During a conversation I recently had with a minister friend of mine whom I’ve known since seminary days, we each reflected on the congregations we have served. Each of us remarked about the strengths and weaknesses of this congregation or that one. Some had great theology, others were involved in exciting ministries, but each of us knew what it was to be in a church that looked great on paper but had an unhealthy, even toxic, culture. We both agreed that rather than a church with a rich history, strong theological pronouncements and vibrant ministries in the community, we would rather have a kind church. A church can do a lot of things right while still getting the most basic things wrong. I’d rather be in a church where people were kind, even if it was struggling, than a church that by all outward appearances was doing great but didn’t practice kindness.
Kindness seems so basic. We are taught to be kind when we are young. It is a building block of human social interaction. Yet, in adulthood, we are not rewarded for kindness. Instead, we are often rewarded for aggression, the pursuit of profit above all else, and the beating of competitors by any means. We are rewarded for climbing our particular social ladder, usually at the expense of others. Kindness doesn’t result in awards or social recognition. In fact, practicing kindness may ensure one doesn’t achieve the self-centered goals others prize.
It seems like common sense that church people would be kind people, but that has not been my experience. Church people are still people, and when people spend all week long engaged in behavior that often runs contrary to kindness, it’s ridiculous to expect them to show up at church and act in a different way. Church board meetings can become mirror images of corporate board meetings and business sales meetings. Church events can resemble social events which are Darwinian in their participants’ pursuit of social status. Sometimes at church, kindness is a matter of empty words alone.
In my career, I’ve had the experience of serving a church that was really good at welcoming new people, but those new people rarely stuck around long. I always wondered why we were so bad at keeping the people we attracted. I’d assume it had to do with cultural trends that don’t value commitment, people coming who had issues which made being a part of a community difficult, and competition from larger churches with deeper pockets. As I look back on that experience with a little distance, I have begun to think that the real problem was that the church just wasn’t very good about being kind to one another, much less to new people. New folks who showed up would feel initially welcomed, but as they tried to get involved, to build relationships and to share their talents, I believe they met resistance. There was an insider clique that sustained itself like the “cool table” in a middle school lunchroom.
In my newsletter articles, emails and sermons, I have tried to highlight the assets of Park Hill Christian Church. I believe one of its assets is the kindness of its people. Granted, I’ve only known this church during the COVID pandemic, and things are far from normal, so maybe there’s a mean streak I haven’t encountered yet, but I have been impressed with your kindness towards one another. I know that I haven’t been here long and there is such a thing as a honeymoon period, but I’ve appreciated going to board meetings and executive committee meetings without afterward feeling like I needed to seek counseling for PTSD. I’ve taken note of members who have taken it upon themselves to reach out to other members who have been isolated during the pandemic. I’ve seen your generosity in giving to community groups that meet human needs. I’ve watched your conversations over Zoom and occasionally in person while social distancing. I have seen that staff are appreciated rather than being treated like “the help.” There are lot of small ways I have seen the kindnesses of PHCC.
Every congregation has its own culture. Each church has a way of being which results from its particular history and the amalgam of interactions between the people who make it up. I’ve learned that despite efforts to teach church folks to be kind, it seems like congregations either are or are not kind, no matter what is taught. It’s a strange mystery to me how people who may act kind as individuals can take part in a group, especially a church, that cumulatively results in unkindness, but myriad examples of just this dynamic exist. I know PHCC is not perfect. It’s made up of human beings who have broken places inside of them after all. I’m aware of some of the past fights and controversies in the life of the church. Yet, at least in the parts of PHCC I have seen, kindness is a part of this church’s culture and one of its assets.
I am only the Interim Minister after all, so maybe I’m off base here. Perhaps, I don’t know “the real” PHCC. If so, I’d love to hear from you how your experience of the church has been different. I’d also love to hear if you think my impression of the church’s kindness is correct.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851