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Yes, but …

Two of the most dangerous words in a minister’s vocabulary.

Yes, but …

Two of the most destructive words a congregation will ever utter.

Yes, but …

The order of their utterance is important.

First we say:

“Yes. I agree. We agree. This is true and right. It is right that people matter more than things. My marriage is my highest priority. My children deserve my full attention. It is right that personal morality matters. It is biblical and Christ-like to care for our community and all those in it who are in need. It is important, even essential, that we speak the truth in love. We should be flexible about all things that are not essentials of the faith. We agree that we should care for our staff and respect them. Yes, my body is the temple of God. I believe it is right to be honest and forthcoming with my spouse, my children, my employer. Yes, gossip is wrong and expressly prohibited in Scripture.”

The list of things to which we say “yes” is long and filled with a beautiful litany of assertions that none can argue with.

Then comes the second word: but.

“But my spouse doesn’t appreciate me. My church takes advantage of me. Our staff is lazy. Talking about him behind his back feels right. She is so hard to be nice to, why bother? I’ve worked hard today, I deserve an extra dessert. If I spoke the truth, they might not like me. My children will understand. We’ve got to take care of our own before we worry about those people out there. My illness is more important than anything else on your agenda. How dare you change the order of worship!”

In short, we are an exception to the rule. We believe in the rule, the truth, the value; we just don’t think it applies to us.

Over many years of pastoral ministry, I’ve heard people explain away the most obscene actions or attitudes or intentions with these two words: “Yes, but …”

I continue to be astonished at our ability to make exceptions of ourselves.

Our ability to rationalize and justify our actions is profound. It is dark and demonic and at the root of much of the evil in congregational and clergy life.

We are quick to excuse ourselves and our behavior behind a stream of denial and blindness to our truth.

We talk ourselves into believing that what is right for everyone else somehow does not apply to us.

Congregations and clergy alike are infected by this insidious disease that eats away at the heart of who we are and our mission in the world. If we do not face up to our actions, we run the risk of ruining our witness and thwarting the plans God has for us in the future.

What are we to do? Fortunately, the Bible is clear, and there are many who have walked this path back into God’s intentions.

First, we must confess. Granted, it is much easier and enjoyable to confess the sins of others. They are so obvious and clear and numerous!

However, our call to confession starts internally. If you are not sure if you are guilty of this two-word sin, simply ask your spouse or your children or your colleagues or a trusted friend: “When and where do I say ‘yes, but …’? How have I made an exception of myself?”

Then listen as nondefensively as possible, with no excuses or explanations allowed. Take your medicine.

Second is remorse and repentance. Own your sin and turn away from it. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

It will take all you have for the rest of your life to accomplish this move. Along the way, you will discover that neither you nor your congregation can accomplish this on your own strength.

What is necessary is a profound sense of helplessness and inability to manage ourselves.

That leads us to the good news of grace. We throw ourselves and our flaws and foibles upon the mercy and grace of God.

What we cannot do for ourselves, God does in us, with us and through us. That forgiveness frees us from the illusion of perfection.

No longer do we believe we are an exception to God’s truth. Now we have been humbled and shown the truth about ourselves.

We no longer find it necessary to excuse or defend our actions or pretend to be perfect. We know our tendencies to rationalize and justify. We have those around us who help us see ourselves as we truly are.

We are on the journey toward spiritual health as a congregation and as a minister. There is hope for us.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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