I recently visited Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s family home. Since that visit I have been thinking a lot about a particular scene from the musical “Hamilton.”
It takes place in the early years of Washington’s presidency. Several of the men we now know as the founding fathers are gathered for a cabinet meeting when Alexander Hamilton, the young upstart secretary of the treasury, gets into a heated debate with his rivals. Their debate over policy quickly descends into name-calling and accusations. The chaos is brought to a halt only when President Washington calls for a timeout. As Washington pulls Hamilton aside for a word, his rivals taunt him with the childish refrain. They chant: “You don’t have the votes!” It’s a hard truth – Hamilton simply hasn’t convinced enough people to get his bill passed. As Hamilton rants to his mentor Washington about how wrong the others are and how obviously correct his plan is, Washington raises a hand to stop him. Then he says, “Winning the war was easy, young man. Governing is harder.”
It’s not a real quote from Washington, but I like to think that he would have agreed with it. As a decorated general, Washington knew about winning. As the first head of our executive branch, Washington also understood the skills that are required for bringing people together in peacetime. Governing is not only about being right or about having the best ideas. Governing is also about “convincing more folks.” Governing is about being able to meet people where they are. It is about listening to other points of view, building a convincing argument and finding the common ground necessary to form consensus. Hamilton had to learn the hard way that there is more to governing than being the smartest one in the room.
I have a trusted member of my congregation who is always telling me, “Caitlin, sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.” He is the Washington to my Hamilton, and it amazes me how often he is completely right. It is incredible how much more fruitful session decisions or committee plans are when we take the time to go slow. It makes a difference to spend that extra time praying together, talking it all out and understanding all of the anxieties and opinions in the room. We continually find that the decisions we come to are not only the right ones, but that they have so much more staying power behind them than they would have had otherwise.
As Presbyterians, our polity calls us to go beyond just being right. It calls us to take the time to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit together. Discernment, like governing, is a lot harder than simply winning the fight. It requires a listening ear. It requires real prayer. It requires taking the time to understand the deep convictions and theological reasoning of those with whom we disagree. Most importantly, it requires the patience and mutual forbearance necessary for building consensus.
In church governance as in politics, governing well requires a lot of discipline, humility and patience. In an era when few political leaders exhibit these characteristics I think it is even more important for the church to serve as a witness of a different way of being. It may be slower, but in the end it is stronger.
CAITLIN THOMAS DEYERLE is pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, where she lives with her husband James, their cat Calvin and a very rebellious puppy named Molly.