A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Naming the Elephant
January 16, 2020
When I was interviewing for their pastoral vacancy, the congregation’s search committee told me that the church needed its next pastor to lead them through a major building addition program. They had tried three times to launch it, only to fail each time. I accepted the call, and after a couple of years we dove in to the building program. All went beautifully until the architect’s drawings were adopted and we were ready to solicit contractor bids. Suddenly everything stalled. One of our wealthiest members strenuously objected to the plan, because it did not include some facilities for youth ministry that he thought we needed. Significantly, his daughter directed our vibrant youth program.
Our available space was limited, and he effectively wanted it all to go toward youth facilities, but we needed space for other purposes just as urgently. The session was afraid of offending him or jeopardizing our youth ministry, so they were ready to stop the project once again. I named the elephant in the room: fear. If they were unafraid, would they move forward regardless of this member’s very vocal opposition?
They decided to stand up to their fear, and proceed regardless of the threats they felt. Neither he nor his daughter had issued any threats, either spoken or unspoken. But the fear was still there. Once they decided to move forward, we were able to raise the $1 million we needed in four weeks, an amazing feat for a 225-member congregation. And the biggest donor was the member who had objected the loudest. The youth ministry there has continued to flourish under the same director for the two dozen years since.
I learned an important lesson – one of the major tasks of a leader is to name the elephant in the room. Everyone knows it is there, but nobody is willing to take the risk of acknowledging it. It’s not the leader’s job to kill the elephant or to make judgments about the elephant. Naming it is the important first step a leader can and often must take.
In naming the elephant, leaders follow in the footsteps of Jesus. In one instance, he called out religious leaders for evading their responsibility to provide for their aged parents by investing all their money in the church. Jesus named the elephant – they were more consumed with burnishing their own reputation in the religious establishment than with fulfilling the commandment to honor father and mother. (Mark 7:9-13)
One of the elephants in the room in many of our congregations is the hostility across party lines that pervades our polarized society, and therefore is present also inside the walls of our sanctuaries. Do we ignore it? Or simply endure it? Or can we name it at least, and thereby begin the difficult task of addressing it?
Theologian and social researcher Linda Mercadante conducted a project in which she asked people who have dropped out of institutional religion why they did so. She published her findings in Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious. In her research she discovered that one of the primary reasons people leave the church is that they perceive it as being irrelevant to the issues they care about.
With that in mind, at our last presbytery meeting I urged our pastors and elders to address the political issues that dominate our media, especially in this presidential election year. This is not about advancing one party or candidate over another, but about speaking openly of things that matter deeply to church members.
We won’t all agree politically this side of heaven. What we can do is speak honestly with mutual respect about matters that we care about deeply, even when we disagree. Saying nothing in church regarding issues about which we are all churned up during the week is ignoring the elephant in the room.
Many of the issues that form the fault lines of our political divide have much to do with our biblical understanding of who God is, what God has done for us, and what God would have us do. To name a few, in no particular order:
Failing to address these issues because they are too political is sure to cause the church to be seen as increasingly irrelevant.
Are we ready for the seemingly-impossible challenge that naming this elephant entails? Remember the words of Jesus: “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” (Luke 18:27) With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can do this. As a people called to be salt and light in the world, I believe we must do this.
Yours in our Lord’s work,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister