Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




“Finding Community in an Acrimonious World”

Sunday, October 17, 2010




Rev. Dean Snyder

Workplaces can be some of the most acrimonious places in our lives. If you have a workplace, whether it is a building where you go to do your work, or a cyberspace workplace, or a telephone workplace, or a volunteer service, which has become your work, our work is an area of life that is fraught with the possibility of conflict, tense and angry relationships, and acrimony.

Why is this? I want to suggest a few reasons.

During our pre-Cana weekends for couples preparing for marriage we teach a theory of conflict developed by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann in the 1970s. The Thomas-Kilmann theory of conflict includes five modes or way of handling conflict, and it teaches that some modes are more effective if your goal is to strengthen relationships and others are more effective if your goal is to accomplish a task.

The point is that we act differently if our priority is to strengthen relationships than if our priority is to get a task done.

Very few of us get paid to love one another and get along in a friendly and kind way. Most of us get paid to get a task done, to accomplish an end, to achieve something.

According to Thomas-Kilman, if you want to maintain and strengthen relationships, one of the ways of handling conflict that may often work well is accommodation…just letting the other person have their way. We tend to accommodate each other in our families and friendships.

On the other hand, Thomas-Killman say, if you want to get tasks done and goals met, one of the ways of handling conflict that may work well is competition – getting each other to do things we’d rather not do.

So work settings tend to be places where there is more competition and less accommodation of people’s preferences and peculiarities. Workplaces, by their very nature, because the focus is on tasks and goals and achievement, can be tense and pressured, and demanding.

Tonight in our evening service where we have screens I am going to show the video clip of Lucile and Ethel in the candy factory. The faster they work, the faster the treadmill turns, until they are stuffing their mouths full of the candy to try to keep up. Anybody remember that scene?

A few years ago our United Methodist region, we call it our annual conference, began taking annual evaluations of pastors more seriously. I was talking to someone who was working on these evaluations and he told me that he had come to a few conclusions as a result of observing the evaluations.

He said that when local church leaders gave their pastors very low evaluations, the churches tended not to be very effective in reaching new people, engaging people in study, sharing and service, and in doing mission. If a church gave its pastor a poor evaluation, the church tended not to be very vital. No surprise there, I suppose.

The surprise was that churches that gave their pastors glowing 100 percent perfect evaluations with no issues whatsoever…those churches also tended to be churches that weren’t doing very well. They tended to be gradually declining.

My friend’s conclusion was that when a pastor made the congregation too happy or a congregation made a pastor too happy, churches tended to become cozy and sluggish and unmotivated, and frankly, lazy.

It is better when pastors are a little dissatisfied and congregations are just a little irritated with their pastors.

Rev. Mike Slaughter, pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio, that grew from a little country church to a church with a couple thousand people in attendance doing great mission work in Ohio and in the Sudan…Mike Slaughter says his spiritual gift is the gift of irritation. He writes: “We don’t grow when we are comfortable…that’s why my spiritual intent at Ginghamsburg is to be a source of irritation to lives that are safe and predictable.”

I am just using church as an example. If workplaces get along too well, are too nice, love each other too much, they don’t push each other to accomplish their mission and goals.

Some tension and pressure in the workplace is a good thing.

The other truth about our workplaces is that, for many of us, they occupy a really, really big space in our lives. For many of us, work occupies more space in terms of time in our lives than almost everything else.

For many of us, work occupies more space emotionally and spiritually than anything else in our lives.

For many of us, work is where we get our sense of worth. We find our self-esteem in our successes in our work or in the work we used to do before we retired.

So we bring a certain neediness to work. It may not show or it may manifest itself in strange ways, but we come to work needy for success, needy for affirmation, needy for worth. We need to do well at work to feel good about ourselves.

This means work is a high-stakes part of our lives for most of us. This does not tend to make work a less tense experience for us. It heightens the tension and the pressure and the potential for all sort of unhappiness at work.

So work can be work.

The question I want to ask this morning is how our faith and the Bible can help us understand and deal with the reality of tension, conflict, pressure, and sometimes acrimony that we can experience at work.

As I ask myself these questions about the nature of life in the world and within our faith communities and within the world of work, I keep finding myself drawn to the Book of Genesis and the primal stories and myths we find there.

I was thinking about work and the story of the fall in Genesis and how Genesis seems to view work as the punishment for Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden.

After Adam and Eve eat the fruit on the one tree God told them to leave alone, God says this in the story to Adam:

Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken…. (Genesis 3: 17-19)

 So I was thinking that the message of that story is that work is that, according to the Genesis myths, work is one of the negative consequences of sin.

But then I went back and read the Genesis creation accounts and I came upon this statement in Genesis 2.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that [God] had done, and [God] rested on the seventh day from all the work [God] had done.” (Genesis 2: 1)

So the first image of work in the Book of Genesis is a very positive one. Work is what God does in creation. The implication of this is that work is a godly thing. Work is something God does. Work is part of God’s nature. It is a natural thing for God to work.  So when we work we participate in the divine nature. Work is one of the ways we are in the image of God.

