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Bishop's Column: Following the Rule of Christ

Posted: August 17 2020 at 10:36 PM
Author: Bishop Sally Dyck


Dyck Sally

We’ve all been social distancing now for at least five and a half months and counting. COVID-19 has limited our social circles (or should have), it's cut short our opportunities for fun and recreation, and has dashed many of the plans we've had for ourselves. The pandemic has raged around the world and has become politicized in our country (to the detriment of us all). Strong emotions and accusations are hurled between strangers and neighbors—even friends and family members.

No one is surprised that emotions of hurt, anger, grief, loss, frustration, and even hate should spill over into our churches through good Christian, United Methodist folks like us! In the beginning (can you remember back to March?), some expressed disagreement about whether to have in-person worship or any other regular church programming, despite State and CDC guidelines.

As people within our churches angrily disagreed about whether to have in-person worship, pastors were frantically trying to balance keeping people safe with keeping people “happy.” That juggling act is, in my estimation, a major reason many of us are so exhausted at this point in this journey! Most churches halted in-person worship for several weeks. Then when we moved into Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois Plan, a carrot dangled that made parishioners and clergy alike think and plan for when we could “all get together; what a day of rejoicing that would be!” Certainly, it would be a day of rejoicing, but clergy and laity alike realized how hard it is to apply sound guidelines (given by the state, CDC, and our own NIC ReTurn Team) to each situation.

Arguments ensued in some places, sometimes flying into my inbox; with questions about just how these guidelines were supposed to be applied. For instance, the guidelines speak to developing a plan for restrooms, but it matters whether the restroom in the church is the size of a large classroom or a “one-holer” (in effect). One size doesn’t fit all! But that doesn’t even address the interpersonal dynamics that are always a part of church life because church life is filled with human beings with their own fears, anxieties, opinions, resentments, etc. Disagreements erupt throughout our churches on a regular basis on a good day (i.e., a non-pandemic day). Now they have created many opportunities to dust off and polish up our Rule of Christ practices!

If your church has had a change of pastorate in the last six years, Staff-Parish Relations Committees (SPRCs) have been asked to have Rule of Christ training in order to start off well with a new pastor, with good communications in order to reduce conflict. Most churches do the training, but it takes intentionality and regular practice. The Rule of Christ is not meant for the best of times, the kumbaya times—the times when everyone lives together in harmony and one accord. It is for the times when we disagree and find ourselves in conflict.

Jesus calls us to the discipleship of peacemaking. It’s not “nice-making,” but staying in healthy relationships with each other as clergy and laity together. The Rule of Christ is based on Matthew 18:8-20 (and was developed for SPRCs by the late UM Deacon Terry N. Gladstone). The Rule of Christ begins with self-reflection; for instance, by asking ourselves why the situation is so difficult and putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

It challenges us to go to the person(s) we are in conflict with and resist the temptation to talk to everyone else about it, especially those who agree with us because they’re our friends! More often than not, conflict becomes an avenue of blessing. A relationship deepens and a new understanding grows, even if we are often on different pages or sides of something. But sometimes it doesn’t work to clear the air or restore a right relationship. Then the Rule of Christ (per verse 16) calls us to involve a few others. In a local church setting, especially if the conflict is between the clergy and a layperson or two, the SPRC is the place to have this hearing of perspectives and feelings. Hence, that’s why we do the Rule of Christ training with SPRC.

Many of the conflicts that churches are experiencing now are related to trying to work out what in-person worship will look like. Everyone has a different level of comfort in terms of returning to in-person worship: some don’t want to abide by social distancing and wearing masks, much less no singing or many of our cherished traditions that can compromise our health. Communications are often via email or Zoom video conferencing at best, instead of in person where we can better share our feelings.

After these months of virtual relationships and conversations, our relationships may be a little frayed or we feel emboldened to say and do things that we wouldn’t normally say or do if we were in person with each other. Now more than ever, we need Rule of Christ training in our churches and for more than just SPRCs! However, now is not a good time to have our trained trainers go to in-person training in each church. So we are strongly urging every church that has a new appointment this year to take the online training available on our website that we are developing with the help of a few of our trainers. But we also invite every SPRC or even every church council to view the online training that's being produced and use it to talk about some of the difficulties you have had as a congregation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I would also invite every clergyperson to preach and/or teach on Matthew 18 and the Rule of Christ. Now is the time to work on restoring right relationships and the joy of Christian fellowship—even before we fully resume in-person worship and programming. A simple way to sum up Rule of Christ comes from Romans 12:18: “in so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Others around you may be blaming, yelling or bad-mouthing you or each other. But “in so far as it depends on you,” our spiritual practice of these days may well be to learn how to speak and act so as to “live peaceably with all.”

The Rule of Christ is a method that helps us to practice our discipleship in Jesus Christ, especially when we’re angry with someone. The Rule of Christ isn’t complicated; it’s just hard. But through Christ, and a supportive community that learns and practices the Rule of Christ, we can do all things—even that!

For Rule of Christ resources, visit umcnic.org/CongregationalLifeForms. (New video resources coming soon...)

~Bishop Sally Dyck

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