Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Courage to Speak Up and Speak the Truth

By Bonnie Anderson

In every congregation there are lay people who hold a certain kind of personal authority. I’m sure you know these folks. Among them, they share some common characteristics. They are kind, have a positive outlook, often see the “big picture” and are usually soft spoken, but not always. They possess a certain kind of wisdom that is steeped in humility. Most importantly, they are brave and not afraid to speak the truth.

I knew a matriarch (used in the best sense of the word) with personal authority. At 93 years she would stand at the microphone at diocesan convention, having thoroughly researched the topic about which she is speaking, and convince a whole diocese to vote for her cause, controversial though it may be. Mary was fearless.

There was standing room only at her funeral, and the preacher recalled many situations of conflict and distress that were prayerfully and gracefully resolved when Mary spoke. She spoke up when she saw things going wrong. She headed off parish situations that could have divided the parish, sent the rector away and put the congregation’s ministry into a tail spin for years to come. She spoke the truth in difficult situations and, in Church, that is not easy to do. After all, we have no language in the Church for telling each other the hard truth in love, even though the One we follow, told the truth all his life on earth. Even when it “hurt other people’s feelings”.

What keeps us, the laity, from speaking the truth in parish situations where parishioners have “ganged up” on the rector? What keeps us from speaking up, what keeps us silent, is fear. We are afraid of losing the friends we have had for many years. We are afraid that our fellow parishioners won’t like us anymore. We are afraid that telling the truth from our own perspective will alienate us from our parish community. Our own self­interest keeps us silent while we sit by and watch our clergy person eviscerated.

My grandmother (of all knowledge and wisdom) told me once, on the occasion of me not speaking up for a bunch of little kids in our neighborhood who were being bullied by bigger kids, that fear is the opposite of faith. Since I was a very obedient Roman Catholic at the time, I was having none of fear from then on. As I grew in faith (and became an Episcopalian) I learned to live by 2 Timothy 1:7 “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self control”.

As for speaking up in congregations headed down a path of conflict and angst, as laity, we need to be not only courageous but we have to remember that we are actually called to speak up. We promise to do so in our baptismal covenant (respect the dignity of every human being­ how? By speaking up when we see someone being diminished).

As I read the beautifully written words in the “Care for Clergy in Difficult Calls Writing Project”, I first want to say that I am so sorry for the pain that has been inflicted on both clergy and laity. But I think that laity are missing the inherent message in these difficult situations. The congregation is where our Christian community thrives – it is where we live, pray, worship and become renewed. We learn to deepen our love for Jesus. The congregation is our “proving ground”, where we practice our own resurrection, where we learn about ourselves and each other. It is where we learn to be the whole human beings that God created us to be. If we, as laity, do not speak up in these difficult situations, it is a sin of omission.

C.S. Lewis reminds us “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point”. Courage animates all our virtues­honesty, confidence, humility, compassion, integrity, valor. Without courage all these virtues lie dormant. Without regular use, our courage becomes harder for us to conjure up, less available to us. If we are not regularly courageous, our courage dries up. “Courageous” becomes only a memory of how we used to be.

Please now, allow me to share some ideas for possibly heading off these difficult situations in the future:

To the clergy: When you are called to a congregation, look to identify the laity who you see as those having personal authority. Get to know them. Invite them to get to know you. Really know you. Pick their brains about the “culture” of the congregation. Ask them to tell you their hopes and dreams and you tell them yours. Then cast the net wider, and do the same thing with the whole congregation, a little at a time. It may take a long time depending on the size of the congregation.

H. Coleman McGehee, Bishop in the Diocese of Michigan (now deceased) was a “dove” when it came to war and military action. At his parish in Virginia he had many parishioners with military vocations. He devoted several years to developing authentic relationships. He got to know the parishioners (called “one on ones” in the community organizing community). He got to really know them, not to change people’s minds, but to hear their viewpoints and to share his views with them. Love and respect transcend all sorts of mindsets when people cannot agree on issues. This is not news to you, but “It’s all about relationship”.

To the laity: Read the Catechism regarding the ministry of the laity. Find out what your job is. Look it up in the BCP (page 855). Know your gifts, know what your ministry is and really commit to it. This is one of the most important things you will do in your life. When you say the baptismal covenant, mean it (after all it is a promise). If you can’t promise that you will respect the dignity of every human being, with God’s help, then don’t say those words when the baptismal covenant is renewed. Have generosity of spirit. Be kind. Love your neighbor and be in partnership with the clergy that God has given us. Have courage to speak the truth in love. Commit to being a loving and responsible member of your Christian community. If you have your baptism certificate, as a daily reminder of your primary vocation in life, hang it on the wall near where you get dressed in the morning. Most importantly, get over the fear. Take a deep breath and speak the truth in love. It will set you free.

These suggestions may sound simplistic, but they can be life changing. We are Christ’s
Henri Nouwen reminds us that "we are cast into communities of people that we would never, in all our life, choose for ourselves." There’s a life message there: Everything comes from God.

Bonnie Anderson is the Senior Warden at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac, Michigan. She served
as President of the House of Deputies from 2006­2012, Vice­President of the House of Deputies from 2003­2006 and served as chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Program Budget and Finance for 6 years. She has been an elected member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and has served on many other Episcopal Church committees on both the diocesan and national level. She is the recipient of 5 Episcopal Seminary honorary doctorate degrees in Theology and Canon Law. She is a Canon in the Diocese of Ecuador. To learn more about her effort in 2010 to develop Circles of Ministries, building up Laity, Deacon, Priests, and Bishops see: http://archive.episcopalchurch.org/79425_122437_ENG_HTM.htm"

The above essay was written out of a partnership between The Episcopal Women’s Caucus (EWC) and The Network of Episcopal Clergy (NECA.) This project developed following a watershed moment when in January 2014 the Diocese of Newark passed a resolution seeking that their Bishop appoint a task force to explore Dignity of Work issues related to clergy and workplace bullying. This essay was written as part of a collection of essays written to begin to address the challenge of challenging calls and the issue of workplace bullying. While the views in this essays are the authors own and we acknowledge that no one essay will be able to identify all the issues involved, our hope is that in and through the collection of pieces we might support what has begun locally in the Diocese of Newark and more importantly, further the conversation in the wider Episcopal church. As these essays are both sponsored and being released jointly by both NECA and The EWC please read all the essays at The Episcopal Women’s Caucus blog and The Care for Clergy in Difficult Calls Writing Project.

If you are a clergy person in the midst of a challenging call or you have gone through it and would like to see the beginnings of a set of resources that might support you, please see the NECA Resource Page
If you would like to write about your own experience of a challenging call or forced resignation for posting on the Episcopal Women’s Caucus blog please send your essay to motherkaeton@gmail.com 

No comments:

Post a Comment