There’s a story about a church choir whose members processed in pairs down the long center aisle during the opening hymn at the beginning of worship. About halfway down, the members of each pair would separate momentarily—one stepping right and the other stepping left—before resuming their side-by-side procession toward the chancel. Finally, a perplexed visitor asked what the odd choreography was all about. “Oh,” said a long-time member, “in our last building there was a post at that point in the aisle, so the choir learned to steer around it.”
There are many good and important values to be found in habit (a topic we will address at a later point). But what about the habits of a congregation that a church board accepts without examination, even though they have long since ceased to move us closer to God and one another?
Most of us have learned patterns that help us avoid change, or growth, or adjustment. The known, even if it is mediocre, is more comfortable than a shift that might move us to a new, deeper place.
At the end of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is praying in the garden (a habit he held, by the way), and he asks his disciples to wait and watch with him:
32They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” 35And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” 37He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour?38Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 39And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. 41He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
Not many church board agendas will contain such high stakes, but the power of avoidance—falling asleep to avoid the tumult of Jesus’ last night—is unmistakable in most of us. Unless they practice watchfulness, church boards can fall asleep and miss everything from a passé choir procession to opportunities to live into the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed and change their very life together.
In his autobiographical work Reveries of the Solitary Walker, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) reflects on one of his own habits, concluding that while it may have started in pleasure, it took root as a way to avoid discomfort or displeasure.
Excerpt from Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Sixth Walk
There is hardly any of our automatic impulses whose cause we could not find in our heart, if we only knew how to look for it. Yesterday, crossing the new boulevard to go look for plants on the Gentilly side of the Bievre, I made a turn to the right in coming up to the Enfer tollgate and, getting out into the countryside, I went along the road to Fontainebleau up to the bluffs beside this little river. In itself, this route was of no significance; but on recalling that I had made the same detour several times, I looked within myself for its cause and I could not keep from laughing when I managed to unravel it.
At the corner of the boulevard near the Enfer tollgate exit, there is a woman who sets up a stand every day in the summer to sell fruit, herb tea, and rolls. This woman has a very nice, but lame little boy, who, hobbling along on his crutches, goes about quite graciously asking passerby for alms. I had become slightly acquainted with this little fellow; each time I passed, he did not fail to come to pay his little compliment, always followed by my little offering. At first I was charmed to see him; I gave to him very good heartedly and continued for some time to do so with the same pleasure, quite frequently even prompting and listening to his little prattle which I found enjoyable. This pleasure, having gradually become a habit, was inexplicably transformed into a kind of duty I soon felt to be annoying, especially because of the preliminary harangue to which I had to listen and in which he never failed to call me Monsieur Rousseau many times, to show that he knew me well. But on the contrary, that only taught me that he knew me no more than those who had instructed him. From that time on I passed by there less willingly and finally I automatically got in the habit of making a detour when I came close to this crossing.
. . . I have often felt the burden of my own good deeds by the chain of duties they later entailed. Then the pleasure disappeared, and the continuation of the very attentiveness which had charmed me at first no longer struck me as anything but an unbearable annoyance.
- What is Rousseau avoiding when he takes a right before the Enfer tollgate?
- What is the choir avoiding when it takes its two-step around the invisible post?
- What detours does your church board take as a matter of habit?
- What are some of the specific costs of avoidance right now in your ministry setting?