I asked my boyfriend what I should write about this week.
“Communication,” he joked. “How obnoxious men are. How relationships require so much work.”
I rolled my eyes and laughed.
And then the next morning I told him, “I’m writing about communication and how relationships require so much work. I’ll leave out the bit about obnoxious men.”
He and I have done a lot of communicating this week about big, hard stuff. Expectations. Communication styles. The challenges of long-distance dating. All the baggage we’re each carrying that’s being dredged up by being in close relationship with another person. (And let me say, lest you worry about our communication, that he reads and “OKs” any blog in which I mention him before it goes up.)
It’s all good stuff.
It’s all a lot of work.
But it all leaves us feeling closer and better able to be in relationship with each other. Which is, after all, the goal. It’s the truth we all know – committed relationships simply take work.
We know that’s the case with romantic relationships. And friendships. And families.
But I wonder if we think this way about church.
I wonder if we view our relationships within the church with that same level of commitment. And if we’re as prepared to do the hard work of truthful communication in order to see those relationships flourish.
A few days ago, Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell wrote a deeply insightful and honest essay for the Reformed Journal about our friends who are “church-adjacent” – not antithetical to church, but also not keen to join up. He writes about some of the reasons why this might be the case, and one such reason he posits is a fear of community and commitment. “It is avoidance of the tangible,” he writes, “the vulnerability of the personal, the bane of committees, the pettiness of people, the dread of yet one more thing in already overfilled schedules that make people steer clear of church.”
Of course, he acknowledges, it’s not just non-churched people who can be commitment averse. So I also want to be honest about how easy it is for most of us to see church as one option out of many as opposed to a community to which we’re deeply bound, as a place where we go to worship but which doesn’t enact a greater sense of belonging or shared-ness of life. And if we aren’t deeply bound to this group of people, why would we do the often hard, messy work of building healthy communication patterns and relationship growth? We church people can be just as desirous of keeping things loose and non-binding. Just as avoidant of conflict. Just as willing to let things lie, to not engage, to not dredge things up and work through our hurts, our conflicts, our deep longings and our disappointments.
Because oh man, doing so is exhausting.
And yet, while we may not be a perfectly committed community, we are yet a community. And not confronting the baggage, the hurts, the longings, the disappointments, doesn’t make those things go away. We just deal with them differently. Church leaders hear about the grumblings second-hand, hear about “some people” who have opinions, who are angsty, who are fearful, who are concerned, but they never hear from those people themselves. Covid has presented people with a nice opportunity to simply slip away, unnoticed at first until someone points out that they haven’t returned, leaving church leaders wondering, “Why?” We interact with someone pleasantly for months before discovering from a mutual acquaintance that that person is in fact quite upset about something we did or said, leaving us feeling confused and unsteady.
I’ve been wondering about this from the perspective of pastors, too, and what it looks like for pastors to be honest and vulnerable. Doing so seems a tricky thing. After all, we have jobs on the line. What happens if we offend the masses or alienate parishioners by sharing our opinion on a controversial topic? Will confronting someone who’s being difficult or behaving poorly or who’s hurt us lead to more disruption and hurt? If we go towards the conflict, will we ever get out of it again? For pastors, too, avoiding conflict seems the safest and easiest route. Just preach nice sermons, visit the sick, and keep people generally happy for the duration of your time with them.
But what do our relationships look like at the end of all this, pastors and parishioners alike? Do we feel a sense of connectedness and kinship with our brothers and sisters in Christ? Or are we all simmering with resentment because of things unsaid? Have we given real community and growth a chance?
One of the topics of conversation this last week with my boyfriend was my tendency to not speak up immediately when something bothers me. I sit on it, and process it for a few days, and then present him with a perfectly polished explanation of what’s wrong and why I think it’s happening and what I think we can do about it. Unsurprisingly, this is not his favorite thing.
“I don’t want polished,” he says. “Give me the chance to be in the conversation with you. Don’t rob me of that.”
How much are we robbing each other of good, true relationship and connection and belonging by not allowing people to be in the conversation with us? By not being honest, by not leaning into conflict, by not saying what we really think, by not inviting response? Is such honesty and vulnerability exhausting? Very much so. Is it necessary for a church body to thrive? I believe it is.
Am I naïve to think such honesty and vulnerability in a congregation is possible? Is there, in fact, some wisdom to holding things back? Have we all been burned just one time too many to be convinced that such vulnerability is worth it? Are our churches simply too big to seek that kind of intimacy and community?
Maybe. Or maybe we’re uniquely positioned to be exactly that kind of community because we’re called together by a God who says, “Come – let’s argue it out,” a God who invites us into conversation, who invites us into relationship, who invites us into community.