Note: this is part of a larger body of writing I am currently working on with the theme of “The Sustainable Church” which is an extended metaphor of church as garden. I believe what I am learning has important applicability to the current situation in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church.
How do plants communicate with the gardener that something has gone wrong? What means do they use to let the one with authority over them, i.e., the gardener, gain awareness of their health, their diseases, their thirsts and their floods?
This question strikes me as I ponder the situation with the Bishop [W. Earl Bledsoe] and the North Texas Conference.
The Bishop insists that no one ever told him that he was not effective in leadership until the Jurisdictional Delegation let him know that he would not be asked back as Bishop in the NTAC and that no other conference would have him serve as their Bishop.
There are strong parallels to explosions in local churches. Most pastors know that when people are unhappy with them, rarely will the discontent ones come straight to them to discuss their complaints. Instead, they speak of their unhappiness to others of like minds. Sometime they are so contagious with their spiritual illness that much of the church catches the infection. Suddenly, the pastor is pushed out and says, “Why didn’t someone tell me?”
Why did we not hear? I think the majority of those in the church do not speak the language of the pastor nor know how to communicate their discontent in a way that it will be lovingly heard and acknowledged. I also think the majority of the clergy do not speak the language of the Bishop nor expect that they will be lovingly heard or acknowledged.
Learn others' language
As godly leaders, we must learn the language of those we lead, rather than asking them to learn ours.
Think about it this way: how can plants indicate that there is a problem? They can’t go straight to the gardener and say, “Hey, I’m suffering here” because they do not speak the language of the gardener. The effective gardener must instead learn the language of the plants.
Gardeners have great power over their gardens. They pick what will be planted and what won’t. They periodically plow or turn over the beds, causing giant disruption to every living creature within. They decide where the paths will be set out and which plants will get extra attention and which ones will be generally ignored. They discern what is weed, and therefore not fruitful, and what is plant, and therefore expected to be fruitful.
Effective gardeners know when the plants are thirsty or have roots that are destructively wet. They see early signs of insect problems, note when some plants are going to seed too soon and thereby stop production of the needed fruit, and are aware when the normal processes of pollination are not working. For example, reduced honeybee populations have giant ramifications for gardens, and so systemic issues behind the problems must be addressed and leveraged. Effective gardeners recognize quickly when a mistake has been made with an experimental item, such as planting in the wrong season or in a weather zone where the plant can’t thrive, and rectify it quickly so space for more fruitful plants is not wasted.
But, remember, the plants can’t talk! Gardeners learn the language of their plants by spending much time in their gardens, inspecting, watching, observing, gaining awareness of even slight changes that might cause huge problems later.
This cannot be done quickly! Those slight changes can be noticed only by those who have carefully developed deep and essentially unconscious knowledge of the plants and who understand that even a minor variation in temperature or soil make-up may mean the difference between abundant harvests and empty bushel baskets at the end of the season. Good gardeners have such keen eyes and strong sensitivity that they can pluck the almost invisible tomato hornworm off a plant the moment it shows up, because if they don’t, the leaves will be stripped in 24 hours.
As do gardeners, Bishops have great power, and they speak and live the language of power. They display it by dress, by special seats and by unique insignia at General Conference, Annual Conferences and other events. They live power by hand-picking those who will work closest with them and to whom they are most likely to listen. They speak it by acknowledging that the privilege of appointment making is ultimately in their hands. Bishops can and do disrupt the lives of the clergy and the congregations in their domain. They can and do make giant changes that leave everyone unsettled.
Communicating from a position of power
Both gardeners and Bishops need that power to work with effectiveness. The problem comes with communicating through the position of power.
It it up to those who have the power to learn the language of those who don’t.
And that is contrary to almost all human nature–and why the nature of the church must be so radically different.
Language is power. Because of world domination and power first of Great Britain and then economic and technological leadership of the United States, English has become the lingua franca of the world. For example, English is required of all pilots who fly international flights, because English is the language used by air traffic controllers to direct pilots in their routes, their landings and take-offs, their taxiways to gates and their delays as necessary. Learn English or lose the job, no matter how skilled otherwise.
In addition, at least in the United States, the lower on the economic scale, the higher the likelihood that people will become bilingual. Speaking the language of those in power is necessary for survival.
The experience of women who first entered male dominated fields also illustrates this point. Many of these women, more used to the language of nurture and cooperation, had to learn the language of power, domination and competition in order to earn and keep their places. They were the one who had to become bilingual, not the ones who already had the power. Those with the power stayed monolingual. Linguist and scholar Deborah Tannen has done some powerful work here that has opened many eyes to that situation.
God stoops to us
But the point of the Incarnation itself is that God will indeed stoop to speak our language, and will come as we are in all our frailty in order to open the doors to the Kingdom of Heaven. The church MUST be different from the world, or we no longer live out that Incarnational truth. The first have to become last.
