The first church that my husband and I chose as newlyweds was a delight. The members embraced us. We were involved and engaged and led a college group there. And the church itself, a robust congregation of 500+, was thriving and impacting the community in wonderful ways.
And then the time came to choose a pastor.
The candidate that the selection committee settled on was controversial, and divided the congregation right down the middle. 75% of voting members present at the decisive meeting to confirm his pastoral appointment had to vote “yes” to confirm him as the new pastor, according to church bylaws, and at that meeting the initial vote failed. Only 50% percent voted to confirm him. The selection committee and the “yes” votes in the church were crushed, and pressed for a second vote. They were sure he was the right pastor for the church, and worried that maybe people hadn’t had enough time to consider their vote or talk to him in person. The church reluctantly agreed.
What happened after that was distinctly awful: the selection committee and a good number of the “yes” voters decided to hold the second confirmation vote in secret. The date and time of the vote were kept a secret from the known “no” voters, of which I was one: I found out the meeting was happening when another church member called me, begging me to hurry and get to church in time to cast my ballot.
I didn’t make it in time. Neither did many of the hundred-odd members pulling into the parking lot at the same time as us. We walked in to the church to find out that the new pastor had been confirmed by a group of only fifty members. And what I remember most from that night is one of my college small group members turning to me, tears in her eyes, and asking, “How can Christians do something like that to other Christians?”
Only a few months after that, my husband and I ended up moving away to our current home. The move was unrelated to the new pastor, and had been in the works prior to his confirmation, but at the time I was relieved to get away from the disaster that remained. The church was falling apart: at least a third of the congregation had simply stopped attending, and those who remained were resentful and angry about the secretive machinations to confirm the new pastor. Those happy with the new pastor expected their brethren to forgive and forget; those unhappy with him expected an apology.
Recently, it occurred to me to look up the church and see how it was doing – and to my shock, I found that it was gone. Non-existent. A church that had existed as a strong and lively foundation in its community had disintegrated and sold the building within two years of the new pastor’s confirmation. And I have little doubt that the controversy surrounding his confirmation, and the subsequent anger and lack of attendance, had a lot to do with it.
The thing is, this happens in a lot of churches and between a lot of different believers. Something bad happens – a person or a group of people do something wrong – and the fallout is cataclysmic. Believers fall into opposing groups, with one demanding apologies and another demanding grace, and all the while resentment, frustration, and resignation flourish in the gaps between. People stop attending events or deliberately sabotage them in order to send a message. Coded, passive-aggressive messages couched in Scripture and pointed remarks fly back and forth. Eventually, everything falls apart.
It’s sad. And it is avoidable.
I fear that, over time, the church has lost its grasp of what fellowship actually is. We’ve reduced it to a positive, feel-good form of engagement: bonding at a Bible study, chatting over chips and dips, believers going out in kayaks together. And that’s surely a part of fellowship, but not the entirety of it. Fellowship is what ought to happen – what needs to happen – at these crisis points when egregious wrongs have been committed and everyone is (justifiably!) angry and hurt. Fellowship is what happens in the aftermath of a wrong. Fellowship is what keeps the church functioning.
In the name of fellowship, those who have been accused of doing a wrong need to have the humility to at least sit down and examine their motives and their actions. To listen to others who are hurt and angry. To accept what it means to have hurt someone and to embrace the slow process of making amends over time, rather than protesting that everyone just needs to move on because grace. And in the name of fellowship, those who are angry and hurt by something need to be willing to let those feelings go. To understand that forgiveness is a holy mandate and needn’t depend on how sorry someone is or how valid their apology seems to be.
If we put that sort of fellowship into practice, then slowly and over time the wounds in our congregations and our groups will heal. Those who have been hurt can acknowledge that hurt but also recognize that no individual hurt is greater than God’s love or God’s kingdom. Those who have committed a wrong can genuinely acknowledge the scope of their wrongdoing and work, as much as they can, on making it right. In that sort of environment, where both sides are willing to treat God as sovereign over their own feelings, rights, and defensiveness, the Spirit can work.
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you,” Ephesians 4:32 implores. That is a part of the basis of fellowship. And the other day, as I discovered the empty building where a vibrant community of believers who greatly influenced me used to be, I understood just how integral that attitude is to not only our fellowship, but our survival in the world as Christian communities.