Friday, September 30, 2016

Telling the More Difficult Story

The Easy Story
Let us call them Dr. and Mrs. Peaceable Kingdom.  Upon arrival at the church, I heard story after story of how wonderful life was during the 25 year pastorate of Dr. and Mrs. Peaceable Kingdom.  Mrs. Peaceable Kingdom schooled the young women in how to be good wives and mothers.  Dr. Peaceable Kingdom was a wise and gentle counselor, beloved by all.  The people telling me these stories were young couples starting their families and careers at that time, their marriages freshly minted after returning from WWII.  It all sounded too good to be true; and it was, I discovered, too good to be completely true.
One day, I went to visit a long-term member who had not been to church in decades.  He gladly agreed to have me visit, and each time I returned he would welcome me into his home.  On one visit he shared with me that he had not been back to the church since they fired Dr. Peaceable Kingdom.

I asked him “fired, you say?”  Yes, he replied, they fired him.  He went on to share that he had been driving Dr. Peaceable Kingdom to make a hospital visit and noticed that the pastor’s shirt cuffs were frayed.  He asked the pastor why he did not buy some new shirts.  Dr. Peaceable Kingdom replied that he could not afford to buy new shirts.

At the next Trustee Board meeting, of which this man was member, he suggested they give the pastor a raise.  The suggestion was met with stiff opposition.  It was the board’s opinion that the pastor was already paid more than he was worth.

There was some tension among the stories I was haring.  Where did the truth lie?

The More Difficult Story

Gil Rendle (“Narrative Leadership and Renewed Congregational Identity” in Finding Our Story—Narrative Leadership and Congregational Change, ed. Larry A. Goleman, pp. 31ff.) writes about easy stories and difficult stories.  Churches are prone to tell simplified stories because these are safe stories.  These are stories that are true but incomplete; we leave out the parts that might make us feel uncomfortable.

What really happened at me church?  First, I assume that the story about the Trustee Board meeting was true.  It demonstrated that Dr. Peaceable Kingdom was not universally admired.  In his day, the powers-that-were had a mixed opinion about him.  The people telling me the safe stories were not yet in positions of power; in my day they were.  They had forgotten that power had passed to them as one generation faded and a new generation took the reins of leadership.  They failed to mention that their predecessors had had some issues with Dr. Peaceable Kingdom.  It simply slipped their minds.

Dr. Peaceable Kingdom was not fired.  When opposition had become palpable among some in the congregation, a vote of confidence was taken.  The good doctor won the vote, but he did not feel it was sufficient enough to continue his ministry.  He left one year before he could have gone on pension.  When I brought this story up to some folks in the church who remembered those days of old, they did have some faint recollection of a vote but downplayed its importance.

The man who I was visiting also told a simplified version of the story in a way that undergirded his refusal to return to the church; the good doctor was not fired outright.

They all told an easy story.  They could have told a more difficult story.  They could have said that they had a good pastor, but things still were not perfect—everyone did not always get along.  They could have admitted that there was a time when they were not the ones in power and did not support everything the church leadership did.  They could have found encouragement in the memory that the reins of leadership had passed from one generation to the next a number of times in the life of the church; and each time the church had survived and adapted.

This would have been a more difficult and challenging story because it had implications for the present.  It would have complicated their simplified story:  everything was great in our glory days.  The women were all strong, the man all good looking; and the children all above average. The more complicated story, however, would have given some guidance for the present.  It would have reminded folks that all eras are fraught with challenges and change as one generation yields to the next generation, and the congregation survives  That is a strong but more complicated story.

Jesus Complicated Their Easy Stories

Jesus made people uneasy because he replaced their simplified stories with more complex stories.  In Luke 4 Jesus returns to his hometown synagogue and reads a passage of scripture.  The people adopt the most favorable reading of the text for themselves.  Jesus then recalls for them the time of Elijah and points out their history is a bit more complicated than they might like to admit.  They try to throw Jesus off a cliff.

In Luke 11:47, Jesus observes that the religious leaders love to celebrate their heritage by building tombs to the prophets.  He then reminds them that it was their ancestors who killed those very prophets.  The leaders do not like this more complicated story.  They learn nothing from this amplified story and soon will make a similar mistake themselves.

We want to tell simplified stories because they are easy; they ask nothing of us except a little nostalgia.  But growth lies in the more difficult stories.  They are more difficult to hear because they ask something of us in the present.

I am sure Dr. and Mrs. Peaceable Kingdom were fine leaders; I wish I known them.  But real stories are rarely that simple.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minster –American Baptist Churches of New York State