I always remembered them from childhood as long drawn out discussions that rarely seemed to talk about anything that really mattered to me. I am certain that this is more of a comment about my youthful concerns about the extensions of Wednesday night prayer meeting than an accurate comment about what the issues were, or about how the people of my home congregation made their decisions. However, I remember the night that all changed for me.
It was in the sweltering South Georgia heat and humidity of August. The Blakely Bobcats were just days away from football camp at Kolomoki Indian Mounds State Park. I was in the band in the seventh grade wishing I was playing football, but I had not summoned the courage to tell my parents how strong my desire was for that change. After all, great sacrifices had been made to purchase the trumpet which now had to be practiced for 30 minutes before I went to bed every day, even after this long church conference on this Wednesday night. How long can this church conference go on?
Then she stood up, just a seventh grader I had known all my life. It may have been that I’d had a crush on her. Or it may have been that I had never heard someone my age speak in a church conference. But what she said changed Baptist business meetings forever for me: “I don’t understand how we, the church, can spend $35,000 on air conditioning when there are so many people up on North Church Street that don’t even have enough to eat!”
It was like nobody had ever thought about that. You could tell from the silence and the way the members of the buildings and grounds committee then raised their voices that they really never had talked about that either. Good, wonderful, sacrificial givers, Sunday school teachers, deacons … real saints through whom I had been nurtured in my faith; they really had not talked about that question in any of their planning meetings. Their answers were embarrassing. They said strange things that everybody agreed with, except the youth. And it was all over!
In the years that have followed, 47 to be exact, it seems that process has been repeated again and again in every church I have been a part of. Important faith questions are raised late in the process, and the people in charge of the planning are caught off guard by the most basic of these.
The last time this happened for me was the most disappointing. I was in a group that I knew was sensitive to those questions. It was a church that has had a consistent and creative ministry outside of the church from its birth. And yet, when the critical faith issues were raised, there was no real conversation about how the proposal at hand addressed those issues. The discussion was amazingly off target. It was embarrassing to see us, as the body of Christ, talk about those issues in such a superficial way.
I was able to rationalize the silence of most of the pastoral staff. It was after all a Baptist, congregational decision-making process that needed to be “ours.” But it was as if the silence of the staff was contagious. To talk about the faith dilemmas of raising huge sums of money for our church building needs without having an in-depth discussion of our community needs or the needs of the world seemed impossible.
And yet, there we were. All the months that ran into years of planning and needs assessment that had preceded this proposal and discussion simply outweighed the ability of the group to dialogue, much less assimilate the dialogue, about the faith dilemmas implied in our proposal and make changes that addressed those issues.
I have worked joyfully and successfully with congregations and pastoral staff for more than 35 years. I have worked with similar hope and healing with families and couples in conflict for all those years. I understand systems and how they work. It is not that these talented, insightful and committed Christians are not sensitive to the questions raised. Many are doing ministry that represents those values. Some have done this work sacrificially for many years. So how could we fail to see ourselves clearly in this decision-making process?
I believe Peter Storey, formerly a Methodist Bishop in South Africa, and now a professor at Duke Divinity School, understands this paradox well. He insists that our own cultural blindness, i.e. my (our?) sin, is so strong and powerful that I (we?) need a permanent working committee in every church whose task it is to educate themselves and the congregation about each individual church’s relationship with the poor. This working committee would view every decision the church makes in the light of our biblical mandate to care for the poor and the powerless.
How might my life have been transformed by such a committee? How might the tangible, deliberate work of my brothers and sisters in Christ, in my own congregation, struggling with and celebrating our specific call to peace and justice, have helped me to live more faithfully in my own life and church? And how might I have lived (live) more faithfully in Baptist business meetings?