Some people shouldn’t be allowed to own and display bumper stickers. Going home from the office, a little Honda swerved around me, causing me to slam on my breaks and almost hit another car in a turn lane. The driver popped his arm out the window and gave me a middle-finger salute, mouthed an obscenity, and gunned his car on down the road — but not before I noted the “Mean People Suck,” “Coexist,” and “Commit Random Acts of Kindness” bumper stickers adorning his rear end. There ought to be a law against such false advertising.
My naive hope is that somehow people in our churches would never behave like this — that at the very least, being a Christian would guarantee some kind of higher standard of civility, respect, kindness, and ethical conduct. Instead, I am regularly struck by the small-minded, petty, selfish, and mean behavior of many folks called United Methodist. Among such behaviors I have seen in just the past year:
- two women shoving one another at a church supper over the last white chocolate macadamia chip cookie
- a disgruntled church leader discharging a shotgun at the front of the church parsonage while the pastor and family were at home
- a UMW putting combination locks on the church cabinets to make sure the youth couldn’t make a mess
- a Christian youth group vandalizing area businesses with graffiti because they were “evil”
- a woman throwing a fit because she couldn’t help herself to a soda at a church function
- a group of unhappy parishioners removing memorial gifts from the church because they had a disagreement with the pastor
- a group of men blocking access to the church parking lot with trucks to prevent people attending a contemporary service of which they disapproved
- a cadre of malcontents spreading rumors about the pastor’s sexual orientation to undermine her leadership
- a pastor sharing confidential information to discredit a lay person he was fighting with
I could go on, but why dwell on the problem and depress everyone further? I mean, this doesn’t even touch on the basic gossip, bad-mouthing, telling tales, making stuff up kind of mild behavior evident everywhere. Shouldn’t we, as representatives of God and the love of Jesus Christ, guided and infused with the Holy Spirit, committed to living as kingdom people here on earth at least try to be a little better? There is simply no excuse for such behaviors anywhere, let alone the church, but the church ought to be different — better somehow. I have yet to meet anyone who thinks gossip, spreading rumors, lying, threatening and/or committing violence, or any of these other behaviors are acceptable. Everyone knows they’re not!
There is one simple reason that bad behavior occurs anywhere, including church: no one addresses it directly. Bad behavior is allowed to continue because we don’t want to offend anyone or incur their further wrath or challenge their authority (church matriarchs and patriarchs can do pretty much anything they want, and no one says anything about it!). We turn a blind eye, then wonder why nothing gets any better. If it gets bad enough, we expect the pastor to deal with it, thus making her or him a lightning rod that takes all the heat. Once policing the congregation for bad behavior becomes the responsibility of one person, we can turn our anger and aggression there, but we really don’t have to change.
So, if we allow bad behaviors to become normal and accepted over time, what is the solution? The solution is for the whole community of faith to decide not to ignore, allow, embrace, or otherwise tolerate unacceptable behavior. It really isn’t any harder than this. It requires a few simple steps, and a modicum of restraint.
- take some time identifying behaviors that are positive, unifying, edifying, and promote the greatest health and well-being of the group/congregation
- name explicitly the behaviors that are toxic, destructive, hurtful, negative, unpleasant, mean, petty, immature, and unChristian and covenant together not to allow them
- agree that it is everyone’s responsibility to enforce the covenant — if anyone behaves in a way that the whole group/congregation agreed not to, it is everyone’s and anyone’s responsibility to say, “we agreed not to do this”
- name bad behavior firmly, but gently; immediately, but kindly, and attempt to do so with humor
- don’t allow accountability to be the pastor’s job — pastors need to serve the whole congregation, and it does no good to force the pastoral leader to choose sides
Bad behavior is bad for everyone involved. We cannot grow as Christian disciples AND continue in small-minded, petty, hurtful, and destructive practices. A congregation held hostage by the bad behavior of the few suffers mightily. This is the heart of the injunction to speak the truth in love. Certainly, it isn’t always pleasant and it doesn’t always go well, but it is always necessary. To be the body of Christ means to excise the toxic influences that make it sick, and to provide a model and a witness to the world that it is possible to live in harmony, unity, grace, respect, civility, and love.