Reflection on Permission and Forgiveness

It was at a recent ordination that I again heard the words, “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” I don’t know what’s more troubling, that the phrase is frequently heard in the context of ministry (in this case an ordination sermon) or the chuckles that tittered through the congregation, most notably the clergy perched in the two front rows. There seems to be a frustration among clergy stifled by their congregations that to get anything done in the church constructive engagement with and leadership of the congregation needs to be avoided and a glib apology offered when the reaction comes as it inevitably will. It may well be easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. It may be easier, but it’s not right.
The problem for me lies in the consequences of such an attitude on the interpersonal relationships and the covenant that form the basis of community life, especially in our Congregationalist tradition. By dismissing the “other” at the outset, a pastor who acts knowing that apology will be necessary is undermining the mutuality and reciprocity that should characterize interpersonal relationships in the church.
In terms of mutuality, it may be that some ministers feel their congregations are so stubbornly unwilling to follow their wise proposals and prayerful advice that they need to go behind their backs to get anything done. This could stem from (mis)perceptions on the part of congregations about the meaning of congregational autonomy and the authority implicit in ordained ministry. It signals a crisis of leadership or, more to the point, a pitiful lack thereof.
I’ll offer a working definition of leadership as the art of exercising influence to achieve specific goals and objectives. Many clergy, it seems, are ill equipped to offer effective leadership in congregations and our seminaries and judicatories aren’t doing much to help. This seems troubling in light of the numerous examples of effective leadership for good or ill in the scriptures, the tradition, and our churches and society today. Let’s also not forget the obvious roles ascribed in scriptures for the leaders of the priesthood of all believers.
Mutuality and reciprocity are undermined when the ordained leader of a congregation (or any lay leader or community member) resorts to clandestine actions that will require apology to impose their will on the congregation. This implies a basic disrespect for the other and does not reflect the attitude of respect based in genuine love that one might expect in a community following the way of Jesus Christ. It tears apart the fabric of the congregation and leaves the covenant in tatters.
The covenant acknowledges Christ alone as the Head of the Church and challenges the notion (prevalent in some traditions) of centralized authority that can impose doctrine or form of worship on the congregation. The covenantal tradition seeks to honor each and every member as created in the image and likeness of God through whom the Holy Spirit may work at any time. It’s the reason there’s space for both discernment and authentic democratic practices in our congregations.
Without encouraging discernment and communal conversations around important issues, a pastor who seeks merely to ask forgiveness ex post facto is doing more harm than good.
Of course there are times (possibly plenty of them) when discernment and community conversations around important issues do not lead in appropriate directions and the pastor’s prophetic voice needs to be heralded more acutely. Drawing on principles of mutuality and reciprocity, invoking the covenant and ensuring education around it, while standing her/his ground, the pastor can bless the community with insights and opportunities previously unimaginable to many congregants.
This may take more work and firm stands, but at least it’s out in the open. On the other hand, making decisions and then asking forgiveness will merely serve to affirm power imbalances that would seek to perpetuate attitudes that require pastors to seek permission. Rather than seeking permission, the pastor should seek the buy in of the congregation and respect the inherent value of the each individual and the gathered body.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *