Church Leaders: Distrust and Obey?

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 7.25.08 AMBy Michelle Van Loon, patheos.com/blogs/pilgrimsroadtrip at michellevanloon.com

There are some very good reasons for church leaders not to trust a congregant. Some are obstructionists, determined to resist all change. Others engage in politicking and clique-forming. Still others enter the church with agendas, addictions, or abusive tendencies.

There is wisdom in maintaining good boundaries with a member possessing toxic tendencies that must be balanced with the call to shepherd even the balky or difficult sheep, not just the lovable ones.

But sometimes distrust originates with a leader. If a leader perceives a congregant as a threat or problem instead of a gift, the relationship will stall out or break down entirely. Three examples:

(1) Earlier this week, an old friend told me about her experience moving to a small town about five years ago. She and her husband faithfully attend a small Bible church. She grew up on the mission field, has a servant’s heart and years of ministry experience. She’s a quiet, grounded woman, without any agenda beyond simply being a friend and helping where she can. Even after five years, she told me the congregation’s leaders still treat her husband and her as outsiders who are tolerated rather than welcomed.

There are always at least two sides to every story and I’ll affirm I don’t have that of the leaders or other congregants. Perhaps my friend is simply running into entrenched small-town, small-church dynamics. However, I was sad to hear of the deep loneliness my friend experiences each week. Because she lives in a fairly remote area, she and her husband don’t feel there are any other realistic church options available to them, so they hang on, resigned to relationships characterized by a sense of low-level chronic distrust.

(2) Several years ago, my husband and I attended a church very upfront about its commitment to complementarianism. Though we didn’t share their conviction on this issue, we had no desire to debate or try to change anything about the church. We knew what we were getting into when we began attending. We valued the church’s commitment to prayer, to meaningful relationship with the surrounding community, the fact that they offered communion as a part of worship each week, and offered sturdy Biblical exposition in the sermons without a lot of extracurricular opining.

The pastor knew I was involved in ministry outside of the church that put me in some public leadership roles. He was cordial when he initially inquired about these things. I let him know I respected where the church stood on these issues, and kept that part of my life separate from my involvement in the church. I wasn’t interested in rocking the boat.

I thought no more about it until he launched a short sermon series designed to communicate to the congregation where the leadership team stood on various hot-button issues. The first two messages covered gender roles.

The entire time he was speaking, I had the distinct and uncomfortable feeling he was looking in my direction as he spoke. When I asked him about it afterward, he said, “Yes, actually I was looking at you.”

I appreciated his honesty, and told him so. When I asked him “Why did you feel you needed to do that?” He looked away, laughed uncomfortably, and changed the subject. The exchange startled me, but I elected not to pursue it further. He’d communicated clearly I was tattooed onto his watch list.

(3) At a different congregation, a staff member and I were collaborating on a project. When I suggested inviting a long-time congregation member to join us, the staffer balked. He told me the congregant had a history of being unreliable. I couldn’t imagine it of this gentleman, so I asked the staffer for examples. He gave one or two, but they were clumsy mistakes he’d made several years earlier. “Is it possible this person has grown and changed since those things happened?” I asked. The staffer then confessed he hadn’t really thought about removing the invisible “Do Not Trust” label he’d placed on the man.

I offer these anecdotes all the while realizing that these things don’t happen in a vacuum. We each carry our history into the church with us, our own collections of triggers and regrets, strengths and spiritual gifts. Whether it is a culture of distrust of “outsiders”, a defensive judgment about a particular congregant’s theology, an old label that no longer applies, or one of dozens of other scenarios, a leader’s unmerited, unexamined distrust of a congregant may keep things “manageable” in a church, but “manageable” isn’t exactly what Jesus had in mind for us.

If you’ve been the object of a leader’s suspicion, how have you navigated it? And leaders, how have you worked through distrust of a congregant?

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