Flannery O’Connor


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Church is  sometimes a painful beast of which to be a part, mainly because it’s filled with people.  Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it…”, and it’s most definitely a true statement.  Being a leader in a church, whether you’re a pastor, Sunday School teacher, worship leader, or even the groundskeeper, can be stressful even on the best days.  I sat last night talking with my wife, reflecting on my life in ministry, and frankly, if you measure by the world’s standards, I’ve experienced a great deal of failure in that realm.  Now, when I stated that last night, my wife pointed out that I am very sensitive to criticism, and that when you’re leading a ministry, you have to have a tough skin.  She’s right.  She’s always right.  The other night, I told her that there was no way she could make homemade doughnuts out of canned biscuits, and dang if she didn’t do it.  The girl is never wrong.

Because many leaders in ministry don’t have a spouse who can steer them as well as mine does me, I thought I would take a few moments to steer away from my usual favorite topics…liturgy, sacramental theology, Church history, etc…and give a few points of practical advice to those who are, or are aspiring to be leaders in ministry.  Please note that some of these are areas in which I’ve seen other leaders either excel or lack woefully; some are areas where I’ve personally  struggled; and finally, there are some points at which I think I may have achieved a passing grade.

All that being said, let’s go for a walk down the dirt road, and talk about leading in ministry…

1)  Good leaders are accessible and available leaders.

Good leaders not only return phone calls, but they have multiple means by which they can be contacted.  For all you pastors who are convinced that the world wide inter-web is the debbil, please note most of your parishioners, even the ones in my little rural church, are on Facebook.  Even several folks aged 70-80 years old spend time there.  And they check it daily.  They also send messages on Facebook, Twitter, and through other social media outlets.  They send email, and you should read it.  Don’t blame your wife for not teaching you how to text message, and stop saying you don’t have time to get on the computer. And God almighty, stop living in the myth that “I just don’t think that many people in our church use the internet.”

Don’t have your secretary read your email for you.  People may send you things that they prefer to be kept confidential.  I know that there’s a rumor you’ve heard that “Everything on the internet is public information.”  It might be easily accessible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not sensitive.  If an employee sends you an email, they do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, under the law.  For personal matters, however, individuals do have a right to confidentiality.  If you’re going to have someone else viewing your emails for you, you must inform the potential senders of this.  Never share any personal information from an email.  Miss Myrtle might have been the church secretary for the past 42 years, but when she puts Deacon Burns on the prayer list for his hemorrhoids that he emailed the pastor about, and she read it first because the pastor can’t remember his passwords, you are gonna get yourself in a heap of trouble.

And don’t preach about the evils of Myspace.  Myspace isn’t cool anymore.  Half of your teenagers don’t even remember it.

Responding to people in their preferred modes of communication says to them that you are paying attention to what they’re saying, that it matters to you, and that they as individuals matter to you.

Do I really need to say what message you’re sending when you don’t respond?

I’m a fan of the clerical shirt and collar, along with albs, stoles, chasubles, maniples, and a lot of other things that are better left for discussion in a future post.  The clergy shirt sets the pastor/priest apart, and sends a message:  “I’m available.”  If I’m wearing my clerical collar out to my favorite Mexican restaurant, then I should not be surprised or offended if I’m approached by someone in regards to a spiritual matter.  As a spiritual leader, the expectation of your followers is that you are both available and accessible.  Your sheep shouldn’t have to fight through layers of secretaries, associates, and personal assistants to get to you.

2) Good leaders don’t let their mouth get ahead of their head.

A good leader should have a solid filter on their mouths.  Blurting out your initial thoughts on a subject can be damaging to relationships.  A while back, a pastor I served under offered some commentary on a class that I was teaching.  I had developed the teaching series, wrote it, and was teaching it to a small group.  He suggested that I should have made the series shorter, saying that “You can teach anybody everything they need to know about that in an hour.  Your group probably isn’t growing because you’re boring people.  You need to remember that this isn’t a seminary class.”  After letting loose of my own tongue a bit, and making some remark along the lines of, “If you want to keep your discipleship group in the shallow end of the Jesus pool, that’s okay with me…”,  I reminded him that he had never actually attended the class, and invited him to visit the class.  After he did, I was more willing to listen to constructive criticism.  Well, maybe not, but it sounds spiritual for me to say I was.

We both spoke without thinking.  Shame on both of us.  Having control of your mouth is a spiritual discipline, backed by Biblical reason…

Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.  (Proverbs 21:23)

For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. … (James 3:2-10)

Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent. (Proverbs 17:28)

When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. (Proverbs 10:19)

(There is ) a time to keep silence, and a time to speak… (Ecclesiastes 3:7)

So, to sum up, learning to keep quiet will keep you out of trouble; draw you toward perfection; make you seem wise and prudent even if you’re not overly bright; and shows you have discernment.

Now here’s the opposite end of the spectrum…

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. (James 1:26)

Ouch.

If one has the ability to control what comes out of their mouths, they can discipline themselves in any aspect of life.  This I know, for the Bible told me so.

(more…)

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Flannery as a child....

Flannery O’Connor left us with a treasure trove of thought on life in the South, religion, the Church, and raw human experience.  I hope y’all enjoy these few quotes from some of her stories, books, and correspondence…

“I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”

“Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”

“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do.

What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God. ”

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

“When in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville.”

“The operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner; which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.”

“Most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow.”

“You don’t serve God by saying: the Church is ineffective, I’ll have none of it. Your pain at its lack of effectiveness is a sign of your nearness to God. We help overcome this lack of effectiveness simply by suffering on account of it. ”

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He’s thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him…”

“Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”

“The fiction of Ayn Rand (noted atheist who wrote ‘Atlas Shrugged’) is as low as you can get re: fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.”

“She would have been a good woman,” the Misfit said, “there had been someone to shoot her every day of her life.”

“Did you see the picture of Roy Rogers’s horse attending a church service in Pasadena? I forgot whether his name was Tex or Trigger but he was dressed fit to kill and looked like he was having a good time. He doubled the usual attendance.”

“I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it, but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.”

Flannery O’Connor