This is shown powerfully on the day of Pentecost. The first, i.e., those privileged ones who had known Jesus intimately, became the ones who spoke the languages of others so everyone might hear. They did not insist that those sojourners and pilgrims to Jerusalem, desperate for the water of grace, first learn the language in which it was being lived out. Those first and intimate followers of Jesus spoke in languages different from their own. They had to, for otherwise, the Word could not bear fruit.
That’s what effective gardeners do: they learn to speak the language of the plants, for otherwise, the plants will not bear fruit.
And that, in my opinion, is the locus of the controversy now taking place in the North Texas Conference. Again, Bishop Bledsoe indicates that no one has spoken to him of their problem with his leadership. I think they spoke, but it was in a language he does not know, and has not chosen to learn. He, as do almost all people in power, expected his clergy serving under him to learn and speak his language. Essentially, he expected his garden to come to him rather than going to the garden and learning it intimately.
He has not walked his garden, or given himself time to carefully observe small and often unobtrusive signs of unhealth or disease. He has not noticed that many clergy are wilting under unrelenting pressure to prove themselves effective or fruitful with no good definition as to what that means other than coming up with numbers that look good. His fields have not been tended well, and have become parched, sterile and dry, but he, as gardener, makes little discernible move to help them regenerate by times of fallowness and huge applications of life-giving compost.
I do not think this neglect comes because he doesn’t care. I do think he does not take time to know or care for his own garden because of the nature of the Episcopal responsibilities and the nature of our structure.
The gardens are wilting
He does send out his undergardeners, but they themselves, burdened by unending reports, meetings and paperwork, rarely walk the gardens either, except for the annual Charge Conferences, which probably function more like Potemkin villages than realistic assessments of the situation at hand. The gardens are wilting, and the main response from on high: either figure out your own problems and bear fruit or get ready for the consequences.
It won’t work in the long run. Not for gardens and not for churches.
Let us not forget that clergy do the same thing in our own parishes. We expect people who are wilting and ailing spiritually and finding themselves unable to thrive under our pastoral leadership to speak our language and tell us so. But they can’t, and we find ourselves shocked to discover that the virus that infected one plant, one plant could have been brought back to life by good attention, suddenly took over much of the church, which now needs expensive and often fruitless life-support treatment just to survive.
I’ve done it myself, way too many times. I am busy with my reports and my plans and my messages and administrative details and Conference business and trying to make sure my numbers get bigger each year, because that is the only language I can use that the District Superintendents (the undergardener) and Bishop will understand. That is my official language; no one else in the local church can speak it fluently.
The language of those in my care is one of pain and brokenness and occasional desperation. Theirs is of family problems and intractable illnesses and economic pressures and teen pregnancies and destructive addictions. They need tending and watering and good care so they can bend and not break in the midst of the storms and rise the next day to greet the sunshine with ripening fruit of righteousness.
When I don’t take the time to wander quietly and unhurriedly through their lives, when I expect people to come to me with the problems they are having with me rather than noticing the wilt myself, then I get slammed, sucker-punched, and emotionally devastated when someone says, “I’ll never return to that church as long as she is pastor.” This, I believe, is what happened to our Bishop.
I am the one at fault where my church is concerned. I must take responsibility for my own actions and neglect. I have not loved them enough to learn their languages fluently and to observe adequately their need for support and nurture. I have too often refused the message of Pentecost for the least of these under my care. I expected my plants to start speaking the Queen’s English, when the only language they know is to wilt and die and spread their infection to neighboring plants.
Head the language of power
Why did the General Conference vote against a set-aside Bishop, which would have been a very good thing? Because they heard the language of power, not servanthood. Why did they vote so overwhelmingly to eliminate guaranteed appointment of clergy without even being willing to bring this to the floor? Because they heard the language of privilege, rather than the language of humble prophets. Why did they vote against urgently needed and important restructuring plans? Because they heard insider language, and they were outsiders and tired of having their own tongues denigrated or ignored.
Why has Bishop Bledsoe been deemed ineffective? Could it be because he is surrounded, with a few exceptions, by those who speak language of power and privilege and who are happy to give orders, but who will not lay down their lives to serve? Could it be that he has insisted that his gardens be the bearers of Pentecost miracles rather than bringing Pentecost to the gardens?
In my opinion, he shot himself in the foot when he first came on as Bishop and promoted an expensive cruise to the Holy Land as a way to get to know him better –- this is clear language of power and privilege. I believe that action alienated many –- it certainly did me. Were and are his intentions dishonorable? I personally don’t think so. But the best and most honorable of intentions must be communicated through the mystery of Pentecost, rather than the cement of power.
Is this story redeemable? Of course it is. All stories are redeemable. That’s the gospel. That’s what we stand for.
Can mutual trust and accountability rise from the ashes of this fire? Yes, indeed!
Can our gardens again become heavy with fruit and feed the world with the life-giving grace of God? Of this, I am sure.
I also know the work that goes into transforming toxic and barren soil –- and that it never happens quickly. If we look for the quick fix here, if we sweep this under the rug, if we do not all carefully examine our own souls in this process, then we will ensure barrenness and death.
The Rev. Dr. Christy Thomas is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Krum, TX, north of Dallas. She is currently on sabbatical leave in England.