What a couple of agnostics taught me about congregational business.
I have two friends who are particularly dear to me, both named Chuck. I first met The Chucks, as I call them, a few years ago in a writers’ group at Eagle Eye Bookstore here in Decatur. The group eventually got so large that the three of us peeled off to form a smaller circle, and for the better part of the next year we spent two hours every Monday afternoon reading aloud our works-in-progress and exchanging feedback and support. Chuck One worked in computers until he retired and is now penning a sci-fi thriller. Chuck Two used to be an architect and is halfway through a memoir about the years he spent as a boy in the company of Robert Frost.
Both are brilliant, hilarious and happily agnostic. “So this is where the abracadabra happens!” Chuck One said with a mixture of sarcasm and awe the first time I showed him our sanctuary. Quickly dubbing me their authority on all things religious, each week they dropped some new question at my feet, like a cat presents a prize mouse on the doorstep after a night’s hunt. No question was too lofty or absurd: Why did God allow the Crusades? Do TV preachers all use the same hair stylist? What does God do if Hitler converts just as the cyanide is kicking in?
Whenever the three of us met, in addition to our writing we also caught each other up on our families, our histories and whatever else was on our minds. We opened up to each other. We took risks with each other. In short, we became friends.
As it happened, during the entire time that The Chucks and I were meeting, our church was going through the kind of turmoil, anxiety and conflict that comes whenever a congregation grapples with a particularly difficult challenge. Our own conundrum had largely to do with the economic realities facing nearly every faith community in 21st century America. It was perhaps the hardest, most painful time I’d known in twenty-five years of ministry.
It wasn’t hard for The Chucks to see that I was exhausted, stressed and semi-depressed. One Monday as we were getting settled, they put their manuscripts aside and said, “Look, kiddo, you’ve got to tell us what’s going on. You’re a wreck. What gives?” I was caught off guard. I had never mentioned the situation to them. But they persisted, so for the next few minutes I did my best to describe it:
Well, see, we’re financially out of balance and, well . . . our deacons and personnel committee have called a congregational meeting and, um . . . our bylaws require that we, um, well . . . there’ll be a vote and, uh . . . we’re bringing in a professional parliamentarian and, well . . . it’s all really painful for our staff and congregation, and people are upset and some are leaving and, well . . .
I stopped. I could see from their earnest faces that they were totally there for me. They were leaning forward and nodding supportively like friends do. I looked at them looking at me. And then I understood.
This issue—over which our congregation had prayed, wept, agonized, cited Scripture, fretted, battled, held dozens of meetings and devoted hundreds of committee hours—was such an exclusively internal concern, it had about as much chance of encouraging my two agnostic friends toward God as a monster truck rally or the latest episode of Spongebob.
Eighteen months later I still find myself thinking about that afternoon. If your church happens to be on a steep path like the one we’ve been walking, I want to offer three encouragements:
1. The fact that an internal problem doesn’t translate easily to unchurched lives does not mean it’s unimportant. If the wheels are coming off the wagon, you’ve got to pull off the road and deal with it. In our own congregation the issue affected the livelihoods of beloved staff, not to mention the emotional and spiritual health of the congregation—you bet it was important. Some matters simply have to be addressed, even if they mystify the people we’re most wanting to befriend.
2. As you face the institutionally urgent, keep in mind the infinitely significant. In the end, it’s not about solving a problem in order to survive another day. It’s not about right-sizing the budget, or protecting staff, or releasing staff, or keeping big givers happy, or preserving our heritage. Ultimately, it’s about people who are at this moment at the gym, the corner pub, the city jail, the corporate dining room, the community garden, the immigration office, the Rotary Club or anywhere but these churches of ours.
3. Spend yourself for something big. When we find ourselves investing as much prayer and passion and intellect and committee energy and congregational wattage trying to befriend our estranged-from-God neighbors as we devote to all of our internal affairs—we will have taken a really promising step.
In the end, it’s about The Chucks.