Church communities have been doing gossipy fake news for centuries long before fake news had a name as it does today. When I think back to all the high drama points of the last 10 years of my ministry (and the war stories from other clergy, there have been some crucial crises of conscience, but 90% of the time it's much ado about nothing. For example, one of my mentors did a full immersion baptism. He also likes to play tennis. One day he wore a white shirt and white tennis shorts underneath his alb (white robe) on baptism day.
One parishioner decided, that because they couldn't see the priests pants with the wet alb, that he must have done it naked! There must be something sinister about this baptism they thought. Pearl clutching began, and it was weeks before a mini campaign to discredit the clergy finally fizzled out. I don't know how many hours of damage control actually went into this imaginary outrage, but the gossip made it all the way to me in Houston.
You would not believe your clergy if they told you half the gossip they are subject to. You can’t make this stuff up! Episcopal clergy are big girls and boys and we can handle it, but I absolutely believe lay people and clergy have an obligation to short-circuit gossip for the sake of God’s kingdom. Gossip is the dark side of what we do best - church people love and are interested in each other and we have a way in Christ to really listen to each other, but we are easily seduced by made up or half-baked stuff.
Gossip is part of our heritage as humans. We used it to monitor those in our tribe in the way back days, and it is not inherently bad; it is just that we don’t quite know how to turn it off when there is no need, or turn it on as empathy instead of shock.
A TED talker, Elaine Lui, says about gossip –
You can’t consume it without bias. You can’t consume gossip without filtering it through the prism of your own experience. In filtering gossip through the prism of your own experience, what inevitably comes out on the other side, is a pretty definitive declaration about what we believe, what we expect, what we reject and how we process. Gossip allows us to communicate a behavioral code to others. Gossip allows us to set a standard of conduct.
We are a church focused on Christ. When we filter communication and expect everyone to conform to our own idiosyncratic mores, we reject Jesus. Jesus came to make strangers friends and outsiders family. Gossip decreases real communication.
Speaking as a recipient of all sorts of hard hitting-but-helpful feedback. I cherish the times when someone takes the time to approach me and neither yell at me or talk around me. They had to make a choice that they were going to offer their feedback, with the risk I might completely reject what they are saying. That my friends is “ungossip,” but it is hard to practice.
A life changing moment in this regard happened to me years ago. I was doing church work at a location that will remain nameless. I spent hours on a particular floor working with people in great need. I had the privilege of working alongside a social worker I admired, who I also thought was strikingly beautiful (and a gym rat like me). Working next to each other, I thought I was making innocent conversation about the exercise routine she used to keep her in such great shape. Two days later, I was called into my supervisor’s office with a fellow church worker to question my behavior. It sucked. I did not want to hear what they were saying and struggled not to write both of them off as uptight.
I am super grateful for that ministry moment. It made me much, much more aware of my conduct and behavior. You might be thinking that is just too PC, and we don’t need that egg shell sensitivity garbage anymore. But if they had not stepped up I would not have the clarity of boundaries that I do today. If they chose to avoid the situation, that little encounter would have grown to gossip about what an terrible person I was. My life is better, and I treat people better because two people took the time to ungossip me.
The Biblical way for ungossip is this -
Matthew 5: 23 Therefore if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. 25 Reconcile quickly with your adversary, while you are still on the way to court.
My personal wish is that people would hold others accountable for the stuff they actually screwed up and not what they might have screwed up. Furthermore, the thing that makes me insane in the membrane is the moving target of completely imaginary failings, or people ramping themselves up about others shortcomings even as they are smiling at each other.
I think the church of the future will commit to weeding the gossip and fake news out. Shutting down gossip is neither innovative nor a new ministry model, it’s just Matthew 5:23-24. But it is one of the most basic things we can do for the health of the church, and today it is weirdly countercultural.
Now more than ever we need a community committed to Matthew 5. Our culture has gone crazy with gossip. Look at the fake news around the recent election. I still shake my head over pizzagate. Take a listen to “Reply All”, an audio podcast at the top of my list of ear candy. They did an episode on Pizzagate - a fake news story where John Podesta, Hillary Clinton, and other high powered operatives are running a clandestine child sex trafficking out of a pizza shop. Not only is the story completely concocted, it also had real world impact. After the story had been bubbling awhile, a man showed up and fired a loaded weapon in the store to do some “investigative journalism.” The conspiracy minded pizzagaters even dismissed this looney as part of the conspiracy. Take a listen if you want to feel a little crazy (there is intense subject matter and profanity, so consider yourself warned) https://gimletmedia.com/episode/83-voyage-into-pizzagate/ .
Sticks and stones can break bones and words almost always hurt despite the rhyme’s protest to the contrary. The church can and should be a place where we know and hear each other’s stories. If we don’t do it, no one else seems to be doing it. This is our call to real relationship. Chik-Fil-A has to remind us of this https://youtu.be/2v0RhvZ3lvY. The commercial is intended to sell more chicken, but it is also a banner of how people can listen past fake news, gossip, and all the other junk in which we get so easily entangled. We are on a mission to really see Christ in each other, and it requires swimming upstream. Down with gossip and fake news!