At the end of 2019, the elders of the Third Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, and I agreed that I would retire in July, 2021. I had been the senior pastor of Third for nearly 13 years and had been in pastoral ministry for almost 40 years. In 2019, we had no way of knowing what lay ahead of us and could not anticipate the huge challenges coming in my final year as a parish pastor. Church life got complicated soon after our agreement–as in every congregation, the lockdown because of coronavirus in March, 2020, posed difficult challenges as we transitioned to online worship.
We debated whether we were being too protective and if we were sacrificing the spiritual well-being and future of the congregation by following the guidelines of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. We were not alone—these debates played out in congregation after congregation and were complicated by the politicization of public health issues and intense polarization. Fortunately, in our case, the consistory appointed a team of medical professionals from within the congregation to make decisions about health guidelines and closing and reopening the church, rather than asking the staff to make those decisions.
As the pandemic continued, The Colossian Forum, an organization that provides resources for congregations facing divisive issues, noted that 70% of American congregations were reporting serious polarization and division. Some of this polarization resulted from public health issues, such as whether or not to require wearing masks. But there were other issues fracturing congregations. Following the murder of George Floyd, intense polarization came because of differences of opinion about racial justice; meanwhile the rancorous 2020 Presidential campaign was ongoing. Race, the pandemic, and the election created a stormy mix. Looking back, I feel that if I only had to deal with the coronavirus in my last year of parish ministry, the congregation and I might have come through the pandemic relatively unscathed. That would not be the case.
“Black Lives Matter… Equal Justice for All Matters”
Third’s congregation is mostly white, with a higher-than-average level of education, although in recent years the church has come more to reflect the diversity of the Holland community. The congregation has African American members; couples and children of mixed race; Asian members; and Hispanic families. Many white members, perhaps because of the church’s close proximity to Hope College, have made concerted efforts through church classes, book discussions, and everyday conversation to confront the subject of white privilege and the history of racism in the United States and the Christian Church.
The killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 and the subsequent nationwide protests led members of the congregation to request the deacons develop a proposal in October, 2020, to prominently display a banner outside the church which read: “Black Lives Matter… Equal Justice for All Matters.” While I supported the sentiment being expressed, if I had been more perceptive and anticipated the problems this would cause in the congregation, I would have asked a series of questions like, “How long is the sign going to be placed on the church building? How big is the sign going to be? Where will it be placed? How will we prepare the congregation for this decision?”
When the consistory approved placing the sign on the outside of the church, the Presidential election had already occurred. (Although, as you recall, the outcome of the election wasn’t conclusively determined until January, 2021). I was thankful that the church was on the on the other side of the election, but I had an intuition that some in the congregation would interpret the sign as a partisan statement and conclude the church was taking a position on the election. The chair of the deacons and I carefully crafted a newsletter article about the sign, emphasizing the support of our church for those affected by racism in ways many in the majority white culture have little understanding or experience of.
My intuition was correct—within three days of the sign being posted, I received more than a dozen calls from irate members complaining that we had politicized the congregation. As I listened to the angry voices, and also to those who supported the placement of the sign, what became obvious was that congregational members were repeating talking points they’d heard on their preferred cable news program. For some the church’s sign conjured visions of the mayhem and violence they believed accompanied racial justice protests; the sign meant that the church was promoting violence. For others, the sign expressed support for a minority group which had often been forgotten in the American experience. In this view the sign reflected Jesus’ encouragement to care for “the least of these.” Throughout my years of parish ministry, I’ve tried to unite people of various perspectives by sincerely trying to understand different points of view. Yet I could not be neutral on racism. I don’t see two equally valid sides. It was clear that certain cable news programs had inoculated some white members of our congregation from any consideration of social and individual racism. A few members of the congregation told me, quite openly, that racism ended with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I found that statement highly disturbing!
On the other hand, I developed reservations about our use of the words “Black lives matter.” Call me naïve, but I did not realize that googling “blacklivesmatter.com,” would take me to a website that was clearly partisan. Following the election, the website featured headlines congratulating the movement on the defeat of Donald Trump and the election of Joe Biden. I began to understand how members of the congregation could conclude that church leadership was trying to make a partisan statement.
