Tuesday, October 21, 2014

EGR Syndrome Tests Church Performance


For years, I'd known about "Extra Grace Required" people.

They were those unfortunate souls the rest of us avoided every Sunday in church.  They were the ones with the difficult personalities, or the awkward questions, or the unpolished personal behaviors.

Looking back, I've wondered if such people suffered from some form of autism.  In those days, of course, we assumed they were either mentally challenged (we used the term "retarded"), or oblivious to normative social protocols.  Maybe they were simply the innocent victims of parents who themselves were too far removed from the sociability spectrum to be desirable human beings.

They were people who seemed angry, or confused, or distant, or too intense to be thinking logically.  Sometimes they were actually brilliant people, like scientists or pioneers in the newly-developing world of computer technology.  EGRs with milder forms of socially stigmatizing behaviors were called nerds, but the rest of them were simply weird.  They required too much time to get to know, too much energy to follow their conversations, and too much care to tolerate their, um, uniqueness.

They were people who required extra grace.  As if others of us really wanted to be gracious to them in the first place.  Usually, the rest of us hoped somebody else - anybody else - would bother to invest that extra grace into their lives.

I've Become What I Avoided

Unfortunately for me, however, I realize I've become one of those "Extra Grace Required" people.  And all of the shunning I did back in the day, trying to avoid those socially awkward people, is coming back to haunt me, like some sort of dark karma, if I believed in the stuff.  At least I used to try and be friendly with EGRs, although I never went out of my way to display the level of kindness they needed.  After all, I was stigmatized myself growing up, bullied in school, and never popular.  I was trying to claw my own way out of the social basement, and it was survival of the fittest.  I couldn't afford to squander any of the social leverage I'd managed to acquire for myself - especially on EGRs who'd only drag me back down to their level.

Now, I know better.  Because I've become one of those EGRs other people fear will squander their own resources, and drag them down to my apparently pathetic level of existence.

Fortunately, I have a few friends who still will socialize with me, but ironically, none of them attend my church.  Or... is it really much of an irony?  After all, in every church I've ever attended, it's been this way with the social outcasts.  It's just that now, in the church I've attended for the past 15 years, I've realized I've been on the outside, looking in.

Technically, in terms of churches ostensibly being faith communities, it shouldn't be this way.  But it is, and probably always has been.  And I shouldn't be surprised at my personal predicament.  I have chronic clinical depression, combined with what I suspect is a mild form of Asperger's.  That's two strikes against normalized socialization, right?  Plus, I've been told that I "think too much," which turns out to be a negative thing, especially in church!

For all practical purposes, I'm unemployed, although I help care for a parent with dementia, which itself is its own debilitating reality, especially for caregivers.  I've no money, no social status, and no spouse or children to shine brighter than me, and distract people from my lack of accomplishments.

It would be easy to simply blame the specific church I've chosen to attend - a wealthy, large church full of strivers and achievers - for my perceived inadequacies.  Go to a poorer church with more ordinary people, and see how much less my inadequacies matter, some might say.  But hey - I've attended a variety of churches all my life, and even worked in one, and I can say with full authority that when it comes to EGRs like me, this is one area where virtually all churches are the same.

Church Staffers Aren't Hired to Minister to Individuals

If you think about it, the reason is pretty simple.  Church staffers, at least in North America, face a significant dilemma, no matter how much they might want to be inclusive of us EGR folks.  You see, contrary to popular belief, pastors and church staffers aren't hired to "minister" to individuals.  Church employees are hired to perform specific functions within the church organization for the congregation as a whole.  They answer phones, or conduct a choir, or prepare sermons.  But they do not get paid to heavily invest themselves into us EGRs.

Sure, a certain amount of leeway is granted most church staffers to personally interact with individuals, but there are limits to that interaction, especially when it comes to EGRs.  EGRs don't fit neatly into day planners, to-do lists, or performance reviews.  The intangible nature of the overall product being delivered to consumers by the church organization may provide some wiggle room in the schedules of church employees, but the reigning expectation is that they perform productively in tangible, macro-focused ways.

Part of this is due to the nature of church boards.  Elders and deacons are almost universally chosen based on their admirable business acumen and other measurable metrics.  It's part of the modern credo of running a church like a business.  On the one hand, we think we need to be accountable to God for every dime members tithe, and that such accountability can only be secured if it can be quantified.  On the other hand, however, if God is looking at our hearts, He'll still know when we're being His servants, or we're being the servants of our results-oriented pastoral staff and elder board - and congregation.

In my case, I don't expect the senior pastor at the 4,500-member church I attend to heavily invest himself into my problems.  How would the senior pastor of any church that size determine the amount of time he can devote to specific individuals?  However, I guess I've been taken aback by the unwillingness of others at this church to tolerate little more than my presence in their midst.  I'm aware that everybody has problems, and that in the smallest church, there can be enough personal crises to choke a horse.  Nevertheless, as I get older, I've come to see that the expectation of virtually all congregations and their leaders is that their staff produce as near-to-flawless a corporate worship service as they possibly can, no matter its style or substance.  And as long as everybody puts on a pretty front, the congregation will give money so the church can at least meet payroll.

