Sunday, January 24, 2010

Humility and a Common Purpose

As I drove to church this morning, something reminded me of a student I had in a seminary class, years ago. Apparently he had great success building his church’s membership roles and was quite busy with his congregation. What a wonderful thing! Consequently, though, he resented taking seminary courses to get his M.Div., since he felt he was more successful than most ordained pastors he knew, and his studies took time away from his flock. “Accountability, that’s what it’s all about,” he’d say. At the course’s end he (presumptuously) told me to be sure to turn in his grade right away.

“Accountability” is a good and crucial thing but, like many things, is potentially spoiled by human nature. Some folks, of course, are just strong-willed--whether they’re right or wrong, they’re just doing to get their way--and they may tack the word “accountability” upon their demands.

Accountability can give rise to double standards. My student, for instance: he basically thought, I’m successful and I think everyone else should work as diligently as I do, and therefore their standards of accountability shouldn’t apply to me (but other people should live up to my standards!). On the other hand, my wife and I sometimes chuckle about a professor we knew, who was disorganized and misplaced things but was strict and blameful about other people’s work--a different kind of double standard! All of us have known people who are temperamental to work for but who, through lack of effective communication and other ways, make it very difficult to please them.

I'd stopped my modest ruminations by the time I crossed the railroad tracks and drove up the road to church. At the early service, our pastor preached a good sermon called “The Dachshund Dilemma.” He started with a story/poem about a dachshund who was so long, his emotions took a while to travel to his tail, so his head was distressed about something but his tail still wagged with the joy of an earlier experience. Congregations can be like that, our pastor noted. We’re still pleased about earlier congregational successes but, in the meantime, social and economic realities have moved on and our parish faces new challenges.

He went on to talk about the need for congregations to be clear about their mission and purpose, but most of all to be united by a sense of common purpose and fellowship. I appreciated that point; congregations may be tempted to develop mission statements and program ministries before they have the love, mutual support, and fellowship that are essential for a common purpose. But to pick up the canine analogy again: the tail can't wag the dog.

Our pastor then told the story of an officer who parachuted into France following D-Day but, like many of those troops (as dramatized in "Saving Private Ryan"), landed far from the target and became separated and lost in the unfamiliar countryside. The officer wasn’t sure what to do except make his way alone through the darkness. But he eventually encountered another American soldier, a private--and in their relief in that dangerous situation, the two men hugged each other!

At that point I thought back to my earlier, daydreaming-en-route-to-church about accountability. The officer and the private served within a clear chain of command--and would likely never hug again--but in this situation their common purpose was poignantly demonstrated. Our common purpose as Christians is something we can celebrate (with or without hugs) each day: our salvation and sanctification in Christ and our mutual service as members of his body. Ideally, lines of accountability in our church structures should always be guided a good, humbling sense of interconnectedness and mutuality: as inadequate disciples, we rely upon God's unmerited favor (2 Cor. 12:10) and each other (Gal. 6:1-5).


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