Thursday, July 14, 2005

Things That Suck

Note to readers who happen to be my parents: you may want to skip this one because it's about dad's job.

To begin, a few salient facts:

1. I grew up in the denomination known as the Churches of Christ.

2. The Church of Christ is a congregational church, which means that in theory, there is no power hierarchy beyond the local church.

3. The Church of Christ has no ecclesiology to speak of. In other words, we don't have a theology that specifically informs the questions of who should lead the church and how. However, our emphasis on naively interpreting the text of the Bible means that we have some vague idea of congregational leadership by elders.

4. In addition to elders, who do their governing for free, our churches generally employ a head minister/pastor/preacher/evangelist and a youth minister.

5. For 20-plus years, my dad has been a pastor/preacher/minster/evangelist for a congregation in my hometown.

6. He's not anymore.

It's this last one that has gotten my goat. Not so much that he's not preaching, but the manner in which he lost his job.

I'll need to explain some more.

The way this elder thing works, every so often somebody, I'm not sure who, gets this great idea that we need more elders. Maybe one died or moved away or something. Then members of the congregation nominate certain people - and by people, I mean men - to be the new elders. By some prestidigitatious process, this list is filtered, and the new candidate elders are presented to the congregation. If anyone has a "scriptural objection" to the new elders, they can present it; otherwise, after some undetermined period has elapsed, the candidate elders become real elders.

Nobody really knows what elders are responsible for, but it seems to have something to do with "shepherding the flock", "hiring and firing", "spending the contribution money", that sort of thing.

Now as you might expect, when new elders come into a congregation, there's a shakeup in the existing power structure. Maybe there are now more conservative elders. Maybe more liberals. And maybe some elders become elders and discover that they don't have as much power in the congregation as they had hoped. Particularly if the church has a pastor who's been there 20 years.

What do you think happens in such a situation?

Well, being the cream of the congregational crop, the new elders behave humbly and wisely. They realize that the pastor has invested almost a quarter of a century of full-time and overtime in this congregation, a long stint in the Churches of Christ. Like good disciples, they listen to, and learn from, the experienced pastor.

Unless, of course, the elders are more concerned with their own ego and power in the congregation. Then things go something like this.

First, the elders shake up congregation. They critizize the pastor, try to dictate his sermons, and make his job a ridiculous pain, trying to get him to leave.

The pastor gets the picture. He starts looking for new employment ... employment in another field, if you please. Enough of these damn church people.

But things don't move quickly enough for the elders. The pastor is so entrenched, they can't fire him without getting the congregation up in arms. Instead, they kindly ask him to resign. Concerned by what will happen to the church if he resists, the pastor writes a letter to the congregation explaining that he is "burnt out" and will be resigning. Effective immediately. No last sermon to his congregation. No fond farewells. No hard-earned retirement.

Finally, the pious elders - who are always concerned for the spiritual health of their congregation - make a deal with the pastor: If your family will keep their traps shut about this business, we'll keep paying your salary for six months. (Of course, the pastor didn't have a contract. After 20-plus years, he thought he could trust those people.)

So the pastor has little choice but to accept all of the elders' demands, continue his job hunt and hope his little congregation holds together. As you might expect, he's going to take a heavy cut in pay, particularly since he's hunting for a job outside his field. He and his wife will probably have to move, which means that she has to find a new job, too. And the people who he would turn to in such a situation - his church - are the people who got him into this mess. In other words, things are pretty crappy.

But that was about six months ago, which means we have some distance from the situation.

It also means the statute of limitations on my ire is about to expire.

So my question for you, good friends, is this: Now that I am no longer restricted from doing anything that might be interpreted as "berating the elders", what should I do?

Should I write the elders a letter? Take out a TV ad? Send a chocolate cake?

Should I try to give the elders some perspective, try to make them feel some shame?

Should I raise some "scriptural objections" to encourage their ouster?

I keep trying to figure out what Jesus would do. Maybe you know.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

I already wrote my letter, it's going out at the end of the month. It explains my situation, my grief, and asks for an apology both to our family and the church. I doubt it'll work, but I need to do it.

Instead of chocolate cake, maybe we could prepare some "special brownies" for them. How's that for new perspective?

Sometimes I think we should separate the elders who we think feel really crappy about what happened and explain what we think should happen. And then see if they get things done.

