Top Five Reasons Why “The Parishioner Is Always Right” Is Wrong


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Yelling into phone

By Derek Penwell

Monday morning. My secretary buzzed me and told me that Janice was on line one. Janice had called to express her displeasure at some new liturgical innovation I had instituted in worship on Sunday. The passing of the peace leading up to communion, apparently, disrupted her eucharistic solitude.

The Tuesday prior to Janice’s call, September 11, 2001, had been a fairly momentous day. Heading into worship that Sunday, we decided as a staff to do something liturgically that would suggest a different path than the violent one we were certain was about to consume us as a nation. So, we decided to pass the peace on the way to the table of grace. Janice, who opposed the kind of noisy intrusion on her quiet time of meditation presented by the passing of the peace, was not amused.

Janice told me that she expected me “not to do that again.” I told her that I appreciated her concerns and the time and effort it had taken her to bring them to me, but that we were going to continue to pass the peace, at least until we were on the other side of the violence I was sure was in our near future.

She said, “I’m really opposed to this.”

“I can hear that, Janice.”

“No. I mean I’m really, really opposed to this.”

Annoyed at this point, I said, “Yes, I understand, Janice. But simply adding more ‘reallys’ doesn’t make your argument more compelling.”

Janice said, “If you continue to do this, then you’ll understand what I’m doing when I get up and walk out. And if I walk out, I’m never coming back.”

I told her that I would be sorry to see her go, but that I certainly understood why she might feel the need to do so.

True to her word, the following Sunday as we passed the peace leading up to communion, Janice put her hymnal into the rack on the back of the pew, excused her way through the throng, walked up the center aisle and out the front door. She never came back.

Upon hearing of my insensitivity, the largest donor in the church came to my office and asked me to reconsider my position on the passing of the peace. Didn’t I see that Janice really felt strongly?

Yes, I saw that.

Sensing that I was finally seeing logic, my rich parishioner said, “Good. So you’ll stop the passing of the peace?”

“No. First of all, I think it’s an appropriate theological and liturgical gesture, especially in light of what’s happened at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Second, and only a little less importantly, if I caved every time someone really disagreed with a decision I’d made, I’d be begging for more ecclesiastical blackmail.”

“But she feels, really REALLY strongly.” (Again with the extra “reallys.”)

“I understand, but again, no.”

Nonplussed, she said, “How did you ever get to be a minister without realizing that your job depends on keeping church members happy?”

That episode came to mind the other day as I was reading an article by Alexander Kjerulf, Top 5 Reasons Why ‘The Customer Is Always Right’ Is Wrong. In the article Kjerulf argues that the now famous saying from 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, “The customer is always right,” is bad for everybody.

And while I don’t want too easily to equate “customers” and “church members” (i.e., the church is not a business, selling a commodity to be consumed by customers), there’s enough similarity that I thought I might mess around with his “top 5 reasons,” and see how they worked as bit of wisdom for congregations.

Top Five Reasons Why “The Parishioner Is Always Right” Is Wrong

1. It makes clergy and staff unhappy

After taking a job as senior minister at a new church, the associate minister came to my office and said, “I have to confess. I told Terry that her two boys had finally crossed a behavioral line and wouldn’t be allowed to attend youth functions until the showed they could act properly.” Terry had been a constant source of aggravation to clergy and staff both, a woman always on the hunt for something by which to be vexed. Apparently, my predecessor had established a pattern of placating Terry, consistently caving in to her demands in an effort to keep her happy.

“Hmm,” I said. “She’s going to be really ticked about that, isn’t she?”

My colleague looked at me, desperation in her eyes, and said, “Are you going to make me apologize to her? I just don’ think I can do it again.”

Do you want to suck the soul of clergy and staff and ensure that they learn to hate their jobs? Then just insist that their primary responsibility is to keep constant complainers happy.

2. It only succeeds in creating more self-absorbed parishioners

If the congregation demands that clergy and staff keep parishioners happy above all else, it sets a bad precedent, leading parishioners to expect that ministry revolves first and foremost around meeting their needs. That is to say, instead of helping to produce people capable of great service and sacrifice after the example of Jesus, communicating that “our main job is to keep you happy” suggests that ministry is nothing more than a personal ecclesiastical valet service. Selfishness is easy; the church’s job doesn’t consist in mass producing it.

3. “One bad apple …”

The bad attitude and behavior of some parishioners threatens the whole body. Now, before you get yourself worked up into a lather, I realize that the church is a hospital for sick and broken people. Part of what we do is to offer a community dedicated to the idea that we are inclusive and welcoming to all people—and that that means often we have to put up with bad attitudes and poor behavior. I’m not arguing otherwise. However, the function of discipleship isn’t merely to affirm everybody where they are; it is also to help them mature into grownup Christians.

Anyone who’s worked any length of time in the church can tell you that there are some people who are broken … and determined to stay that way. These folks thrive in the unhealthy environment they help to create.

“So, are you saying we should just kick all the difficult people out?”

Nope. (Although, sometimes helping people find a community that better suits their spiritual needs is part of what good ministry seeks to do.) I’m not saying surgically remove all the dysfunction. I’m saying that the congregation hurts itself when it insists that clergy and staff make catering to the disaffected their primary vocational responsibility. Christianity is about creating and sustaining communities to heal the wounded and give voice to the voiceless, not to harbor the intransigent and amplify the voice of the chronically aggrieved.

4. It results in worse pastoral care

If you create a culture in which clergy and staff feel that their value lies in the ability to pacify perpetually affronted parishioners, you lower morale proportionally. The more the congregation expects clergy and staff to focus on cutting the steak of disgruntled parishioners, the less time they have to concentrate on others who need pastoral attention. And when clergy and staff do have time to attend to the needs of the less vocal, they often find themselves without a great deal of motivation. At some point, caregivers start asking themselves whether it’s worth it to care for a group of people who appear to care so little for them.

5. Sometimes the parishioner is just plain wrong.

If you enter every pastoral situation with the assumption that the parishioner is always right—because, you know, they feel really REALLY strongly—not only do you risk alienating the clergy and staff you’ve called to care for those people, you also risk heading in the opposite direction of faithfulness. Feeling “really REALLY strongly” isn’t necessarily a helpful criterion for discerning the suitability of a thing. If your chief measure of faithfulness is the volume of the petitioner, you’re bound to find yourself headed in the wrong direction more often than you desire.

Care for the wounded an broken. By all means. But when people demonstrate a commitment to their woundedness and brokenness, giving your clergy and staff permission and support to expend their energies elsewhere makes everybody’s life better.

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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

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