It’s the only policy.
I’m in my first year on my condo board. I said when I retired and we moved in here that I would never do this: condo boards deal mainly with finances, building issues, and complaints, the three aspects of church vestries that I found most tiresome. The missional aspect of church life helps to put these matters in some perspective. Not so in a condominium.
Nonetheless, I found myself drawn to this service, in part because I felt that things were not altogether right in how our building was being run. Somewhat to my surprise, I find I’m enjoying the work, or I was, until this week. Back-story: earlier this year we embarked on a project to revitalize a common lounge by the main entrance. After some months, and an expenditure of a reasonable but not huge amount of money, the project was finished, and many people commented on how much better it looked now. But — boom! — we received a package of 11 letters of complaint at this past week’s meeting. The writers didn’t like what was done, and they didn’t like the way it was done. I can accept that some mistakes were made. I also know that you can’t please everyone in matters of taste. People are entitled to their opinions, and if some feelings were hurt, as seems to be the case, some kind of apology could be made.
Only one of the letters was signed: the property manager had removed the other signatures at the writers’ request. They apparently didn’t want to be open to recriminations, wanting to keep the building peaceful. For me, this just makes things less peaceful, because anonymous complaints make any kind of meaningful response and reconciliation impossible. It’s a matter of community building, which requires openness, honesty, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions and feelings.
In one parish where I served as Rector, we had a spate of critical anonymous letters, very often placed in the collection plate. They bothered me mightily until I realized that I could not respond to them without being in dialogue with the writers. The trouble was less the (sometimes valid) content than the one-sidedness of the process. I announced a policy of refusing to acknowledge anonymous communications, inviting people who had concerns to come and see me in person. Over the next several months, I had a number of very worthwhile conversations with parishioners. The dishonest communications stopped and the parish never looked back. We discovered the benefits of openness and honesty.
Why would I call anonymous letters dishonest? Simply because they allow the writer to hide behind a veil, covering up any other matters that might pertain to it. The letter may be the truth, but there is no way of knowing if it’s either the whole truth or nothing but the truth. Lies of omission disrespect the recipient, and are every bit as dishonest as lies of commission.
In another parish, I encountered a more straightforward kind of dishonesty. A parishioner had donated a couple of buckets of soup for a church lunch. Somehow, someone had set them on the back steps, where they were forgotten for long enough that they went rotten, ruining the ice-cream pails they came in. A group of people came to me to ask what they should do. What should they tell the donor, who had a sharp tongue and a habit of holding grudges? They wanted a plausible story which would save everyone’s face, but they were rather taken aback when I suggested they simply tell the truth and suffer the consequences.
It worked. The donor was annoyed about the waste of her gift, and also about the loss of her pails, but the fact that her friends gave her the respect of the truth served to smooth the waters. Trust had been damaged, but if a lie had been told, further trust would have become impossible.
In the church, even more than in a condominium, we are concerned about the building of community. Let’s remember that true community can only be built on trust, and trust can only be built on honesty. And, of course, dishonesty destroys trust.
Jesus said “…you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)
A sermon this morning on Genesis 12:1-4a (the call of Abram) started me thinking about various times in my life I have stepped out of what might be expected, and gone where the call has led.
The first was not of my own volition, but my parents’. When I was only three years old, they decided to pull up roots in England and transplant our family to Canada. We settled in Drumheller, Alberta, a far cry from the great metropolis of London where I was born. I don’t know exactly how my parents felt about it at the time, but it became clear over the years that being so far from family and old friends was difficult for both of them, especially my mother. My early years in this country were marked by a sense of being “not quite at home,” a feeling that has stayed with me throughout my life.
The second such event came when I left teaching school to return to Edmonton, and to do… I wasn’t quite sure what! All my spouse and I knew was that we couldn’t stay where we were, and the opportunities were far greater in the city where we had both attended University. Some family members were horrified that I would give a seemingly secure and respectable job to search for something different.
That move led to a graduate degree, a job with our Provincial Government, and us settling down as a family. But God had other ideas. After nine years in that job, we again pulled up stakes and left for Saskatoon for me to enter theological college. I had no real idea where this was leading, except for the conviction that I was called to go down this road.
The road led to ordination and the call to be the pastor of a small-town parish. It was a great adventure, but not without its problems. After a few years there, I moved on to a suburban parish, where I stayed almost thirteen years. In time, I felt the need to move on: I accepted a call to become Dean and Rector of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Brandon, Manitoba.
This was another move into the unknown: a new parish, a new city, a new province, and a new diocese. I didn’t realize at the time just how big a move this would be. Local customs are different, even at the relatively small remove of a couple of Canadian provinces. But we persisted, through some great years, and some not-so-great, until my retirement in 2013.
Each one of those moves required a measure of faith. In every case, I had the sense that I was going where I had to go, except perhaps the first one, when I had no choice in the matter.
In two of the places where I served the Church, I had conversations with people whose whole lives had been centered on that place. Many of them were puzzled why I might want to live somewhere else: “[town] has everything a person needs.” That may have been true, but going elsewhere was not contingent upon needs, but upon a call, just as Abram heard God’s call to leave home and family and travel to “a land which I will show you.”
I have been on this journey all my life, and now God has brought me to a place where I might reasonably hope to live out my days in peace and reasonable comfort. Sometimes, though, I find myself wondering…