On the simple face of it, “Black lives matter” is indeed true. For too much of American history, Black lives have not mattered. How could we express this idea without endorsing the organization with that name? As we were grappling with that question, the riot took place at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. To take the sign down at that time would send a very wrong message. The rapid pace at which events were happening made setting a course without looking reactive difficult. Yet, while the church should stand with the marginalized—the widow, the orphan, the Samaritan, and people of color, I sensed that our church had moved too quickly. As the leadership maxim puts it, “Leadership is disappointing people at a rate they can absorb.” We had disappointed some—perhaps many—at a rate faster than they could absorb. Here’s an important question: How can the church can teach and preach the gospel in relation to racism so that majority white congregations can absorb it?
I remembered an introductory sociology course from my undergraduate days. The professor, both a sociologist and clergy member, showed a documentary about the pastor of a white suburban congregation seeking to do a pulpit and choir exchange with an African American congregation in a metro area. The white pastor was dismissed from his church within a brief period. I was appalled the congregation had taken such a step and spoke out in class about the racism of the congregation. My professor, a strong proponent of racial justice, suggested the pastor had moved much too quickly, and asserted the pastor needed to slow down, educate, and take appropriate steps toward the goal. As events unfolded in 2020, I began to wonder, “Am I going too fast, like that clergy person in the documentary film from my college days?” On the other hand, I also recalled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he criticized white ministers for moderation and a go-slow approach. There is always tension, it seems, between being principled and being pragmatic.
Once controversy is introduced into a congregation, it takes a life of its own and is extraordinarily hard to manage. This was exponentially complicated by the pandemic lockdown. The church engaged a facilitator to convene a listening session with those who were adamant that the sign needed to come down. There was also a time of listening to those in the congregation who believed that this was the moment for our church (and the church in America) to take a stand and say that Jesus is with oppressed Black Americans. A hope of the leadership team was that church members would sit down with each other, that people of various perspectives would talk to each other. A decision of the consistory had offended some members of the congregation—they needed to talk to each other about that. But conversation between members was curtailed by the pandemic and the limitations of virtual platforms. Open and honest discussions about race are difficult under the best of circumstances, and these were not the best circumstances. The congregation was not able to reach that level of talking to each other about its divisions.
One of the concerns I have about the American church is that we are breaking down into “Blue State Christians” and “Red State Christians” rather than being united as one body of Jesus Christ. Partisan politics are informing religion rather than religion informing partisan politics. Is it possible to have people of various political persuasions come as one to the table of our Lord when so much polarization has seeped into the church? It doesn’t feel like it is. In our case, church members who didn’t get their way resigned rather than work through critical conversations to arrive at understanding.
It feels like the solution to the political and social tensions affecting us to divide into blue and red churches. Yet as Paul asked the church in Corinth, “Is Christ divided?” Another solution is to assert that the church (through the preacher) stick to personal spiritual matters and never touch politics or social issues in its sermons. But as George Buttrick, one of the great preachers of the 20th century put it, “Conservative minds in the church plead for Bible preaching. They wouldn’t if they knew what was in the Bible.” A gospel that begins with the political observation, “Jesus was born in the days of Caesar Augustus,” will never simply be about individual spiritual matters.
Space limitations prevent me from fully going into all the twists and turns of the journey with our racial justice sign. We reworded it to say “We Believe the Lives of Our Black Brothers and Sisters Matter. Justice and Equality for All Matter,” in an effort to create separation from the BLM organization. Several months after my retirement, the temporary banner was removed and replaced with a “permanent” sign (which will be left up for at least two years) which reads: “Black Lives Are Beloved by God and Us” on one side and has Micah 6:8 on the other side.
I was able to retire as planned this past summer and enjoyed a very nice celebration with the congregation. A new, energetic, and capable pastor has taken leadership of the congregation. I handed him a congregation in more turmoil than I expected to, and wish that were different. Coronavirus, partisan politics, and racial conflict made a seamless transition impossible. One good gift I was able to give the new pastor is a new policy statement the church developed in response to the events of the past year.
A Policy Statement as a Possible Step Forward
Other congregations may benefit from the guidelines that Third’s consistory developed. I wish they’d been in place earlier. They encourage church members to form teams around social issues and recognize the church’s role in teaching biblical and theological themes around social concerns. I offer them to you as one way forward for congregations in the current polarized environment.
The policy is a result of conversations with members of Third Reformed Church in the winter of 2021 about how we can affirm basic Christian and biblical teaching on social matters without being partisan or jeopardizing the unity of the congregation.
The Christian faith is both personal and communal, focused not only on our relationship with God but also how we live out our faith in relationship with others and the community in which we live. We recognize that, while sharing a common faith, members of our congregation can still hold diverse perspectives on issues of practice that arise in living out that faith. Given that reality, Third Reformed Church believes it is appropriate to have basic principles in place to assist the congregation in dealing with issues of a social and political nature.
