The church epidemic of presumptive forgiveness

March 14, 2012

It was 9 a.m. I had just come home from the very early morning shift loading and unloading bags at the Austin, Texas, airport. I was tired and once again, I had to deal with the big black Ford Bronco parked in the seminary parking space behind the house where I lived. Notes had been left on this truck before by the Seminary of the Southwest staff. Time to have it towed.

As it dangled on the back of the tow truck, a student from the nearby University of Texas came running up to me yelling, “What are you doing? You can’t do that.”

“You’ve been warned repeatedly,” I said.

“You’re supposed to forgive! That’s your job.”

He presumed that routinely ignoring the rules and warnings would be routinely forgiven because we were a church institution. He may or may not have been a church member, but his idea of presumptive forgiveness has stuck out in my memory.

That was 17 years ago. Since then, as a member, curate, rector, diocesan staffer, I’ve had many opportunities to observe the behavior of church members. It’s not something anyone can prove, but I suspect my parking scofflaw neighbor may be more like church folk than I realized. There seems to be an unspoken doctrine of presumptive forgiveness in the church.

I’ve seen it time and time again. Folks agreeing to take on ministries or tasks in the parish or on diocesan committees, and then failing to follow through. This can be as simple as chronically late arrivals or early departures from meetings.

In some cases it’s much worse and in nearly every parish I’ve served, what would elsewhere be considered unacceptable behavior is excused. “Oh, that’s just Bunny. She’s always like that.” Or, “We put up with Thornton because that’s just his way.”

Whenever I ask why folks tolerate such behavior, they usually say it’s because we’re supposed to do so in a Christian community. A few might even cite Jesus’ words to Peter about forgiving 70 times seven.

During this season of Lent we hear a lot about forgiveness. But most sermons will also include how repentance and amending behavior must happen before forgiveness can be offered. So why aren’t we calling one another to a higher standard – one of repentance – when facing behavior that repeatedly undermines the work of vestries, committees, boards and councils?

A senior consultant from the Alban Institute recently told me about a newer church member complaining to a longtime member about certain situations in that church. The longtime member stopped the complainer. “We don’t talk like that here,” she said. “We have a process set up that allows you to direct your complaints through proper channels. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to pray before the service begins.” The newcomer was being instructed on the culture of that community. It was a healthy response to potentially divisive behavior.

We need to have clear boundaries and expectations of one another. We need to be as clear as Jesus when he challenged Peter about blocking his mission, saying, “Get behind me, Satan.” We need to adopt norms for behavior that honors the mission of the entire faith community and call us to be church to one another.

Wardens and vestry members, committee and commission members need clear job descriptions that support the mission and vision of the church. We need to hold our sisters and brothers accountable to a standard of discipleship that builds up the Body of Christ.

This may not be easy and often it is not, but we owe this strong sense of leadership to all members who deserve the church to be as healthy as we can make it for God’s sake.

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