I Don’t Give a D*mn ‘Bout My Bad Reputation

Photo: 9 month old girl crying, labeled “[girl’s name] Social Emotional”

This was in a stack of old materials sent home from A.’s daycare.  It is a terrible looking picture.  It is also really out of character for A., who is quite social and a very charming baby.  From the photo’s time stamp, I, as parent, know that A. was suffering from RSV and related ear infections.  She loves being around people and really loves daycare.  This photo is abnormal.  My initial fear was that A. had been assigned a reputation: that she is emotionally charged in social settings, and that is evidenced by her crying.  I got very emotional myself seeing the photo.  I know what it’s like to be a crier.  My concern is that A. has been given a label at the tender age of 9 mos.  Labels can be easy to gain and hard to shake.  They can be inaccurate and unfair.  Get a negative label at an early age, and you’re tracked in a disadvantageous way.

The caveat is that A.’s daycare is very good.  M. and I have been very pleased with them.  We have recommended them to others and would do so again.  They are professional and caring.  Also, a little research has shown that the term Social-Emotional is technical, not reputational.  The term refers to development of normal brain functions and social skills.  That is a relief.  I’ve also found an accessible resource for parents to understand this development in layman’s terms.  Hence my stepping away from the ledge.

In the end, my concern was a projection of a personal/professional matter.  I have a reputation within the WVAC for being a poor administrator.  Guilty as charged.  I flubbed up my statistical reports for the first two years.  I have also been labeled as lacking initiative, a charge first given to me in the ordination process.  This is ridiculous given my resume.  Now, I have caught wind that my preaching skills are held in low regard on the Cabinet.  I would give myself a ‘B’ in that category.  I know that I have communicated effectively in two of my three churches.  I lay my fair share of eggs, but I preach more good sermons than bad.  If there are good elements to my reputation in the conference, I can’t say that I remember hearing it.

Two operative questions regarding reputations:  What difference does it make? and How can one improve one’s reputation?

What difference does a reputation make?

A good reputation makes a big difference to the church. A reputation can serve as a calling card.  Jones UMC is becoming known for their VBS.  People hear about their VBS and they want to bring their kids.  And for the second year in a row, the Jones VBS will include an adult study.  We’re not known for our great preacher or our grand facility.  But slowly, mostly through word of mouth, people know that they can bring their kids to church at Jones and be welcomed.  Glide Memorial UMC doesn’t have to advertise that they welcome the rejected.  They opened their doors to homosexuals in the 60’s and ministries to other disenfranchised peoples sprung up all over the place.  Concerted activity got noticed and people talked.  Now Frommer’s “Very Highly” recommends worshiping at Glide Memorial (not just seeing the building).  The reputation did not come without trouble.  But the reputation for justice and compassion has been Glide’s calling card.  By contrast, no PR campaign can save a church characterized by backbiting, pettiness, callousness or meanness.

A bad reputation makes no difference to the church. Sometimes a bad reputation can be a sign that you are doing things right.  A church reaching out to heroin addicts may very well ruffle feathers within the establishment.  The Church has always struggled with issues of image, wanting to be loved by everyone.  If you love that neighbor who is addicted to heroin and seek his restoration rather than his incarceration, well…not everyone is going to be happy.  Sometimes we forget that Jesus warned us that people would down right hate us.  Do we somehow doubt that Jesus might be right about these things?  For my money, it seems we ought to become a little more comfortable with a certain kind if hatred.  If we are hated because we dare to love the unlovable…that’s a hate I can live with.  But if we are hated because we fail to hear the cries of the needy…that’s a hate that shames and condemns.  Let’s be hated for the right reasons.

bad reputation [VIDEO] makes no difference to clergy. This needs some qualification.  One of the arguments for guaranteed appointments for ordained clergy is that it frees them to do the risky task of prophesy.  In WV, a pastor began challenging his congregation to reach out to migrant workers in the area.   There was heavy resistance.  Notably, a lot of the resistance was coming from the well-to-do who were, ironically, employing these migrants.  Meetings ensued, DS’s were summoned and eventually the pastor was reappointed.  The guaranteed appointment didn’t assure the success of tis pastor’s prophecy, but at least kept him employed.  Now there is a thriving Spanish-language community in that area and the WV conference awarded their Evangelism award (PDF) to a lay person in this community.  A sea of white country people, listened as a small brown woman spoke in her native tongue.  The translation shared with the Conference a story of faith, perseverance and hope.  Pastor long enough and one will have to fight some unlikely fight.  One cannot worry if she or he is painted in unfair colors for doing what is right.  Conversely, how much wrong is done and how much right in left undone because a clergy worried too much about his reputation?

On the other hand…not yet ordained?  No guaranteed appointment?  Well, the risk is greater.  A bad reputation can squash you before you get started.  With hoops through which to jump still before you, why ruffle the establishments feathers.  This is the great tension in the life of the licensed and provisional clergy.  We want to preach the full gospel.  We see things that need addressed.  But the tentacles of the influential are everywhere.  Say that coal is bad for the environment and someone within the WVAC will cry foul.  Say that you love gay people and you’re a pariah.  So a lot of clergy wait for the stole to say what they really think.

