I was meeting with a church session recently, doing an exit interview following the recent departure of their pastor. We talked about what went right and where there were struggles, whether connected directly to the pastor’s ministry or not. Hopefully, the conversation helped conclude one chapter in the church’s story, so the next one could begin to unfold. I got to thinking that if I ever wrote a book, I would call it “Williams’ Laws for the Church,” in the pattern of "Murphy's Laws,” containing ideas I have discovered over the years.
These may or may not be original to me, but until I see them in print elsewhere, I am claiming them.
Williams’ Law of Church Construction: It does not matter what material is used to build the church building – brick, wood, stone, stucco, etc. – people will quickly be able to see through the walls and reach conclusions about the people who worship there. (It will be seen through the conduct of the members.)
Law of Ministry: Pastors are like icebergs: 90% of what they do is invisible to 90% of the congregation. (I’m not implying that pastors can be cold as ice.)
Law of Succession: Pastors need to get to know their predecessor. That person may be further back in the church’s history than the immediately prior pastor and is the one most people think of when someone says “pastor.” (In two of the congregations I served, my predecessor was followed by 2 pastors before I arrived, pastors who served those congregations for over 30 years each.)
Law of Church Conflict: The first disagreement between Presbyterians in the New World occurred shortly after the second Presbyterian disembarked from the ship that brought him. (The disagreement was likely about music in worship.)
Law of Congregational Identity: If there are 250 members in a congregation, there are 251 mental images of how the church and its pastor are supposed to conduct themselves.
I want to dig deeper into the final “law” just mentioned. We all have an internal “feel” for what a church is or is supposed to be, of how the pastor ought to act in ministry, what is good music and worship, and so on. It comes from our experience of the church over the years, particularly if we were raised in the church and have a long history with it. Given that close to one third of the members of our congregations in Central Florida Presbytery are at least 65 years old, that likely accounts for many of us.
While we may not consciously think about it, we have a basic sense of what the church is, how it operates, what feels right and what does not. What we may think even less about is that others in our fellowship have a different “feel” for the church because their upbringing and experience of it was different. Large or small church, urban, suburban or country setting, evangelical or progressive, different denominations, north, south, east, west – our experiences have been different. Compounding this is that these differing “feels” may spawn disagreements and conflict, and we think something has gone wrong.
Conflict in church is inevitable, and many conflict resolution experts argue that it is also necessary. Of course, what is in view here is conflict that is well managed and not conflict which is ignored, inappropriately addressed, and allowed to fester. Differences of opinion often provide the energy and the ideas that moves the church onward. Perhaps the classic Biblical example is in Acts 6, the dispute in the early church over the daily distribution of food. The resolution of this concern introduced the ordered ministry of Deacons (Presbyterian bias alert!) and greatly expanded not only the church’s caring ministries, but also its proclamation as the subsequent stories of Stephen and Philip illustrated.
What shifted the situation from complaint to common ground was the ability of those involved to see beyond themselves to the possibilities that change offered. They were able to step outside of themselves to see the larger picture, a discernment which only became clear through active listening and prayer. I like to think it was experiences like this that led James to later write “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” (James 1:19, NRSV)
If we are not willing to do this in the church, how can we expect anything different from the world around us?
If there are 250 members in the church, there are 251 mental images of what the church is and how it ought to function. Can we step back (or maybe, aside) from ourselves to recognize this and then move forward in positive ways to advance the best interests of Christ’s church? Perhaps it will help us to remember Romans 12:18. Or at least let us think on Williams’ Law of Church Construction!
Rev. Dr. Dan Williams Executive Presbyter/Stated Clerk