The initial image of work in the Book of Genesis is very positive.  

In the story of the fall, the punishment is not that we have to work. Work is a good thing and a blessing.

Listen to it again:

Because you…and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken…. (Genesis 3: 17-19)

The punishment is not that humanity needs to work but that work becomes hard.

And I think this is a very important and very difficult and tricky thing to understand.

It will be very easy to misunderstand what I am about to say so I need to remind you that I believe in collective bargaining; I believe in individual bargaining; I believe workers deserve fair and generous compensation; I believe workers need to have power within their workplaces; I believe employers need to be accountable personally and legally. I am totally foe the wrights of workers. I am a retired member of the Gypsum Workers Union of America. You don’t need to agree with any of those things but I want you to remember that all those things are true about me as I try to unpack these Genesis stories.

Work is a good thing. To work is to share in the nature of God. It is to be like God.

Then after the fall, work becomes hard. Work becomes toil.

What happens in the fall that pollutes work? The serpent within Adam and Eve convinces them to eat the fruit of the one tree out of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of trees in the garden that God tells them not to eat out of.

What happens in the Garden, in the myth, is that within humanity there emerges this need to defy authority. This need to defy authority is not based on the authority being wrong, unreasonable, or unjust.

The Bible is always in favor of defying authority that is wrong, unreasonable, or unjust.

No, what emerges is this serpent within humanity that requires us to defy authority even when authority is reasonable, right, and just, but just because we need to stick our thumb in authority’s eye.

According to the myth of Genesis, it is our problem with authority, our problem with limits, which causes the earth to become polluted and work to become hard.

It is not just that we need to disagree with authority when it is wrong and unreasonable, we need to stick our thumbs in authority’s eye even when it is right and reasonable. This is what makes work hard.

What the stories in Genesis suggest is that work is hard because we have an attitude problem, all of us. We human beings find it almost impossible to think and feel clearly about authority when we are exercising it and when we are living with it.

A psychiatrist friend used to say that many of us, maybe most of us, sabotage ourselves at work because emotionally we are still teenagers defying our parents.

You know, this is why as we have disagreed with our denomination about marriage equality. I have wanted to be very clear that for me this is not about defying anybody. Frankly, there are those people in the United Methodist Church who just need to defy the authority within the denomination. They are called clergy.

If they did not disagree with the authority of the denomination about one thing, they’d disagree about something else, even if it was the color of the cover of the Book of Discipline.

I want to be clear that our position on marriage equality is not, on my part, because I need to defy the Book of Discipline or the bishop or whatever or whoever. This is simply about the denomination being wrong on the particular thing at this particular point in history.

It is very hard to keep these things clear because of the way we tend to feel about authority. We are really mixed up about authority.  We want its approval. We fear it. And we want to defy it and show it that it can’t tell us what to do all at the same time.

And the place in our adult lives where this manifests itself most is at work.

To work is a great and glorious thing – it is to share in the divine nature. But work becomes toil because of our human confusion about authority – exercising it and living with it.

I’m not quite sure why but I have been remembering this week a story about Bayard Rustin. It is a story that is very easy to be misunderstood. I am not suggesting we should not stand up for ourselves in the face of injustice or wrong. But there is something about this story about Bayard Rustin that speaks to me.

Bayard Rustin was an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr.. The March on Washington would not have happened without him. He was African-American. He was gay. He was an amazing person.

He was in a hotel on the way to a meeting with Dr. King. In the elevator a white man wearing a suit, apparently assuming a black man in a hotel elevator was some kind of a servant, said to Bayard Rustin, “Boy, tie my shoes.”

After a few seconds pause, Bayard Rustin knelt down and tied the man’s shoe. When the man offered him a 50 cent tip, Rustin said, “No, thank you. I did it because your shoe needed tying, not for a tip.”

Then he got off of the elevator and continued planning the March on Washington.

I’ve been praying this week to be gifted with the spirit of Bayard Rustin…this amazing ability to be free of personal ego and yet committed to what is right and just.

When we work, we participate in the divine nature. When the serpent inside us makes our work more about our personal power and recognition than about the goals of our work, work becomes toil.

Our spiritual lives are so important. We need to know we are beloved children of God in here in order to be most effective in our work in the world.

Let me say one more things from our faith and the Bible about work:

Psalms 127 says:

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. 2 It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved. (Psalm 127: 1-2)

  The results of our work is not finally in our hands. When we go home at night, we can offer the day’s work to God. Shake it off. Let it go. Trust god with it. And sleep the sleep of the beloved.  

Michael Slaughter, Unlearning Church: Just When You Thought You Had Leadership All Figured Out, 87-8.