With Dr. Bruce Hartung
Q: I am a first-time lay delegate to our [Synod] convention … this July in Houston. My pastor suggested I write to you after I spoke to him about this.
I am shocked and distressed at the amount of communications I get that are negative, attacking, and belittling. I enjoy a good discussion. I hate personal attacks because that makes sure that nothing really gets solved. Worse, if this is what the church actually is under its surface, no wonder we do not attract more members.
I went to talk with my pastor because I started to question my faith. If saved people act this way toward other saved people, what is the point?
A: I confess to you that the concerns you raise have deeply troubled me over the entire course of my ministry. I continue to see more anger and verbally assaultive behavior than I ever have wished to see in my lifetime. The Internet seems awash with it. That this occurs in the church saddens — and, to use your word — “distresses” me.
What makes it even worse, as if it could actually be worse, is that such behavior is often rationalized and excused with the use of pious sounding phrases.
In his book Behavior Covenants in Congregations, Gilbert Rendle points out that church meetings often have bookends (beginnings and endings) that are prayerful and focused on the Bible, but what is in between is behaviorally indistinguishable from some secular meetings — often uncivil and sinful.
In the recently released “Progress Report of the Task Force on Synodical Harmony” (a small report power-packed with very important observations) is the following: “Disharmony in the LCMS is not just about what we say and what we do with one another; it is about the way we are with one another.” The seven aspects of disharmony include: inability to deal with diversity, lack of civility, politicized culture, poor communication across party lines, lack of accountability, distrust, and, remarkably, primarily a clergy problem. Read this small report in the Convention Workbook.
Granted, this is the direction in which our culture is heading, what with confrontational reality show-like “conversations” around every corner. But the effect is devastating. In our case, cloaking assaultive behavior in religious words does not make this right. And folks who deliberately engage in this negativity in the body of Christ will be, I am convinced, called to judgment.
The effect of all this on folks like you is potentially damaging. It is a very good thing to discuss your responses with your pastor. Let him know how this affects you, both in your feelings and your thoughts. In fact, I encourage such regular meetings up to and after the convention, for you to sort out with pastoral help the effect of being a delegate. An important ingredient is to utilize safe spaces in the body of Christ to discern the effect of this on you and to use the Spirit’s work in you to strengthen and encourage you. One thing is sure, though: even should you question your faith, Christ’s love and care for you is never in question.
I believe that the process of your discernment, and that of all of us, must include paying attention to the actual behavior of people, not just listening to the content of their words.
I thought about your question as I was watching “Invictus.” The movie is about Nelson Mandela and the South African rugby team. The power of coming together was “stunning,” to use your word in a positive sense, and greatly moving. I was in tears for a lot of the movie, which was quite an experience while riding on an airplane. Bridging years of apartheid, Mandela and the leadership of the rugby team make a difference and a change. He and they did so not with negativity, but with the vision to become more than they ever thought possible. We in the church have an even greater power because it is Christ’s.
I encourage readers with comments on this subject to contact me.
Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted May 31, 2010