A Cancer in the Church


These are not my thoughts for this Sunday but thoughts about a problem I think we have to face.
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On March 21, 1973, John Dean told Richard Nixon that there was a cancer growing in the presidency and it threatened to kill the presidency. Dean’s efforts were to save both the Presidency and Richard Nixon, to whom he was still loyal to at the time. Later, when it became apparent that President Nixon had been involved in the Watergate affair from the very beginning, Dean became his chief accuser.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a comment to a pastor’s blog in which I stated I believed that there was a cancer present in that pastor’s congregation. I did so because of on my own experiences.

I also wrote that I felt it was up to the congregation to remove that cancer. The only I didn’t write was how does a congregation remove a cancer from its midst that is threatening to kill the congregation?

Over the course of my lay ministry, I have been involved in a number of situations that threatened the health and life of the church. I do not claim to have the answer but certain things are apparent. In every instance that I am aware of, the issue that allows the cancer to grow is power. Who has the power and who should have the power are the reasons that a cancer grows in any organization, be it the Presidency of the United States or a small Methodist Congregation in the United States.

The church where I first started as a lay speaker was originally dominated by two individuals, both with considerable political power in the congregation, who sat at the front door of the sanctuary. It was their unstated purpose to intimidate all those who enter. It was a way of telling the members who was in control of the church. For visitors, their stares and gruff mannerisms insured that the visitor would not come back. It was all about power and it was their intention to make sure that the new pastor understood who had the power in the church.

This approach didn’t work for me because, quite frankly, I ignored them. I was looking for a church and what I found in the pastor, the place, and the people matched what my family needed at the time.

I do not recall when I started it but I soon began to greet people at the front door of the church. This one step effectively negated what these two men were doing just inside. And over time, as the failures of their leadership became evident, the people of the church began to ignore them and move on to more important things, such as the revitalizing of the church. This, revitalization was quite successful and the church is now more alive than it ever was.

When I made the move that brought me to where I now live, I was asked to take over a church that was struggling. There were a number of theological questions being raised in the church and several individuals in the church were convinced that their answers to the questions were the correct and only true answers. This obviously resulted in a spiritual divide in the church and one that threatened to destroy the church.

I came into the church with an open mind, not favoring one side or the other. I tried to understand what had brought the church to this particular point in time. My early sermons in that church were attempts to formalize and visualize the problems of the church but I sensed an incompleteness in what I was writing and saying; I also sensed that I was not making the impact that needed to be done.

Some of the individuals were very forceful in their insistence that they alone held the right answer. And they wanted the services to reflect their thoughts. But when it became evident that it was not the Gospel but their own power that drove them, they were quickly cast aside. Again, it was the failure of their own leadership that proved their undoing.

There was also a change in the political leadership of the church as well. Those who held the “right” answers were still given the opportunity to voice their thoughts but not at the expense of other people’s thoughts.

As in the previous example, the people of the congregation began to see the futility of the plans of those that were most vocal. In the end, this vocal minority chose to leave the church on their own accord. Interestingly enough, they never gave up their positions of authority but quit attending. I was told that when I left, the leader of this splinter group attended a PPRC meeting for the first time in two years in order to meet the new pastor and apparently try to start her “campaign for spiritual awakening” all over again. Unfortunately, the new pastor was only new to the church, not the area, and was well aware of this individual and her plans. It is said that she sat meekly during the meeting, realizing that nothing she said was going to make a difference.

That assignment took almost three years and I left because I felt that I had achieved what I was asked to do. After a rough start and to remove the theological division that had begun, I focused on the Gospel and used John Wesley as my guide. There were changes in the political structure of the church that gave freedom to all without fear of the repercussions that had so dominated the church before my arrival.

This church has recovered from the trauma of the divisions that threatened to kill it and is now a part of a viable and larger church community.

I wish that I could say the same was true for my last assignment. When I left that assignment, I was planning on taking a year off before “volunteering” again. However, after six weeks, I felt God’s call to get back to work. My e-mail to my district superintendent came into his in-box just after he had received an e-mail from a newly appointed pastor quitting after six weeks.

