For twenty-five years I was a member or a medium-sized Lutheran church along with my wife and kids. Over the years I served many roles, including teacher for both Middle and High School student Sunday School classes, singing in multiple choirs and holiday cantatas. Ultimately I wound up playing rhythm guitar in the Praise Band until the leaders left the church. Then I led the group for a while as well as chairing the committee to select a new full-time leader.
During that process, I assertively kept committee meetings to an hour. As anyone that has served on a church committee can tell you, that is nearly impossible to do. The pastor emeritus serving on the committee, a veteran of 45+ years in the both campus and congregational ministry, took me aside and thanked me for the efficient use of time. “I wish more of my meetings over the years had been this clear.”
That said, the decision itself still required a series of “side meetings” by committee members who thought we were moving too fast. Three months passed before they made up their minds, ultimately choosing the candidate we’d originally decided upon. Such is life in a church bureaucracy.
After that term of service I was elected to the Church Board as a Member-At-Large. That role came along at an interesting and difficult period of decision in that 100-year old congregation. There was a building expansion on the table, and a band of extremely dedicated volunteers worked with architects to come up with a wise and efficient plan for growing the narthex and re-organizing space upstairs and down.
I’d been through a vote or two of approval in congregational meetings when I was asked to join the board. It appeared the decision was already made to go ahead with construction. There were a few glitches to solve that might have added pennies on the dollar, and the Board President wanted to take it back to the congregation for one more vote.
This took place over a matter of weeks. I could sense our Pastor’s frustration at the continuing fussiness and fear involved in the decision. I waited a few weeks to actually offer much of an opinion, which was much out of character for me. But I felt that listening was an important part of playing the role of Member-At-Large.
But as a meeting wore on one late winter night, and the arguments for and against the changes repeated themselves yet again, I sort of ran out of patience. Pounding my fist firmly on the table, I said out loud, “This has already been voted on twice. The congregation wants to move ahead. No more discussion is necessary. No more votes either. Let’s vote right now and get this moving forward.”
Gratitude and grace
That’s what we did. On the way out of the building that night, our 6’5″ pastor, thin like a stretched out crow in his all-black outfit, reached his arms around to wrap me in a hug. Then he leaned back and said, “Thank you.”
Sure, I was kind of an asshole about how that was handled. But it did move the project forward after weeks of what felt like self-righteous hand-wringing about fiscal responsibility and conservative ideals.
High and mighty
I’d been in other situations where people got all high and mighty about their roles while projects faltered and budgets overflowed their banks. One was a Chamber of Commerce in which the Board consisted of twenty people. Our meetings were held in a giant City Hall chambers where people sat thirty feet apart. There were no budgets for any of the events or activities of the organization and people felt no compulsion to require them. The chamber was finishing in the red every year.
We fixed all of that in a year. Cut the board to eleven people. Required budgets for every single line item. And issued all new marketing materials. The changes didn’t win me friends, but they proved effective. There’s beauty in discretion. The structure of that organization is still in place thirty years later, and it is thriving. Before that, it was directionless and struggling. That’s the type of change you call a success.
Poorly suited for the job
But there are some jobs for which I am poorly suited in life. While I understand the need for a budget, I have none of the skills needed to build or outline one. Those talents I have always left to actual accountants and other people that love to work with numbers. Then we can discuss the meaning of those numbers, and the needs they dictate.
Yet a couple years after serving on the church board I received a call from a church committee leader asking if I’d be interested in being placed into the election as Treasurer for the congregation. I am embarrassed to this day to admit that I laughed out loud at the prospect of that. “I’m the last person to consider for that job,” I told her.
A few years after that, my late wife and I left that church over differences in theological emphasis. We met with the pastor to wish him well and say goodbye. He’d visited us in the hospital during my late wife’s treatments for cancer. He’d prayed with us for her healing and strength. So we were not ungrateful for his ministerial care.
But some of the beliefs that Lutherans of that synod abide we ultimately found intolerant and shortsighted. So despite the many friends we’d enjoyed and years we’d spent raising our children in that church, some of its teachings had become more intolerant and toxic over time. So we moved to a new church where I volunteered first as a confirmation mentor and then a high school assistant after my wife passed away from cancer.
No one-size-fits all
It’s clear to me after all these years that the Lord may ask us to do many things in this life. But just because the church asks you to do something does not mean you have to do it. It’s not like we’re all just a bunch of power cords waiting to be plugged into some role that God chooses for us.
And just because the church tells you to believe something does not mean you have to accept it. Neither is the Bible a literal instruction manual of any sort, or a “one-size-fits-all” garment to wrap around your body and claim protection against all misdeeds or evil.
There’s no such thing as Magic Underwear or even any sort of spiritual armor we can squeeze ourselves into in hopes of protecting us against bad things happening. We all live in the moment. We are called to make decisions based on our sense of morality and conscience. Those are quite different than assuming that “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
We can learn from those people and events we read about in the Bible, but they aren’t direct extension cords leading from God to our souls. Every word of the Bible, whether some want to admit it or not, is a working symbol. That’s why the Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Why is that so hard to understand? The words of the Bible are a connection to God, but not a literal one.
Finding our paths
The Lord wants us to find the sources of power and paths that best suit us. We all have different skills, outlooks and circumstances. Beware those who tell you there’s only one way to think about life, or who project upon you unrealistic or misguided expectations, or who want to plug you into something for which you’re clearly not suited at all. I no more belonged in the role of Treasurer than John the Baptist deserved to clean the platter on which his own head would be served.
If that’s shocking to you, then you really haven’t read or understood the Bible at all. When it comes to faith in this world, it’s great to have faith in God, but you also need to learn to have faith in yourself. And that’s the right kind of pride.