For the last 48 hours life has been an out-of-control roller-coaster ride for my wife, our two cats, and me. All our worldly possessions are currently somewhere between Nashville, Tennessee and Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. We are sitting in our new (new to us, anyway) condo, preparing to launch/create a whole new life in a whole new place with a whole new cast of characters. When did life become so transitory and disposable? For the past fifteen years — good or ill — Nashville has been home base, where almost all of my professional contacts, colleagues, and community exists. My wife, former editor at the United Methodist Publishing House, made not only working relationships through her office, but many friendships as well. When our professional relationships were severed, our community suffered for it. Our networks of friends, co-workers, and partners stay behind. We move on. What a strange way to live.
I think of one of my “community” members from Vanderbilt who told me a few months ago that I “was crazy.” “Community,” he said, “is a false construct, created to make something out of nothing. Informal ties define social networks that are advantageous to a number of people. Without advantage, there is no need for community. You aren’t really losing anything,” he said, “but a figment of your imagination. You were fired eleven months ago and most of the people who were deeply bothered at the time don’t even remember that you’re gone.” My friend may be right, but even if he is, I still feel sad. Relationships should mean something, and the severing of relationships should matter as well. Community lost can never be regained.
Even a new community doesn’t replace an old community. I have no doubt that Barbara and I will be forming new strong relationships and that meaningful community will emerge. But, sadly, to think that relationships are interchangeable isn’t much of a step in the right direction.
In the cynical age of the modern corporate environment — which pretty well describes the current reality of most of our general church agencies and boards — relationships and community are simply non-issues. Fiscal bottom lines and pandering to the latest UM slogan drive the “visioning” of much of the church. We don’t have time to build lasting relationships and create effective community. This is so out of step with who we are called to be — who we ought to be — but virtually no one is challenging this trend.
I spoke with a pastor a few weeks ago who is leaving our denomination — actually leaving the church. His own personal reason is that he can no longer accept the way church people treat each other. He experiences deep concern and caring, great compassion and acts of mercy, exceptional sacrifice and service outside the church more often than inside.
A young woman pastor comes to mind who made a decision to leave the process toward professional ministry in order to maintain community with people she respects, admires, and wants to stay connected to. When the threat of appointment away from meaningful ministry and service in authentic Christian community became imminent, this courageous woman made a career change choice because community was simply too important to frivolously toss away.
What is the power of a strong community? Our scriptures are filled with stories of the importance of community. In Christian community, the commitments of the body supersede those of family, friends, and tribe. The working, serving, worshiping community becomes the new family, fostering lasting friendships, and recreating the tribe. Christian identity is identity in community. Together we are stronger and better than we are individually. And when we align our efforts and resources on creating strong community, we create the necessary conditions by which to change the world. Community matters.
Which makes me all the sadder. When community is stripped away — when the church devalues relationships for budgets, community for popularity, and networks for soundbites — we lose more than a good feeling, we lose the very essence of who we are as a people of God and the body of Christ. It is a sign of the times that leadership in the church is just another job, and it is going to take some real visionary pioneers to make turn things around.
I am so happy to be going into a situation where relationships are so important — the leadership in Wisconsin really like, respect, and support each other, not just in the work they do, but as fellow pilgrims on the spiritual journey. It takes time and energy. It calls for sacrifice and at times discomfort. And it is well worth it. Because people who work together may try unsuccessfully for a long time to like one another, but people who truly like one another can join together to achieve almost anything. Where relationships are strong, great things can happen. Where relationships are secondary, a lot of wasted effort results.
One of the highest priorities of our Christian church should be to create strong, meaningful, authentic community, where people know, respect, honor, and support each other. When community becomes disposable, it is a very short path to failure — and it is not a path our church can afford to take.