The D. S. asked if I would take the challenge and I said that I would. This was an entirely different situation. It was not a theological challenge and it went beyond simple church politics. It was more about who “owned” the church. It wasn’t just a matter of current ownership; it was an argument that went back several generations. It wasn’t one family’s argument of ownership but rather two families, each claiming they had to right to decide what the church should and should not do.

I continued to focus on the Gospel for the preparation of my sermons. There were those who understood what I was saying in the sermon each Sunday as it pertained to the church but there were others who did not (or at least never gave any indication that they understood).

In the end, the changes in the political leadership that might have begun the turn-around could not be made. More and more families were leaving because of the in-house gossiping and back-biting. I saw a solution but it required some very radical moves on my part; I chose to leave. Though some felt that this move was coming and inevitable, it still came as quite a shock when I announced that I was leaving the church.

I brought in a Conference Crisis Intervention Team in an effort to resolve the issues that existed between the various factions but it was too late. But as I feared, blood literally ran on the floor during one of the meetings of the congregation with the team and another family quit. The church is still open but it now only meets on a part-time basis and is served by a minister from another church in the district on a part-time basis. The cancer that was in the congregation has spread and nothing will stop; this church will die.

Right now, I get the impression that there are several other churches that have the signs of this type of cancer. The problem with being a lay speaker is that you are not always privy to the information as to why a church does not have a full-time or regular pastor. But some of what I hear or found out on my own tells me that there are cancer cells present.

One pastor whose attempts to resolve the problem within their congregation, now has to deal with medical problems brought about by the stress of the conflict. I think that one pastor in my area has left the ministry because of their inability to handle or resolve similar problems within their congregation. In fact, the frustrations with my last assignment were threatening to disrupt my own life. One can only speculate as to what might have happened if I had elected to continue. I saw a need to walk away and I worked out a plan that I thought would save the congregation. I just wished it had worked out better.

So what are we to do when one person’s actions threaten the life of the church? It should be noted that in the three situations that I have described, the problem existed before I became involved. Each situation had gone on too long and unless things were done quickly, extreme measures were going to be required. And such measures are often beyond the capability of the pastor.

But what if the problem is just beginning? It should not be up to the pastor but the congregation who steps up and seeks an earlier resolution. In Matthew 18: 15 – 17 the following (I am using Clarence Jordan’s Cotton patch version) we read:

If your brother does you wrong, go talk it out privately between the two of you. If he sees your point, you’ve won your brother. But if he won’t see your side of it, take one or two others, since every fact, in order to stand, must have two or three witnesses. If he will pay them no mind, bring it up before the church. If he won’t pay attention to them, chalk him up as a hopeless case.

In some versions of this passage, the church is told to cast out this person.

In all of Jesus’ parables, Jesus challenged the listeners to hear the Gospel of God’s love in different ways, through different experiences, and with different languages. But this passage from Matthew goes beyond anything we might comprehend; it goes beyond the tokenism of inclusiveness to a radical inclusivity where we take others seriously, listen to each other and dare trust that he or she belongs in God’s love as much as we do. (1)

If you stop and think about it, the words that Matthew put into this passage cannot be the words of Christ. As you read this passage, you have to be struck with the paradox posed.

There is no problem with the first two parts of the conversation. If you have a problem with a member of the church, meet with them in private. If there are still problems, then bring along some witnesses and try to work out the problem.

It is the third part that is the paradox. If all attempts at reconciliation fail, then the offending party is to be ignored, expelled, or cast out from the church. I have a hard time with this solution. First, it cuts out the person or persons who probably need the Gospel the most. And it does nothing to soften their heart. As long as their hearts are hardened, they will never hear the true Word and that is a shame. Finally, this rather harsh treatment goes against everything Jesus had said, was saying, and would continue say?

