Complaining About Laypeople

My wife has a rule in her seminary classroom – no complaining about laypeople.  A money jar sits in the front of the room, where offending students place their fine for griping about the people they're supposed to love and lead.

I like that rule.  Not that the work and relationships of being a parish pastor don't warrant a complaint from time to time, but too often we clergy-types fall into an us-vs-them mentality, exasperated that the accountant on church council or the vocal worship critic doesn't share our sophisticated and nuanced faith perspective (a faith perspective shaped over four years of formal seminary training and perhaps many years of parish or related church leadership experience).   If the laity are uninformed (a broad claim that I am not willing to make), we clergy-types are to blame.  Where will Christians learn about faith and become familiar with the Bible and Christian tradition if not in our churches?  Surely there is a responsibility for all Christians to engage in independent learning and reflection on their faith.  But the church, it seems to me, is the primary location for Christian formation and learning.  If it isn't happening, pastors are largely to blame. 

So that's the rule: don't complain about laypeople.  Look at the log in your own eye first, Reverend Bucko.

Now let's jump to politics.  As I highlighted the other day, the Washington Post Virginia Politics blog highlighted a distinction between how the McCain and Obama campaigns approach distributing lawn signs.  For McCain, the signs were readily available at a rally last week.  For Obama, the signs are given out in exchange for volunteer work, and are largely unavailable to people walking into the local campaign office.

In response to some weeping and gnashing of teeth that appeard on DailyKos (which I don't read) about the dearth of Obama signs in Virginia, the folks at FiveThirtyEight.com wrote a sarcastic and somewhat belittling piece about this lawn sign conundrum: BREAKING: Obama Campaign Organizers Trying to Win Election Instead of Get You Yard Signs.  The article explains why lawn signs are a very low priority for local campaign officials who are trying to get voters registered, garner commitment from voters, organize get-out-the-vote drives, etc. etc..  Signs don't vote.  Signs are pretty irrelevant.  And those who are complaining about the lack of signs . . . don't have a freaking clue what they're talking about.

They might be right.  But they're breaking my wife's rule – don't complain about laypeople.  We political laypeople who want to be supportive might not appreciate the sophisticated workings of a national campaign.  We might not really know what it takes to elect a president.  But whose fault is that?  Instead of blaming us for being igorant slobs, why not take a few minutes to explain to us interested laypeople that signs are relatively irrelevant and show us what is most important?  Explain to us your priorities, and invite us to participate in those priorities.  And then send us online to buy a sign for $20 (a mark-up that more than covers the cost of the sign) and remind us that the local campaign office is not a sign distribution center.  (Or organize a sign sale – much like a Girl Scouts Cookie sale.  How hard can that be?).  It's all about managing expectations, and perhaps the Obama campaign – in Virginia, anyway – hasn't done a good job at managing the expectations of its supporters.

[Anyway, isn't this a problem of their own making?  If they didn't put signs everywhere, we wouldn't want them on our lawns, would we?]

When I worked for Augsburg Fortress Publishers – the publishing ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – I often ran into pastors and lay leaders who didn't fully understand what we did, why we made certain decisions, and why (for example) their favorite curriculum was no longer in print.  I could have just complained about the ignorant fools who didn't understand the complexity of our work.  But it was my job, in part, to explain to them the broader vision and work of our non-profit publishing house, the constraints under which we worked, and to invite them into the mission perspective of our work.  Often those few words helped to remove misunderstandings and establish a better working relationship between us and that congregation.  They may still have prefered to use the discontinued curriculum, but at least now they understood why we no longer published it.  And that little bit of understanding would go a long way toward improving our relationship of mutual support and shared Christian ministry.

So please, Obama campaign people, don't complain about us simple, uninformed, annoying laypeople.  Do a better job at explaining to us your priorities and constraints, and invite us to participate in your priorities.  And if that doesn't work, sell us a sign for a hefty mark-up and say, "Thank you for your support."

