Honesty is always the best policy, except for all the occasions on which honesty will cost you almost, if not absolutely everything. This is true in a number of places but mostly true in church. This is surprising, considering the enormous effort we invest in trying to help young people feel confident to “be themselves”.
A week ago, I wrote a couple of very honest blog entries on My Fear Of Failure and Frustration: The Agonizingly Slow Pace of Transformation. I loved the comments, feedback and a dozen or so emails and Facebook messages I received from people sharing their thoughts and stories. One friend said “I just thought, wow, Tash is being really vulnerable.”
That comment both graced me and irked me, as I’ve previously taken pride in my ability to be honest and vulnerable. Yet, on reflection – I remembered another conversation just a couple of weeks ago. In passing, I made a statement that was truthful, but sharp.
Me: “Oh, was that a little too honest? I may have crossed the line.”
Him: “No, it was fine – better it be said and heard, than thought and not spoken.”
Me: “Well, you know me – never one to hold back an opinion if given the opportunity.”
Him: “Maybe a few years ago, but if I was being honest, you haven’t been that honest for a long time.”
When Did I Stop Being Honest?
As soon as I learned how honesty could hurt me and that honesty wasn’t always acceptable. And then I realized that I learned to be dishonest in the Church.
(An obvious editorial note: of course, not everything honest is for public consumption nor am I a proponent of deception, I’m specifically addressing what it means to be honest about your identity, about yourself.)
I learned it was dangerous to be honest about myself in working for the Church and Christian organizations. At the same time I was tasked to teach, encourage and shepherd young people towards a healthy sense of identity, greater self-esteem and security in their community – learning to be comfortable with themselves and confident to contribute to the community – I was learning all the ways in which I needed to hide myself behind the ideal perception of what a youth worker/pastor/minister should be like, in order to meet the expectation of my team.
Here’s a list of just some of ways I’ve learned to be dishonest, for the sake of my “ministry” position. Let me know if you relate. (Again, there’s an exception to every rule – including times where it is appropriate to cover over an offense. I’ve listed specific instances where I feel playing the party line became unhealthy..)
1. I was leading the sung worship at a youth service and related a story of how I had related to multiple sins throughout the week – anger, gluttony, lust etc, that in fact, we all come to worship and communion with God with stories that should humble us before him each week. The next morning, I was in the interim pastor’s office. “Tash, of course if you are going through a hard personal time, then we want to help you. But people don’t want to come to church to hear a worship leader confessing, they want worship leaders to be an example and someone to look up to.”
2. 6 months into my time at a particular church, the senior youth pastors discovered I had a blog (in fact it was raised at staff meeting) and read it to see if I had said anything disparaging or inappropriate in regards to my association with the church. In fact, I was writing plenty about my own growth and learning, but it was deemed that there was nothing harmful, therefore I wasn’t asked to delete it. I was however, told that they were watching it, so not to ‘cross the line’.
3. If someone senior on staff says something deeply offensive or untrue about you – either to you or to others, it is better to say nothing than to be honest about the offense they’ve caused. Instead of confronting the issue with a fellow youth staff team member and our senior employer, I tried to “carry on for the sake of the kingdom” for 3 years. In a strange twist, my lack of honesty about his offense and my loss of respect for him led directly to a crisis when I had to be honest about it some years later. It seems that those who are senior to you (by way of time in ministry?) will always have a louder voice, free to carry their assumptions at will. I learned to hide myself away behind silence because I no longer felt safe. The idea that those senior to you, always have freedom to say hard things to you in the interests of making you ‘better’. But in the wrong hands, that permission because power to hurt, to wound, to control, to break down and to strip dignity from. There is also dangerous presumption at work, whereby the wisdom of one supercedes the wisdom of another. It’s a colonial presumption that one person can be superior to another and thus ‘manage’ the learning/development of another person. Without claiming victimhood, I see now how this has been at work in my life in the past and what it has stolen from me.
