What Is The Church’s Future?

Steve Wright is one of my best friends en todo el mundo. At Southern California’s Cypress High School, we were always the last two shivering on the deck at our 6:30a.m. water polo practices. Eventually, Coach Drent’s threats of additional yardage got us airborne over our fog-shrouded pool.

Today, Steve is a pastor in Huntington Beach, CA, a driver and fairway metal from where we spent our summers surfing and honing our frisbee genius. I invite you to eavesdrop on my Thanksgiving letter to him.

Dear Steve,

Thanks for the excellent resource you posted to Facebook recently. That essay, coupled with several recent “healing” sessions at our church, has me thinking about our church’s recent challenges with conflict and the future of the church more generally. I thought I’d update you on the goings on at Olympia’s Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in the hope that what I’ve been thinking about has broader relevance to yours and other churches.

As I listen to people process what happened, I keep returning to four ideas. To understand the first, you have to understand who is attending our healing sessions. The vast majority are the “committed core”, about 15% of the congregation, whose average age is about 70. These stalwarts regularly remind people they’ve been members for 30-50+ years. They spend a lot of time at church and passionately refer to it as their “family”. Some of them are still upset that the Church Council I serve on asked our previous pastor to resign, others that it took us too long to reach that decision, but I digress.

They’re inspiring people whose experience, commitment, and gifts we honor. We also have to understand and be sensitive to their desire to “do church” in the manner they’re most familiar.

My first idea. The more I listen to the committed core talk to one another, the more convinced I am that they don’t have any feel for why younger people and families with school aged children don’t attend or don’t get more involved. We have to make sure the committed core know they’re valued, while listening to and learning from much younger former members, visitors, and others who are just dipping their toes in the LGCS water. Like ethnographers, we need to ask questions of those people and encourage them to talk openly and honestly about what their church experience is like and how they might change it. Absent that type of applied anthropology, I am not optimistic about our future.

My second idea begins with a tangent, but bear with me, it relates. Three-fourths of the way through A’s and J’s schooling, it dawned on me that despite being a former teacher and now a teacher educator, I hadn’t been very involved in their schooling. Kinda ironic. Yes, I attended conferences, but I never filled out a single form or did anything extra. I wondered why and concluded it was The Gal Pal’s fault because she had it totally under control. I didn’t have to do anything because she took charge and immediately swatted any and all forms or related responsibilities back over the net. We shoulda been playing doubles, but I ceded the court to her and neither of us really realized it until after the match was over.

Similarly, think of all the uber-responsible people in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s who have taken the lead in the care of their aging parent(s). In some cases, allowing their siblings to coast.

I suspect younger, more casual members of our church watch the committed core in action and conclude “They have it totally under control.” Idea two. I am convinced that the committed core has to let go a bit and learn to do less to create the space for the next generation of members to develop deeper commitments to the community. This is hella tough though because their identities are so closely tied to their church roles and activities.

I’ve observed a similar dynamic in higher education. Almost always, the most senior faculty are the most vociferous when a new curriculum is being developed despite the fact that they won’t be around to implement it. It’s exasperating to say the least. They simply can’t let go.

How do we nudge the committed core to choose not to serve on Council so that other newer members can? How do we get them to speak less often in meetings so that other newer members can? And maybe even, how do we get them to volunteer a little less, so that newer members need to?

Idea three. When it comes to church conflict, we talk about the importance of forgiveness, but absent regular opportunities to work through contending viewpoints about how things are or aren’t going, resentments build. Too often, we rush to “just be done” with a conflict before people truly reconcile. Then, when the next conflict arises, people’s resentments inevitably resurface, making the resolution of the conflict much more complex and challenging. It’s like we’re on a bench press and between reps someone keeps adding 10 lb. weights on each end of the bar.

Also, I doubt that casual church goers are very understanding of church conflict. Idea four. Everyone has a finite capacity for dealing with conflict. And everyone has a little or a lot in their extended families and at their workplaces. It may be naive, but it’s also totally understandable for people to want their church to be somewhat of a conflict-free oasis. Wherever and whenever a couple of hundred people form community, there will be conflict, but given our finite capacity for dealing with it, how do we proactively reduce the number and intensity of conflicts in our church communities?

