One Sunday afternoon a country parson decided to visit a member of his flock. He made his way down the winding dirt road to the home of his parishioner and as he began to open the gate to walk through, a big black dog came out from under the front porch and began barking in a most vicious manner. Well, the barking caused the homeowner to come out onto the front porch and the parson hollered up to him from the gate, "Jess could you come out here and get your dog I'm afraid to come through the gate." Jess answered, "Now parson, you know the proverb, 'a barking dog won't bite.'" The parson looked at that big black dog barking and said to his parishioner, "Jess you're right, I know the proverb and you know the proverb, but I'm not so sure that your dog knows the proverb."
Permit me to share some thoughts about a barking dog that bites – gossip. St. Paul cautioned the Christians at Galatia, "If you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another." [i] And that is what happens when gossip and its corollary, muffled whispers, take hold. Everyone gets eaten up by it and everyone suffers from it. The dictionary defines "gossip" as casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true. There is another definition that speaks to muffled whispers: to discuss a problem or something perceived as a problem with someone who is neither a part of the problem or the solution." [ii] This will be our working definition and anchor for discussing this deadly sin as I explore with you its power over a faith community and its consequences.
What is it that makes such action so insidious? It plays to our dark side, that part of our nature that is bound to sin and disharmony. It is far more interesting than the truth, yet it is always somehow connected to the truth. This thread to the truth is usually very thin, almost imperceptible, but there is always a modicum of the truth in such activity and that is what makes it so believable. However, gossip quickly moves from the thin thread of truth to personalities, and that is where the true purpose of gossip becomes evident, because destruction is the only thing that gossip produces – destruction of individual reputations and destruction of the community.
St. Paul was not writing to the Galatians specifically about gossip, but he does warn against enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy. Gossip leads to enmity and enmity is linked to hostility and bitter feelings toward others. Strife is born out of the bitter feelings resulting from enmity; and strife leads to anger and anger to quarrels and anger and quarrels to dissensions and dissensions lead to factions and factions break us apart into clicks, and clicks lead to disharmony.
From the Prophet Isaiah, “the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm.” [iii] The ruthlessness of gossip stings like the driving winter rain, it chills to the bone and there is no comfort in its presence. The prophet also sings that the Lord God will still the sound of the ruthless for there is no place for such persons in the banquet that follows on the mountain top.
So, what in the world am I writing about? Rumblings, muffled whispers and the like are menacing phantoms that can destroy a congregation. These are some of the muffled whispers that are going around: “the Vestry is not forthcoming about our financial situation”; “they say we have no money but we are spending a lot of money on new furnaces and air conditioners and other things”; “they are fixing a lot of things up and planning for remodeling but we don’t even know how much money it will cost”; “our financial records are kept secret”; “the Vestry holds secret meetings”, etc., etc., etc.
Permit me to reflect on the above. St. Paul’s was blessed with a large bequest that is held in comingled funds that the Diocese of Missouri invests for St. Paul’s Church and other churches. This way we benefit from wise investments and higher interest rates. At various time during the fiscal year the Vestry has to draw monies from this fund to cover regular expenses and cover the cost of capital improvements. Father Robert and the vestries under his pastorate engaged in this practice as has the Vestry under my pastorate. However, for many years St. Paul’s Church engaged in deferred maintenance and it has finally caught up with us; and capital expenditures have to be made. Additional work has to be done in the Parish Hall, other areas in the building proper and the Rectory. This Vestry is not frivolous about spending. They are reflective, discuss the matter at hand and make the best decision under the circumstances. Our finances are not secret, our spending is not secret. Now with QuickBooks not for profit installed on our computer we have begun to produce records that are easier to read and understand. These will be posted on the Vestry bulletin board in the Parish Hall for all to see. In addition, I hope that we can begin producing financial information weekly in the bulletin or in our weekly newsletter. Vestry meetings are open meetings and anyone can attend. Finally, if you have a concern or question about expenses, decisions by the Vestry or me, do not engage in gossip or muffled whispers; rather, talk with someone on the Vestry or me. The best way to discover the truth about something is to go to the source.
Finally, drawing from our bequest to cover regular expenses is not the way to go! Such expenses should be covered by your contributions to the church. It is like trying to put some money aside at home for unexpected expenses but spending it each month on other things. This is why our Stewardship Campaign this fall is so important. Do you believe in and back up to what our community of faith at this church is trying to do? The words on the sign on the Parish Hall attest to our mission: Praising God, Loving Christ, Living in the Spirit. Let us busy ourselves with moving in the direction the Spirit is challenging us to go.
[i] New Revised Standard Version, Galatians 5:15
[ii] Author Unknown
[iii] NRSV, Isaiah 25: 4b
~ Fr. Al Jewson
Rector's Corner posts written by Pastor Rebecca.