4. It is dangerous to tell other people in ministry what you really think, when it is contradictory to their opinion. If your honesty; even about your own feelings or values – causes discomfort or highlights a lack of mutual accord, it’s dangerous, regardless of whether it is valid to hold an opinion outside the norm. It is dangerous to be honest in ministry because there are no guarantees that anyone can be objective. In fact, where in the corporate world, objectivity is encouraged when making vital business decisions, the church often prizes relying on the intuitive – an emotionally reactive group affirmation of the strongest will. The loudest voice. It is dangerous to be honest in these places because your honesty can disrupt the delicate hierarchies and balances of power on which church governance is so often built.
5. Honesty is no place for the young, because it carries labels. If your honesty leads you to disagreement or questioning the way something is (which, by the way, is the primary mode of learning from birth to middle-age, asking the eternal question why….), then the likelihood is, you’ll carry a label for the rest of your ministry career. I watched my friends raise questions and be labelled all manner of things including heretic, troublemaker, rebellious, arrogant and new-age. My labels are rebellious, trouble with authority, power-hungry, no good with people and ‘young’.
Mostly, I learned that honesty must be given out in small pieces and only ever in safe environments. I was teaching my young people to be honest with themselves, while at the same time teaching them how to work around all the ways in which honesty is dangerous in the church.
It’s coming up on 5 years since I left my last paid ministry position and here’s my reflection: despite every lesson I learned about how to be dishonest, it was honesty that cost me everything. And since then, I’ve been hiding away, hardly being honest at all. That is ridiculous. That’s a sham of what the Church is meant to be. Honesty should be our cause and our obligation needs to be grace and mercy to learn how to live being honest with each other.
But the most important question to ask is: What does it mean if I can’t be honest in my church or my ministry position?Now, I look back on my learning from those years and I realize that I never felt safe. Approval and affirmation was dangled out on a line in front of me, I was being disciplined in the same way we might say ‘Children should be seen and not heard.’ But conversation, dialogue, question and answer is what I needed in order to learn. My questions, if inappropriate – still needed to be heard and I needed opportunity to wrestle and engage with them and then either be found right or wrong or somewhere in between.
If you can’t be honest; it likely means you are being disregarded, disrespected, dishonoured. Within that environment, your learning process and your voice doesn’t have a welcome place. If you don’t feel comfortable to dissent or query, then something about your personhood is being stolen away (or you are giving it away). To live in this way, is to be living without honour and without real love. It is to be loved conditionally. At least for me; to be heard is the most important thing – even if in our dialogue, I change my mind (which happens, from time to time!).
Hopeful:I’m lucky to be part of a community where honesty is welcomed, even in all it’s messiness and brokeness. We find new wholeness and new ways of being in the midst of honesty. People are respected, welcomed and honoured with their questions. I am respected, honoured, loved in this place and given platforms and opportunities to share the wholeness of who I am with others. So I get to say – there is another way. It’s proven, it’s successful, it’s beautiful and it’s life-giving.
The real heartbreak is when you come across Christians who have been in this environment, and they can’t fully express themselves in prayer anymore.
They’ve been given this baggage around what’s appropriate and it fuzzies their feeling of spiritual connection, because they can’t be themselves in front of Jesus. It’s hard to work on yourself if you’ve lost sight of who you are, because one of the first things to go in that sort of environment is the ability to be honest with yourself.
Then there are those who leave church and don’t come back, or never come at all because they feel they’re never sanitised enough to be acceptable within those walls. I’ve come across several Christians who are comfortable with this paradigm, through one justification or another, I think it just continues to undermine the church’s relevance in the community.
sadly so incredibly true!! Been there, and some of me is still there but i am retrieving it back slowly. Although sometimes it does feel as though it is two steps forward and three back. To allow others to be honest, you need to be honest with yourself. So many in leadership have let their honesty slip and put up a wall in its place. I have reread your last paragraph on being hopeful, and am trying to imagine myself there one day. keep it up Tash, you’re an inspiration.
A beautiful, moving and powerful piece of writing, Tash. So very thought provoking and TRUE!!! I love it.
Wow … This is so challenging. Thanks so much Tash. I am a church Pastor and this blog is one I will bring to our staff team to talk and pray through. Thanks. Ever hopeful …
Hey Jonny, thanks for dropping in… keep a lookout for a post coming up next week called “Once Baptist, Still Proud.” And be sure to say hi to those Titirangi Baptist folks.. especially Brook & Renda, Gary Grut and Richard Nauck. Blessings.
