One of the first things I talk to couples about as we sit down for pre-marital counseling is letting go of their ideals. Not necessarily their ideals about what marriage can be, but their ideal versions of each other. Most, but not all of us, approach dating and potential marriage with a list of things we’d like to see in a potential spouse. By the time we arrive at the doorstep of marriage, we usually have come to realize that the person we are marrying doesn’t look much like the list we had in our heads… but we’re excited nonetheless. We have found someone we like, love and want to spend the rest of our lives with and we’re happy to let go of all the things we thought we needed in a potential Mr. or Ms. Right.
But… there’s still some letting go to be done: the idealized version of the person we are marrying. No doubt during dating and engagement we have seen some foibles, some potential character issues. Yet we hold out the hope that this is the perfect person for us, that they stand head and shoulders above all other potential mates- we retain an idealized version of our future spouse in our hearts and minds.
Most marriages that break up do so because of one simple reason: the refusal to admit that we married a human being. When our idealized version of someone meets the actual, flesh and blood human we actually married, the disappointment, if not managed well, can be crushing. Satisfaction in life (and marriage) = expectations divided by reality. I tell people that the sooner they let go of the idealized version of their spouse, the sooner they can begin to appreciate the real flesh and blood human being in front of them.
This same dynamic that has the potential to ruin marriages also impacts our church lives deeply, both on the leadership and congregational side.
For leaders, there’s an often an unspoken feeling that ministry would be great if it weren’t for all the people. We have an ideal version of the church we’d like to pastor in our heads, or even an ideal version of the particular church we are already pastoring. And reality rarely ever meets those expectations. For this reason, too many leaders long to head to the other side of the fence where the grass is perceived to be greener, and fail to recognize the inherent beauty and strengths in their own current churches. For the record, a perpetually dissatisfied leader is a poor leader. Someone who cannot appreciate the individual people and the community God has given him or her will never be able to help those people grow beyond the very things that cause the dissatisfaction and frustration in the first place.
Letting go of the idealized version of our church means thanking God for the reality right in front of us, the strengths we see if we will just look and even the deficits we are tempted to overly focus on. After all, those deficits, be they an inward focus and lack of vision for mission, or a tendency to fight with each other, or a lack of generosity to the church and others are the very reason we are there. An algebra teacher doesn’t doesn’t complain when she finds her students don’t already know algebra, does she? Of course not- it’s her job to teach them. But a pastor lamenting the spiritual immaturity of his or her congregation is no different.
In the same way, we need to help our people to let go of their idealized versions of community and church as well. Firstly, because of the damage they will do to themselves with those idealized versions. Too many Christians are still looking for the “right church” while failing to realize they’ve been a part of plenty of them, but were unable to realize it because they could not see the beautiful reality right in front of them due to their focus on the ideal version against which they judged everything and everyone. And so on they go, first from one church to another, while their dissatisfaction grows. Failing to put to death our idealized versions of community almost inevitably ends up with us being community-less, because no church ever measures up. I’ve seen it happen more than once.
Secondly, the damage done to others by those who hold idealized versions of community in their heads is serious. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together
“He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren.”
This too I have seen more than once- the one who has created an ideal version of Christian community in his head, who becomes increasingly frustrated with the reality and begins to act out of that frustration, accusing others of being less serious, less spiritual than he. What begins with a patronizing attitude, descends into outright contempt for those who fail to meet the visionary’s standards and ends with condemnation of the whole community. Much hurt is caused by folks as they walk down this path, not encouraging others with the lessons they believe they have learned but condemning them for not having already learned them.
The quicker we can help people realize that while our goal is to grow and mature as a community, and while we don’t want to ignore our obvious growth areas, we’ll never reach the kind of full maturity and perfection they long for, they better off we and they will be.
Examine your own heart as a leader- are you discouraged? Why? Do you wish God had called you to a different place or different people? Do you compare what you know of your own church community with what you think you know of others’? Stop it before you do damage to yourself and your church. Learn to appreciate the people and the community God has placed you in, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant it is. God loves those people and that church- how can you do any less?
Then, help your people to understand that the journey to growth and maturity is a long one, and that the answer when we see problems in our community is not to find a new one, with a whole new set of problems, but rather to stay, root ourselves and work and pray for the benefit and growth of this beautiful mess of a community we find ourselves in.