Other times I think we should attend services one Sunday morning, and before the closing prayer you should run up to the pulpit and explain that we forgive them for what they did, although we still think it's crappy. (I'd do it myself, but that'd go over even worse.) But I guess we should do that with the elders in private first, huh?

I dunno. There have been no good answers since this crap started.

~The Sis

Your Mom said...

Now how could I NOT read it after an introductory paragraph like that? If your church family doesn't love you, it sure is nice to have children who do. Actually, it's nice to have children who do, no matter what.

life_of_bryan said...

All I can say is, I know a group of elders who won't be getting 11 dollars from me this year.

I tend to be naïve when it comes to people I look up to and expect better of (like shepherds), and that's what situations like this bother me so much. It's easy to let the dissappointment and bitterness get the better of you.

People let you down. That's what we do.

Seems like a healthy, Christ-like, rebuke is always scriptural. You don't want someone getting comfortable in their self-righteousness, thinking they got away with it. We could even arrange for their identities to be stolen. Maybe post their pictures and profiles on a gay dating service's website. That's always been a nice harmless way for me to get my anger out.

Matthew's Wife said...

If you write a letter, personalize it for each elder and mail it to his house...that way they take the rebuke personally rather than blaming it on another elder. Maybe you'll get more response that way.

Kyle said...

Wow, Matt, where's the love? Right? My dad face something similar in the church they've been attending for years. Of course, it wasn't nearly as big of a deal, because it dealt with my dad's eldership and not his livelyhood. But, I certainly can relate to the mindset.

As for what should be done. I'm a big fan of sincere hurt, gently given without anger or violence, but simple disappointment for a really nice guilt trip. Even throw in some scripture for good measure. I also like your sister's "special brownie" idea (I know a guy), but if nothing else, at least give this a shot.

I hope the Love family is doing well.

Paul said...

Hi Matthew:

Sounds lousy. I don't know what's best to do in that situation. I've only faced one situation that was at all similar, and probably not that much.

I was still able to work until two years ago. My final year of work, we got a new principal. In twenty three years of working in the public elementary schools, the only individual I ever met who was clearly in it for the "power" and not the kids. (Pretty pathetic... I mean, if you're interested in wielding power over others, business, politics or the military would seem better choices.)

Anyway, literally half the staff left at the end of that year. During my five previous years there, under the old principal, morale was high and turnover very low. But the new principal would "set her sights" on specific targets - like I say, it amounted to half the staff - and make life so disagreeable most of the targets would leave.

It cost me $5000.00 a year for the rest of my life. Once I became a target, keeping up with a job that was itself fulltime plus, medical research, declining health, doctors appointments, plus the added burden of countering the memos she was firing off to leave a "paper trail" about me, was just too much. Instead of leaving at the end of the school year, I was forced out by this process in early May, meaning I went out under that year's salary instead of the following year's. Thus the cut in disability benefit, which is based on salary.

This person was such a mental case that I ended up just letting it go. I really do believe she needed professional help, and felt there was nothing I could say that would make any difference.

I guess maybe that's it... Is there anything you can say or do that will make any difference? Whatever you do, and you all sound like a bright bunch so I'm preaching to the choir here, but don't "lose it." During my time with the disagreeable principal, who had some of the female teachers reduced to tears in the hallways, I knew I didn't want to give her the satisfaction of getting any emotional rise out of me. She didn't. In fact she never attacked me in public, only the memos none of the other staffers could see. I think she could tell that in any public confrontation, I wasn't about to lose my "cool" so she could only lose face, and she never tried it.

life_of_bryan said...

That stinks Paul. The same thing happened at the elementary school where my wife works (teachers crying, principal forcing people out, etc). It was a new, first-time principal, hard charging to put her mark on the place and shape things up to the way she wanted them. Over a dozen teachers are leaving -- so I guess she got what she wanted. Only thing is...it's the good teachers who leave most of the time. They can get a job somewhere else and don't have to stay under those conditions.

The dirty tactics you were subjected to are also very unfortunate. This principal also pulled some of the same crap, and a couple of teachers even reported her to the State Board.

Paul said...

Wow. Mine was also a first-time principal. So maybe this is a thing that some minority of them do.

And also the same pattern: many of the best were the ones she drove out. They were fed up, and easy hires elsewhere.

