The story is told of the pastor and his 8 year old son in the grocery store line. The older woman behind them struck up a conversation with the boy, and she began to ask him questions. What school do you go to? Do you have brothers and sisters? Is this your daddy? What does he do for a living?
It was at this moment that the pastor had highest hopes for the boy. Would he tell this woman that he preached for a living? Cared for the sick and dying? Told people about God’s love? Kept his big downtown church up and running?
But in that moment, the boy told the truth as only an 8 year old can. “He goes to committee meetings.”
Not an autobiographical story. But it almost could be.
Churches are notorious for relying on committees. In fact, it is a punch line more often than not:
- You know what a camel is? A horse designed by a church committee.
- How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb? 15. 1 to change the bulb. 13 to form the committee to approve the change. And one to bring the casserole.
- Did you hear the one about the pastor who announced at the end of the service that there would be a board meeting after the worship. At the meeting place after the service, a brand new visitor showed up to the meeting. A little embarrassed for the man, the preacher explained, “I’m sorry…this committee meeting is only for board members. To which the man replied, “after your sermon, I’d like to see anyone more bored than I am!”
- And of course the one about the two men marooned on an island. One of them paced around and held his head in his hands, while the other sat quietly and calmly. The nervous man looked to the calm one and exclaimed, “how are you sitting there so quietly? Aren’t you afraid that you’ll never make it off this island?” In response, the other man said, “No,” said the second man, “I make $100,000 a week and tithe faithfully to my church every week. The finance committee will find me within a week.”
Church committees have been the things of punch lines for many years. Older than some of these jokes, even… But today, I want to offer hope for the lowly church committee. And really, offer a vision of engagement and participation and leadership that is inclusive and shared.
Now, can committees be wasteful? In time and energy? Yes.
Can they be examples of groupthink and shared ignorance or hopelessness? Unfortunately.
Can they lose their way sometimes? Of course.
But is there hope, if you have the right ingredients.
The first thing that you need is the right chair. Now, I am not talking about a chairperson, even though that is pretty important as well. Instead, I am talking about the fact that each of us get a seat at the table. We all have a chair. We all have a space.
In the passage from Romans today, Paul proclaims the power of what he calls the Body of Christ. It is a familiar metaphor to many of us, but worth describing again. The human body is made up of many parts. Ears, eyes, legs, arms. Each part has a role and a talent. Each part has a responsibility and an expectation. In the same way, the church is filled with those with different gifts. For the church to work as it is supposed to, we must be good stewards of the gifts that we are given. Some leaders. Some teachers. Some generous givers or patrons. Each of us has a part.
Within the last several years, our church has moved from a highly organized, structured board model of governance, which required term limits and 70-some positions to be filled, to a more flexible model which allows people to use their gifts in more creative and fluid ways. They can serve with a committee for a time, say for a special project, and then cycle to another committee and another project. Or, they can stay with one committee for an extended period of time and really dig into the ministry to which they have been called. I think it is a powerful way to do ministry, and a way that fits our culture today.
But here’s the kicker. If it is going to work, you have to fill the chair. You have to pray about how you might be used by God. You have to say yes sometimes when you are asked to serve. You have to not wait to be asked…to not assume that you are unwanted or unneeded to unhelpful. You deserve a chair. You have been gifted to fill a chair. Sometimes, you need to sit down. And minister. And lead.
The first thing needed is a chair.
The second thing that we need for a healthy committee is one of these: a good agenda.
Question: Who sets the agenda for a committee meeting?
The chairperson? The secretary who writes out the agenda? The pastor?
A good chair knows that every single person brings their own agenda to every committee meeting that they attend!
We all have our reasons to be on a ministry. To be at a meeting or not. To be engaged or not. What is happening that night? What did I give up to be here? Did I rush past dinner in order to get here on time? And the real question that determines most agendas around here: Is KU playing basketball?
Right? I have been to committee meetings where I watched the chair carry on a monologue with himself while literally every single member of the committee was checking the KU score on some electronic device in front of them. I won’t name names. You know who you are.
But this isn’t about KU games…it’s about how we engage and involve ourselves in the ministry of the church. Each of us chooses how we will engage in ministry. What our true agenda is. How we are letting God use us and our gifts. We all have a space and a role and a responsibility in the congregation. Paul speaks in Romans of the Greek phrase logike latreia. It is a difficult phrase to translate, but it sometimes is translated as “spiritual service.” “Logike” refers to our minds…as in logical. And “latreia” to acts of devotion or worship or service. Therefore, when Paul speaks of offering our bodies as a spiritual sacrifice, he means that the entirety of our being becomes an expression of devotion to God. We use our gifts well and faithfully.
