On Cracking the Code

This sentence stayed with me: “A church incongruent with its code is the single greatest cause of conflict . . .” (Kevin G. Ford, Transforming Church, pg. 57)

The “single greatest cause of conflict”—well, that’s quite a claim to make. As pastors who spend a surprising amount of time managing conflict, this statement warrants pondering. Typically, in what I read, conflict is framed as heated-up differences over theological concepts or ethical issues or power struggles or misunderstandings.

Ford offers another angle. Conflict can come from changes that are inconsistent with the church’s code, that is, the church’s essence or soul. And every organization, including the church, has a code.

This is certainly true for us individually. Recall a change you were attempting that didn’t feel right. It seemed to be “going against your grain.” Finding it hard to explain, you end up saying something like, “This new look or behavior just isn’t me!” In other words, your code or essence felt violated.

Cracking the code is a right-brained sort of intuition, defying precise definition. Left-brained thinking is more reason-able, as in hammering out a mission statement to initiate and guide changes. But discerning the code calls on another side of us.

I’m reflecting on my last season of pastoral leadership with Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. In 1992, we were deciding whether or not to bless a gay union that had been requested. You and I know this to be the most contentious, divisive issue facing congregations and denominations in our day. Yet in our process of decision-making, we experienced more conflict outside the congregation than we encountered within. Internally, the conflict was intense with about 5% to 7% of the membership choosing to leave. Yet, it was contained. Externally, Pullen was “dis-fellowshipped” from its Southern Baptist family on all levels—local, state and national. I remember wondering, and wonder still, why did our congregation not split down the middle? It was my greatest fear.

Yes, we had in place some clear left-brained statements of identity, in particular, Micah 6:8, God’s requirement of doing justice, showing mercy and walking with humility. But today, after reading Ford’s comment, I am curious if our code, like a keel, also kept us from overturning amid the “whirlwind” of controversy.

And what might be this code that validated the changes occurring? My intuition: most members of Pullen feel different, unconventional, valuing fairness, seeing themselves on the margins of mainstream institutions. Did this account for their inclusion of gays who similarly feel different, on the margins, unconventional, and desiring fairness? Were we being, mostly unconsciously, true to our soul, our essence, our code? Did this congruence keep us from splitting down the middle? I wonder.

So, as Ford suggests, there is detective work within pastoral leadership—cracking the code of your congregation. You investigate clues. You listen for favorite stories of the past. You observe behavior. You notice the architecture. You feel the personality of the congregation. This is intuitive, curious, imaginative, loving work that escapes precision.

And its important work, if indeed lasting changes must be congruent with our code. Lasting changes elicit, “Yes, that’s who we are—at our core, in our soul, from our calling.”

Other questions pop up: In what way does our personal code match or mis-match the code of the congregation? Where does the gospel affirm or challenge the code?

What would you add?

3 Responses to On Cracking the Code

  1. Liz Canham says:

    Once again you are so “on target” with this reflection. It seems to be the last question we ask in many congregations, my own included. Ministry is all about fear and fund-raising, new membership drives and filling vacant spaces on the leadership team. So there is no time for the imprecise, curious, imaginative, loving work that you suggest. How can we become really excited about discovering our code? While we are so busy with all the other demands on time and energy we have to be convinced that this is so important and dynamic that it will change us. OOOPS – change? Isn’t that what the gospel is all about? And isn’t that what we are afraid of?

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  2. Guy Sayles says:

    Urban T. Holmes once said that “discernment is the art of arts for ministry,” and I have long agreed with him. And, as you point out, Mahan, discerning the “code” of a congregation, in order to honor it where it is just, merciful and loving and to challenge it where it is not, is crucial. So also is discerning one’s own code and pondering how it is in creative tension and union with one’s context.

    Years ago, I came to believe that all communities of faith have at least an implicit covenant, a network of experiences, promises, and commitments which carry the assumptions and expectations and faith of the community. “Code,” as you have described it here, is similar to that idea.

    Thanks for these reflections, Mahan.

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  3. Mahan Siler says:

    Liz and Guy, you both add clarity to this discernment. It does so easily get pushed aside and not as precise work as many require. I really like the challenge of discerning our own code and ponder how it interfaces wiht the code of the congregation we serve.

    Thanks for contributing.

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