“Your whole governing body system teaches you skills that our bishop system doesn’t teach us.”
His assessment, shared over dinner in his home about a dozen years ago, set me to pondering our Presbyterianism. It brought to mind a discussion I’d had a few years earlier with a group of presbytery executives. One of them blurted out, “Great Presbyterian pastors do four things well: proclamation, praise, pastoral care, and politics.” The first three tasks seemed obvious — proclamation of the Word; praise and worship leadership; pastoral care of the congregation. But politics? That jarred me. Isn’t politics the bane of the church? Shouldn’t we be doing all we can to jettison politics from the church?
To clarify, I’m not talking about the church’s participation in the public square, advocating matters of legislative policy, or “speaking truth to power,” as it’s often put. That’s another topic for another time – actually, for many other times. This time I’m addressing the church’s internal politics.
When General Assembly commissioners get cornered by hallway-cruising, placard-toting, arm-twisting advocates, many cry, “Stop the politics.”
When pastors and elders rally their presbytery allies to vote “with the angels” in response to a proposed constitutional amendment, opponents cry, “Stop the politics.”
When a presbytery overrules a congregation’s efforts to call its interim pastor as their permanent minister, members cry, “Stop the politics.”
When the proposal to add a new worship service leads a divided church Session to “postpone indefinitely,” folks cry, “Stop the politics.”
When the pastor who told you she agrees that you should chair a committee but then asks one of the more prominent members to fill that role, you may well join the chorus, “Stop the politics.”
Politics has as many dark sides as a faceted black onyx. The very word makes people scowl. As the publisher Ernest Benn, the son of a member of the House of Commons, said nearly a hundred years ago, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.”
Then again, what’s the alternative? Put two people together and you get a polis. And every polis since the Garden of Eden has been governed by politics. In that light, Otto Von Bismarck, the Prussian politician of the late 19th century, was correct when he said, “Politics is the art of the possible.”
In a church that considers its unpaid leaders to be every bit as well qualified to lead and, accordingly, ordains them, and gives their vote equal weight to that of the minister, the resulting plurality of leadership requires more than good theology and decisiveness. To accomplish anything “possible” also requires good psychology, good sociology, and lots of interactive, generative finesse. Add all that together and you get, that’s right, politics.
The big question is not “How can we rid the church of politics?” but “How can we be political in ways that are effective, ethical, and collegial?” Those three words summarize the challenge.
Effective? What’s the point of being a visionary if you can’t persuade others to see the visions with you?
Ethical? For the sake of the Christian faith, our service needs to evidence such virtues as honesty, candor, integrity, industry, responsibility, and generosity – not to mention, constitutionality.
Collegial? Rather than breaking into polarized parties that argue our point by exploiting the flaws in others’ points, we need always to try to trust in one another’s best intentions, and to “live in harmony with one another … live peaceably with all” … not being “overcome by evil, but overcom[ing] evil with good.” (Rom 12: 16a, 18b, 21)
Maxie Dunham was right. Our system does teach us to do politics well. Are we doing our politics faithfully?