With the availability of increased flexibility to sessions provided by the New Form of Government (see my previous column, “New Flexibility in Church Administration,” May 28, p. 27) it is important to make sure that a people-centered perspective is maintained. As sessions reorganize their work it is a good time to reassess policies about personnel, requirements for active and inactive membership, youth participation on boards, treatment of members who are delinquent in attendance and giving, the use of buildings by outside groups that serve the disabled and poor, etc. Especially appropriate is the new opportunity to consider the way the session and church treat individual members or outsiders to be sure that unseen or unspoken prejudices are not in force. It is easy for church leaders and staff to make assumptions and harsh judgments about others without really considering Jesus’ dictum to love our neighbors as ourselves. In Victor Hugo’s masterpiece “Les Misérables,” for example, the police inspector Javert is so intent on strictly observing the letter of the law that he cannot forgive others (or himself) for human weaknesses.
The necessity of remaining conscious of the humanity of our work was highlighted recently in Rachel Friedman’s article “Student Attendance, Case by Case” (“The Chronicle Review,” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 16, 2011, p. B2). Friedman gives an example from her experience as a college professor, admitting that she had developed strict guidelines for class attendance. “Miss six classes and you fail. No exceptions. At the time, that policy seemed more than fair.” When students repeatedly were absent anyway, she started to ask them what was happening in their lives and began to see them as real people. She realized that aside from a few lame excuses, many had serious problems that prevented attendance: physical and psychological ailments, full-time jobs, ill children or parents to care for, and constant worry about finances. With this new knowledge she understood something fundamental that she had nearly overlooked, “students are fellow human beings, and you have empathy for them when they struggle, the way they do for you.” Her policy changed as a result. Her standards remain high, and she expects regular appearance in class. If they do not want to make that commitment she tells them bluntly that they should seek another instructor. But she also treats each crisis on a case-by-case basis and works with the individual to develop a reasonable and humane plan of action. Instead of sticking to her “high-minded philosophy” she puts the responsibility into their hands and together they seek a solution. “It turns out that ‘case-by-case’ basis is not the mantra of pushovers but rather of those who teach in a real world, with students whose lives are often full of more drama and complications than a well-crafted play.”
Her moving example helps all of us reconsider our own decisions as church leaders and enables us to place people before policies. When we get frustrated that members do not attend worship regularly, perhaps we should seek out their reasons and work with them to provide new opportunities: services at different times, Facebook chat rooms, or the development of online virtual worship centers. If others do not meet their annual obligation to pledge, we may need to discuss their giving patterns with them privately, make sure that they understand the principles of Christian stewardship, and find out whether or not they are in severe financial distress. Sometimes when members’ participation in the church is less than optimal we may need to re-examine our own assumptions about them as people before they can be restored to the Body of Christ.