What is the mission of a congregation? How can it be structured? The Acts 8 Moment posed that question this week. There are so many eloquent answers, so many ideas. A congregation is the in-breath and out-breath of the church. It is where the mundane becomes the sacred. It is God’s money laundering service, taking our junk, our baggage, our brokenness, our pride, and turning it into service. Where God mashes our dirt around and churns out love for the world. It is where our shi*t gets real. It is where we learn to love each other, and to love ourselves, even when we seem unloveable.
It isn’t easy to let God take our crap and turn it into something useful. It takes some honesty and some bravery, and quite a bit of trust. It takes the courage to admit our anger with each other. It’s not all calm conversations, devoted prayer, and careful consideration. Sometimes it is passion, anger, and heated words. Sometimes, it is hissy fits before the altar of God. Recently, I had my own temper tantrum towards my priest, in front of the new vestry, after a congregational meeting, in which I’d just been voted one of the new wardens. Not one of my most eloquent, thoughtful moments, let me assure you. But, it was real.
My priest had made an off-hand comment during the meeting, venting his frustration at a vestry discussion. He didn’t mean to target me, but man, did he hurt my pride! No one else in the room would have realized how personally I reacted, if I could only have settled down. Instead of making nice, I got my back up and clenched my fists. I had it out with him. “How could you say… How could you imply that….” The actual issue didn’t really matter anymore; I was pissed and I wanted people to know it.
Thank God that priests are trained to deal with hissy fits and temper tantrums. He acknowledged my frustration and embraced my passion. He didn’t back off and he didn’t blow up. As we spoke, I regained my equilibrium and began to see things rationally, with a deeper understanding of each other’s point of view. As we spoke, my prideful anger bounced around in God's cleaning machine and was transformed into a commitment to God's mission. Moments like this are where God burns our dross into gold. When we disagree with passion, we clear the air of pretension. When we respect each other enough to speak honestly, when we trust each other with the burdens of our heart, we practice listening to the other. One on one, we can see beyond our perceptions, and understand the perceptions of another.
I do not know the best way to structure or govern a congregation, but I know this. No matter what the system, it must allow for differences of opinion, it must challenge conventions, it must raise expectations for its members. It must teach members not to convince or destroy the point of view of the other, but to see their own selves through others’ eyes. When we get real with each other, in the midst of our brokenness, anger, and pride, we learn to love each other. When we learn to love God and to love each other, we can love the rest of the world. That is the mission of a congregation--the only one that matters.