Honesty isn’t the best policy…
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)