Last month, Tom Ehrich published an article in the Washington Post asking whether communities of faith were making religion too hard. His conclusion? Yes.
Ehrich concedes that some aspects of faith are inherently hard. Taking our own weaknesses seriously, leaning into a prophetic voice, and trying to be a person of faith in a consumerist culture are all hard. But, Ehrich counters, communities of faith shouldn’t be making these problems worse with “conflicts about who is running things, budget anxieties, jousting over opinion or doctrine, or relentless demonizing of whoever is trying to lead.” In short, no community or God has “much need for religious institutions grounded in right-opinion, self-serving and systemic danger.”
Ehrich is right on about how communities of faith should live. They should be places of exploration, curiosity, and honesty. They should be places defined more by service than exclusion, more by corporate prayer than bureaucratic processes. I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who disagrees with Ehrich’s basic argument. But what Ehrich doesn’t address is why many communities of faith don’t operate that way and what they can do to get there. That’s the harder question to answer.
Ehrich ascribes some of this to human “brokenness,” but the larger issue seems to be deeply entrenched cultural values, unresolved conflicts, and personal fears that we carry with us. Ehrich suggests that faith communities “should be different from society.” But they aren’t. They’re deeply affected by cultural norms, accidents of history, and societal trends. What we need are not faith communities that think they can exist outside of society, but faith communities that look critically at society’s effect on them and, perhaps more importantly, their own effect on society.
Ehrich goes on to lament communities and clergy who “celebrate our own cruelty and bigotry” and “fight against the very transformation that God seeks.” Instead, Ehrich envisions clergy who build conflict-free communities that are inclusive, progressive, and accepting. But that binary doesn’t describe how the vast majority of faith communities function. It is a rare clergy-person who can hold together a community that is both diverse and free of conflict. The way towards more inclusive communities of faith isn’t through trying to avoid conflict but by becoming more skilled at working through conflict.
Ehrich is exactly right about what communities of faith should aspire to be. But getting there won’t be as easy as Ehrich’s piece suggests. Communities of faith will need to figure out how to maintain their traditions while reaching out to underrepresented communities. They’ll need to figure out what unsaid expectations are being placed on clergy. And, most importantly, they’ll need to learn to manage their conflict in a healthy way.
That’s a tall order. Ehrich is right on that “society needs healthy faith communities.” But faith communities won’t be able to get there without clergy and lay people that work through the ambiguities, shortcomings, and conflicts that underlie our life together. Religion should be easy, but it’s not. What we need is leaders who don’t just see what could be, but have a vision for how to get there.
Photo courtesy flickr user rutty