When I came to serve the West Richmond Friends Meeting in 1993, the church was recovering from a major fight that had resulted in the non-renewal of the pastor’s contract. Two years later, we were shattered by a case of sexual harassment—a respected member of the congregation had made unwelcome approaches to several women. When I then recalled a crippling disagreement over handling money in a church I had previously served, I became convinced that we needed to talk about what climate of expectations and behavior is appropriate within the church.
Our congregation has a high turnover rate—50 percent of our attenders weren’t here six years ago. Each year, new faculty members and students from a nearby college and pair of seminaries join us. We also enjoy visits from missionaries home on furlough or in residence for training, since Richmond is the administrative headquarters for our international mission work. And a growing local economy has attracted many new families to our area.
All of these people bring different expectations about worship, stewardship, ministry, discipleship, and decision making. Many are unfamiliar with our church’s tradition. In the past, newcomers were expected to keep quiet and learn by observation and osmosis. In today’s world, it’s more realistic to provide a clear, explicit statement of what to expect.
A Higher Standard
An opportunity to create such a statement arose when I worked with an adult study group on Faith and Practice, the discipline followed by churches in the Society of Friends. Trying to guide them away from complaints and “war stories” about bad church experiences, I suggested that the group focus on positive expectations. What would a good church look like? How does a good church behave?
We covered the main areas where abuse can occur: money, sex, and power. We looked at existing church policies and didn’t hesitate to suggest new ones. Over several weeks, we grouped our ideas into major categories and worked out a rough draft of a “bill of rights” to share with the rest of the congregation. Church leaders and people who were not part of the discussion group had an opportunity to suggest changes or additions. This broad-based discussion format let everyone in the congregation know we were looking for a higher standard for our life together.
Bruised by the Past
Let’s face it: Churches aren’t always good, or fair, or honest. Many people come to our congregation with hurt feelings because they’ve been abused in some previous church. It may have been a church split, a pastor who browbeat them, or even sexual abuse. Every religious leader can tell stories of affairs or adultery or sexual harassment taking place in the supposedly safe environment of the church.
When people have been hurt, it’s especially important for them to know that the experience won’t be repeated. We at West Richmond do more than just promise to be a model church. Our bill of rights not only allows new people to form clear expectations and specifies behaviors we will not tolerate, it also spells out the process we will use when mistakes are made or when abuse takes place. When people know what to expect, they feel safer.
A culture of politeness and denial makes it impossible to address pressing spiritual issues. Jeremiah has harsh words for preachers who say, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. On the other hand, many preachers who think they’re speaking prophetically are simply scolding.
The issue isn’t whether to soothe or scold, but how to ensure safety. In a spiritually safe church, hard words can lead to healing. The truth isn’t exaggerated or understated, but presented clearly and accurately. The Bible isn’t misquoted or used against the speaker’s pet peeves. People are treated like responsible adults responding freely to God’s invitation.
A related spiritual safety issue is confidentiality. In a safe church, people can speak fully to a pastor or counselor without fear of the conversation being shared inappropriately. Even in a public worship service, people need to be able to confess their brokenness without becoming grist for the rumor mill. Our worship service includes 20 to 30 minutes of “open worship,” part of which is used for responses to the sermon, personal testimonies, spiritual leadings, and prayer requests, in the tradition of 1 Corinthians 14:26. This wide-open time is one of the most exciting parts of our worship, but it can also leave people vulnerable to abuse.
Putting It All Together
Instead of our former piecemeal approach to spiritual standards and practical expectations, we now had a comprehensive view. Weeks of discussion had allowed us to make an intentional statement about what kind of congregation we wanted to be.
The working group agreed that our church should require, at a minimum, certain spiritual freedoms, practical safeguards, and standards of behavior. We argued whether “rights” was the best term; to some people, it seemed too legalistic. But we agreed that these were more than just privileges, more than guidelines. These were the ways every person who came to West Richmond Friends should expect to be treated.
Most of what we included in our bill of rights wasn’t new. Some things we had discussed or affirmed years ago. Other items fell into the “of course” category. In every case, though, someone agreed, “Yes, this needs to be said!”
So Now What?
Many church policy statements wind up in the dead letter file. Once they’re approved, they’re forgotten. In order for this not to be the fate of our bill of rights, we shared it as widely as possible. It went into a special issue of the church newsletter. I went over it line by line with our elders, and preached about it on Sunday.
Our bill of rights is now one of the basic components of our membership course. Every new member of our congregation gets a copy; we discuss it carefully and make sure everyone knows what it means. Other congregations have asked to use it as the basis for their own discussions.
Another step we’ve talked about is a second round of study and discussion, centered on responsibilities corresponding to the rights—active participation in worship, generous giving, taking part in our church’s various ministries. One reason we haven’t pursued this is that the bill of rights spells out issues for us as a congregation. We don’t yet feel ready to ask our members and attenders what they want to do as individuals.
I encourage you to start this kind of discussion in your own congregation. It’s helped us to get past old hurts, create solid guidelines for our congregational life, and let new people know what they can expect at West Richmond.