church journey

relationship churn

I’ve been thinking about relationships among the church. If you’ve been in a typical, institutional-type church (like most of us) for any length of time, you’ve probably had some relationships implode, self-destruct, blow up – pick your metaphor. My wife and I certainly have. And one of the things we came to see is that in these environments it’s easy to cast aside good wisdom on growing meaningful relationships in the spirit of doing a task together, seemingly for the Kingdom of God. The ironic thing I see now is that good relationships are the foundation to the Kingdom of God thriving on earth. This is yet another one of those places that the “church business” model has gotten us into trouble.

Here’s how it often goes: We get involved in a church and, going along with the flow, commit ourselves to various large & small group gatherings with perfect strangers, or maybe we know a couple people. Before long we’re signing up to help with various tasks to help the business grow. With the best intentions we are usually quick to put ourselves in very vulnerable situations relationally. There’s the sense that, “hey, we’re all part of the Family of God, right?” And true, openness, honesty, humility – these are core values in the Kingdom of God. We all naturally hunger for relationships that have these qualities. But this whole business is often going way too fast for the proper development of the relationship “container” where these things naturally happen. And sooner or later, either you don’t measure up to someone’s expectations, or someone else doesn’t seem to be the person you thought they were, and a relational crisis happens.

What usually follows is some mixture of fear, anger, blaming, desires for revenge, and many other intense emotions, and it becomes really difficult to sort out what really happened, why it happened, how to fix it, or if it even can be fixed. Depending on how far the vulnerability went, how long the charade had gone on, how relationally vested people were to those involved or the activities you mutually participated in, my observation is that most of the time, the relationships are not fixed.

I’ve been through situations like this a few times. When I finally got off the “church business” merry-go-round long enough to think and pray reflectively about all this, I realized that I was my primary problem. I chose to relate to people at levels far beyond where true trust and rapport had brought us. It was inappropriate for me to place such levels of trust in people so soon. Sure, 20+ years of active participation in growing churches and para-church movements had encouraged bad relational habits. But blaming others only prolongs the necessary steps of growth – I had to learn new habits.

The good news I found is that it really wasn’t that difficult to come into better relating habits as I have allowed God to take me through “detox” out of a church subculture, and the ways of church businesses, and into a simple, more natural, Spirit-led approach to following Jesus. For many years I had to deal with not having very many relationships at all among other followers of Christ because we didn’t have regular times to gather with them – this was when we were first getting started in simple gatherings with other followers. Truly, there were years of despair from the lack of meaningful relationships. But this, too, was formative in helping me detox from bad habits. Even as we started gathering more regularly with others, it took years to see people more than once or twice a month. Tough going relationally, but now I look back and realize God was shepherding me into new, healthier ways of forming long-lasting, meaningful relationships. It’s not so much that I’ve learned how to deal with “blow ups” better, but it’s now very rare that I even find myself in a situation where that can happen. We’re generally not getting ourselves committed beyond the true trust levels. I’ve still had times of unfortunate misunderstandings, and not every situation has come to the desired end. But I’ve come a long way on this path of healthier relating. I’ve been blessed to have special people around me who are either better at this than I, or have had their own years of relationship churn among the church, and God is shepherding them to new places as well, so the commitment levels to “go slow” are mutual.

I could summarize the lessons as:

  • God is not in a hurry, and it’s best if we aren’t either. Go slow with relationships. Let the pace be natural, easy, peaceful. Pay attention to warning signs, where something feels inappropriate or rushed. I think one of the biggest factors contributing to relational crisis is going too fast in the initial trust-forming years. Don’t allow yourself to be coerced to go faster than what is right for you. When in doubt, wait.
  • Let the relational risks you take be small at first, and appropriate to allow both you and the other to gain levels of confidence in each other. Don’t inappropriately invest yourself in a relationship beyond where the trust levels really are.
  • Allow yourself to have a certain amount of thick skin. We all do and say things we regret later. And sometimes communication is presented and received such that the end result is nothing that either party intended. If the relationship is worth it to us, I think we’ll all have times where we’ll have to simply overlook the offense and move on, choosing to love the other person and forget the offense.
  • Don’t pretend. Don’t pretend to be at a different level of trust, appreciation, rapport, etc. with someone than where you really are. Don’t pretend you feel fine about participating in a level of activity with people that you really don’t feel right about. Be completely honest with yourself. God leads us through our guts most of the time. Pay attention to your guts.
  • When the void for relationships is strong in your life, and you’re doing all the things you know are right, I find the best thing to do with the loneliness is to let it drive you deeper into your relationship with God, who is always present. At the right time he will bring us meaningful relationships if we are steadfast and wise in our growth. By then our vision and understanding of right & wrong in this area will be all the more precise.

I’ve come to believe that doing well in this area of relationships is foundational to our quest to “be the church.”