I have been involved in pastoral ministry for a long time and among other things, that means I end up attending a lot of meetings with other pastors. No matter what the reason for the meeting, we always end up comparing notes about our settings–if that isn’t the focus of the meeting, there are always breaks and mealtimes and before and after. I have found that often, these times of sharing and comparing and discussing can be powerful and valuable helps for all involved as we seek to help each other do the task we have been called to in a better way.
But over the years, I have noticed an interesting process. Some of the people who are there who have recently begun a new pastorate spend a lot of time talking about “my church”, “my vision for my church”, “my plans for my church”. Before too long, some of those pastors are talking at the meeting about “them”–as in the church isn’t responsive to their vision, their church is frustrating their plans, their church is a toxic church. Before too many more meetings, these people have moved on and are then talking about “my new church”.
I have also noticed that people who talk about “our church” tend not to follow that pattern. In fact, after I made the connection years ago, I began talking and thinking about the church as “our church” and “us”. I would tell people that “we” are doing this and so on. I think this kind of language is a major step up from the “my church” approach both for pastors and laity.
It makes explicit the more important theological reality that the church is a gathering of people drawn together by their common faith, common need to help each other grow in faith and common need to help each other discern and do God’s will. Talking and thinking “our church” enables us to look beyond personal agendas and see the need to work with the whole group. It reminds us that we are called to work together, making use of all the gifts, talents, resources, ideas and insights that God has provided the gathering.
Using the words “our”, “ours” and “we” helps us avoid the thinking that our personal agendas are the most important think in the church. If it is “my” church, then “my” agenda is obviously the most important agenda and anyone who can’t see that is a problem to be overcome. But if it “our” church, then my personal agenda is only one of the agendas that the group needs to look at and consider as we together help each other discover what is best for all of us together. When it is “our” church, disagreement over agendas is a natural part of the process of people who share a common faith working out their faith in community.
For me, talking and thinking about “our” church is much better that “my” church. And I have tried to use that language consistently in my references to the churches I am part of. But even that language has a drawback.
The drawback comes when there are several “ours” in the gathering. And unfortunately, any group of people that has more than one member has a tendency to create sub-groups. Even small congregations soon discover that they have some important and hard to reconcile differences. One group thinks music should be provided by an organ while another thinks that drums and guitars is better. Of course, there is also that small but financially powerful group that believes we would be better off with no musical instruments like our founders 200 years ago.
Which of these groups is the “our” in “our church”? Unfortunately, each will likely claim the right to be the “our” which sets the direction of the church. So, instead of having one individual thinking that the whole church should do things “my” way, we end up with various competing images of “our” church, with each competing group believing that they represent the reality of the church.
So talking about “our” church is miles ahead of taking about “my” church, there are still some issues and difficulties with that language. If these are the only two choices, I will always go with “our”–but I think there is better language that I can use when referring to the church I am part of. That is where we will go in the next post.
May the peace of God be with you.