I think what Paul is saying is akin to what Brene Brown calls “wholeheartedness.” Engaging in ministry – or anything for that matter – with the whole of who we are. Our minds and our bodies and our hearts. It is pretty hard to do ministry in the church half-way. We must be whole-hearted in our work and our engagement. In our prayer and in our participation.
Some of my favorite committee meetings around here have been Spiritual Leadership Team meetings. The new structure has actually required that the SLT spend time in prayer and wonder and listening for God’s voice for our church. And some of them have been incredibly powerful and spiritual experiences. Of course, not every SLT meeting has been my favorite, especially when the word “mold” is on the agenda. But even in discussing the nuts and bolts of the work of the congregation, each meeting has the opportunity to put God’s vision and purpose and Spirit at the top of the agenda. And when it happens, it is a powerful moment.
We need a good agenda.
We need a chair. We take a seat, set aside just for us and our gifts.
We need an agenda. We come to ministry whole-hearted and engaged.
Finally, we need a table.
Now, not every committee meeting has tables. Some meet in a circle of chairs. Others meet in nice comfy couches in the pastors office or the parlor. But you get the point. One chair does not make a committee – in order to lead together, we need each other. We need community.
This is one of the strengths of the committee. Can they be frustrating or counter-productive? Of course. But is it better if you try and do it on your own? If you just stew in your own thoughts and ideas and preconceptions, afraid to be changed or transformed by those sitting around you? If you hide from the work and the challenge and the messiness of community? Of course not. To use Paul’s metaphor, an arm sitting by itself on the ground is not a body, not a living, breathing thing. We must embrace the richness and the diversity of the table, with a chair next to a chair next to a chair. And in the shared community, something new and different happens. But to get there, we have to some work to do. Some questions to ask.
Who is welcome at the table?
Who is expected at the table?
Who is allowed to lead in our church? Is anyone not?
Who is too young? Too old?
Who is respected? Who is ignored?
The right personality?
The right gender?
The right ideology?
The questions about the committee table, by the way, I believe are just as important as the questions we ask about the table of communion.
Who is welcomed? Who is excluded?
Who has the right ideology or theology?
Some of you would think it a sacrilege to compare the Table of Our Lord with the committee table of a Tuesday night committee meeting. But hang with me for a minute. Remember that the place where Jesus met his disciples did not seem extraordinary in the moment. There was not a flashing sign above the table saying, “Future Site of the Last Supper,” with a chamber orchestra playing in the corner and DiVinci waiting to paint the scene. Instead, it was a pretty unexceptional moment that became exceptional.
God meets us in the ordinariness of the church. In the changing of diapers. And the restocking of food pantry shelves. And the ordinariness of a Tuesday night committee meeting. God meets us. But we have to show up. To participate. To lead. Be open to God leading you in the midst of the ordinariness of ministry.
Lillian Daniel writes in her essay entitled Minute 54 about one particular trustee committee meeting that had an impact on her early in her ministry. It was the meeting to discuss preparations for meal that would be served at the local homeless shelter. Fresh out of seminary, Daniel had high hopes and visions for what ministry would look like at a meeting like that. She hoped that maybe they would be speaking about the theology of hospitality and how they could engage more fully in it. No. Or maybe the systemic evils of homelessness and how they as a church could engage in a conversation about bringing a reversal of the structures that caused it. Not quite. What were they discussing on end for most of the meeting? The recipe for the chili mac. For 45 minutes. Do you buy the big cans or the little ones? Who has a membership to Sam’s Club? And the biggie: do you buy grated cheese or grate it yourselves? There were cost comparisons and calculators and heated exchanges.
And then, after 45 minutes, someone dared to ask “why chili mac?” What if they are vegetarians? Another round of questions ensues. Daniel writes, “Now it’s been fifty minutes. On chili mac. The moment is eternity. I’m losing my religion. I have lost my eschatology. Fifty-one minutes….For this I spent three years in graduate school.”
Right about the time that the clerk asks to go back and clarify the grated cheese decision – so that he could get it right for the minutes – one of the trustees pauses: “I’d hate to be homeless, on a cold night like this.” And the clerk puts down his pen. And the calculator is pushed aside. And there is silence. This moment is eternity. “Grace had broken in. It carried us soaring into Minute 54.”