I left you with a question, which I guess means you have to write back. Or give me an extra 500 yards.

I’m thankful for our friendship.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours,

Ron

 

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Absent the 1980 Summer Olympic boycott, Steve, Kevin, and I woulda brought home water polo gold. I’m sure of it.

Commas Are Killing Your Relationships

It took a long time, 56 years to be exact, but I have mastered human relationships. Picture me taking a bow.*

Harmony depends upon your ability to apologize to whomever you offend or hurt. When in the wrong, which in my experience is most of the time, there are two ways to apologize, one wrong, one right.

The wrong way is to say, “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, but . . . ” The “but” completely cancels out the original sentiment.

To the other person, everything that follows sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher or an unintelligible foreign language. Commas are sly bastards which we wield to say, “You’re overreacting.”

To review, when you say “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, but whah, whah, whah,” what you’re really saying is “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, but you’re overreacting.”

Always choose periods over commas.”I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”

*somewhere, The Good Wife just spit her tea all over her screen :)

The Art of Getting Along

It’s irrational given my fitness mindedness, but I think of parking as a zero-sum game. It’s important to me that I get spot “A1” way more often than you. Towards that end, over the years, I’ve developed amazing brake light antennae and unparalleled, cat-like reflexes. In short, I have mad parking lot game.

Rewind to last week when I pulled into our local grocery store and saw car “A1” begin to back out. As I waited, I noticed a vehicle coming towards me from about 75 yards away. The evil driver timed it perfectly, used A1 as a shield, looked down to avoid eye contact, and swooped into MY spot.

No. You. Did. Not. I honked a couple of times to get her attention before slinking to the back of the lot, my reputation and psyche in tatters. Maybe I should let the air out of one of her tires I thought to myself.

Upon entering the automatic doors, I shot her the evil eye. “Are you mad at me?” No shit Sherlock. “Yes I’m mad at you. I was sitting there waiting for the spot and you didn’t even look at me as you pulled into it. I was waiting for it LONG before you.”  “We we’re both waiting for it,” she replied, which made me chuckle. And then I walked away. Only to have her pursue me into the produce section where she said, “I’m sorry for that. I don’t like when people do that to me, so I’m sorry.”

Well shit, I never could handle curveballs! Totally disarmed, I calmly said, “Well, I appreciate that. Thank you. Forget about it.”

A few days later at work, I watched one colleague totally lose it while interacting with another while we worked through a vexing problem. I mean totally lost it. In terms of the substance of the debate, she was mostly in the right, but I realized that didn’t matter one bit, just like when I walked into the grocery store and overreacted to a lost parking spot.

Our anger was so disproportionate to the situations that we became more than half responsible for the conflict. The take-away. Careful consideration of peoples’ feelings is more important than being in the right.

That’s what I learned last week. This week I’m going to try applying it.

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Maybe I’d have better luck running errands on my bike. Photography by JEB.

Reflections on Group Living

I’m sitting in a chair in a rental house in Black Butte Ranch, 40 miles from Bend, in the high desert of Central Oregon.

I’m with nine other people from Olympia. Cycling enthusiasts all. We’re riding 500+ miles in five days. With around 30 other people from the area.

At least 500+ miles is the plan. I don’t think I’ll make it, not because I’m not physically able to, although that’s a possibility, but mostly because I’m not mentally up to it. The friends I’m with passionately love cycling. I like it.

Today we rode from Bend, up to Bachelor, towards Sunriver, up Forest Road 40, to Elk Lake, past Bachelor again, and back to Bend. 100 miles, over 6k of climbing. The middle 30-40 miles were as scenic as any 30-40 mile stretch in the country. Very sorry dear reader, but I opted for a light jacket over my camera. Terrible decision.

My challenges are three-fold, the first less relevant than the next two. First, unlike many of my companions, I don’t dream of riding 100 miles every day. Mentally I have to toughen up.

Second, imagine this, some of my companions are more social than me. One extrovert today tried to chat me up while we were climbing one of the most difficult sections. I was on the edge physically and didn’t have sufficient oxygen to respond. So I rode in silence. No hard feelings I don’t think because it was more of a “I want you to know I exist” stream of consciousness. Still, I found it really irritating. Maybe I should have said what I was feeling. . . please just let me suffer in silence.

