I’d like to thank everyone who came last Sunday to hear the opening sermon in our new series, “Creating a Healthier Church.” For those of you who did not, you missed an important story I told about two separate congregations and how they reacted differently to the same situation. This story will serve as the foundation of the entire series, so I will be sending it out in an email to everyone so that you can have a chance to read it again before next Sunday. As I told the people in church, if you read this story and you are tempted to think I am modelling a certain character or situation after you, then please note; the book I am basing the series from starts with these exact stories. It was written in 1996 by a former pastor who served churches in British Columbia, Canada! So, if you do see yourself in one of the characters, you can take comfort in knowing that you (and all of us) are no different than many other churches. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t grow and improve, but we don’t need to think there is anything that makes us any more dysfunctional than many other churches.
If you remember the story – or after you read it when I send it out – I’d like for you to think for a moment about the way things went on that Sunday morning at the two churches. What interactions reveal the strengths in one and the liabilities in the other? How do you explain these to yourself? How do you think you would have behaved in the same circumstances, especially if you were 1st UMC and had the sort of encounters with others that they did? How would you have tried to exercise leadership and express your Christian ministry to one another in that setting?
Every active ministry, exercise of leadership, or way of relating to others in the church comes from an underlying belief, or theory, we have about how human beings function. We make assumptions about what motivates others and guides their functioning, about how they create problems for themselves, and about the resources they have for dealing with difficult situations. St. Paul’s UMC and 1st UMC clearly have different ideas about what makes people tick and what motivates them. What do you think is the basic difference in the two unspoken theories about human behavior at the two churches? Join us this Sunday as we explore and expand on these intriguing questions.
Your friend in Christ, Rev. Ernest
Below are the stories of the two churches around which the sermons will be built:
St. Paul’s UMC of Baytown
On a hot July morning, head of Trustees Andy White receives a call from custodian Wayne Higby
Wayne: “I’ve got bad news. The a/c gave out sometime last night. I tried restarting it but it’s dead. It must be 85 degrees in the building. It gets worse: because of the heat it looks like one of our sewer lines burst and the day care rooms have about an inch of raw sewage in them.”
Andy: “That’s terrible news! Is there anything else I need to know?”
Wayne: “No. I thought all I had to do was sweep the front steps but now I don’t even know where to start.”
Andy: “That’s right: it rained last night so the stairs will be dangerously slippery with wet leaves all over them. How about this: call the a/c repair people and ask them to come out ASAP. Then please sweep the steps. I’ll call the pastor and let him know what’s going on. Maybe he will be willing to call the day care director, Susan, and see if she can take charge of the sewer situation. I’ll try to be there in 30 minutes.
Wayne: “Sounds good, brother. Thanks”
Andy calls the pastor, Bob Stimson. He fills him in and the pastor says he’ll look at ways he can shorten the service. He also agrees to call the day care director, Suzy Azur.
He calls her and she is horrified. Her daycare rents that space from the church. She has no idea how she’ll be able to be ready by Monday morning, “if ever again.” Bob lets her vent her worry and frustration and she soon calms down.
Bob suggests she call an emergency clean up service. The church budget is tight, but he knows the same is true for the day care. He suggests she call someone like the United Way to see if they can help. They agree to do their best to split the cost of the cleanup.
When Rev. Bob gets there he is approached by Sunday school superintendent Janice Hoppe. She says things have been rough because 3 of her 8 teachers were no-shows so she had to scramble to find substitutes. But she says the kids are enjoying having class outside and the SS teachers even worked in the heat and odor into their lessons, talking about the Jews wandering in the desert for 40 years and how Jesus was born in a smelly barn.
During the service the sound of the a/c and cleanup crews is loud and makes it difficult to hear. So Andy, the head of Trustees, is glad that the pastor shortened the service, and that the pastor is able to lighten the mood and make the congregation laugh as he talks about what happened. The older members help by commenting on how life often doesn’t go as planned.
There is an infant baptism that can’t be rescheduled. During the baptism the baby starts screaming and it’s amplified by the pastor’s wireless mic. In all the confusion of the morning no one is monitoring the sound levels so the congregation has to endure a couple of minutes of that until Mary Doyle, the head of the Worship Committee, is finally able to get to the amplifier and turn it down. The pastor successfully makes a joke about that, too.
