By Bill Mefford
In the Beatitudes Jesus shares a curious teaching, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No;’ anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37) The Beatitudes are a wonderful assortment of teachings that are poignant in their call to simplicity of faith praxis in following Jesus. Jesus addresses former beliefs and behaviors throughout and in each he names how our actions and attitudes, and in this case our speech, can better fulfill what God desires.
With all that is in the Beatitudes we can ask, “What would the church look like if we blessed the poor in spirit, or the meek, or the merciful?” And with this passage I shared above we should ask, “What would the church look like if our speech was simple, more plainspoken?” What would our church look like if our “yes” was simply “yes” and our “no” simply “no”?
This passage came to mind this week as I read a letter from the President of the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church that was sent in response to the more than 500 Methodist laity who signed a letter urging that the commission include more laity as they seek to create a “way forward” on the issue of sexuality in the official doctrines of the church. Between ordained clergy and bishops named to the commission, laity are more than outnumbered. This is of course problematic if Methodism is to seek what it once was generations ago: a grassroots movement.
Now, I mean no disrespect to the bishop who wrote the letter, but when I read it I had to reread it three times and I still could not understand what it was saying. I honestly had to ask others what it meant. I don’t doubt the bishop’s sincerity, but there was so much flowery “church language” I honestly could not decipher what it was saying. In my confusion it dawned on me that we in the church spent a lot of time saying things in ways that often carry multiple meanings so that we do not offend anyone.
I remember in all my years of working for the church at the national level the sheer number of hours wasted at agency meetings as the art of loquacity took on gigantic proportions during meetings where agency rep’s gave reports of what each agency or organization was doing regarding some specific project or issue. The reports of everyone gathered would literally sometimes last for multiple days. The total number of hours wasted on these reports is maddening to think about. The truth is some of the agencies were doing some good work, but it was often covered up with endless and unnecessary embellishments. The worst reports though, by far, were those given by agencies who were doing nothing, but spent an inordinate amount of time dressing up their lack of engagement with a lot of “church-talk.” It was during those times that thoughts of Macbeth came to mind, “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Now, I don’t mean to just gripe. I really think we have a problem in the church with a lot of chatter that covers up a complete lack of solid, missional engagement. I remember being in one of these agency meetings, bored out of my mind as usual, and I counted up the likely cost of airfare for all those attended, plus the cost of the hotel stay for all who attended, as well as the cost of the food. Depending on the size of those gathered, which typically ran around 15 people per meeting usually, the average cost of these meetings came to $15,000 a pop; some more, some less. Now imagine, what could local churches who are located in low-income communities and who are struggling to serve the people in those communities, many of whom are directly impacted by structural injustices, do with $15,000? I am not just talking about using the money to meet felt needs (which would have been more meaningful than listening to endless reports). I am talking about building campaigns led by the people directly impacted by the injustice themselves who struggle for justice with or without compensation anyway.
Again, from my experience, for each meaningless national meeting of agency rep’s, where little to nothing was ever really accomplished at a whopping cost of approximately $15,000 a pop, we could run a 4-6 month campaign in struggling communities to achieve concrete change where the only thing they are lacking is resources. I tried like hell to get out of as many of these meetings as I could (yes, I wasn’t a very good employee), but even I had to go to at least a couple of these things a year. Imagine if we eliminated these kinds of meetings and instead gave all of that money to the churches located in these communities and we saw real and concrete change happen? What would our church look like if we got rid of the fluff and truly invested our resources in the justice that we love to talk about (and God, how we love to talk about it)? In other words, what the church look like if our yes was yes and our no was no? We would look – we would act and talk – more missional.
So, the natural question is, “why don’t we do that?” Oh, I thought you’d never ask! See, when you have created a large institutional bureaucracy, a hierarchical chain of people with shrinking access to ever-diminishing resources, and whose livelihoods depend on justifying their shrinking access to those diminishing resources, then you have created an industry whose very existence necessitates that your “yes” cannot simply be “yes” and your “no” cannot simply be “no.” The thing I found was that these endless reports weren’t just annoying, they were economically imperative. It was how the Bureaucracy “works.”
The simple truth of this is that bureaucracies cannot have simplicity in their words. The church cannot follow Jesus here. Our “yes” cannot be “yes” and our “no” cannot be “no.” Too many reports to give, too many meetings to attend, too much money to spend on institutional upkeep, too many missional efforts to ignore or just give lip service to.
You cannot have simplicity of speech if you do not have simplicity of structure. If we get rid of the institutional bureaucracy then we will be free to obey Jesus on this. And to that, I say a hearty “YES!”