I preached grace. Grace only. Sola gratia. It was all I knew. It was what worked for me. Not works. Else, I wouldn’t be a porn addict right under my Dad’s brutal fundamentalist regime.
Grace came through for me. Grace saved me. Grace made me me.
But, Grace also brought me trouble.
The far right conservative block in my fellowship(a number of whom were my excos). They declared a cold war on my tenure. They made life hell for me.
When I thought all I was doing was living true to my promise of building a fellowship of real people, I was stepping on toes, trampling the status quo underfoot, doing away with ancient traditions, to the wrath of many.
It never went down easy. I lost a few members. Two members oo my executive resigned within the first 3 months of the tenure. The others stayed to fight it out.
My first move was the least controversial, but still rocked the boat all the same.
I had discovered to my chagrin that a number of my zealous church members, were only using their Pauline zest to actively compensate for a lack of purpose and direction, and by extension – their failures and frustrations in life. I knew this so well because I’d been there before.
Without appearing to point fingers or be judgemental, I would say previous administrations had over the years found ready tools in these ones to get the church running. But, at whose and what expense? Well, you guessed right. A good number of these poor souls were right on the brink of being withdrawn from medical school already, on account of very dismal academic performances. We were only using them.
I disengaged such folks I had personally identified from the workforce. Told them to instead go devote themselves to self-discovery and their books. I even volunteered to personally tutor some of them, and referred others to very capable mentors and coaches.
Ol’ boy, I won’t lie, it was painful to lose that many tonnes of readily available and able manpower, but I guess I saved some lives in return.
I got tongues wagging for severely depleting the church’s labour force, and depriving these committed members of the church the right to serve their heavenly Father and his kingdom. You’d be surprised a good number of those acidic tongues belonged to the people I thought I was trying to help. Some actually left the fellowship to serve their God elsewhere. But my conscience was clear. I moved on.
I look around these days, and I see folks who today owe their induction into the medical profession to that unpopular move. That for me is all the assurance I need that (at least) I did this one thing right.
Being unconventional and being resented for it was the price I had to pay for my quest to build a fellowship of real humans.
Looking back, I probably would have done things differently, but then the intention behind those moves were noble. Or rather, I thought they were.
And of course, my moves were mostly greeted with very stiff resistance by the conservative majority. It’s ever the thing with organised religion- always averse to change. I was considered too liberal. I was the ‘Hypergrace’ guy giving people liberty to ‘sin’ ; removing key ancient landmarks with toothpicks, at will.
My one other controversial move was to allow the Music director have her way with officially permitting trousers as uniform for female members of the worship team. It drew lots of backlash.
My oh my. It was a most unforgivable sin. Especially when I extended the gesture to other female members of the workforce, who until then were barred from wearing slacks to Church. My worldview is imperfect no doubt. But the logic behind it looked quite simple to me.
These girls wore slacks to class, and every other place they frequent, for every other day of the week save Sunday. And no matter what you preach or do, it wouldn’t change their stance on wearing slacks. So, why not let people express who they really are? So far it’s modest and decent, why not? Why force them to pop up in Church on Sundays as entirely different persons in their Sunday Skirts and blouses. What’s that? Who knows what other critical aspects of their real selves they’ve had to tuck away, to put on their Sunday best to Church.
I’m not claiming to be a custodian of some “never-seen-before” bible knowledge or a privileged access to grandiose Pauline revelations. Neither do I think I was being permissive.
But I just felt church shouldn’t be a theatre or some dress rehearsal, where we do costumes and make up; performances and make-belief, and then we return home to our normal lives – who we really are in real life. Church in my modest opinion should be the place to be most real, real enough to come as you really are. With anything and everything that consists you. Your baggage and all. Bring them on.
The funny thing about this: I was (and still very much) actually conservative on the trousers thing. That’s just me. Maybe because of my background. Well, yeah. Definitely my background. And even though I liked it on my many female friends who wore them, I’ve never really been a fan. But hey! I can’t force my personal preferences down people’s throats. The church ain’t mine after all. Being conservative is actually not the problem here. It’s a way of life. It only becomes a problem when it evolves into a choking, stifling religion.
The decision I made that probably became the tipping point -one that got a lot of our alumni visiting to mediate and settle disputes in a series of reconciliatory and ‘setting all things in order’ meetings,( because mehn, some of my excos had let hell loose on me already), was when I officially let go of the rule forbidding excos from dating while serving as fellowship leaders.
Excos in the past including myself had dated(albeit secretly) while serving in the previous tenure.
Hellooo?! Some even had very active, profuse sex lives. I kid you not. Bubbling and sizzling entanglements, sorry, engagements.
And these many shady illicit relationships involved some key(so-called conservative) central excos.*Names withheld* And what did I do? What was my offence, my crime exactly? I made what had always been steadily and consistently done in the secret official, and I then became the villain?
You can trust, some folks with balls did confront me. My response: “What would be would be anyways whether it’s legalised or not, but evil thrives in secrecy, in silence, in darkness. In the open space, you’ve got a better chance at nabbing and nailing it”.
I made it mandatory for all excos to declare the statuses and spouses openly. Such that we could hold them accountable. They could easily seek and access help when they got into trouble. And of course, the incidence of ‘celebrity’ exco brothers turned serial heartbreakers plummeted. Excos found wanting morally were sanctioned, The system was sanitized.
The mess that followed though. Most putrefying. A few people(some excos) had come forward to expose many cases of alleged sexual assaults and harassments, coercion, coaxing and manipulations, most of which were perpetrated by past leaders on vulnerable female members of the fellowship.
It was an entire pot of mess on it’s own. Glad we were able to link up a number of the victims to professional help. A lot of them healed. Most of the erring ‘leaders’ were out of the system by then. We really couldn’t do much than send Bible-based curses their way. The others(a couple of them serving in my tenure) in the presence of overwhelming evidences were defrocked and instantly sanctioned.
So, there you are. My first three months in a nutshell- an assorted plate: Topsy-turvy, but with some pretty amazing results.
Attendance grew by almost 50%.
But here’s the irony: unlike previous tenures, we did so much less of evangelistic outreaches, and focused on fostering our bond as fellowship. A lot more was invested in all round care of every single member of the fellowship.(I made it a personal commitment to know each of over a thousand members at least by name, Crazy!) Wednesdays were before then devoted to Evangelism & Visitations. We converted that to family meeting instead. Visitations became a daily lifestyle. Crazy thing, yeah?
But trust me, people hopped on our boat massively. Like never seen before. We’ve devoted in years past, hundreds of thousands for crusades, with little to show for it. But this minimalist strategy worked like magic. And for that one thing, naysayers couldn’t say a thing.
This one more thing I know for sure worked: was me being vulnerable. Or should I rather say, I was only being honest. For the first time in a long while, the fellowship had itself a Pastor who ain’t a god. A human like every other person, who identified with the struggle of the average guy on the pew.
He would rather speak more of his several years struggle with porn, and his many tendencies to lust, than tell stories of a 21-day picnic he just had in the 7th heavens, playing golf with Melchizedek, Father Abraham & Bartholomew. Hellooo?!
(to be continued….)