Last weekend, The New York Times ran a front-page story about Chris Thomas, pastor of First Baptist Church of Williams, Alabama.
In early 2017, President Trump had been inaugurated the week before, and the new administration was already making headlines with a travel ban that included refugees from Syria. Mr. Thomas knew of no one in his congregation who had ever met a Syrian refugee. Still, the ban deeply bothered him. So did the prospect of speaking against it from the pulpit, which he preferred to keep clean of politics. And so that morning at First Baptist Church of Williams, a relatively liberal church with a mostly white congregation, he carried with him a sermon on the Beatitudes, eight blessings for the needy Jesus is said to have given to his followers on a hillside in Galilee.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” went one.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” went another.
To these, the pastor added a verse of his own: “Blessed are those who seek refuge and have the door shut on their face.”
A few days after the sermon on the Beatitudes, a group of congregants wanted to talk.
“They more-or-less said, ‘Those are nice, but we don’t have to live by them,’” Mr. Thomas recalls church members saying about the verses, a cornerstone of Christian scripture.”
As this story suggests, tensions rooted in our culture’s polarization have been present in many faith communities for a while. Both the pandemic and the renewed striving for racial justice and equity have brought these tensions forward in new ways, for pastors and within church boards.
There are several ways for church boards to address these tensions that will lead to healthy, respectful, forward-looking work together. We have suggested some approaches in recent posts. But as boards head into a more relaxed schedule for several summer weeks, we want to suggest one more, especially if this summer pause leads us to reflect that we may all be in the ‘crisis adaptation mode’ far longer than we could have imagined a few months ago when it came upon us.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes:
Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.
Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in sight of all.
People will give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over,
with all looking on and applauding as if on the stage.
But active love is labor and fortitude.
If we could liberate 1 Corinthians 13 from the narrow and often tepid context of cultural wedding ceremonies, we can hear its absolute relevance and imperative for today’s leadership challenges:
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
The ‘labor and fortitude’ of active love is expressed in patience and kindness, the relinquishment of envy and arrogance. That labor may not quickly clarify your congregation’s role in the most recent urgent movement for justice. It may not swiftly give you a timeline on when the church can “open up” more. But it will help your board – and your church – and your faith – bear . . .believe . . . hope . . . and endure . . . all things, which is an essential act of leadership in this time.
Digging a Deeper Well will return in August. However, in the meantime, if you have questions or situations you would like addressed or are interested in individual conversation about your particular ministry situation, please email us.