When I read the USA Today article I was hoping I had time-traveled back deep into the previous century. A few weeks ago a Southern Baptist Church in Mississippi refused to allow an African American couple to be married in its sanctuary because of their race. The bride had been attending the church for a year, the groom for a month or so.
To his credit, Rev. Stan Weatherford did perform the marriage, but pressure from his congregation forced him to move the service out of the church building. Insiders say five or six members went to Weatherford after seeing the couple’s rehearsal the Thursday night before their Saturday wedding.
Media coverage since the story came out shows the rest of the congregation, and the town, didn’t share the disturbing view that these five or six felt compelled to complain about.
Rev. Weatherford is quoted as saying “I didn’t want a controversy in the church.” Sorry, pastor, but I think you have one. If you do a Google news search for his church, you will find more than 3,000 results including the New York Daily News and the BBC. In my mind that’s not exactly avoiding controversy.
Just imagine if it had been a slow news day.
Unfortunately I think Rev. Weatherford’s approach of taking the path of least resistance is all too common. We in the church are no more fond of controversy in the church as this misguided cleric. In our desire to make decisions by consensus, we often allow a single contrarian to derail the will of most of the members and the vision of the church.
Perhaps it’s a member of the worship committee who won’t stand for guitars and drums in the sanctuary, so contemporary worship is out of the question, or the out of touch Sunday School Superintendent whose 1950s approach provides a stale curriculum that teachers resent and kids find boring. I actually heard someone make the argument that communion “doesn’t count” (whatever that means) unless it’s done with the wafers that taste like they’re made of notebook paper.
In fact just this past week I met with a pastor who said he has not done a fall stewardship campaign since 2007 because he had a “handful” of people complain about it. I guess it’s better to have weak finances for half a decade than to annoy a handful of people.
I think it’s helpful to remember that in the United Methodist structure we operate with committees that are democracies. Every member receives a single vote and no one gets a veto. This is not to say that an impassioned dissenter should not voice his or her opinion and that this opinion should not be listened to and taken into consideration. But the bottom line is that giving that dissenter veto power over the rest of the committee in the interest of avoiding controversy is a leadership failure that dooms the congregation to the status quo and negates the value of the opinion of the other members of the group.
And as the Baptist Church in question has found out, such an approach doesn’t squelch controversy, it allows it to fester and grow, giving those without a vision for the church unequaled and unchallenged influence and control over the congregation’s future, or lack thereof.
In our churches, there are great leaders, but there are also anchors, those tho dig into the mud in the bottom and refuse to budge or allow the church to move forward. I will recognize their worth as children of God and certainly defend their right to have a different opinion. But allowing your anchors to dictate the culture of your church may leave you stuck in the past and without a future.