Discern the difference between a mark and an infection

Last Friday, I noticed a little red mark on my leg. We’d been out walking, I’d been wearing shorts, I didn’t think anything of it. The next day, the little red mark had gotten a bit bigger and a lot redder. Ah well, I thought, probably just my body reacting. It’ll be reet. By Saturday evening, I was hobbling around wondering why this thing had become the size of my hand. By Sunday morning, it was worse again. I had been on the phone all night to the out of hours surgery and managed to line up an appointment for Sunday afternoon. As I got there, I discovered my leg had become infected with something and I needed antibiotics to kill it off. I was then told to watch out for a whole load of other symptoms because it might turn into sepsis. Happy days.

We’re several days on from that now and the antibiotics are having the desired effect. By the end of Sunday, I was able to walk normally. Within two more, the redness on the back of my leg had faded. I still have lots of pills left to take and they always insist – even if things are looking a lot better – to make sure you finish the course of treatment otherwise the infection might well come back.

Why am I sharing this story of my manky leg? I am aware my blog posts have a tendency to drift in either consumer or medical advice. If it’s not about tyres and card machines, it’s about where to get appropriate medical intervention when your GP surgery is closed. Incidentally, if you are sick and can’t get to the doctor, 111 is the thing to do. Gone are the days when your local GP would come out in the middle of the night. It’s 111, maybe an out-of-hours surgery if you’re lucky, or A&E. Anyhoo, I digress.

The reason I share it is because my manky leg acts as a helpful metaphor for the church. Yes, that’s right, my bacterially infected leg – and the subsequent medical intervention – has something helpful to tell us about church. Yes, it really does.

You see, much like my duff leg, when I first arrived as pastor at my current church I noticed what I considered to be some little marks. They were nothing much, a few things that were perhaps sub-optimal. A bit of prayer and not making too big a deal about them and they would probably go away in time. Even if they didn’t, they surely weren’t all that big a thing. It’s a little mark, nothing more than that.

Of course, as these things got left, it became apparent that the problems were not going away. In fact, leaving it and doing nothing about it meant that it got worse. This was not just a little mark, this was some sort of infection that was going to grow. In the end, things came to a head and something had to be done to rectify the problem. The church was hobbling about, in effect, and the problem soon became clear why.

I don’t need to (and I won’t anyway) share any of the specific details. They’re not immediately relevant to the point here. The bottom line is, a problem existed and it needed addressing. No amount of ignoring it was going to make it go away. In fact, leaving it meant that it could spread. One of the issues you inevitably face as a church leader is knowing when something in the church is knowing the difference between the equivalent of a little red mark – leave it because it’s really nothing to worry about – and an infection that is going to spread.

Very few pastors I know have everything in their churches exactly as they would like them to be. As one pastor told me he said – when faced with a disgruntled church member threatening to leave his church because he was unwilling to compromise on some barely tertiary point of almost no importance – ‘don’t you think I, as the pastor, have to compromise on some things too?’ Despite what many people believe, most pastors are not leading their “dream church”. The reason why is obvious: the dream church doesn’t exist. It is full of messy people with their messy problems who want their messy opinions incorporated into the church’s existing mess. Pastors aren’t immune from this. Not every idea or thing we want to do is actually very clever. Sometimes we will try things that don’t work, and were never going to work, and what we think would and should be ideal may not fly in our context. As another pastor said to me recently, ‘you have to decide which hills to die on; what you can live with and what you can’t.’

But therein lies the issue. The things you can live with are like the little red marks. They probably shouldn’t be there, but they aren’t issues that are going to keep you up at night. You can live with them, even if you wouldn’t have instigated them if they weren’t happening when you arrived. The things you can’t live with are the equivalent of the infection. They are the things that have knock-on consequences; things that will only get worse if they are left. But when most things initially present as little more than a red mark, figuring out what things to live with and what things require some swift intervention to avoid the church being hobbled can be difficult to figure out.

But this is why your ecclesiology is so important. Your understanding of who the local church is, what it is for and how it should be organised is vital. These are your posts in the ground. Having a clear understanding of ecclesiology and polity means you will have a clear framework for what is okay and what is not. It gives you a framework for knowing what you are doing and why you are doing it. It helps you figure out whether the things you are doing serve the purposes of the church or detract from them.

In my experience, it is not usually theological matters that cause the biggest problems in churches. Many of us believe they do, or often wish they did, but they really don’t. You’re more likely to get members kicking off at you for daring to change the times of your service or canning some ancient ministry that is well past its sell-by date than you are to get people throwing a wobbler because you are preaching orthodoxy whilst they are dyed-in-the-wool Arians or something. Woe betide if you dare to rearrange the chairs!

If you are clear about your ecclesiology – who the church is and what it is there for – you will be much clearer about whether you can live with those things or not. Essentially, it is your ecclesiology that will tell you why we should be doing certain things and not others. Being clear about who you are for and what you are for will help you recognise what you should do and how you should do it. If you can answer those questions, you should be able to discern the difference between a little red mark and a growing infection.