From the beginning of the interview process I was open about wanting to bring a sense of accountability to the staff and leadership structures of UBC, though I knew what I was saying and what some were hearing were two different things. My intention was to thoughtfully and deliberately document what the system of leadership and decision making would be at the church so there would be a reference point to guide us into the future. This isn’t exciting work, and goes against the grain in a community that prides itself on being “organic” and “free spirited” in its approach to ministry. I felt this tension because I, maybe more than most, embraced this “fly by the seat of our pants” mentality for much of my time at UBC. I found it to be one of the most compelling aspects of the church.
But for “movements” to survive, they require a certain amount of organization and institutionalization, which is what was happening to us. And as this happened, a question needed to be answered—If we really love “flying by the seat of our pants,” then whose pants are we flying by the seat of?
What some heard when I said I wanted to bring accountability to the church and its leadership was that I would be the pastor responsible for telling others on staff where they were falling short, and how they needed to shape up. In those first few weeks I was asked to talk to people in the sound booth about how many work hours they were putting in, to those volunteering to clean the church about the roach that didn’t get swept up, and to Toph about not being “funny enough” when doing the announcements on Sunday morning. I was expected to be the enforcer of standards that weren’t my own. Nor were they necessarily the standards of the church as a whole, as there was no way of determining what our standards were!
I wanted to talk about establishing a framework for how the community determined what our standards would be. So I began conversations about finally creating a set of bylaws that were intentionally thought out and written down, guided by the input of people who considered themselves a part of the community of UBC.
Of course I had my own ideas about what should go into this document. Had I decided to write it myself, I would have codified the leadership structure that was verbalized and put into place years before, when Kyle pushed us toward a “shared” or “flat” leadership structure, where no one had the “final say,” but where decisions were made in conversation and collaboration with the entire staff. Though doing so would have been more efficient than the process I proposed, the result would have been a disaster, as I would have created bylaws in my own image. Not to mention the fact that I would have been a hypocrite for spending a decade complaining that the congregation had no say in the big decisions of the church, then writing with my own hands, without input from anyone else, the document that would guide the church into the future.
So I proposed a process that would have created a team of people from the church who would spend the next year thinking through our polity—how decisions are made—and would develop a document that reflected the current ethos of UBC, as well as what we wanted to be in the future. I suggested this team consist of one person each from the staff, Leadership and Finance teams, as well as several people from the church not currently serving in either of those capacities. Because search committees had just gone through the process of hiring several staff members (Toph, myself and Katie, our Office Administrator,) and there had been an ad hoc committee working on some other administrative concerns from the previous year, I proposed that no one who had served on any of those teams be asked to be a part of the group creating bylaws. My reasoning for this was twofold—To prevent burn out among those who had been serving on multiple teams, and to bring in new, fresh voices to speak into the processes of the church.
I sent the proposal to the Leadership Team. Most of the responses ranged from tentatively cautious to positive. Since most people tend to get sleepy about a third of the way through hearing the word “bylaws,” I imagine the general sentiment behind the replies were something like, “Sure. Bylaws. That’s great. Knock yourself out. Wake us up when you are finished.”
There was one response, though, that was not so innocuous.
A few days after sending the proposal, at a staff lunch held at a hole-in-the-wall soul food restaurant on the outskirts of the Baylor campus, David and his wife shared with me their serious reservations about the proposal. I don’t remember how the conversation started, but I remember how I felt at the end of it—Ambushed.
They told me they though I was trying to grind old axes I had with them and decisions that were made in the past. In excluding those who had served on recent committees, they believed I was attempting to silence voices that I might disagree with. They said I was opening the doors for those who haven’t been a part of the life of the church for a long period of time to speak things into the process that may not adequately represent the ethos and history of UBC.
To be fair, they weren’t completely wrong with some of their critique. I had assumed that anyone included on the team to shape the bylaws would have been those that had been a part of the church for some time, would understand who we are and what we have been about, and would have given input consistent with the values of the church. But I had not considered that excluding people from the team who had recently served in other capacities, regardless of my reasoning behind it, would have appeared to be leaving some very important voices out of the conversation.
What they were most right about, though, is that I did have an axe to grind. I not only wanted to change the way decisions were made, but a darker, more vindictive part of me wanted the church to name the deficiencies in the way things had been done in the past. My proposal was about moving forward in a positive way. But it was also, unfortunately, about vindicating my frustrations with the past.
I would have likely been more reflective, and capable of admitting my shortcomings in those moments had it not felt like I was absorbing verbal blows at rapid fire pace. In a healthy conversation between two people, there is give and take. Time to listen, time to think, and time to respond. This wasn’t a healthy conversation between two people. It felt like being on the receiving end of a tag-team lecture, unable to process my thoughts about one point before another point was hurled my way. Katie and Josh looked on, (Toph was not there,) helpless and unsure of how to respond, as I sat there feeling more alone and defenseless than I had ever felt before or sense. (This is not hyperbole.)
I was put in my place, and knew that wisdom demanded I drop the subject of bylaws for the foreseeable future.