Is it ever as simple as “‘We’ are good, ‘they’ are bad”?
I don’t think it is. In all of us, there are some things that make us the same as ‘them’ or connect us to them, whoever they are. Even if we don’t want to accept that. We all breathe the same air, are united by our human limitations and gifts and have been died for by the same Saviour who came and inhabited this messy earth alongside us.
I was in a setting a few weeks ago where I was in the minority and the ‘others’ were somewhat different than me in their perspective and purpose at a micro level. Someone else, from the same minority as me, found this very frustrating and spent the week expressing frustration with what he perceived to be the [position], [view], [method], [manner], [style], [objectives] of the ‘others.’ [substitute whatever is appropriate in the boxes].
Some of the ‘others’ on the receiving end of his annoyance were shocked, surprised, hurt, tearful, reacted aggressively in return. They defended their position, talked about us as a group and found other faults and issues with the minority, expressed fears and anger. A few talked with us kindly and were willing to debate and discuss and share their views, but not many. Not everyone is secure enough to cope with aggression and some of the verbal blunt instrument wielding frightened people off. It led me to reflect on the best way for us as pioneers to make change happen, and if it’s possible for us to unwittingly entrench opposition if we go about our task in a cack handed manner.
As pioneers called to ordination in the CofE, it seems important for us to know our calling and what that entails as regards the Church. Yes most of us are called to ‘outside’ the walls of church, but by accepting a call to ordination and seeking to understand and honour that, we need to do some thinking about some important issues around how we live alongside what is, in terms of the inherited church.
This is a bit of a letter to my earlier self, asking some key questions based on things I’ve learned and assumptions I’ve had to challenge in my own thinking, as I attempt to make sense of my calling to the church but mainly the people outside it, over the last seven years:
a) What is our stance towards the church? Most importantly what do we see God thinks it is, how does he treat it and feel about it? Then from that, what do we believe it is, what does it exist for, and how are we going to relate to it? Once we see that he loves it, cares for it, calls it his body and his bride, that may need to change our approach. Read Paul’s words about the parts of the body and their mutual need for one another. This is the same Paul who was trying to kill off the early church and found himself flat on his back in the road as God intervened to protect his people – protecting that church mattered to God! When we accept a call to ordination, implicit in that is a requirement to respect this body of Christ in all its oddity and to consider how to bless and care for it, share with it what we are seeing on the ground and help it to be the best it can be. Yes we may very much want it to change and see its weaknesses, but we need to consider how to do that most effectively – in the main, Christ seems to love us as a means of changing us, not berate us.
b) What are we each called to do here, and what are the tools that will enable us to work most effectively in that place? This is in part anthropological – we need to observe our working environment, find the influencers, build bridges with the decision making structures. Look at the Belbin team profiles, Strength Finders, and find out what gifts and skills you are bringing to the party. Know yourself and how others see you. If you are frightening people or getting into endless rows, it might be time to learn some new people skills. (I say this as someone who could pick a fight in an empty room and has need of greater gifts in this area myself!)
c) How do we believe change happens? Is it an institution we are trying to change or a body? What is its culture and history (ie how did it get here, to where it is now?) and how has change come in the past? What does it hold dear and what is it ready to lay down? What values matter most to it? Does change happen at the edges or the centre and where will you start? The reality is change needs to happen in both places and even if we love to work at the edges, we need to know how to communicate what we are learning and seeing to the folks at the centre who may be desperately in need of that information to make decisions. If we haven’t built any bridges, how are we going to walk towards those people to share what we see God doing? Let’s do what works, not expend energy on what destroys. Yes discussion and debate are hugely important – but our way of working communicates as much as we say. The process and the means are important – look at the life of Christ as the best model of non-violent subversion of a belief system!
d) How are you harnessing your passion? If you are the kind of pioneer that has a lot of passion, make sure it is well directed and held under discipline so you don’t kill people by your fierceness. No-one will want to work with you gladly if you are “spewing forth murderous threats” like the apostle Paul about what they may hold dear. Even if your opinion is justified – so what! The way we love is what shows others that we are children of God (“By this shall all men know you are my disciples”) Find a better way to communicate that doesn’t kill the hearer, so that you may win your sister. Passion is only a useful tool inasmuch as it is harnessed by other gifts and skills such as love, kindness, empathy and humour when dealing with people who are different – otherwise it turns us into a fire eating dragon! Set up an accountability structure for this – confess it to a friend or spiritual director and get them to pray and watch your back as you try and get this under control. Anger disguised as passion is not a virtue.
e) Don’t fall into the trap of thinking only one model of church is ‘right’. You may hate choral music and think it irrelevant, but many people in their sixties have come to church to hear the music and stayed on to meet God. You may love Christian ‘rock’ in large crowded churches, but people who are mentally ill may never be strong enough to meet God there. Different people in different contexts will relate to different types of church – what we personally like best is irrelevant! There are churches of every possible type and shape that are preaching the Gospel effectively in word, sacrament and love. They may look ragged round the edges or slippery slick like a palm oil salesman– either way, the intentionality and quality of the efforts at love and discipleship may take a while to see so don’t be in a hurry to condemn. Each way of being church has some strengths and some weaknesses. God decides and judges, not us and at the end of the day we can easily ‘spiritualise’ our own preferences and condemn what is working for others.
f) What is your calling here? Hang on strongly to what you know and what you’ve heard from the Holy Spirit about what you are to do. You don’t have to give up your identity or acquiesce with the views of the mainstream or appease by not talking about what you are called to. The stuff we bring does matter and deserves to be heard so don’t hear me say we have to fit in and keep quiet in order to not stir opposition – more that there are ways of doing it that will help people to ‘get it’ if we are thoughtful and not arrogant in our methods. Mission IS hugely important, to the Church’s identity and calling as God’s people and it has undoubtedly lost its way in that in recent decades. We are here to help that turn around as pioneers, to try out ideas and models and learn what works. To listen to the culture and help the church to hear and understand the cry of the world, to learn how to effectively communicate the love of Christ and work for justice and peace. In whatever way pioneers are called to this, it is a blessed task, a gift and a privilege to join in the perichoresis of the Trinity!
g) How do we deal with opposition? Jesus knew there would be trouble ahead and he taught clearly about it. He told the disciples to shake the dust off their feet and move on – not to stay and argue, or get offended! He told us to turn the other cheek when dealing with enemies, to pray for people who hurt or reject us. We all have the tools at hand that make for peace – our Bibles are clear. Perhaps as Christians and pioneers we need to learn what psychologists have known for years – we need to learn to deal effectively and honestly with anger, acknowledging it honestly when we are treated badly, instead of letting it blow up on the next person who disagrees with us. Speak to the person involved. If you find you are still boiling, perhaps join a kick boxing club or a gym and work it out of the body; then we can go back to work together in all our diverse ways. Keeping on and journeying well are about long haul, long term change making and discipleship – it’s no good having a blow out on the first lap. In most cases pioneering is a vocation and an ontology – we are always likely to be ‘stuck with’ the gift of it whether we like it or not, and so find ourselves in these situations regularly. Dealing with the inevitable pain and hurt that comes with misunderstanding and opposition, AND keeping going with grace and tenacity, are the way in which we make change and keep the casualties to a minimum!