From what I've been told, she ended up replacing them with very young teachers, presumably, as you suggest, to make her mark and have people under her thumb.

Worst of this one was her invincibility. Long story short, despite the truly impressive volume of complaints against her, all this happened just outside DC, and her husband has a position in government...

My best and my sympathies to your Dad and your wife...

life_of_bryan said...

Paul,
The context probably has a lot to do with it as well. This was a terribly low performing school in a low income part of town -- so a new principal whipping a crappy school into shape is likely afforded a lot of latitude in her methods. Wouldn't you know it, the test scores were actually up this year -- so like it or not, something moved the needle there.

Funny thing was, at the last staff meeting of the year a lot of the staff voiced their concerns & let her know how they really felt. Through these public confessions and anonymous notes, they expressed their anger and disappointment about mistreatment and such. The principal was actually surprised and had no idea her attitude & actions were perceived this way. So these "confrontations" can sometimes work.

Conflicts in the religous context are definitely more complicated, since people bring a lot more baggage and convictions to the table. Whether you get a response or not, wouldn't it at least be cathartic for you to let them know you are sincerely struggling with how to come to terms with the situation -- and even their motives/rationale?

I looked up "power hungry elder" in Webster's and it said "see Pharisee."

Kyle said...

Aas long as teachers are teaching what will be on the tests then the scores will go up. Are the kids learning to do anything besides take a test? No, but it will apease the government. No matter that kids aren't actually learning anything worthwhile.

Matthew's Wife said...

Your sis mentioned something about forgiveness. That's the only comment I've seen that's gotten near answering your question: "What would Jesus do?"

But have either of you forgiven the elders? I don't blame you if you haven't yet, but what is it going to take to forgive? Do they have to apologize first? Or can you just decide to go ahead and forgive and let God do the work in the elder's hearts? Maybe that way you can have peace.

I think that your dad is the one who has acted most like Jesus in this situation. There was that church meeting he showed up at shortly after his "resignation" during which the congregation seemed to want to complain to and about the elders. Instead of enjoying that scene, he got up and spoke and stopped it from happening. I don't remember what he said...but I think the goal was to keep the peace in the church and keep that congregation together. Pretty impressive on your dad's part.

What else would Jesus do? I'm not sure yet.

irina said...

Jesus would say : "Forgive them Father for they don't know what they do" and would have climbed on the cross for them...
But we are so human and so weak... We want justice here, on earth! I'm in that, too, but can't help thinking of God's toatally different way of looking at situations and people...

Matthew said...

Jesus would say : "Forgive them Father for they don't know what they do" and would have climbed on the cross for them...

Thanks for posting, Irina. =)

I think my trouble is, I'm not sure which of Jesus' examples to follow in this situation. Sometimes Jesus would suffer for people; sometimes he would scold them for being hypocrites and liars. I'm certain that God wants me to be forgiving, but I'm not sure what else would be right, just, appropriate.

irina said...

Well, Matthew, I guess if He wanted you to stand up and scold them He would chase away your doubts and enlighten your mind with the words to say...
I have learned that peace is so much greater than justice...
You must talk to God, see what He thinks of all that... Maybe He is just waiting for you to ask for the words to say from Him...

emilyjane said...

Obviously, I don't know any of the people involved in this situation, so my opinion will be limited to (and by) general observations.

There is such a thing as church politics. Like politics in any setting, what is best for the people may or may not be the goal or the outcome. I am not certain that not allowing people to voice their grievances in order to keep the peace is the way to go. I don't mean that gossiping and bad-mouthing people is desirable, but a genuine airing of concerns and differences can often lead to a meeting of minds/hearts and. as a result, a sustainable peace can occur.

I don't think that brushing things under the rug in the name of Christian charity and forgiveness is always for the best. I am all for forgiveness, but silencing people in the name of peace may be more of a cop out and a sign of a lack of courage than it is a sign that one is following in Jesus's footsteps. Jesus was no coward and was willing to speak the truth if the situation warranted it, faux peace be damned.

It is possible to speak one's truth and still to forgive. The two aren't mutually exclusive.

emilyjane said...

One of my favorite books is Catherine Marshall's "The Helper." Here is a quote from her chapter on reconciliation:

"As we witness the miracle of it we realize that true oneness of mind, heart, and spirit is not something we can program or manipulate; it is the priceless gift of the Spirit. Then let us not deceive ourselves that it can be achieved by shaking hands or hugging a neighboring worshiper at a scheduled point in a church service. Or by making small talk with someone over a cup of punch in the so-called fellowship hour.

