Editor’s Note: This article is based on a zoom conversation between Rev. Cecil van Niejenhuis, retired co-director of the office of Pastor Church Resources for the Christian Reformed Church and Virginia and Neil Lettinga, who work as a team in specialized transitional ministry. The Lettingas have worked with at least 10 church councils in their 20 years of ministry and Rev. van Niejenhuis has walked alongside more than 100 councils in his 40+ years with the CRC.
As we enter the third year of the pandemic, gathering as a church feels more challenging than ever. “Everyone is functioning with compressed emotional shock absorbers,” observes van Niejenhuis. “Our emotional shock absorbers are ¾ compressed, so no one is as resilient as they were. People have run out of patience. They are stressed. They are anxious. Pastors are worn out with the demand to be creative and to pivot to changing circumstances.”
We know that our pastors are exhausted from adapting Sunday morning from in-person to on-line and to reduced capacity. But we may not as readily see the exhaustion hitting our volunteer leaders – the council members who gather regularly to listen, pray and make decisions. Of course, these days gathering is half the struggle.
No one thought the pandemic disruptions would last so long. Church leaders have said: “We can wait till this is all over. . . we don’t want to meet over Zoom, so we’ll postpone this meeting.” Now we may see that as a mistake. Community and compassion were set aside while we waited for our regular patterns to resume. Now we need to reconsider.
Making room in our minds
Van Niejenhuis encourages pastors and councils to be gracious to themselves and to others. He wants everyone to acknowledge that the last two years have been exhausting and we need to stop trying to “push through” efficiently. Instead, pastors, elders and deacons should all be asking one another “What do you need from me?” “How can I help you flourish?” “How can I/we help you through this?” He urges leaders to lean into a core value of our faith: hospitality.
This type of hospitality is more profound than sharing coffee and cookies after the church service. Van Niejenhuis defines hospitality as “making room in our being and heart and mind for another.” This means we need to really hear each other and be open to the ways other people might impact us. Such hospitality is highly valued in Scripture – it is part of God’s identity.
“God is the great Listener,” explains van Niejenhuis. “We reflect the image of God when we listen patiently and thoughtfully to one another.”
Asked what makes for a good council meeting, van Niejenhuis, started by saying a healthy council conversation is one in which everyone gets to chip in. But then he nuanced the thought: “a healthy conversation is one in which everyone listens. The goal is that we really hear each other. It’s the role of the council chair to make sure that all voices are heard, but it is also natural for the pastor to encourage this. That’s a pastoral kind of role to play in a council meeting. It is also good for the pastor to help the council ask one another if the question on the table is a fair question? Are there ways we could reframe what we’re asking?”
Most importantly, council room conversations should not be about winning an argument. It’s about making sure that all the people are heard AND that they are open to hearing and being impacted by others. Council rooms include people with different positions on issues or topics. That’s fine. The challenge is when someone speaks from a “locked” position. That’s difficult. It is important to be open to hearing from each other, even when you feel strongly about your own ideas. Pastors and council members need to function within a “heard” framework. That means sometimes your perspective has more influence and sometimes it has less, but either way, you are heard. We’re from a tradition in which our assemblies – our councils, classes, synods – are all “deliberative,” which means that we are open to being impacted by others. That’s a huge thing.
A healthy conversation among church leaders begins by naming the unity factors. “Name it!” said van Niejenhuis, “We are brothers and sisters in Christ. That is not just something to be agreed upon once, but it’s something to come back to again and again, so that we hold on to the beauty of Christ. Council members and pastors should bluntly state: ‘I am not going to demonize that person or that position. I will hear you. I will consider what you say. We will have permission to disagree in this room. We will consider the issues, we will own our decisions together, but we’re not going to pretend that it’s easy to have these conversations.’ If our goal is to please everyone, or even if we try to make a decision that pleases the most – well then we’re going to be struggling – that’s a lousy goal to have.”
A healthy conversation, in the council room or elsewhere takes time. Time is an element of hospitality that we sometimes ignore. It does not require a homemade cookie and a good cup of coffee, even if that is what we would prefer. Time can also be given over the phone, over Zoom or wearing masks. The more complicated the issue, the more likely it is to need time for prayer, time for listening and time for reconsidering. This runs counter to our culture’s fixation on efficiency, but it certainly fits with the patient and long-suffering God we know.
In this tired season of pandemic endurance, pastors, council members and congregations can still offer each other hospitality. These days that looks a lot like patient listening, making time for meaningful conversation, and declaring loudly and often what we know to be true: In spite of challenges, we are brothers and sisters in Christ!
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