Anyone who has worked in the church or non-profit world knows the dangerous game of courting the support you need. We all know that support freely given is never truly free. Those who donate, volunteer, and give to your organization have opinions on how it should function – as they should! We all desire a broad base of people deeply engaged in and invested in our offerings. We all know that bringing in people, be they a board, a council, or major donors, means giving up a little bit of our autonomy to allow others to be part of decision-making.
Largely, this is work that God calls us to. We are not meant to build the church alone, and scriptures are filled with stories of faithful people negotiating what it means to be the faithful of God together.
But we also know that this is dangerous territory. Who hasn’t known, seen, or been a pastor who feels the pressure to self-censor from the pulpit to not upset the wrong people? Who hasn’t watched a program lose its way because of diverse visions of what it should be? Who hasn’t known a leader or two who got heard out more than they probably should have because they have deep pockets and loud opinions?
I recently visited a church celebrating its first Sunday as an independent church after breaking away from its planting congregation due to theological and practical conflict. The pastor spoke about a passage in Ezra where the congregation refused help from those it seemed they would be in line with because it came with too many strings attached. He referenced the 1940 Pinocchio and sang softly,
“I’ve got no strings, To hold me down…I had strings, But now I’m free. There are no strings on me.“
I listened to the congregation sing along and burst into spontaneous cheers and was awed. I looked up to the pulpit and saw the mischievous sparkle in the pastor’s eyes. This community wasn’t anxious about what this new chapter meant or the funding they had lost; they were delighted in the chance to set their own destiny.
I was struck by the joyful approach to saying no to the wrong help. It wasn’t sacrifice, it wasn’t conflict; it was the active embrace of the freedom offered to them in Christ as a community. What a powerful example for all of us who have seen (or been) the one accepting golden handcuffs. The opposite of those handcuffs wasn’t poverty; it was a mischievous joy.
So how do we discern between healthy collaboration and undue influence from those who aren’t aligned with our vision?
Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, in her book, Innovating for Love, offers some insight. She highlights that our what and our how – precisely what we do and how we do it as an organization – should be flexible to our supplies, structure, timeline, budget, and context. What we can’t compromise on is our who and our why. We need to be rock-solid on who we serve, what community we are called to, and why we exist as an organization. With that scaffolding, we can be non-anxious in discussions of whether we meet on Wednesday or Sunday nights and whether we add a hybrid offering, knowing that the answer doesn’t threaten our identity as a community.
We can also look for what I saw in this congregation I visited: joy. Does the Spirit come alive at the possibility of saying no (or yes) to something? Instead of saying no out of spite or yes out of fear, do you feel like you can answer from a place of following the playful whisper of the Spirit?
We are called to work together, slog through the mess of collaboration, and listen to those around us. We are also called to be grounded enough in our identity and purpose to be able to say no to the wrong kind of help and have faith that God, who has led us this far, has plans to lead us in the next step. May we have the faith of the birds and the lilies of the field and embrace the joyful freedom offered to us to join in the song,
…I had strings, but now I’m free. I’ve got no strings on me.