These can be good beginnings, but the true reconciliation Jesus is asking for is not fellowship game-playing; it means patient listening to another's point of view in an effort to understand; painful apology perhaps, and in the end it always invloves sharing life deeply on a continuing basis with our own ekklesia--those who have been called together by the Spirit Himself." (p.170)

Good luck and many blessings to all of you.

emilyjane said...

After I made my posts yesterday, I went on to read the next chapter of Marshall's book: "He cleanses the Body of Christ." Marshall begins the chapter witt this quote:

"Therefore, putting away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another." Ephesians 4:25

Later she quotes several more passages of scripture:

"Jesus Himself had laid a solid base for such corretion: 'If your brother sins, rebuke him' and 'Go tell him his fault.'

Yet this remains a difficult assignment for which we desperately need the Spirit's help. Most of us want to shirk altogether being used by the Helper for any correction or disciplining work, or else we become judgmental and try it on our own without love." (p. 174)

She does caution against trying to get revenge: "Beloved, never avenge yourself, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengenance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'" (Romans 12:19)

She ends, as she does each chapter, with a prayer:

"Lord, how can I who am still so flawed be used for the correction of anyone else? I ask You to save me from cowardice that makes me unwilling to be used at all, and from a holier-than-thou spirit that would attempt any part of this on my own strength. . . .You alone, Lord, can make me usable to You for this work. Make me a willing instrument in Your hands. In your strong name, I pray. Amen." (p. 175)

The "Other Lowe" said...

Matt,
I wish I knew the answer to this. Your family was there for me as a child as much if not more than my own family. I think that you should do what you think is right, though Jesus would give a rebuke from a loving heart, or do nothing. Either way, get it out! It will eat alive if you don't. I don't have any good answers, I just want to put in my .02 and let you know whatever you decide to do, I am behind you, there are a few elders/church camp leaders I'd love to get into it with, myself. Just remember what jesus would do.

1 Cor 13:13

Your Pal

P.S. - I like cake, you could send me one...

K-Rewx said...

Perhaps Mathew's dad ought to contribute a word or two.

First, I am very proud of my children (and in-laws). I'm proud of them for who they are and I'm especially proud that the question has been "What would Jesus do here?"

Second, although this may have been assumed, I'd like to make it clear that there are two situations here. One is WHAT and the other is HOW.

WHAT means "should we change preachers?" HOW means "what process should we follow to decide and then do it?"

On the question of WHAT. I think it was time for a change. I didn't have the heart for it anymore.

On the question of HOW. I think mistakes were made and I've voiced that. I still believe that one of the problems was that we had never done this before. It is hard to get anything exactly right on the very first try. About the only time it happens is on StarTrek with Scotty as engineer.

Third, some of the mistakes were mine. I wish that weren't so. But it is. Humans make mistakes. I'm human and I make at least my share – sometimes with a huge degree of haughtiness. I would have you avoid sin, too. But "none of us has the power or responsibility to make things turn out right for anybody else."

Fourth, it is often harder for spouse and family than it is for the "victim." This is true whether the hurt is physical or emotional.

Finally, perhaps the question could be phrased this way: "What does forgiveness look like in this situation?"

Anonymous said...

Ouch! So much pain and it may just now be reaching damaging proportions. It sounds like you understand the "forgiveness" instruction if you just could figure out what that looks like? Not only did Jesus forgive--he did that WHILE we were still his enemies. He didn't wait for apology or reconciliation to start the process. Since we claim HE IS THE WAY then why not just go ahead and do it like he exampled. Forgiviness does not release the sinner from his culability--it releases you from the bondage of revenge or retribution--and I do mean bondage! I speak from experience in this matter and can only pray that you will believe in this process. God loved us FIRST--you can GO FIRST like him. Just do it. Continue advancing HIS KINGDOM and not yours. Throw the energy you are giving to anger and frustration (understandably but not profitably) to healing others because you have been healed. I know your father and I know his devotion to healing--maybe God has provided a avenue for him to understand the receiving end as well as the giving end. God is still in control and if you allow Him, he will show you in His time what has been refined in you because of this experience. And He is able to handle the rest of mankind's sins as well. Think on these things....