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.