“If you can’t be honest; it likely means you are being disregarded, disrespected, dishonoured. Within that environment, your learning process and your voice doesn’t have a welcome place. If you don’t feel comfortable to dissent or query, then something about your personhood is being stolen away (or you are giving it away). To live in this way, is to be living without honour and without real love. It is to be loved conditionally.” Wise words my friend. Wise words.
You present a good challenge to ‘ministry’ leaders to create environments that are safe; safe to ask questions, safe to fail, safe to have an alternative opinion. This is needed for sure as some of your examples highlight.
how one asks questions, how one gives opinions, how one is honest makes a really big difference. I have been honest while at the same time completely inappropriate. I have challenged people in ways that have been rude and aggressive. I am opinionated and this has got me offside with numerous people. ‘How’ one is honest, and in what spirit this is outworked really really matters. I know because I have learnt by doing it the wrong way so often.
I hope there will be a lot more ministry environments that are open to questions, welcoming of opinions, and altogether safe places for all people! As a leader, i’m challenged by your blog to deal with my insecurity. As someone with an opinion, i’m reminded that I must look at ‘how’ my honesty is communicated to others.
Just a thought.
and yes, we do want worship leaders confessing!!! What a great example to set, it should probably be done a whole lot more.
Hey Donald! Thanks for engaging mate. You’re on the money, I think – and I wrestled with trying to include that perspective in what I was saying here. In the end, I decided it might be better left for another post! I guess my questions on that are – how do we learn to be honest in a healthy way, especially in ‘behind the scenes’ ministry environments. I’m pretty opinionated too – and I’ve got plenty of “whoops, got that one wrong!” experiences to show for it. Still – we’ve got to help each other learn rather than shutting each other down when offense occurs. One of my reflections on that is really wondering… at what point do we make allowances for the strong, as well as asking for the strong to make allowances for the weak. Strong/weak are imperfect words, but don’t you think we (specifically in NZ culture too) often pressure the strongly opinionated to pull back for the sake of not causing offense or trouble? I have often been fascinated by our struggle with healthy discourse, in comparison to some of my experiences living in the States… I’m hoping to write more about that this week… I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it, especially as I’m still trying to learn from it all, you know? xx blessings.
I hear what your saying and would so enjoy a good chat about that. An environment to learn is crucial! I can’t talk now and I have some serious work to be done by the end of the week so when I can i’l get back on and keep the convo going.
Thanks for that Tash
Call me a heretic but one of the most important pieces of writing in my life along side (though not equal too of course) is The Velveteen Rabbit. Specifically what it is to be “Real”. I do not want to be part of a church where I cannot answer the simple question of “how are you?” with more than a cultural and placatory “fine” when the world around me might be falling apart and I desperately want someone to sit with me at the foot of the Cross and beseech God like they did in the Psalms for my circumstances. I need to hear that the leadership of my church community are in active vibrant wrestling matches with a God who is big enough to handle them. That if I speak out in the public sector perhaps out of my own pain and heaven-forbid, make a mistake or do something inappropriate, that I will be embraced, loved, corrected and uplifted through the experience, rather than left feeling like I’ve just left the principal’s office.
In saying all that I also sit in a place at the moment where I need to learn what it is to submit. Not just to God but to those he has placed in leadership in church, both paid and unpaid, and also in my marriage. It’s not easy. Especially in a culture where submission is seen as weakness or lack of back-bone; worse so if you are a woman in this post-feminism, emasculated society that is supposed to be so “free”.
It’s a balancing act. One of those delicious dichotomies that we were taught about in out ministry training. To sit in tension between the two.
In asking God what he thought of all this I was given the briefest picture which eased the tension in my shoulders. Sitting upon his shoulders as a small child, He walked the rope for me, asking only that I feel the rhythm and pace of His steps and relax into them.
There is healing to be done and things that need to be handed over to the foot of the cross and not picked up again. My friend, thank God we are not professionals!
you are one of my most favouritest people. I’d say don’t change, but that’s not what I mean; I mean change only what isn’t conforming to the image of the son (whom you reflect so very very well!)
echoes bouncing around