Third, group travel is always a test of patience. The more people, the more waiting. Someone is always slow moving and running late. Tonight we waited 30 minutes for someone to shower when all of us were anxious to stuff our faces in town.

When in groups, irritability induced by different personality types and having to wait for one another are inevitable conflicts and yet we’re masterful at suppressing our frustrations and pretending as if everything is perfectly okay. The challenge for friends, teachers and students, partners, spouses, families, and small friendship or work groups is to anticipate conflict and not overact to it by learning to talk about one another’s feelings openly and honestly. So that things don’t build up to a point where there’s very little hope for constructive conflict resolution.

I’m not any better at this than you just because I’m communicating this idea and you’re more passively reading about it. I’m a typical male, meaning a masterful suppressor of conflict. We dust seemingly small things under the rug all the time only to have them angrily pour out every blue moon. Tonight, I could seek out my housemate and caringly explain my thought process today so that she’d better understand the next time we’re in the same situation. Instead, I’m going to bed.

 

The Sure-fire Way to Increase Conflict in Your Life

Just in case your life isn’t conflict-ridden enough already. Project your definition of success onto others. And then judge them accordingly. They will almost always come up short. This is most unhappy people’s go-to strategy for maximizing their misery.

We forget, over and over again, that other people and cultural groups define success differently than us. Some people’s life goals are material and economic in orientation. They pursue material well-being, even sometimes at the expense of close interpersonal relationships. Other people and cultural groups prioritize family life and friendship more than lucrative work and consumerist lifestyles. 

Amy Chua, of TigerMom fame, and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld have lit a fire with The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. I’ve only read excerpts of The Triple Package, but I’ve listened to a few radio interviews with Chua and Rubenfeld, both Yale Law School faculty. Someone should’ve waved a white towel midway into one I heard on National Public Radio. The criticism of Chua’s and Rubenfeld’s work that interests me the most is that they project a Western, highly educated, well-to-do notion of success onto everyone. Like Chua and Rubenfeld, we tend to define “success” far too narrowly. And then project our thinking onto our partners, our adolescent or adult children, and other people near and far.

There’s a magical, two-part elixir for this malady. Humility and curiosity. Instead of assuming a common definition of success, we need to learn to ask our partners, our adolescent or adult children, and other people near and far what their life goals are, what for them constitutes success in life. Once we have a feel for that, we can inquire into how they’re doing in achieving their goals.

That defuses conflict and fosters mutual respect.

Good and Bad News—Your Life Experience is Unique

No one has followed your exact path. No one has grown up in the same family, attended the same schools at the same time, read the same books, worked the same jobs, traveled to the same destinations, settled in the same place. Ever. Your unique life path is a wonderful strength. As a result of it, you “get” the specific people you grew up with and you’re an insider at the places you’re most familiar.

But your unique life path is a serious limiter too. One that inevitably handicaps you at times. It’s the reason you struggle to understand people and places with which you’re unfamiliar. Clearly, seeing the world from other people’s points of view does not come naturally. More specifically, we routinely fail to adjust for other people’s different life paths. Which is why there’s so much interpersonal and intergroup conflict.

A close friend attended a mostly white, mostly upper middle class liberal arts college. By most conventional measures, she received an excellent education. But in some ways she was ill-prepared for an increasingly diverse world. At one of her first teaching jobs she had a militant African-American colleague who routinely ruffled her feathers. Deeply frustrated, she complained to me, “He’s racist!”

In college she had few opportunities to interact with African-Americans and never with militant ones. If she took the time to learn more about his life path she would have been much more sympathetic to his radical critique of the dominant culture of which she was a part. And consequently, she wouldn’t have taken his anti-white diatribes quite so personally.

Can you supersede your life path? Can I? Partially.

How? By purposefully seeking out unfamiliar people and places through literature, the arts, and travel whether near or far. And when interacting with unfamiliar people, substituting curiosity for negative preconceived notions. Asking, for example, why do you believe what you do? And then listening patiently.