Over at Rediscovering the Church, Peter Pollock is hosting a blog carnival. He suggested that readers and fellow bloggers post today on the exact same one-word topic – whatever they wanted and however they wanted to do it. The word Peter selected was obedience. The idea of a carnival sounded like fun, so here’s my contribution.
The Cost of Obedience
Two weeks ago, my younger brother and I were exchanging comments on Facebook about what we called our “family curse” – we tend to be contrarians. Like when the Elder Board votes 16 to 1 on the new building program – you know who the 1 is. Or you sit in business meeting after business meeting about The Next Great Thing and you ask an embarrassing question. Or you think elected officials should be held accountable and hold open meetings and uphold sunshine laws. Or you wonder how your church denomination can pointedly ignore Biblical teaching and embrace heresy because it’s the cool cultural thing to do.
The curse is not a fun thing to endure. All three of us boys in the family have it – older brother, younger brother and me in the middle. We know where it comes from, but since my father’s not here to defend himself, we’ll just call it an inherited family disorder.
If you know me, you would think I would be about the last person to rock a boat – I’m generally quiet, with a tendency to the shy. My worst nightmare is having to go to a cocktail reception where I know no one. The problem is that people mistake quiet for acquiescence.
I’ve spent a lot of time over many years thinking through this – because it comes at a cost. You may save people a lot of money; you may prevent a disaster; you may stop people from doing something that’s really stupid – but they’re not going to like you for it, even when they know you’ve helped.
It’s the cost of obedience.
Many years ago, I was a church elder, and my fellow elders and the pastor were determined to undertake a new building program. (This is an old, old mantra. Success = growth, and if you build it, growth will come.) We met as an elder board to discuss it (many times, in fact), and then we met jointly with the deacon board to discuss it. The plan looked sound, but it was a little convoluted and would require a temporary flip of gym and sanctuary building while construction was underway. Everything seemed fine. But something nagged at me; something didn’t seem quite right. I read through all the papers at least two or three times, but things seemed in order.
It was a small church, and the program was going to cost a lot of money. A lot. We had considerable discussion about the need to step out in faith and follow God’s call. And we had a lot of prayer. But still something nagged at me.
I struggled with this. I couldn’t raise a serious objection based on a feeling, and it was clear that I would likely be a minority of one, always the “fun” position in any organizational setting – the resident hair shirt. And yet I knew something was off. I knew I could be mistaken, but my conviction was growing. So at the final meeting, the combined meeting of elders and deacons to vote together on the project, I started asking questions. Should we get an inspection of the buildings, making sure we could do what was planned? Had we checked the infrastructure – audio and sound, electrical, even the bathrooms? The meeting dragged on. I felt awful, because everyone wanted to go home and I was obviously the obstacle in the way. I unintentionally offended the pastor, a good friend. The final vote was 28 to 2 to approve the project. I had managed to convince only one other person. I felt terrible. A few days later, I stepped down from the elder board, not to send a message but because it was clear to all, including me, that I had a serious problem: I couldn’t get with the program. To be fair to me, that was really the only time that happened while I was an elder. I had played a key role in mediating a serious personal dispute between two elders; I was the recording secretary for the board; I went to all the meetings and work days. But this was big, and they all thought I had lost my mind.
A few weeks later, as things started getting underway with the new program and the facilities were “flipped,” the local municipality did an inspection. The sanctuary itself was apparently usable, but the associated classroom space and bathrooms around the sanctuary were not. Part of the building was actually condemned, although I believe other language was used. That inspection – which should have been done prior to the decision to go forward – stopped the building program cold. Had the church gone forward (and there was debate about the need for an inspection), the costs to fix the problem would have likely been far more than the church could have afforded. As it was, it created chaos for a time, but not financial chaos.
So, there was something wrong, after all. But this didn’t make me feel better. Nor did it make anyone else feel better, although people were relieved at having missed what could have been a financial disaster.
Usually, this “contrarian” thinking in my head is based on far more than “something just doesn’t seem right.” I bristle when I see elected boards, like a school board or a city council, for example, abuse their power or treat people badly and the media ignore it because they want to keep access to the officials or they agree with the decision that was made. Or when justice gets miscarried. Or when rules are applied differently for personal reasons.
So when I’m the 1 in the 16 to 1 vote, I’m being obedient, but to whom or what? My own inner muse? My conscience? God? The real answer is, I often don’t know. Sometimes it’s clear, but sometimes it’s not. And in the times it’s not, I have to trust that a major part of faithfulness is obedience, especially when it costs.
But it hurts.