Last week, I found myself feeling sorry for Michael Brown, the used to be FEMA director.
Don’t get me wrong. I think he did not do a good job coordinating the response to Hurricane Katrina. What I sympathized with was how he was attacked and shamed by some participants in the congressional hearing at which he was a witness.
You see, I’ve messed up plenty of times in the twenty-three years I’ve been a pastor in Forest Park. And every time I did a lousy job of leading, my council held me accountable but they never blamed me. That’s a thin but important line.
Being held accountable, in my case as a pastor, means that the council wanted me to acknowledge that I am the one who is ultimately responsible. It means that they would communicate with me to find out what is broken and expect me to get it fixed. Blaming involves a desire to punish more than to fix what is broken.
In twenty-three years my council has never wanted to see my head roll. They have never sought to punish me. What they were concerned about was the good of the church.
It didn’t take me long to figure that out. And an interesting thing happened to me as I began to grasp that the group to which I was accountable every month had no desire to punish me when things went wrong. It made it a whole lot easier to admit that I had screwed up when I had. I had no need to be defensive with them, because I began to realize that I had nothing to lose in being forthright.
That’s what bothered me about the congressional hearing at which Michael Brown was raked over the coals. And that’s what bothers me about some of the public exchanges I hear in Forest Park”in the Council Chamber, in the Review and in the churches sometimes. In all three settings, I hear blaming. What I hear is a desire to defeat the person who is on the opposite side of an issue more than to come up with a solution which makes the situation at least a little bit better.
Here’s an observation. Whenever you see blaming going on, look underneath it for a desire for power and control. It happens in marriages. An issue comes up, participants own their part of the problem and a mutually acceptable response is figured out for the good of the relation. That’s accountability. In contrast, some marriages are burdened with a lot of blaming. When that happens, coming up with a mutually acceptable solution takes a back seat to indicting and punishing the other person. Winning as an individual becomes more important than winning as a couple.
The same choices are made in church boards, village councils and the U.S. Congress. Do we hold people accountable, stick to the issues and together find a way to make it better, or do we try to bring the person on the other side of the issue down?
Here’s another observation. People who do a lot of blaming tend to imagine that they could do better if they were in charge. In some forms it is comical, like when all of the armchair quarterbacks call in to talk shows on sports radio and spout off about one player or another not performing well. No harm done in those situations unless you are a Bears player who is foolish enough to listen to 670 on the am dial.
But sometimes the stakes are higher. Not only can the reputations of individuals be ruined when they are the victims of the blame game, but the whole society loses. Instead of a church board or a village council or the House of Representatives investing their energy into coming up with workable solutions, the blame game involves participants in trying to defeat what they perceive as the enemy.
In my years as a pastor, I’ve been involved in many debates about controversial issues. My congregation has voted on whether or not to publicly welcome gays and lesbians, have communion every week, allow a congregation of “foreigners” to worship in “our” building and prepare children as young as four years old to receive communion. I’ve won some of the congregational votes and I’ve lost some. What has kept the congregation healthy in the midst of all of the controversy is a resolute determination on the part of everyone involved to stick to the issues and not get personal with folks we don’t agree with.
When the central focus has been the good of the church and doing God’s will instead of winning and gaining power, something wonderful has happened. When the votes had been counted and a decision made, inevitably the side which had “won” would spontaneously make some public conciliatory gesture towards the side which had lost. For example, one of the “winners” might say”loud enough so everyone could hear, “You know, we might just be wrong on this one. Let’s play it out and if it doesn’t work the way we thought it would, let’s get together and figure out what to do about it.”
It’s a matter of tone more than substance. It’s a matter of understanding oneself as a mortal human being and perceiving people on the other side of the issue as desiring basically the same long range outcomes as you do. It’s a matter of profoundly understanding that if I do get my way there is a chance that the solution in which I believe so strongly could do more harm than good.