Working for the church, first at the denominational level, then at the conference level, I am surprised at how often people will open their communication with me with the words, “You need to understand…” A more narcissistic and ego-centric phrase may not exist, because the people who open with such a statement are not truly seeking understanding, but acquiescence. Here is how the statement breaks down:
You — I am abdicating all responsibility for compromise or cooperation — the responsibility rests solely with “you”
Need to — must, should, ought to because I say so. My wants, opinions, and desires must be the most important consideration, and the declarative indicates how important my position is
Understand — you surrender any opposition to my position and submit to my way of thinking.
Here are some examples from emails, letters, phone calls, and face-to-face encounters:
You must understand that if we let homosexuals in the church, I will leave!
You must understand that I left the church because of the way you treat gay and lesbian Christians.
You must understand that if you make political statements, you are violating your trust in the church.
You need to understand that people are tired of leaders who won’t take social stands and hide behind the Book of Discipline.
You need to understand that when you ordain women you are thumbing your nose at the Bible.
You need to understand that if you ordain gays, you will destroy the church.
You need to understand that if you support those liberals at Church and Society you leave us no choice but to withhold our apportionments.
You need to understand, if you keep wasting our money on stupid advertising campaigns we’re not going to keep sending in our apportionments.
You need to understand that real ministry happens at the local church level and we really don’t need you.
Okay, this tiny sample illustrates the problem: do what I think is right or I will take my ball and go home. Church in no way is about “us,” it is simply about “me.” I am not happy — you’re not doing what I think you ought to, therefore I will threaten to leave, withhold money, or I will work to split us up. Real understanding… (Contrast thesestatements with this note I received last week, “I struggle with some of the positions our church is taking. I was distressed by news of an impending trial in our conference. How can we work together to move forward?” “I” and “Our” are much more accessible than “You!” offered in an accusing voice.)
Our self-centered entitlement culture, mistaking opinion for truth and personal preference for what is right and good, undermines everything noble in the church. Unity and reconciliation are taken out of the equation. My way or the highway defines a growing number of people’s attitudes in the church. Either I receive everything exactly the way I want it, or else.
We all see this in little children. It is essentially a maturity issue — which is what makes it so distressing in our adult church members. Note I don’t say “Christians,” but church members. Christianity, by definition, is a corporate and communal belief system. We are the church. Each individual is NOT a church unto him- or herself. If there is no body, there is no Christ. To be Christian means we must set aside childish ways and learn to play well with others — everyone on the playground. So, Christians don’t behave this way, but church members — those who believe that they have joined a club and pay dues and are customers to be served — do. We need to work on the transformation of church members into Christians (and Christians into disciples).
Churches for too long have lost their fundamental courage. We are so scared that someone might leave that we tolerate horrendous behavior. There is no accountability and widespread conflict avoidance. We let everyone call their own shots. Every member can decide for him-/herself what it means to be involved. How many times do we witness a church ready to make a major decision and suddenly dozens of inactive members show up for the express purpose of voting against it? Behaviors that would cause us to ground our own children run rampant throughout many congregations. Passive-aggressive, aggressive-aggressive, and downright outrageous acting-out are normal.
Recently in the Wisconsin Annual Conference, a letter went out from our bishop in support of those families affected by action to eliminate collective bargaining at the state level. All the letter did was remind our members and inform our communities that The United Methodist Church has long supported economic justice through collective bargaining. It is part of our doctrine and polity. It is in our Social Principles. It is what The United Methodist Church believes and has adopted through its policy-making structures. Oh, man, you should hear all the “you need to understand” responses to this letter! Our bishop didn’t make this up — our whole denomination did. The negative response to the position doesn’t indicate that there is anything wrong with the church, but that many of our members are fundamentally ignorant about what The United Methodist Church holds as basic doctrine and polity. None of the critics feel that they “need to understand” anything beyond their own personal opinion. They just feel that those in leadership “need to understand,” what they don’t like.
This is simply a cultural sign of the times. Consumeristic, individualistic, materialistic, narcissistic, ego-centric “its-all-about-me-ism” dominates the scene. There is never going to be a single church where everyone agrees and everyone believes the same things. It is one of the defining features of Methodism — we make space at the table for the widest possible array of God’s children. Ideally, we don’t threaten, we don’t judge, we don’t harass and harangue, and we don’t make the mistake of thinking that our faith is fundamentally “all about us” individually. We strive to serve God. I personally don’t care about conservative or liberal, straight or gay, married or divorced, male or female, biblical literalists or post-modern critics, ethnicity or maturity. I didn’t sign on to serve a constituency or a caucus. I signed on to serve God, and I believe God wants us all together, so I will continue to try my best to serve everyone. Perhaps this means “I don’t understand…” or perhaps it does.