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We may be wrong, but …

There’s a story we often tell in my congregation (Second Church of Kansas City, Missouri) about our founding 150 years ago this July.

Seven women and three men stood against slavery (unlike First Presbyterian Church) and decided to create a “New School” congregation that could incarnate that calling.

That story at times has taken on some larger-than-life heroic aspects, but it has helped to create the outward-looking DNA that has marked Second Church. Our congregation, now about 625 members, is doing well, but as we’ve created various events to celebrate our sesquicentennial, what has struck me is the whirlwind of change that has barged through not just the world of Presbyterians but also the wider world since July 16, 1865.

Back in the late 1980s, I attended a conference at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary at which a speaker began to list the splits, re-combinations and re-divisions that Presbyterians have experienced since they first organized in the New World. About 20 seconds into the fast-paced running box score, you could hear chuckles. As the list grew, they turned into guffaws. Our history of punching each other in the nose and dividing was telling, and we laughed to keep from crying.

I was remembering this as I thought through the 37 years that I’ve been a member of Second. We’ve had five senior pastors and many associate pastors in that time. We’ve fought each other over various issues and at times have watched members leave because of differences over theology. In all that time we’ve also done many wonderful works of ministry inside, but especially outside, the walls of the church. It’s been both an exhausting and exhilarating ride.

And when I’m honest with myself, I can acknowledge that I was wrong sometimes and right sometimes. But it always took time to acknowledge when I was wrong.

Right there, in fact, is the lesson for all of us as we Presbyterians continue to face internal battles over sexuality, property issues, budget priorities, polity, the future of seminaries and all the many other issues that engage (and occasionally enrage) us. Let’s remember that we may be wrong.

Perhaps the most difficult of the Benedictine virtues to practice is humility. It calls us to acknowledge our own frailty and the reality that there usually is much more wisdom in the group than there is in any one individual, including ourselves.

This does not mean we abandon our principles or convictions in the face of strong opposition. Sometimes the metaphorical 50 million French people really are wrong. But it should mean that as we Presbyterians move forward into the next 150 years, we would do well to employ an eternal perspective and not lose sight of the fact that sometimes we really are on the wrong side of both history and God when we are most convinced of our arguments.

Let’s covenant to begin our arguments this way: “I could be wrong, but … ” And, please, this time let’s really mean it.

Bill TammeusBILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at