A good reputation makes a big difference to clergy. A good reputation for a clergy opens up doors and entire avenues that would otherwise remain closed.  I now know that I have to be steadfastly committed to pastoral care.  I entered this life assuming that I had all I needed.  I was and am patient.  I was and am compassionate.  But I was also disorganized and ill-equipped to deal with the emotional strain of caring for others.  I loved them, but could deal with the pain that they shared.  As I enter a new appointment, I am better equipped in both areas.  I know that failures in pastoral care led to blockages in other arenas.  Although I was right to challenge the church in certain areas, I had not built up the trust-capital necessary to win their hearts.  A pastor across town is known for being sensitive and responsive pastorally.  Notably, he wins most challenges in his church.  This is not to say that life in the pastor’s study is all warfare.  Sometimes, people just need convincing and persuading.  Trust-capital goes a long way in winning the challenge without losing the challenger.

The reputation I want as a clergy. I want to be known as trustworthy.  I want to be known for my biblical integrity.  I don’t need to be known as a stellar preacher, but I want people to recognize that the message brought through me is Christ-oriented, others-oriented, authentic and persuasive.  I have appreciated a growing good reputation as a Bible-study leader.  I want to be known as a voice of conscience in the community and for being a fair player.

The reputation I want the UMC to have. I want the UMC to be known for loving all their neighbors.  I want us to be known for compassion.  I want to be known for loving the poor with truth AND action.  I want us to be known as a ‘doers’ denomination: that people see us out in the community helping others.  I want to be known for solid worship that varied, local, biblical and inspirational.  I want local, state and federal government to NOT want to get on our bad side.

How can one improve one’s reputation?

Work hard and do well and others will notice. When I was in 11th grade, a kid starting making fun of me in class.  It was nothing serious: just normal dweeb jokes that I heard everyday.  But he did this in front of Mrs. P.  Mrs. P was “Granny” to me.  I played soccer with her grandson and had sat on her porch on many of occasions.  She knew me.  Before this kid could finish his stupidity, Mrs. P was letting him know how wrong he was about me.  She told him the jobs I held down, my extracurricular activities and my academic prowess.  When I was in the children’s home as a teacher’s aide, one student started in on me as a way to gain negative attention.  It was nothing, I knew that student’s game and decided to ignore it.  Other students did not ignore it.  Though I was in no danger, those students defended me: ‘Chris comes in every day, never has a bad attitude, helps us learn and teaches us about Jesus.’  I was smart enough at that point to let social pressure correct that one student’s behavior.  It confirmed to me that those daily efforts weren’t for nothing.  Also, it just felt nice that people noticed.

Be Your Own Advocate. In the local church, success is harder to quantify.  Right now the only metric for success is numerical growth and apportionments paid.  On those grounds, the world’s best churches are Wal-Mart and McDonald’s.  Nevermind that they kill communities and perpetuate obesity.  I truly trust that the Cabinet understands how insufficient these numbers are to truly measuring the ministry of a clergy person or the value of a congregation.  I know they do the best that they can, but there’s no way a DS can adequately and intimately know 181 churches.  Given this reality, churches and clergy have to be their own apologists.  By apologists, I mean that churches have to explain and defend what they do.  They have to be telling their story.  And the smaller the church, the more necessary this is.

Despite the latest social media technologies, the church must employ both old and new media.  Sure, Tweet your upcoming events, but don’t forget to write about it afterwards or put photos on your bulletin board.  M. and I walked into Kee St. UMC and knew that they loved children.  They have photos of their Lambs Club all over the church.  When Rev. BigShot asks them what their church is about, they say: we love our lambs.

Given the booming advances in social media technologies, churches should learn to Tweet, Blog, Facebook, Google and Flickr.  So many great ways to tell your story.  As a novice, I have a lot to learn as well.  The rub is in rural areas, where broadband access may be limited or church financial situations deem internet access a luxury.  In such cases, Conferences and other larger denominational structures should be advocates for technology, be it in pushing for broadband expansion or equipping local congregations with high-speed modems.  Caveat: don’t do this if all you want is for small rural churches to be more like Willowcreek.  Do this because you believe those small churches have a valuable story to tell and you’d like them to get better at telling it.  Attitude matters so much.

The Role of Narrative. The Holy Bible took millennia to write and is 66 books strong.  You would need several gajillion Tweets to match the masterpiece that is the Holy Bible.  This is one aspect of our culture on which the Church has much wisdom.  I know the world wants to tweet itself to the moon and beyond, as if there’s something else greater than Earth.  But if you always do things the fast way, you will inevitably leave behind the invalid, the slow, the decrepit and the disabled.  I wonder if the 1 sheep didn’t so much get lost, as the other 99 rushed on to the meadow and left her behind as she was smelling the roses.  When the shepherd goes back to find her, he not only retrieves the sheep, but bends down, takes a long whiff of the roses, pats the li’l lamb on the head and says ‘thank you girl’.  The very concept of Sabbath is built around the practice of stopping.  In a world rushing headlong into who-knows-what, God says stop.  Our storytelling can take a similarly holy, different manner.  There are things best done through twitter.  Depth, beauty, suspense, intrigue, holiness, reconciliation, sanctification, peace, love, hope and faith all take time.  Read any good biographies?  Have a parishioner completing the 12th step?  Seen a birth?  Yeah…you really can’t tweet that and do it any justice.  We probably ought to remember the old way of story-telling.  Tweets can direct people to the story, but it’s the story that matters.

Reputations are like opinions are like _______,  everybody’s got one.  It can be valuable.  It can be an albatross.  It can be a crutch.  It can be one’s undoing.  Proceed with caution.

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