– – – – –

PS.  Yesterday I received a call from a journalist at the Washington Post who saw my blogpost about the lack of Obama materials (the Post reads my little Lutheran blog?).  They might be running a piece about the lack of signs and the concerns that some supporters have about the issue.  I expressed my concerns, with the caveat of "what do I know about these things?  I'm just a volunteer who makes lunch for the office once/week and who gives a small amount of money to the campaign."  I also expressed my concerns about Obamamania, and questioned the lack of available Obama-Biden materials (about which I blogged here).  The weak promotion of the whole ticket seems to contribute to (or derive from) the celebrity mania that surrounds Obama.  But as someone who is leary of Obamamania, I would like materials that emphasize the ticket and/or the party.  Even though Obama is atop the ticket, it's not all about him . . .

UPDATED: See Rick Klau's comment on my previous post responding to some of these thoughts (sentiments I expressed in a a comment over there which grew into this present post).

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
This entry was posted in Faith & the Church, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Complaining About Laypeople

  1. PS says:

    REgarding the don’t complain about lay people part of your post: I’ve been very active in my church for 30 years. During that time, I’ve had ups and downs, of course. There have been time periods where all I could do was be a pew-sitter for 6 months. In contrast, some times I’ve been on a number of committees or taken classes.
    Pastors need to be accepting of people who are at various “seasons” in their faith life. They also need to be aware of and open to people who abruptly change their attendance, either when the abruptly stop attending or abruptly start attending. That most likely means that there is something important going on in their lives.
    On the other hand, there are people who sit like bumps on the pew, Sunday after Sunday, don’t sing or recite the liturgy, don’t volunteer for anything, don’t respond when asked to do something. OR MAYBE THEY WERE NEVER ASKED since nobody has ever gotten to know them. But they are there for some reason. I expressed frustration about a couple of people to one pastor and he said, “Don’t judge. You never know when the seed will be planted.”
    My husband read some verses in one of Paul’s letters at a time when he was conflicted about joining the church. He found that led him to be less judgmental.
    Sorry if this posts twice. Something isn’t working correctly.

  2. John Petty says:

    RE: laypeople. I try to keep in mind what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: “God didn’t send you there to be their judge.”
    RE: the campaign. My biggest gripe about the Obama campaign is that it’s personality-focused and the party is never mentioned. I know why he’s doing it–“bipartisanship,” and all that–but, in a year in which the GOP brand is in the mud, it makes more sense to me to run explicitly as a Democrat.

  3. liz says:

    This layperson thanks you for your post. 🙂
    And wow on the Washington Post! I’m still waiting for my car magnet too…

  4. Rachel says:

    Okay, so to be fair (and honest), I suppose part of the reason I want a car magnet is so that I can give that empty gesture of support. Part of the thing is that I really don’t have the talking-to-people skills. My sister volunteered for them, calling people, earlier this year, and decided she probably wasn’t cut out for that, because the conversation was more “So, who are you voting for? ..oh? Well that’s nice, have a good day!” As opposed to any convincing campaigning. I’d be like that. I’m not good at convincing people.
    So maybe making lunch for them, like you are, is a good idea. I may do that.
    As for the ACTUAL post…that’s a really clever rule. And versatile, too! It’s easy to manipulate to apply to any subject (as you’ve shown, really). I think it’s just so much easier for people–mentally, emotionally, and time-wise–to be condescending, to write people off. It takes a lot (including respect) to really sit down with someone and explain yourself. May God grant us all the patience and understanding.

  5. Sam says:

    RE: laypeople. Shepards getting angry with the sheep is wasted energy.
    RE: the campaign. Just be happy you’re finished with college.
    http://news.bostonherald.com/news/regional/general/view/2008_09_23_UMass_chaplain_fails_in_effort_to_boost_Barack_Obama_s_chances/

  6. Diane Roth says:

    I hear you on the complaining.
    And, we do seem to have yard signs here in Minnesota. Don’t know about the car magnets, though, as I haven’t had time to get one.
    Huh.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s