As humans, we like parity in our relationships with others. A tit for a tat. An eye for an eye. A kiss for a kiss. At its best, our desire for parity keeps relationships healthy. We enjoy flexibility in our roles. Both parties give and take love, time, gifts, and kindnesses. Like the ocean waves, the relationship ebbs and flows naturally. At its worst, parity leads to keeping accounts. We notice that at lunch, we asked all the questions while our colleague did all the talking. We take note of when gifts and cards are given and received. We pay attention to who does more of the calling, e-mailing, and inviting. We judge the people we connect with—and our relationships—against these accounts. We wonder, “What have you done for me lately?”
This isn’t new, of course. Look at Peter. When Jesus taught the disciples about sin and forgiveness (Matt. 18:15-20), Peter asked him, “If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (v. 21). Peter was asking an accounting question. He wanted an equation, a number, a way to measure the give and take of forgiving another. I’m sure that Peter thought he was being generous when he suggested that he might forgive as many as seven times. The number seven implies “fullness or completeness.” Jesus answered Peter, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (v. 22). The number Jesus offered is not to be taken literally. Jesus meant forgive as many times as necessary. In other words—don’t keep accounts of your forgiveness. Forgive generously.
Jesus echoed this call to generosity at other points in the Gospels. In a conversation about hospitality, Jesus encouraged his followers not to invite other people in hopes of being repaid (Luke 14:12-14). Jesus said, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” (vv. 13-14). When the woman with the “alabaster jar of very costly ointment” anointed Jesus (Matt. 26:7), the disciples were outraged at the expense. “For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor” (Matt. 26:9). Jesus did not chastise the woman or her generous gift. Instead, he called it a “good service” (literally a “beautiful deed”). When Jesus spoke about retaliation (Matt. 5:38-42), he asked his followers to forget the rules that had punishment fit the crime (“an eye for an eye”). Instead, he advised a sort of reckless generosity: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42).
My daughter has become my role model in generosity. Each fall the local schools have a food drive. When my daughter and I went through our cupboards to find food to donate, I grabbed the food that seemed the easiest to give away (the stuff I don’t like): canned asparagus, peas, and lima beans. My daughter chose the food she loved the best—the alphabet-shaped spaghetti with meatballs and her favorite boxes of macaroni and cheese. My generosity was a cheap sort—giving away what I perceived I would never need. My daughter was generous—she gave from her treasures.
In coaching school, the instructors taught us to be generous in our relationships with other people, especially our clients. They repeatedly coached us to “make the client right.” It means that when a colleague, friend, or congregant has disappointed us, we need to believe the best about his or her actions. For example, when a colleague misses the fourth community ministry meeting in a row, we may be tempted to criticize (“She isn’t committed to the work”), project our fears (“He doesn’t care about us”), or predict disaster (“She’ll never succeed if she can’t remember something as important as this”). All of these approaches label the colleague as wrong. We make the colleague right when we offer praise (“He’s so committed to his work in his parish, he has trouble leaving for meetings”), believe the best (“She must have another commitment”), or ask for more information (“Steve, we miss you at the meetings. Can you talk about what works and doesn’t work about them for you?).
For those of us used to keeping accounts in our relationships (and who isn’t?), making others right can be difficult. Most of us cling to our right to be right. We live in a culture where winning matters—and every winner needs a loser. As spiritual leaders who preach about truth, we may see pointing out faults or confronting evil as part of our calling. We may believe that it is our job to mend, fix, or correct other people. And, if we do not believe this, many of the people we work with may want us to do this work. We may get in the habit of approaching the people in our lives as projects to be worked on or as students needing instruction. When we do that, we imply that there is something wrong with these people. When we practice making other people right, people feel better about themselves and consequently do better. I have a friend who constantly tells me that I am a good parent. She always has an example or two to add to her praise (“I like the way you tell your daughter that you love her.”). I’ve noticed that on the days she points out my successes, I am a better parent. Right begets right.
No doubt there are times when we need to sit down with a sister or brother and express our frustration, pain, or disappointment. We are human; we sin against one another. In times of great or repeated sin, the most loving thing we can do is to confront the sin in a graceful way. Jesus spoke eloquently about this in Matthew 18 when he laid out a plan for resolving disagreements in the community of faith (Matt. 18:15-20). Even here Jesus is generous, asking that the people of faith approach the offending member more than once.
I have always loved the beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul often began his letters with thanksgiving for the recipients. Here his words seem even more poignant because of the difficulties in the Corinthian church. The people of Corinth were divided, quarreling over practices and status. Still Paul believed the best about them, writing, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift” (1 Cor. 1:4-7). Paul spoke of the grace present in this group of jealous, quarreling people, of Christ enriching them with speech and knowledge. That’s generosity!
Adapted from A Generous Presence: Spiritual Leadership and the Art of Coaching, copyright © 2006 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go toour permissions form.
A Generous Presence: Spiritual Leadership and the Art of Coaching by Rochelle Melander
One of Spirituality and Practice’s Best Spiritual Books of 2006.
With this book about the philosophy, tools, and work of coaching, spiritual leaders will be equipped to guide those they work with toward accepting the past, creating a life vision, and setting goals for the future. The tools provided in this book will also help leaders understand themselves and enable them to raise their awareness about their own life and relationship skills.
Practicing Right Relationship: Skills for Deepening Purpose, Finding Fulfillment, and Increasing Effectiveness in Your Congregation by Mary K. Sellon and Daniel P. Smith
In a book that is both profound and practical, Mary Sellon and Daniel Smith make the case that the health of churches and synagogues depends on congregations learning how to live out love in “right relationships.” Practicing Right Relationship offers theories, stories, and tools that will help congregations and their leaders learn how to build and maintain the loving relationships that provide the medium for God’s transforming work.