? Would it be better if everyone in his congregation were in full support of his plans? Would anyone who was not in support better serve the church by leaving?

That worked. I could see her body relax.

The next day she resigned her two positions in the church and started looking for a new church. She later told me that she slept better that night than she had in months – a huge weight was off her shoulders.

So, my visit with her this weekend was to see her new church, and to have lunch at her house with her new friends, and with her old friends from her old church who had re-discovered each other at this new church.

As we sat around the table eating our dessert and drinking our coffee, I listened carefully to this group of senior ladies (ages 77 to 97). All of them had suffered the loss of a long-time spouse. Most of them were grieving the loss of their long-time church family. They all had war stories to tell.

My heart was warmed to hear them share their stories with each other. They talked about grief and about the stages of grief. They gave each other support and hope. I saw community solidifying. I saw healing occurring at that table – over homemade raspberry custard pie made with homegrown raspberries.

This, too, is part of the legacy given to me by my parents. And, it is good. Very good.

[Continued in the next post . . . ]

Quotes 117


Responses

  1. This is a beautiful post. I long for anything remotely similar…

    • Hi, Ivory –

      I wish that for you, too . . . maybe you can create your family of choice in your new home . . . . Ivory’s community.

      – Marie

  2. As a Christian I am constantly finding the people that run churches to be a disappointment. Some of them are such egomaniacs that they are more harmful than helpful to the faith of believers.

    One thing that has helped me navigate the church is to realize that saving bad people is the work of Jesus and the purpose of His life and death. If the message of Christianity is that wicked people can be saved then I should not be surprised that the church is full of them.

    Reframing my understanding that way allows me to see the annoying people in the church differently. Instead of seeing them as proof that God is not working in Christians, I see them as proof that He loves us. If God loves these incredibly difficult people then there is certainly hope for me as well as the other miserable selfish people I know.

    • Hi, Doctor D –

      Very good points! I agree — the church is full of ill-intentioned and misdirected people. I get that is because we humans are naturally ill-intentioned and misdirected — becoming part of a church or becoming aligned with a particular religion doesn’t change that.

      I know I am often ill-intentioned and misdirected in my life — and I also know I’m doing the best I know to do. I feel safe in assuming that is true for the vast majority of people.

      I see a church as a place where imperfect people can join together to worship a perfect God.

      Great input — thank you!

      – Marie


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