I suppose I’m meant to start sharing about my difficult church experience. Not only did y’all graciously respond with empathy and encouragement to my Two Years after ‘A Fond Farewell’ post (thank you!), but the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to be releasing me of the burden. Admittedly, I had hoped that if I wrote and published that post that the Spirit would be satisfied and lead me onward. My answer to that pipe dream came in an apropos quote I “stumbled upon” while reading yesterday. (Do y’all believe in coincidence? I don’t.)
Your spirit — that place where faith and choice collide — is determined to grow you into the marvelous person God has had in mind all along. This person is someone with grace, love, courage, compassion, faith and integrity. You don’t become this without some work and suffering. The [Spirit] will require tougher things than the Muse ever will. … [The Spirit] will push you beyond …to whatever healing or understanding is necessary in your life. This [Spirit] will stare at you until you make your art honest (Vinita Hampton Wright, The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005. p 36).
Okay, okay, Holy Spirit! I hear you! I will obey…soon. I need more time to pray, discern and write first, second, third…twentieth drafts.
In the meantime, the Spirit has provided a voice to open the discussion on pastors and congregations behaving badly towards one another. I met Ed Cyzewski in Grand Rapids, MI while attending the Festival of Faith and Writing. He originally published the post below on his own blog, In a Mirror Dimly on April 25, 2012. He was reluctant to write it, he said, but he knew that he had to. Y’all are invited to respond to both Ed and me in the comment section below.
Belonging: Hate the System, Love the People
Some of the most important people in my life have been my pastors. They have provided timely wisdom and guidance that has changed my life. However, some of my deepest wounds have also originated from pastors.
I don’t blame my pastors. Personally, they never would have done a thing to hurt me. In fact, I don’t see my wounds as necessarily originating from my pastors. My wounds came from the church system that we both served.
Pastors and lay people have a common enemy: the church system.
The system is rules, expectations, and anything that defines how the organization of church must function. The system is anything that threatens to set itself over the unity of believers. The system uses the hard bolts and jackhammers of man to join together people who require a lover’s caress.
The system doesn’t care whether you’ve had a rough week. If you’re botching up the hymn on Sunday morning, people will complain to the pastor, and the pastor has to do something. The system demands action.
The system doesn’t care if you’ve been the only nursery volunteer for three months. The pastor needs someone to cover it because he’s got five more empty slots to fill. It’s his job to train and equip people for ministry, and he’ll lose his job if he can’t pull it together. He may even ask you to bring a side dish next Sunday for the elder meeting because the system needs more volunteers and you’re one of the few willing to play by the rules.
The system demands that we become fuel for the machine. We all have an idea of what the system should look like, and we make decisions in our churches based on what kind of system we want.
I want a church system that reflects my values, and I’ve fought far too many battles to create the church system of my choosing.
The truth about church is that it’s a living, breathing body joined together with the Spirit of God. We require some organizing and some leadership, but we don’t live to serve what organizes us or to make our systems a success.
Just surviving as a group in a system is unhealthy and self-centered, and survival is what a system demands. If the church organization dies, then what? We fear that every time our budgets run a deficit… What will happen to the “church”?
When I say the church becomes a system, I’m also talking about what you do in order to belong. Play by the rules, and you can be in the community. If you don’t follow the rules, you can’t be in the community.
These rules will vary from church to church, and even some churches can take good things such as inclusiveness to an extreme—as in, if you’re not quite inclusive enough, you’re out. Some systems are enforced from above and other systems are enforced by the loudest members of the congregation. Oftentimes the pressure of the system is applied equally from pew to pastor and from pastor to pew—both making demands and expectations of one another without ever asking why we do this.
The system plays leaders off the congregation. In the system, a congregation needs leaders to provide a compelling vision statement, guide their spiritual lives, and keep the church as an organization vibrant and running. If the church as an organized system fails, it is the pastor’s fault.
The pastor has to maintain a delicate balance of pushing his/her congregation to grow spiritually, while prodding them to buy into the church system. If they don’t believe in the system and follow that by attending, volunteering, or giving, then the pastor is a failure.
There is enormous pressure on both sides. The people want something meaningful to give themselves to and they need real help with their pressing issues in life. Leaders are under enormous pressure to press people to grow, but to not press them too hard.
The system falls apart when pastors push hard to get the congregation to buy into changing the system or their lives. People grow attached to their system and the status quo. It provides the comfort of meeting the same expectations every Sunday:
We show up at 9 am. We sing until 9:24. The offering and announcements run until 9:36, and we pray that there isn’t a special music until the pastor takes the pulpit at 9:37. He will preach until 10:25 because we need a few minutes for an alter call in order to be dismissed at 10:30. Heaven help us if we run until 10:35…
The system hums along until the pastor realizes that the system needs to be changed. This is where all hell breaks loose, literally. The people were told that the system will provide for them and guide them where they need to go. They have invested in a system, an institution, a church, a holy place of God that looks just right to them. Who are these pastors to tell them it needs to look different? At this point, it makes far more sense to fight for the system than to trust the pastors.
The system will give the people what they want. The pastors become caretakers whose livelihoods are held hostage to the congregation.
Other times, the pastors use the authority of the system to hold their congregations hostage. They hold the power of church discipline. They can destroy relationships with one e-mail, even one message on a social network.
The ease of online connectivity can give leaders tremendous power to inflict terrible harm if they sense someone isn’t buying into the system. The same holds true for congregations.
Some churches are on the brink of all our war with congregations and pastors both trying to control the system. When the people/pastor become a “threat” to the “church,” that’s usually just another way of saying the people/pastor want to change the system we like.
As I’ve found churches where I can belong, I try to keep an eye on the system. It’s a caged beast ready to strike our communities at any time. The system will alienate us from our leaders we both fear we’re not measuring up. The system has no grace.
I want to serve God and minister to people rather than serving an organization or becoming enslaved to my expectations. My pastors should have freedom to hear from God and to lead without fear. I want to follow them without clinging to any pictures of what a church “must” look like.
I hope my pastors know that they can fail. They can make financial mistakes. They don’t have to lead perfect families. They can have doubts. They can end a service early or late. They can teach from any part of scripture they feel lead to speak about.
I hope everyone in my congregation knows that God’s Spirit knits us together. We don’t have to prove ourselves to one another. We are free to serve one another and let an unstaffed program die because no one feels called to it. Church doesn’t have to look like anything we’ve ever known before if God’s Spirit is leading us to change how we gather for worship or how we serve our community.
We are free to love God and to serve one another, and freedom is the one thing that a system hates. I love my pastors, but I hate the system.
Ed Cyzewski blogs at www.inamirrordimly.com where he hosts the Women in Ministry Series. He is the author of Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life and Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of Following Jesus.