As people leave they thank the pastor for shortening the service. One members makes a joke, saying “maybe we should keep the a/c off all the time.” A couple of other elderly members share stories of how the church was before a/c. One lady says it’s too bad they only sang one verse of her favorite hymn, but that she understands. Another of the members reminds the pastor that he’s got a few shut-ins he needs to see. The pastor thanks him for the reminder and tells him the shut-ins are “lucky to have a friend like that member in their lives”.
They have a Bible study right after the service. This is usually a feedback session about the sermon. While the majority of people liked it, a couple of people express their usual opinion that the pastor is too liberal and modern in his preaching. The pastor listens but doesn’t feel the need to be right or defend his positions. Instead, he allows everyone the right to express their opinion and he acknowledges any good points they may have. He does not allow these various opinions to lead to arguments. People agree to disagree but also to listen to and respect others.
The pastor and Andy touch base on the way out and congratulate each other on how the situation was handled. Then when they both get home, they share that viewpoint with their wives and both couples offer a prayer of thanksgiving to God for bringing them to that church.
1st UMC – Baytown
Same story and same names. But this time:
Wayne: “You better get your butt down here right away. The a/c is out and the sewer is backed up. You can’t expect me to clean up that kind of mess, especially not on my salary.”
Andy: “Did you try to restart the a/c?”
Wayne: “I’m not fooling with that because you guys will try to blame me for breaking it.”
Andy doesn’t like Wayne because the pastor hired him as a favor to a longtime, generous member. Andy had an old friend of his from work in mind for the position but the pastor’s choice won out.
Andy: “Well you’ve set the a/c wrong before. And we told you weeks ago to snake the toilets and you ignored us, so the sewer is partly your fault. You’d better get to work cleaning the floor while I call the pastor. And don’t forget to sweep up the leaves. If one of our out-of-work members slips and falls we’ll have Jim Adler in our face before the sun sets.”
Then Andy calls the pastor. Without even saying good morning he lights into him:” Bob, you know how I’ve been saying the air conditioning units were going to go out? Well, they have. I wish you guys would be willing to spend some money and listen to me. Now I’m going to have to take all the complaints from everyone this morning because it’s 85° in the sanctuary. And that so-called “custodian” you made us hire isn’t even willing to try to get the air conditioner going again. I don’t feel like going all the way down to the church just to try to restart it. Since you live next door, for free, in OUR house, go over there and see what you can do”
Bob: “Andy, I’ve been telling you guys you hired me to be the pastor not the building superintendent. Dealing with building issues is your job as head of Trustees. And anyway, I’ll be the one getting all the complaints. I’ve got a whole worship service and a baptism to do and you want me to deal with the air conditioner? Where are your priorities?”
Andy: “Well, you’ve got a bigger problem. The sewers have backed up into the day care room and there is sewage everywhere. I’m sure that’s because of another thing Wayne has been doing wrong. And since it’s your fault that he’s our custodian, you need to be the one to call Susie to tell her.”
Hearing this, Bob loses it: “Seriously? On top of everything else I’ve got a deal with this morning you’re going to also put this on me, too? Boy, you’re something else. I don’t know why I have to do any of this, but it sure seems like I’m the only one who ever does anything around here!None of you people ever seem to know what my job really is, and I end up doing all of yours! Goodbye!”
After he hangs up, Bob knows he shouldn’t of spoke in that way to Andy but all the frustrations of dealing with that committee and the roadblocks they keep putting in his way when he tries to make any kind of changes or improvements just came to the surface. But he has to admit it felt good to get some of that off his chest. He hopes Andy gets the point. The pastor complains to his wife about how they are taking advantage of him again. She tries to keep calm and not say anything but she is upset with how he talked to Andy. She is worried the church will now try to get rid of him and they will lose his income, not to mention that she will have to move yet again.
Andy’s wife, Lolly, listens as he calls the other committee members and complains about what’s going on, and how the pastor spoke to him. He says the pastor is always going off on some kind of rampage, especially about how nobody but him ever does anything. The other committee members agree that maybe they should get rid of Bob. They also agree that the quality of pastors has declined over the years. The last three pastors didn’t work out and they agree it’s because of the decline in quality of the denominational leadership and the Liberal takeover of the seminaries.
