I have been reading Paul Watzlawick’s fun and funky, The Situation is Hopeless, But Not Serious — The Pursuit of Unhappiness. The central thesis of this short work is that human beings create their own unhappiness and discontent in dozens of creative unconscious ways. In one section, Watzlawick focuses on a topic I find especially appropriate for churches: RDEs, or Relationship Demolition Experts. RDEs are exceptionally adept at creating tension and conflict without even trying. They establish rules of engagement that make conflict not just possible, but unavoidable. RDEs are essentially self-centered, defining relationships in terms of their own needs and desires, setting double-standards, and pushing personal encounter from the win-lose competitive mindset to a simple no-win situation.
Here is one example of the “no-win, no matter what I say it’s wrong,” category. A wife comes to a husband with two outfits:
So, do you like the blue or the black? The blue is more stylish, but the black is more formal.
I think you should wear the black?
What’s wrong with the blue?
Simple, everyday exchange — with the trapdoor built in. No matter the answer, it is the wrong choice. It is a variation on:
So, do you want to go out for Mexican or Chinese food?
Let’s do Chinese.
I’m not really in the mood for Chinese; let’s do Mexican.
There are also the power-play variations — you’ll do it my way and you’ll like it; if you really loved me you would love what I love; and, if you disagree with me there is something wrong with you. In every case, one party leaves the other with no place to stand. It is the classic, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” cliché we all know and despise. And it is very rarely conscious or intentional.
Which makes it no less deadly. I remember two incidents from my days down south. In the first, I was talking to a pastor who related the following story.
In my very first appointment, at my initial interview, I asked the leaders of the congregation what they expected from me and what they hoped I could bring to their ministry. They were very clear: attract young families. I dedicated myself to that one task, and I was moderately successful. Within a year we had five families, all with young children. That’s when the same leaders of the church started to complain: ‘the kids are noisy,’ ‘they don’t know how to behave,’ ‘the parents leave messes for other people to clean up,’ ‘the younger members don’t give as much or volunteer as much,’ etc. One woman actually said to me, ‘You should go to the parents and ask them to leave their kids home until they’re a little older and can learn to behave.’ I tried to launch a praise service and we brought drums and amplifiers and screens into the sanctuary and you would have thought I turned it into a brothel. The Trustees demanded I ‘move that trash’ out of the sanctuary. The younger families grew discouraged and left, and our Staff Parish Relations Committee requested a pastoral change for the church. At the meeting with our district superintendent the chair of the SPRC actually got up and said, ‘We asked for only one thing: young families, and our pastor failed to deliver!
Sometimes it takes a village of RDEs to raze a relationship.
On the other hand, here is the tale of an RDE pastor who was his own worst enemy.
I feel God called me to be a prophet — to call for change and to fix broken churches. I will admit I have been misunderstood in most of my appointments — people don’t like it when you hold up a mirror and make them face reality. My last church, I completely transformed Sunday morning — new schedule, new order of worship, new music — I really tried to wake them up. I said, ‘I know what you like, but I am here to give you what you need.’ You should have heard the squawking, but I stood my ground. I said, ‘Give it time. You’ll get used to it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay.’ Today, that church has a whole new congregation and it’s alive! God gives me a vision for every church I serve, and I will not be distracted from that vision. My job is to make sure the people in the pews understand that God knows best what they need.
Now, setting aside that this pastor was in his sixth appointment in seven years, what are some of the problems with his testimony? As with the first witness, each is more about division than unity. “My way or the highway” may be a catchy slogan, but it’s a lousy motto. Healthy relationships treat all involved equally and honorably. Where there is a discrepancy in the balance of power, the relationship is in jeopardy. Relationships that succeed are grounded in “co.” Cooperation, communication, collaboration, community, conscience, collegiality, communion, common sense — and even a measure of conflict, well-handled. WE grow together as we set aside the demands of each ME.
Some claim that the seeds of sin are found in the soil of disobedience, but I believe disobedience is the tender sprout of selfishness. I have yet to find a sin that doesn’t connect directly and deeply to selfishness. Most of the hundreds of rules, laws, and instructions in the Hebrew scriptures are protections of the common good, and have very little to do with morals or ethics. They are simply expressions of the needs of the community over those of the individual. Many are clear safeguards against Relationship Demolition Experts.
I am a very strong advocate for congregational covenants — those agreements that the whole body make that define how we will act, what we agree NOT to do, and what commitments we will make together to bind us together as community. Bad behavior should not, cannot, must not, ought not (declarative enough? I realize I am employing RDE behavior here to make my point, but cut me some slack… I’m human) be allowed to exist in our congregations. And it is only when the whole congregation takes responsibility and lifts accountability to an honored status that true change can happen. What is good enough for all of us should be good enough for any of us; and what we will not tolerate collectively we will not accept from individuals. Bullying is not okay. Gossip serves no good purpose. Building dividing walls of hostility is to work against Christ. Back-stabbing, insulting, degrading, disrespectful behaviors will never result in true Christian community. So let’s cut it out. The time has come to cultivate Relationship Development Artists (RDAs) in our congregations.