Did Christ not seek all those who had been excluded from church? Did not Christ seek those who were expelled from society? So how could He say throw out those with whom you disagree? Some feel that this passage from Matthew comes from the later church and not from Christ. How could Jesus have been speaking for the church when there was, at that time, no church? Would He really have said treat someone as a Gentile or a tax collector when His own actions ran counter to those words? Remember that on a number of occasions He healed Gentiles and even had dinner with Zaccaheus, a tax collector. Even Matthew (or Levi in some translations), one of the twelve was a tax collector. So there are problems with this passage. It is possible that these verses are the reflection and thoughts of the early church.

These words still have a meaning for this day and time, for this is a passage of patience and gentleness. When you feel that you have been wronged by someone, you should make the first approach. When you point out that fault that has produced the rift between the two of you, it is to be done in love and friendship. One should use such a visit as this for the purpose of regaining a lost brother or sister, not for humiliation or condemnation.

Even if this private visit fails, the individual should not be branded as anything publicly. Two or three others, chosen for their Christian grace, are to be told so that their urgings can be added. It is only if they fail that the whole congregation should be told but not so that they can thrust this individual from their company and compassion. Only the individual’s own actions can drive them from the church.

This passage from Matthew offers us a glimpse into the problems of the early church. Even then, there were careless and wayward members; sometimes there were even open scandals. The epistles confirm this picture of the early church. When we re-read Matthew 18: 18, we see that it has been fulfilled. The church sometimes determines what interpretations should be forbidden (bound) and which should be sanctioned (loosed). The church, both the early one and today’s varieties and versions, have not been as gentle in discipline as the Gospel reading proposed. The church many times has acted with cruel vigor. The curse and penalty discussed in 1 Corinthians 5:5 (“hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature (Or that his body; or that the flesh) may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord”) is not gentle and it has been carried far beyond Paul’s time.

Matthew has combined in this writing a call for Christian patience and a great yearning for unity in the church. (2) There was truly a fear that there would be those whose work would destroy the building of the church and perhaps there was a need for such scripture. But fear should never drive what we do or we should we use fear to disenfranchise people. (3)

Treatment should not be vengeful but it has to be done. And the districts and the conferences need to be more helpful. It shouldn’t be that hard to identify the churches that show the symptoms and it shouldn’t be that hard to help the pastors of those congregations. The District Superintendent who gave me that first assignment told me what to expect and supported me in what I did; he also told me what to expect in my second assignment but I don’t think he understood the complexity and depth of the problem.

I wasn’t aware of the resources that were available within the conference (I suppose that being a lay speaker had a lot to do with that; I was not always privy to the same informational resources that ministers got). If I had known about the Congregational Crisis Intervention Team sooner, I might have been able to achieve a different outcome.

It is a shame that this would happen in any church. We tend to think of churches as being places of Christian good, not places where workplace politics and gossip rule. But too often, instead of taking the church out into the secular world, people bring the secular world with them into the church and expect the church to react in the same way that the outside world does. There are others who have written on this same issue but I think the message is always the same; if we hold to the Gospel and preach the love that is found in Christ, we can solve the problems that threaten to tear apart our churches.

I would hope and pray that there are no cancers in your church. But we know that at the first signs of trouble in our body, we are to seek help. The same is true when there is trouble in the congregation. There may have been fear in the minds of the early Christian church, especially with all that was going outside the walls of the church. They knew that the solidarity of the church required action before things worked against them. In this world where the church today is the one hope that many people have, it still is true what Matthew wrote and it is still what we must do in order to keep the cancer from killing the church.

(1) Adapted from “A Careful Read” by Deanna Langle, The Christian Century, August 23, 2005

(2) Adapted from The Interpreter’s Bible – a commentary in twelve volumes, Volume 7 – Abingdon Press, 1951)

(3) I am used part of the message (“Lexington, North Carolina”)that I gave at Vails Gate United Methodist Church (Vails Gate, NY) on 4 September 2005 in this message.

1 thought on “A Cancer in the Church

  1. Pingback: The Future for the Methodist Church « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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