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Healthy churches have a low tolerance for bad behaviours

The church conflict consultant who addressed us at the Specialized Transitional Ministers gathering the first week of November made the statement I am using for the title of this post. It is one of those things that just grabbed my gut and my mind, and had a sense to it of being very important and relevant… but I did not see it’s relevance right away. So I will use this posting to explore the statement and see if it becomes meaningful.

Bad Behaviour

Try to think for yourself a minute about behaviours we generally understand as bad. They usually demonstrate a lack  of emotional maturity. Maybe jot them down before reading on. A lack of emotional maturity is usually called “childishness” which is actually not fair, because I have known children who’s maturity is astonishing! But, that word helps us come up with examples.

At the time the consultant made the title statement above we were discussing manipulative and immature behaviour. These were things like “threatening to leave if things were not done their way (manipulating),” “private threats to individual leaders (bullying),” “Storming out of meetings slamming doors – and then not apologizing for the outburst (unrepentant tantrums),” “Spreading fear by gossip (triangulation)” and a few other things like it. The consultant finds those kinds of things going on a lot when called in to help a church. The more they are going on, the less quick a return to health is likely to be.

Conflict in a church is a test of maturity.

That includes emotional maturity, and especially spiritual maturity.

Physical maturity is not so important, although when someone who looks physically mature behaves in a manner that reveals a lack of maturity in the other two areas, that can be very confusing, especially in a setting where we have been taught to ‘respect our elders.’

I have also known people who had strong physical “presence” who “used” that imposing presence to intimidate others. That would be an immature use of physical maturity.

If members are emotionally and spiritually mature, then they can remain calm and focused and non-reactionary when conflict arises. (By the way, I need to admit I don’t like writing that fact down, because I have a hard time remaining calm and ‘non anxious’ sometimes, and like to believe my lack of calm is totally justified. But it often isn’t. So I’m admitting a significant lack of some kind of maturity. Sad but true. I need help with that.)

So the question then comes to mind: “how do we become mature?” “What is involved in Christian Maturity?”

A healthy church has a lot of mature-in-Christ leaders and members.

In a few words, I believe it comes down to faith and trust, and these are often only arrived at through navigating difficult experiences with God’s help and the help of other believers. In those experiences we learn a kind of flexibility.

Paul describes what maturity looks like in believers and followers of the Way of Jesus Christ in Ephesians 4. There he describes some of the attitudes that bring and show healthy, mature behaviour, like here:

“live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” – Eph 4:1-3 NIV

 All believers are part of one Body, guided by one Spirit. That one Spirit, he says, brings people together and also sets them apart by giving them different abilities and insights:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. – Eph 4:11-13 NIV

When we learn how that unitywithdifferences works, and can live with the pushandpull of it, we are on our way to maturity. When we have not learned to live unified within some differences, then we become a group of people who can be agitated by the slightest of changes. Think of these changes as changes in the wind or the current. That agitation, if not lived out in a mature way, is likely a sign of childishness. Listen to Paul write about it as he continues from what I just quoted:

“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” – Eph 4:14-16 NIV

 When we lose focus on the main thing, namely Christ, and live in immature anxiety, we start destroying Christ’s body. What Paul says here is made very clear by the modern paraphrase “The Message” which brings the point home in less complicated language (and fewer words):

God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love. – Eph 4:14-16 The Message

Immaturity in Children

Children spend a lot of their childhood in a legalistic state of thinking. They don’t like things to waver, they want things predictable. It gives them a sense of safety. And that is needed. From that safety they can begin to learn to venture out into an unpredictable world. And as they venture, they learn some flexibility, some playfulness.

Recently someone mentioned how when you read a familiar book to children they will catch you skipping lines and be bothered by that. That is that inflexible legalism which children often have that does not accept change too well yet.

We all know of or have had a child that learned to try manipulate their way into being given a chocolate bar at the checkout, some do it by being super helpful in hope of a reward (it is usually not their nature to be helpful, but if they think they can get something for it…) and others make a fuss which embarrasses the parent, and creates the danger of the parent giving in…

Other children — if the playing together is not going their way, and they are the one who brought the main toy to the event, – will gather up the toy in a huff and leave as a power tactic.

Some children develop an attachment to something that gives them a sense of security, a stuffed animal, a blanket, a ‘binkie’ (called different things in different areas), thumb sucking or whatever. Woe to the adult who appears to be threatening to take that security away!

Those are examples of what we would call immaturity, or bad behaviour in children. To some degree we expect such things as part of the growing up process. We expect them to grow out of these behaviours, and do our best as (hopefully mature) parents to help that growth happen.

Maturity in Children

When a child learns to be playful themselves in reading a book, maybe skipping a line, or changing it, or adding something, we see they are growing up. They have learned a kind of flexibility.

When a child stops asking for the chocolate bar, and seems to understand and accept that it is not an option, we call them mature.

When we see a conflict in children’s game play happen, and the children themselves come to an agreement about an adjustment in the teams (to balance them) or to the rules, or whatever, and are able to continue play, we are amazed and glad at how responsible they are becoming.

When a child grows to feeling more secure in the big wide world so that they don’t need their security blanket anymore, we rejoice at their progress.

Immaturity in Adults

But now, the hard part. I am speaking the truth in love here, though some may not read it that way.

Some people do not grow out of the childish ‘bad’ behaviours. They do not leave the security that was intended to be temporary and have not learned mature flexibility. When so-called grown-ups in the church are showing behaviour that is very similar to those in the “Immaturity in Children” list, something is clearly wrong.

When a slight change from the way things have been done in the past creates great bother in adults…

When adults make a fuss that is clearly about them getting things they want or things done their way…

You get the picture. I won’t say more.

What can we do?

Well, we must start with ourselves. We must examine ourselves for maturity in Christ, and in faith, and in trust. Do our own behaviours line up with the humility and gentleness Paul calls for? If not, we have growing up to do. And if we are busy working on our own growing up, and realizing where we ourselves are immature, we will have compassion for others who need to do so as well. And in that emotionally and spiritually mature compassion, the body of Christ will come to life as we are on a maturing-in-Christ journey together. We will be living God’s way.

And bad behaviour will diminish, and we will be a church that is growing in health.

I’ll leave the last words to Paul, from Galatians 5:22-24

[W]hat happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified. – Gal 5:22-14 The Message

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