Hey - I don't like having problems.  I didn't go looking for this dastardly depression!  And I'll be the first to admit that I'm mishandling parts of my condition.  Sure, some of my problems are of my own doing.  Sure, I have a bad habit of focusing on what can be improved, instead of what doesn't need improvement.  But neither do I like now being branded as an irredeemable sourpuss, or a powerless, moneyless malcontent who isn't worth trying to even pacify, let alone be taken seriously.

Sinking and Shrinking

In his comments regarding a recent survey on the church's response to clinical depression, pastor and seminary professor David Murray writes for Christianity Today that experiences like mine aren't as unique as we might think they are:

“22% of pastors agree that they are reluctant to get involved with those dealing with acute mental illness because previous experiences strained time and resources.

"I admire the honesty of the 22% (the real figure is probably higher), and I sympathize with the desire for time-efficiency, but I do not agree with the response (or lack of it). These are the bruised reeds and the smoking wicks that God sends to us to strengthen and fan into flame; and we say, 'Sorry, not enough time'?!

Not that all people with mental illnesses are EGRs.  But many of us are, or are presumed to be, as fellow Christians become confused or frustrated as they encounter us in our struggles with depression.

Then again, maybe I'm simply feeling too sorry for myself.  I know that I'm terribly selfish - I've always been.  And I've come to realize that, as the years I've spent sinking into my current church have taken their toll, I'm less social and more reclusive than I've ever been in my life.  I care less about how what I say - and the way I say it - impacts other people.  I don't even like spending time around other people anymore.  I'm more cynical than I've ever been, and more cavalier about the importance of church and church attendance than I've ever been.

With his ever-deepening senile dementia, my father wants to attend church less and less.  Mom and I have argued with him, tried to cajole him, and have even taken turns staying home with him so the other could go to church.  Now, I'm coming of the view that if I stayed home with Dad every Sunday, we'd solve a lot of problems:  Mom would be able to get out of the house and attend her church, we wouldn't have to spend Sunday mornings in distress over what Dad's going to do, and I could finally have a legitimate reason for ditching church altogether.

Except... there's a nagging in my noggin that such a scenario isn't exactly glorifying to God.  Even if it sounds quite appealing to me.  Yes, I see this continuous sinking of my church life, but I also see my broader existence shrinking right before my eyes, like something dissolving in slow motion, and while I've been taught that, ostensibly, the deconstruction of one's life is a negative thing, in a way, it seems like the easy solution to an otherwise perpetual social misery.

Funny that my church experience is leading the charge... or the retreat.

Christianity's Relevance and the Expendability Factor

Of course, there's nothing new here in any of this.  There have always been Extra Grace Required people, and there always will be.  God makes us all individually, yet many of us have a hard time finding value in individuality.  Some church development experts say that what we need to do is create new mechanisms for understanding and appreciating what makes some people socially different from the "normal" majority.  But frankly, if we've gone this long without bothering to explore those mechanisms, and those differences, then it seems suspiciously likely that the "normal" majority really doesn't care.

It's about expendability, isn't it?  People who are expendable are determined to be so based upon parameters unilaterally established by those who consider themselves to be society's conventional ones.  In other words, we EGR's are at the mercy of people who generally don't see why it's in their best interest to spend the resources necessary to embrace us.

After all, is it in their best interest, really?  If you're not an EGR, why should you bother being little more than tolerant of my existence?  Why should you offer anything more than basic politeness when you see me in church?  After all, people like me can't elevate your social standing, or help you earn more money, or make you feel better about yourself - unless comparing yourself to people like me helps you realize that "there, but for the grace of God..."

Meanwhile, even though I'm not comparing myself to Him, I find some comfort in the sad fact that Christ was "despised and rejected."  There's no reason to believe that anybody in church despises me - at least to the level that my holy Savior was despised.  People don't like my candor, or many of my opinions, or even my willingness to consider unpopular ideas.  And I can't even remotely suggest that the way I interact with other people should be some sort of ideal pattern for socialization, like Christ's was - and is.  But God never promises us popularity.  In fact, He warns us about popularity, and the qualities we choose to celebrate in the people we popularize.

In James 2, we're taught not to show partiality to people with social traits we admire.  In 1 Samuel 16, we're instructed to not evaluate people by how they look.  And in Luke 14, we're reminded how tricky it is when we try to evaluate how important people are - and how such evaluations, whether high or low, can come back to shame us.

Further down in the survey about which Murray writes for Christianity Today, it was found that nearly 20% of people experiencing a disconnect between their mental illness and their church's interaction with them end up dropping out of that faith community.

That means that in church, there may be a faith in something, but not necessarily a community for everybody.

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