When I was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s in Jackson, Mississippi, I noticed a phenomenon at our (Presbyterian) church that I’ve come to realize is probably fairly common, especially in the South. There were several women—one in particular—who seemed to have an opinion about everything that went on in the church. And they shared these opinions freely with the pastor on a regular basis.
“Nice sermon today, Reverend… but—”
“Can I speak with you about something, in private?”
“I’ve got some notes for you to go over before your next meeting of the Session.”
I was curious about those opinions, and soon I was developing them for myself at a fairly young age. When I was only eighteen, I worked as church secretary one summer. The church had just had another big fuss and had gotten rid of another pastor, so we had substitutes all summer. Part of my job was to help recruit those men to come and preach for us while we were without a minister. And I was also privy to all the goings-on within the pastoral search committee. A lot of inside information passed across my desk at this tender young age.
On top of the secretarial position, I organized activities for the youth groups, as we were also without a youth minister or Director of Christian Education. I butted heads with one of the “church ladies” over some of the activities I planned. My agenda evidently ran counter to some of her ideas.
My father—a lifelong elder in the Presbyterian Church—used to say that he loved his church because its government was similar to that of our country. It was a democratic republic in which the laity, diaconate and session (pastor + elders) all had a voice in how the church operated. I watched as wars broke out over everything from theology and social and political issues to personal dislikes of certain pastors. The notes passed to the pastor by the church ladies were much like the work of lobbyists in congress. And when those church ladies had lots of money (which was often the case) the opinions carried even more weight.
Fast forward forty-five years and I find myself in a completely different environment. Well, except I’m still in the South. But the Orthodox Church to which I belong operates differently than the Presbyterian church of my younger days. It’s not a democracy, for one thing. We do have a parish council—which works to advise the pastor in a conciliar manner. And we do sometimes vote, as a congregation. But the pastor’s voice is much stronger in the Orthodox Church than in the Presbyterian Church. Or at least it seems that way to me. In our theology, the priest represents Christ to us. Obedience is a virtue to be sought with eagerness.
So, when I have opinions that differ from my pastor’s—which frequently happens—I’m faced with a spiritual dilemma. Do I (a) remain quiet and try to accept his point of view; (b) humbly express my opinion in an appropriate manner without expecting it to make a difference; or (c) push the issue in the manner of the Southern church ladies of my youth. Or maybe there are other options. Sometimes I remain quiet and yet I’m stewing inside, which isn’t really good for my soul.
Recently our pastor said something during his homily (sermon) that I’ve given a lot of thought to. In fact, when he said it, a friend sitting next to me and I exchanged looks with raised eyebrows and discussed it briefly later. He asked the question, “Why do you come to church?” And then he said that we don’t come to church to receive something. We come to offer ourselves as a sacrifice to God. He went on to say that we do, hopefully, receive something—spiritual blessings, inspiration, etc., but that shouldn’t be our reason for coming.
This wasn’t a new concept for me. The word “liturgy” means “the work of the people.” We work to offer ourselves to God in the music, in our prayers, in the offering of the bread and wine, and in all the work that goes on throughout the week to keep the church functioning—maintaining the building, cooking and serving refreshments and meals for feasts, helping with outreach programs for the poor or homeless, preparing to teach church school classes or lead the youth group, etc. This work is part of our offering to God.
But what if we don’t like something that’s happening in our church? What if we prefer a different kind of music or shorter (or longer) prayers or brighter or more subtle lighting? There are opportunities to express our opinions on some of these things, but in other realms I often feel that my opinions aren’t welcome. That I’ve stepped over some line in offering them. And when they are rejected, I’m left with those options I mentioned several paragraphs earlier.
Getting older helps. When I was young I was passionate about everything that happened in the church. I was very involved in many activities and felt strongly about how they should be organized. At age sixty-four I’m much more laid back about most of those things now. Hopefully I’m not as head-strong as I was in my youth, and I have been gradually letting go of my need to try to control or impact very much that happens in my church. There are not as many things that bother me, but when they do, I’m going to remember our pastor’s words from last Sunday. I’m going to ask myself, “Why am I here?” And I’m going to try to remember that I’m there to offer myself to God. We’ll see how it goes.