Summary: Numbers 12 provides a pattern which demonstrates the way dissension develops among God’s People and why. Two New Testament passages show the antidote.
It was one of those nightmares I hope never to experience again. Our regular mid-week prayer service usually had somewhere between 6-10 people in attendance with a maximum of 4-5 cars parked alongside the church building to accommodate them. As I pulled up to the church on this particular night, I was still one-half hour early and there were already at least 12 cars parked in their usual Sunday morning spaces. Realization dawned quickly. This was business meeting night and an unusually high attendance didn’t look good for my future as pastor. Someone was upset about something, but the strange thing was that I didn’t have a clue. I have occasionally been blindsided in my life, but even when that happened, I usually had some kind of visceral indication that someone was upset. This time, there was nothing.
As the congregational meeting began, there was still no signal as to the problem. There was only the stone-faced silence and crossed-arms of hostile body language to indicate that something was amiss. Still, no one said anything through the usual reports and opportunity for the consideration of Old Business. Naturally, one would expect the pyrotechnics to begin once we entered officially into a time for New Business. At first, there was nothing. Then, one blessed peacemaker, who was also a deacon, stood up to request the floor. I don’t know exactly what he said, but it was something like: “I’m a little confused, Brother Johnny. You know I’ve had to work a lot of extra hours of late and I haven’t been around as much as usual. In fact, I begged for time off tonight because I was given to believe there was an emergency. I’m confused because it seems like if you were planning to sell off some of the church property you would have brought it before a committee, at least. And now, here we are in business session and we still don’t even have a motion.”
The implication was that I might have been planning to sell off some of the church property in secret. I suppose I was next going to be accused of planning to take off with the proceeds. I don’t know how anyone would have thought that was possible. No sale would have been possible without the signature of the trustees of the church and this very deacon who admitted his confusion would have been one of the trustees who would have had to sign any deal. Of course, now I was confused. I knew of no such plan to sell off the property, but here was a large group of people thinking that was my plan.
Then, it hit me. I realized, tentatively, where the confusion might have occurred. That week or the week before, the church had been assessed a huge tax bill against the vacant property that was earmarked for expansion. It was an old trick in California. The tax code clearly read that churches were tax exempt on property that was used exclusively for religious purposes. As a result, one county assessor, in a previous church, tried to assess us for our parking lot because we had allowed commuters to park in the parking lot through the week in order to ride public transit (a bus stop right in front of our church). I helped get a bill straightening that out through the California Legislature.
But the confusion in this church was a result of my response to that assessment. We needed to use that property for religious purposes in order to appeal the assessment. So, since Easter was coming up, another member and I found some old pieces of wood and former telephone poles. We set up an old rugged cross at the back of the property and planned to move the old poles over to sit on till someone warned me about creosote. We held our Good Friday service out there and a Sunrise Service there, as well as a meeting for the Youth. That was enough to appeal, especially since we intended to do Backyard Bible Clubs out there and a portion of our Vacation Bible School on that lot.
It seemed like a win-win situation and we later won the assessment appeal. But it seems that when a bitter old man in the church overheard me say something about not being able to afford the tax assessment on that property and needing to do something about it quickly, he thought I intended to sell the property. And he told everybody in the church that I intended to sell the property. And that’s why there was a huge crowd that night. Now, everyone relaxed and even laughed a little as I explained what I was trying to do with the assessor (we hadn’t yet won the appeal). Most, thought the misunderstanding was amusing. But it was only the first of several misunderstandings that came from the same source. This old man was a former deacon, the father of two other pastors, and a charter member of the church. He didn’t like me at all because I did children’s sermons with puppets, allowed choir and special music performances with taped music, and, most of all, didn’t seek his advice. The church didn’t split into two groups, but he continued to undermine my ministry and it is the only church I’ve served as pastor that I believe was weaker when I left than when I arrived.