Play it, Sam…

I blogged the other day about a situation with someone who called and wanted to use our facility for a reception based on their status as a former member.  At the time I was writing about it, I half-considered not writing about it, since it involves specific people associated with the congregation, and it was possible that people would still know them.  

While most of my rationale remains intact as more information is slowly coming to light on this situation, I realize in hindsight that I could have responded differently.  Rather than just saying no, I could have asked for more information that might have helped me make a determination about whether or not we could be of assistance in the requested way.  I opted to simply say ‘no’ based on my lack of time (and resources, initially) to try and track down who this person was, what their relationship with the congregation had been, what the situation in their family is at this point in time, and whether or not we could even accommodate their request based on our facility usage for the week.  Knowing that I wouldn’t have time to figure all of that out in time to give them an answer that would allow them to plan, I just said no.
That short cut definitely left this person disappointed and irritated.  And to be fair, I can understand why she might assume that this is no big deal.  She’s a former member, right?  That gives her some leverage in asking for things from the congregation, right?  Yes, and yes.  But it’s never as simple as that.
People and things and circumstances change.  Without knowing not only the backstory but the current story of this woman and her family, the congregation can’t commit itself or its resources to a generic request for access to the facility.  If we knew the fuller story, and it didn’t happen to contradict the congregation’s purpose and belief system, then of course we’d try and be helpful.  Members of a congregation – past or present, in my opinion – do benefit additionally by that association, assuming nothing has happened to sour it.  Or to expose the congregation to either a legal and financial liability, or a contradiction in what the congregation proclaims.
For instance, a couple of years ago I received another phone call from a man who wanted to arrange a baptism for his son.  He had been raised in the church many many years ago, but was no longer attending church anywhere.  He had married a Buddhist woman, in fact, and he himself was willing to admit that he was pretty much a Buddhist.  He had no intention of raising the boy in the faith, but he wanted to get his grandmother – a strong Christian – off his back.  I talked with the guy several times, and each time it became clearer and clearer that this wasn’t a good fit.  In the end, I told him that I’d be happy to sit down with he and his wife to discuss it further and see if we could reach a place where baptism would be appropriate.  He never followed up.
What if the woman who called this week was in a similar situation?  I had no way of knowing that, and it’s not the sort of thing that most people would be forthcoming about.  What if, while she had been a member of the church 40+ years ago, her brother hadn’t been?  What if her brother and his wife weren’t even Christian?  I pray that’s not the case, but if I don’t have that sort of information, I can’t simply green light a request.  
I routinely field phone calls from people wanting to know if our sanctuary is available to rent for weddings.  We have a very beautiful sanctuary.  It would be a lovely setting for a wedding.  I have people who stop by and knock on the office door wanting to come in and see the sanctuary to see if it would be suitable for their wedding.  I tell them no.  The congregation and the facilities are not backdrop to random stories.  I don’t think it’s a faithful use of the facilities to pretend that nothing more important goes on here, that these facilities ultimately don’t serve any higher purpose than a photo op, and that the only connection they have to people’s lives is one of convenience.  And in this day and age, the legal risks of randomly agreeing to perform weddings or allow our facilities to be rented for such are just too great.  We don’t have to do these sorts of things, and it’s far safer if we don’t.  So I don’t. 
A congregation and its resources are at the disposal of the Gospel.  We can and do confuse that message very often because of our sinful human natures.  But we seek to be as consistent and persistent in the Gospel message as possible.  We seek not to confuse people who might otherwise assume that a congregation’s facilities are much the same as a YMCA – available for use at the right price, or if you can show a membership badge.  Unfortunately, many congregations muddy the waters on this by freely leasing and renting their facilities to anyone and everyone.  Money is a powerful motivator.  But it can be a confusing one as well.
All of which is NOT to say that this woman who called has left the faith or done anything wrong.  It simply means that I don’t know, and I need more to go on to be helpful.  
I haven’t learned anything new in the past several days that would make me change my mind about my decision.  What that means is that I still don’t know enough to make a wise decisions.  Both the facts at the time and now are insufficient.  But I could have asked for more information rather than simply saying no.  And by doing that, I might have learned enough to make me comfortable with assisting this woman and her family, or at least could have perhaps been better able to explain why we couldn’t – at least not in the way they wanted us to.  
Because my default mode is that of wanting to help others.  Finding ways to assist them.  It’s one of the best parts of my job, being able to be there with and for people during important moments of their lives.  But when I do so, or when I agree to allow the congregation’s facilities to do so, I’m very clear that I do so not just on my terms, but ultimately on the terms set out by my Lord.  I’m not free to simply set that aside for convenience, and that means that I have to navigate some treacherous rapids sometimes.  It means that often times, things are not as simple as we would like them to be.  
And that means that often times I find myself wishing I had an ‘Undo’ button that would allow me to go back and try to be wiser or more tactful.  Instead, all I can do is pray for forgiveness, and try to carry lessons forward.  Hopefully next time, that will prove to be more helpful to everyone involved.  

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