Lolly also calls her friends and tells them her version of the phone call between Bob and Andy. They all agree this is typical of the pastor and they wonder what has happened to him. They all say that he was so nice when he first got there. As they all talk the negative stories about the pastor get more and more numerous. This leads to a discussion about Bob’s wife. Some of Lolly’s friends think she is part of the problem because she is not “a proper pastor’s wife”. Others defend her saying, “look what she has to live with. She doesn’t seem too excited about being around him either.”
Bob calls the daycare director and tells her what’s going on and that she has to do something about it at her expense. She gets angry. She tells him how the church Trustees board is uncooperative, that the church has been a poor host of their daycare, and that she’s been talking to another church about moving her program there. As far as she is concerned, the rent is supposed to take care of situations like this because it’s the church’s building, not hers. She says she will get a cleanup crew, but the church will have to pay for. Bob manages to restrain himself from saying what he really feels and just mutters, “Fine, go find another church to take advantage of” and hangs up
When Bob gets there the Sunday school superintendent, Janice, hands him her resignation. She explains she spent the whole morning trying to find substitutes for teachers who had, “just decided they couldn’t make it in this morning.” She was already upset when she walked in the building, and the heat and the horrible smell were the last straw. She says can’t run a proper Sunday school under these kinds of conditions with no support, and she’s fed up. On top of that, attendance has been declining and she knows everyone is blaming her. But she knows it’s because of that left-wing curriculum that Bob and the denomination had been shoving down their throat. Everyone hates it. Why can’t they just teach Sunday school the way they’ve always done it?
Bob is furious but doesn’t say anything. He is completely burned out after hearing so many complaints. He goes to his office, shuts the door, and stays there by himself until the service starts. As he sits there he thinks about how badly he’s been treated, how misunderstood he is, and how something is really rotten at the core of this church. Deep down, he feels somewhat guilty, and thinks he should be doing things differently, but as soon as he begins to have these feelings he starts to remember all the time church members have mistreated him. So he says to himself, “it’s just not my fault.”
During the announcements and the sermon Bob’s anger comes out as he mentions a “lay leadership crisis in the congregation” and the need for more dedicated members who understand “the true meaning of the church and who feel a call to serve others in a spirit of love rather than backbiting.” He sees certain people squirm when he says this and he tells himself he’s right on target and that they needed to hear this.
During the baptism the baby screams into Bob’s microphone. The Worship Committee chairperson Mary, who is sitting in the choir loft, scribbles a note and drops it over the rail onto the pastor’s chair. During the last hymn Roy reads the note: “When are you going to get someone to be responsible for the sound system? I told you how upsetting this is to the people in the congregation! Either they can’t hear a thing, or we have this kind of racket going on. We can’t have another Sunday morning like this. Do something!”
During the very quiet exit at the end of the service someone mentions a shut-in who needs visiting. Bob’s snaps: “I’ll get there as soon as I have time!” He then goes to talk to Mary, waving the note in Mary’s face. He demands to know where she ever got the idea that the public address system is his responsibility. He says that is the Worship Committee’s job and, yet again, he can’t be responsible for everything in the church.
In a very foul mood, Bob goes to the adult class, which immediately becomes hushed when he walks in. It’s obvious the group has been discussing him. This class is never been a successful feedback class because as soon as people start to say what they think, Bob defends his sermon and repeats it all over again, telling them they obviously don’t understand what he is saying. So the class leader will usually try to identify a theme and asked people to talk about their experience with this theme in their own lives. But most of the time the conversation moves back to what the pastor said and Bob gets defensive. On top of that, some members have very strong political views and can’t help but bring politics into the class discussion. This usually leads to the class breaking down into some Liberal versus Conservative argument.
Before leaving the building Andy and Bob have one more confrontation. They blame each other for what happened and they justify their own behavior. Both go home without knowing exactly what is happening about the building and who is to do what next.
At lunch, Bob complains to his wife about all that has gone wrong and how ungrateful people are. She is worried about Bob’s future in the church, and since other people’s problems with him are similar to her own problems with them, she begins to tell him some of the things she heard about him that morning. She wants him to control his temper and not be so defensive. However, she is scared of upsetting him further so she thinks it will work better if she uses other people’s words rather than her own. Unfortunately, Bob hears what he feels is a bit of accusatory tone in her voice. Bob demands to know who said what. He also tells her that even she doesn’t understand him. He feels she doesn’t do enough to defend him to others or to support him in this difficult congregation. She stops talking and they finish lunch in a hostile silence, each feeling uncared for by the other.
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