A response to "Paper Chase" Case by case: Case by case

March 13, 2013
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Read Ellen Blue's fictional narrative first.

Conflict is neither good nor bad. It is just inevitable, and it’s another tool for leadership. Jesus Christ started most of the ones he experienced, so why should his faithful disciples expect to avoid them? The challenge for a leader of Christ’s church is to make a conflict redemptive.

Larry likes to think of himself as a pastor devoted to “empowerment.” That sounds good these days. For a long time we have chaffed at the old hierarchical, top-down forms of organizational leadership. We now expect enlightened pastors to free the gifts and passions of their parishioners, and we assume that the Holy Spirit will use all of this energy to build up the church into a harmonious whole. But there is little biblical warrant to support such a naïve assumption.

We first meet the Spirit, or holy ruach of God, in the opening verses of the Bible when a great heavenly wind moved over the waters, shoving the dark chaos aside to create light and beauty in its place. When Jesus presented his credentials for ministry, he claimed that this same Spirit had anointed him to preach good news to the poor, which was a way of again shoving aside the chaotic world order created by the rich. After Jesus’ ascension, the Spirit enflamed Jesus’ disciples with a passion for the gospel at Pentecost, and the scene was anything but controlled and orderly. And then these disciples, who were now apostles, began a missionary enterprise that was “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Apparently, the Holy Spirit finds chaos and conflict to be a preferred working environment.

So the mission of the pastor is not to avoid conflict but to look for the ways that the Holy Spirit is at work within it. Frequently, the empowering pastor is using a faddish job description to avoid needed conflicts in the church or to blame them on a creative associate pastor or elder. But even if Larry succeeded in relieving the tensions of inevitable conflicts for a while, it would only be a futile effort to push away the Holy Spirit. The conflicts would still occur. That’s because God will not abandon the church to our management strategies.

In order for a conflict to be redemptive within the congregation, it is helpful if the pastor has at least a hunch about the real issue. It would be easy if Stan’s real angst had anything to do with what a young pastor thinks about the paper industry, but that is doubtful. Had the Earth Day project of washing dishes at the church occurred when Stan was still in a management position in the industry, I doubt that he would have given it little more than a dismissive smile and then returned to his busy schedule.

Stan’s real conflict these days is that he no longer has a busy schedule that he deems worthy of his expertise. A man who used to direct decisions that involved millions of dollars is now having to hurry to pick up his wife from the hairdresser in order to help her buy a lamp. It takes a heroic effort for Stan to admit that his importance is not tied to being a manager of industry; it takes a heroic effort to admit that in the course of his entire marriage he never did anything more important than be by the side of his wife when she picked out a new lamp for their home. If Stan is going to rise to such heroism, the Holy Spirit is going to have to move over the chaos of his retirement.

The real job of Stan’s pastors is to help him see the holiness of his ordinary routines. The most confessional thing Stan told Larry was not his objection to the Earth Day project, but his expression of frustration that his job in life is now picking up his wife from the hairdresser and then helping her furnish their house.

The reality is that such domestic homebuilding work was always far more important than anything he ever did for the corporation that made cardboard boxes. We all live with many callings in life, and the way we make our money is hardly the highest one.

Stan was created to glorify and enjoy God. His inability to find a cause worthy of his résumé after retirement, and the silly conflict he’s trying to create over the youth group project, indicate that he is flailing about. He’s trying to find a calling worthy of his life, a calling from which he’ll never have to retire.

The last thing that will be helpful for Stan is for his pastor to become fearfully reactive and put the breaks on Stephanie’s creative work in the church. What Stan needs from both Larry and Stephanie are pastors who have aspirations for his life with God—and higher aspirations for their own work than servicing complaints.

So what does Pastor Larry say to Stan at their next appointment? My suggestion is that he start by letting Stan ramble on a bit more about the Earth Day project. Not only should Larry not be defensive, he should also occasionally nod to indicate that he understands the complaint. But when the time is right, Larry should pause, lean forward and gently change the subject by saying something like, “You seemed upset a couple of days ago when you had to run out to help your wife buy a lamp. Tell me some more about that.” The chances are great that Stan will then reveal his real anxiety.

And what does Larry say to the young associate pastor to encourage her ministry after it has come under attack? He can explain the difference between texts and subtexts, and he should note that Stan’s real issue has nothing to do with her project. But that’s not hard. The more difficult thing Larry has to tell her is: “Welcome to church ministry. There’s always messy chaos here, and apparently that’s how the Holy Spirit likes it.”


Paper Chase

I think we need to give Stan credit for recognizing a true threat when he sees one.   Yes, Stan made cardboard containers rather than paper plates.  But in leading the youth back to dishwashing, that associate pastor is indeed calling the church to repent from "sinful waste;"  no wonder Stan feels the worth of his career is being called into question.  Stan thought he was making a useful product that allowed him to employ neighbors, provide for his family and support the church. (True).  Now he's hearing - in Earth Day sermons and denominational statements - that those countless containers he helped produce in those carbon-spewing factories are choking the earth and leading us to ruin.  (Also true).  Stan comes by his defensiveness honestly; and Stan is all of us, as we deny the destruction inherent in our work and play, and proceed with business-as-usual outside of changing a few lightbulbs.

Before jumping to the subtext of Stan's complaint, his pastors need to bring their best theology and deepest prayer to his text.  Perhaps starting with total depravity, which says even the good we do is infected by sin - who knew what cardboard and carbon could do? - but that we can rely on God's grace to lead us in paths of right stewardship.  Or the theology of forgiveness and the second chance, which a loving Christ offers yet again in retirement.    Or the teaching that if we seek justice for the poor, and turn from idols of lifestyle and money, we'll know joy.  Or the good news that nothing is impossible with God -- even a clean-energy economy.

As the climate changes, we can expect deep and wrenching conflict, inside and outside the church.  Our call, as Craig Barnes put it so well, is to make it redemptive.  If we can't (globally speaking) we're toast.  So I say, stay on the subject of those paper plates!  Stan may argue, he may withhold his pledge, he may leave.   Or/and he may roll up his sleeves and wash dishes with the youth so Stephanie can get a break.  He may use his expertise to help companies minimize rather than maximize packaging.  He and his wife may even lead the church out into the streets where it belongs, calling all to repentance and our government to action.  Which would be a lot more interesting than buying yet another lamp!