- We affirm it is appropriate for the church to raise biblical and theological principles in our preaching and teaching which address questions of general cultural and societal issues dealing with how we live in community.
Scripture and our denominational creeds and confessions lift up many issues of a societal nature such as justice and equity, reconciliation, concern for the poor and marginalized, stewardship of creation, et al, that call us to act out our faith in helping bring about the Kingdom of God. When the church speaks out on issues such as these, it needs to be cautious to do so on the basis of the broad biblical principles and what we understand our faith calls us to stand for in terms of the goals for social policy and not through advocating specific partisan political or social policies to reach those goals which may or may not be totally aligned with these principles.
2. Through its preaching and teaching the church encourages members to give expression to their faith through their individual involvement in the civic, political and social life of the community.
We believe God calls us to be salt and light in the communities in which we live and work. Scripture consistently speaks to our living “subject to rulers and authorities,” yet also affirms the importance of bringing about the Kingdom of God in society through the way we interact with others and act in the spirit of Jesus Christ.
3. We encourage members of the congregation to engage together in social action teams developed around specific concerns that arise out of these broad biblical/theological themes for the purpose of giving voice to those concerns, educating the congregation, and encouraging members to put their faith into action in specific ways.
Given some of the themes raised in Scripture as noted above, we can envision any number of social action teams that might arise within the church around areas such as racial justice, creation care, immigration, housing, hunger and nutrition, employment, childcare, mental and physical health, addiction, etc., which enable members to take specific action to address these issues. These teams may use church facilities for gathering and make use of church publications to communicate with members about their activities subject to approval by staff and providing those activities fall within church operational guidelines. Since the activities of these groups will be associated with the church, their activities should be subject to some restrictions as noted below.
4. Social action teams formed within the church may align or partner with outside organizations but should not affiliate with organizations that are formed principally for partisan or political advocacy purposes.
Many 501(c)3 and faith-based organizations as well as government agencies are precluded from political lobbying and are therefore expected to be appropriate partnering organizations. Educational and teaching ministries of the church may invite partisan or political advocacy groups to provide education, increase awareness, and to assist members in forming their own perspectives so long as the focus is kept on education and includes a variety of perspectives in those presentations. Social action teams that want to encourage members to attend partisan, political or social events or rallies that are calling for reform, change in laws, or endorsing political candidates are not to use the church for advertising, promotion, or seek the church’s endorsement. Members of the church and the team can exercise their individual rights as a citizen and participate and advertise events through personal or private channels or social media. The church will not endorse such events or causes.
5. While banners and signage help communicate who we are as a congregation and what we value, they should be used cautiously and with the strong endorsement and support of the congregation.
Exterior signage (and banners in particular) is one way the church speaks to the community in a very visible manner. When the signs or banners speak to areas in which there may be a lack of unanimity of perspective within the congregation or address controversial issues, such signage can give rise to conflict and cause dissension within the church. The use of banners to address social issues also raises questions of which issues deserve such signage and how decisions are made of what is appropriate. Given the potential for controversy in this area, the following guidelines should be followed:
a) Any exterior signage must take into account the restrictions of the Historical District and City of Holland sign ordinances.
b) All exterior signage must be sensitive to the architectural integrity of Third’s historical building.
c) Generally, signage that the church displays should be reflective of church programs and be used to invite community participation.
d) Any signage that articulates a perspective or addresses issues must have strong congregational support (solicited through a town hall or congregational meeting, polling, or other such open forums) and the approval of the consistory.
e) Whenever possible, signage should use biblical-theological words and refrain from language that can be perceived to be partisan or political in nature.
f) A specified life cycle should be designated for any sign or banner that is displayed under these guidelines at the time of approval.”
Neither a policy statement nor a sign can be the end of our discussion or action on racial justice. The Holy Spirit is leading us into important conversations around racial discrimination and justice. This is happening at the same time of a major demographic shift in America, where the white majority is becoming a minority. At the recent RCA General Synod, General Secretary Eddie Aleman said, “The future of the RCA is multi-ethnic…I love to say this is a beautiful thing.” There will be inevitable backlash as new realities emerge and those used to power adjust to those new realities. I wish my final year had been less bumpy, but I am proud of the leaders and members of Third who, in the midst of a pandemic, took a stand for racial justice.