Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Loving Theory More Than Reality

A while back on this blog, somebody jokingly (at least, I think they were joking) made a comment that when I get to be General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, I'll get around to fixing all the denomination's problems. Or something to that effect. Whether they were joking or not, I immediately dismissed the idea. Truth be told, I wouldn't wish that position on anyone.

My reasoning behind this basically boils down to one point: no matter how well-meaning you are, no matter how transparent you are, no matter how exhaustively you explain your decisions, people will still question you, suspect you, deride you, and condemn you.

I base this in part on what I saw, heard and read about former UCC GMP John Thomas during the last few years of his service in that role. The big blowup was before, during, and after General Synod 25 in Atlanta, where controversial votes were taken on resolutions related to marriage equality and divesting from companies that support Israel. I had my own hang-ups with him and others during that time, particularly related to divestment. I won't make excuses for him or what happened, but it was a time where so much anger and vitriol was being said and written about him that I couldn't fathom anybody aspiring to such a public lightning rod of a position in our denomination.

Colleagues with whom I've conversed at the middle judicatory level have said as much about their own positions as well. There isn't much glory or sense that one has "made it" in these offices. Instead there are phone calls from anxious people in local churches who want their pastor gone, or there are meetings with church search committees that are stalling due to conflict, or there are churches threatening to pull out of the UCC, or there are budget issues, or a pastor has to be reprimanded for misconduct. The list goes on. And when they go into these situations to help, they are afforded various amounts of trust based on their position or their perceived role as apologist for the UCC. One colleague told me a couple years ago, "You truly have to be called to a position like this. You don't aspire to it." I believe him.

As a local church pastor, I actually haven't had to deal with too much of this kind of stuff. We get along great. Sure, there has been disagreement and anxiety here and there, but nothing too explosive for some time. But when it has, it has certain characteristics in common with what Rev. Thomas and my Association colleagues have had to deal with.

Oftentimes, people love theory more than reality.

First, let me set this up up. The other day I read an editorial by Ross Douthat from the New York Times on how Washington liberals are getting anxious about Obama's presidency. You can do what you want with the majority of the piece, but I want to single out one point that he made near the end:

Yet the liberal drumbeat continues. As Tyler Cowen wrote last week: “advocates of fiscal stimulus make it sound as simple as solving an undergraduate homework problem and ... sometimes genuinely do not realize how much the rest of the world, including politicians, views them as simply being very convinced by their own theory.” Nor do they acknowledge how much risk those same politicians have already taken on (with the first stimulus, the health care bill, and much else besides) in the name of theoretical propositions, while reaping little for their efforts save an ever-grimmer fiscal picture.
The point being made here is that people who are further away from the immediate deliberation and decision-making, further away from the facts and the weighing of options, are looking at what's being carried out, don't like it, and immediately come up with their own better solution. "Why don't they just do this? How stupid! I should be in charge!"

The people who say stuff like that aren't close enough to see why a particular decision was made; why somebody thought it would work. The people closest to it all presumably know more about financial constraints, what's at stake for the groups involved, and what resources are really available to carry out each option. I say "presumably" because let's face it: some decisions aren't as well-thought out as others and it shows. Regardless, even the most carefully weighed decisions that take into account what one has to work with are second-guessed by people who don't have nearly as much information on the matter. All they have is their theory, as opposed to the reality that the deliberators hopefully know more about.

I don't exclude myself from this, and I don't think that this is limited to church issues by a long shot. As noted above, this can be about politics. It can certainly be about sports...after all, this kind of thing is where the term "armchair quarterbacking" came from.

But it certainly does apply to churches. I can name a few instances where someone has criticized a decision I've made and has suggested a better way to do things without knowing what I have and haven't tried, without knowing all the details involved, without knowing how I came to the decision that I did. I explain my reasoning based on the reality of the situation, which is met with varying degrees of understanding. Whether one wants the former abundance of generation-based fellowship groups back or can't fathom how younger people like that "contemporary" stuff or just knows that people would become more involved in certain energy-less ministries if we just advertised them more, my explanations of what I think might work better based on the situation at hand may only go so far. The theory of what others think would or should work is more attractive and satisfying.

Anxiety is a big part of this. It only allows us to accept so much reasoning. If one is anxious over decline or change or failure, theory will look much better than reality. But if we as a church, as a nation, as sports fans, as family members, as members of the workforce, etc. want to move forward, then we need to deal in reality, borrowing from theory only when and where it will actually work.