One of my good friends, let’s call him Jim, told me about an extraordinary experience he had at work recently, and it has me reflecting on discipleship and a major purpose of congregational community.
Jim’s company has been through a great deal of struggle in the past few years, including facing significantly changing market conditions, poor management, changes in top leadership, labor struggles, and an organization-threatening work stoppage. It’s been a tumultuous ride for all involved. They’re coming out on the other side these days, and as they emerge from the crucible, they are taking seriously the need to attend to some real hurts inflicted during the struggle and some baggage that’s getting in the way today. Jim is helping carry out a process that’s accomplishing what the Truth & Reconciliation Commission did in South Africa following the end of Apartheid: tell the truth, really hear each other, and seek healing for the wounds that are named. The process Jim’s participating in called for a few people to serve as reporters to top management, interviewing folks throughout the organization about their experiences through the crucible time, seeking understanding of their concerns, and then voicing them in a feedback session with the organization’s top leaders. Jim was one of the ‘reporters’ in this process.
During the feedback session, the reporters were asked to share, in the presence of the leaders who serve as their bosses, what they had heard in their interviews with their colleagues. Sometimes, the feedback they had heard was strongly critical of those leaders. Most of the reporters, apparently so uncomfortable with speaking critical feedback in the presence of the leaders, softened their words to the point that the message was getting lost. The reporters had heard significant concerns and wounds that were consequential to the leaders of the organization. In order for the leaders to have the confidence and trust of the rest of the employees, they needed to be able to take steps to acknowledge and heal the wounds caused in the crucible. But it was so uncomfortable speaking the hard truths face-to-face that the feedback that mattered wasn’t reaching the leaders who needed to hear it. Jim felt the same fear as his reporter colleagues in the moment, fear that passing along what he had heard through the interviewing process might hurt others’ feelings, might lead to him being perceived as a jerk, might lead to reprisals from his bosses out of their hurt at hearing painful comments. Nevertheless, he was able to take a deep breath and tell the truth without blame or judgment. He simply spoke what he had heard in his interviews with his colleagues. Sometimes, one reporter would say something like, “People are excited about the future now and grateful we got through the hard time,” and then Jim would feel compelled to add, as evenly as possible, “I heard many folks say that they don’t trust Mr. Smith anymore after the way he talked about them in the media in the middle of the struggle, and they’re seriously concerned that nothing has changed.” That’s a really hard thing to say with Chairman of the Board Mr. Smith in the room, but that was the whole intent of the process. After the meeting, other reporters expressed their gratitude to Jim for having the courage to report what they had all heard in their interviews. It turns out most of the reporters were simply unable to tell the whole truth when the time came. They didn’t intend to avoid the process, but in the heat of the moment and in the face-to-face setting of the feedback meeting, they couldn’t bring themselves to say the hard things.
I asked Jim what he thought prepared him to be able to take that deep breath and choose to calmly speak the truth, in the face of potential consequences. He said it was primarily that he’s part of a community that practices telling the truth all the time. Jim is a recovering addict, and his 12-step recovery community is a place where he’s accustomed to hearing people say hard things about their own experience. The 12-step community is a place where Jim has spoken painful truths out loud about himself regularly. Recovery meetings are safe places for truth-telling, places of listening without judgment, and Jim realized as he sat in this challenging workplace meeting that he was prepared to say what needed to be said because he had spent years doing this in another setting.
As a result, Jim became a hero of many in his workplace––his colleagues whose concerns he reported accurately and his bosses alike––because his courageous truth-telling gave the process integrity and value that it wouldn’t have had if things had stayed in the ‘polite’ realm of avoiding the challenging things. Growth can happen, change is possible, reconciliation and deeper relationship are likely because there was a real sharing and hearing of experience and perspective in an attitude of humility and openness.
I see much in this for the church. There are certainly direct applications of this reminder that speaking directly and honestly with those with whom we have struggles is the best way forward. That’s biblical wisdom (see Matthew 18:15-20). At another level, I see that Jim was able to be used by God for the godly purpose of reconciliation at a pivotal moment in his organization’s life––because he was prepared. Not for the situation itself; he didn’t practice saying these particular things out loud. His life in recovery had prepared him to speak honestly even when it’s scary. It’s like the moment called for a posture that requires considerable flexibility and balance, and those who had rarely (or never) adopted it were simply unable to assume that posture in the moment. He was able because he had assumed it over and over again through the years. The posture of courageous, calm, humble truth-telling is one he learned by being part of a community that practices this posture every time it gathers.
That’s what the church is, at its best: a community that lives in a set of postures of spirit, mind, and body, postures that reflect the life of the Creator in human form. Jesus lived those postures throughout his ministry, even through facing his own death, so the Body of Christ in our time and place (the local church) is called to do the same. When we live in those postures of selfless humility, of hospitality to all people, of special concern for those at the margins, of pacifism in the midst of violence, of gracious forgiveness, of patience and faith at every level of being, of yearning for justice for all people, we can be the presence of Christ throughout our lives, especially when those ripe moments appear when God might make a significant difference and shift reality. What a profound joy to find myself in that moment when I know I have been used by God for God’s reconciling and healing purposes. Have you been able to notice moments when God used you?
The flip side of the coin is a familiar experience for me, too. There are plenty of moments when God might use me; some of them I can sense as they happen, and they pass right on by because I’m not able to be available. I can see the opportunity for God’s grace or peace or embrace to break into a moment of suffering, but I’m not able to be the vehicle. I can imagine the posture needed in that moment, but I find I’m not in it already, nor am I able to adopt it quickly enough (or at all). A helpful thought to speak pops into my head but I don’t say it, and then the moment’s gone. An insight appears in my mind, but I don’t share it. A newcomer is uncomfortable and alone, and I feel the tug to engage and welcome them, but I hang back. A person is hurting and I feel compassion, but shyness and fear keep it shut inside me. Injustice happens, and I know it’s wrong, but I stand back, a silent participant.
I need a community to form me, to teach me the postures of the Creator, to limber me up so that when those moments of deep possibility arrive, I’m in the posture to be available to God for God’s redemptive work. I thank God for all forms of this community––the church at its best is only one of them. In what communities do you experience being taught Christlike postures? What communities limber you up for lifegiving postures?