Four years ago, about this time, I stood up in a cluster charge conference and said, “I am going to take a stand against the ugliness that is coming. A church member told me about her Muslim friend who had a glass bottle thrown at her and hitting her in the face. She had just come from a wedding and was wearing a traditional head covering. I am going to oppose this whenever it happens.” Another clergy member told me he would help. Donald Trump had just been elected to the Presidency when the incidents I described above occurred. It was easy to attribute the bad behavior to the election. But, I knew better. I just didn’t let on like I did.
Ugliness and the Church
Red Foxx said, “Beauty may be skin deep, but ugly goes to the bone.” Recently, a couple of colleagues from the Lakelands Institute held a webinar about dealing with difficult people in your church. Anxieties due to the pandemic have caused more abuse towards pastors and other clergy members. It has been pretty rough. But I let the election be an excuse. Ugliness in the church has always been there. And it goes to the bone.
I cannot count the number of times I removed something offensive from a church bulletin board. It could be the supposed prayer given before a state legislature that chronicled everything wrong with the country especially issues like evolution, abortion, and sexuality. Or it could be some kind of attack on Democratic politicians. The garbage I used to receive in email before the rise of social media was often the same kind of thing. There was someone in every congregation who acted viciously entitled.
Letting It Happen
Church leaders always let such behavior go unchecked. For all the talk about accountability in discipleship, there was none. The fact is there was nothing that the leaders of my Annual Conference could do. At least, there was nothing practical short of forcing a congregation to close it’s doors. Recently, retired United Methodist Bishop Kenneth Carder had this to say about the post-election turmoil. “We are experiencing the deadly consequences of the abuse of power and the cowardly enabling of hubris, dishonesty, and the manipulative exploitation of fears and prejudices of our nations leaders.”
I believe the same principle applies to the churches. While the situations are not nationally known and covered by the global news media, the consequences of letting bad behavior continue have devastated the hope of rebuilding churches. The hard working folks who have had everything they have done torn apart by unchecked ugliness on the part of some now make up the people called the dones. They are leaving and don’t intend to return. We let bad things happen to good people.
Good Hearts and Ugliness
The greater problem than having people done with the church is the ugly response me and others have exhibited. A person once remarked, “(so and so) keeps me from being the person I want to be.” When I stood up four years ago announcing my opposition, I did not realize the effect the years were having on me. But, I knew the temptation to “render evil for evil” was always there. I knew it was going to happen. It did in many ways. Retaliation is the way of the world. We either excuse it or look the other way when we attack someone else. But when we are attacked we respond with fury. I have done that most of my life. And it was eating me alive.
I watch progressive Christians, secularists, humanists, and other non-fundamentalists respond with all of the vitriol of the Christian nationalists. It is justified? No. But it shows why ugliness goes to the bone. It seeps into the marrow and produces bile instead of blood. It is time to work on this disease of the heart and try to heal it.