In a Bible full of lists, the list of the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5 is among the most inspiring and aspirational:
… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Galatians 5:22-23)
These fruits of the spirit offer a wonderful focus for personal devotions, prayers, sermon series, and classes for adults, youth, and children. It is harder to remember, however, that they also apply to meetings of church boards and committees. Church meetings seemingly exist on their own plane. They are in church, about church, and with church folk, but “church rules”—like the fruits of the spirit—often take a backseat to all the other frameworks we bring into the meeting with us.
This is especially true when dealing with a contentious issue or a contentious person. How does a church board practice the fruits of the spirit and also get its work done, when one or two members routinely hijack meetings by holding onto an issue too tightly and advocating for it in an energetic, single-minded, and confrontive manner? What happens to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control then? The thing about our faith: if it applies to our personal life, it should also apply to our faith community. It really doesn’t work to say “this issue is so important, the faith rules don’t apply.”
How can church boards both live up to the expectations of the fruits of the spirit and deal with contentious people – or issues – in a way that moves the board forward together?
One practice to help boards navigate in such moments is to start your meeting by reflecting on a short reading or image that ties indirectly to the issue at hand. This object of your reflection may be scripture, but it may also be another kind of text (poem, story, historical passage, art work). What matters is that it is complex, exceeding the reading of any one person, and therefore a profound reminder of different readings of our irreducibly complex common reality. That regained perspective might help the fruits of the spirit to be found in your meeting, even in the midst of differing views on the issue at hand. You may not need to return to the object as the meeting proceeds; but it remains available when you want to redirect attention away from one person and invite other voices into the room. In such a moment, the presence of this third thing can be your best friend.
Example: Start a meeting on proposals to rethink the passing of the peace in worship with a reflection on Kafka’s short parable, “Fellowship.”
by Franz Kafka
We are five friends; one day we came out of a house one after the other; first one came and placed himself beside the gate, then the second came, or rather he glided through the gate like a little ball of quicksilver, and placed himself near the first one, then came the third, then the fourth, then the fifth. Finally we all stood in a row. People began to notice us; they pointed at us and said: those five just came out of that house. Since then we have been living together; it would be a peaceful life if it weren’t for a sixth one continually trying to interfere. He doesn’t do us any harm, but he annoys us, and that is harm enough; why does he intrude where he is not wanted? We don’t know him and don’t want him to join us. There was a time, of course, when the five of us did not know one another, either; and it could be said that we still don’t know one another, but what is possible and can be tolerated by the five of us is not possible and cannot be tolerated with this sixth one. In any case, we are five and don’t want to be six. And what is the point of this continual being together anyhow? It is also pointless for the five of us, but here we are together and will remain together; a new combination, however, we do not want, just because of our experiences. But how is one to make all this clear to the sixth one? Long explanations would almost amount to accepting him in our circle, so we prefer not to explain and not to accept him. No matter how he pouts his lips we push him away with our elbows, but however much we push him away, back he comes.
• Why does the narrator say that he and the other four are “friends”?
• How is the sixth one annoying to the first five? Why don’t they “want to be six”?
• What fosters fellowship in your church board as you do your work?