An old Polish proverb is making a comeback these days: “not my circus, not my monkeys”. In essence, it means that whatever is going on is not my problem. It also suggests that whatever craziness one is experiencing, whatever whirls of discontent, dysfunction, or badness are flying around, it’s not of my doing and it’s not my responsibility. The proverb indicates good boundaries: that is crazy but I am not. But I wonder, too, if the proverb does not also suggest some leave taking of responsibility.
In many ways, the denomination of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is my home. Since I started attending church in third grade, I have been a part of a Presbyterian church. It’s what I know and yes, at times, it is my circus. And lately my circus has had some tent poles crashing down within it.
There’s an ongoing investigation into the misuse of funds in the 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative. Some folks started a 501(c)(3) without the correct approval, and an appointed attorney is looking into it, and four people in the national office have been put on administrative leave.
More recent is a misguided marketing campaign for one of our longtime annual offerings, the One Great Hour of Sharing. The campaign featured photographs of youngish people, all of whom were people of color, with an attention-grabbing line. One said, “Needs help with a drinking problem” implying that this young Hispanic girl/woman was an alcoholic. In smaller font were the words “She can’t find water.” Many leaders throughout the denomination many people of color raised an appropriate uproar and the campaign has been pulled. When our materials arrived at the church office last week, we put them in the recycling bin and confirmed that new materials would be sent out shortly.
In other words, the national office has experienced two very big and very public mistakes in the past few months. Leadership has been applauded by some for their honesty in owning up to the errors, and scourged by others for lack of transparency, top-down decisions, and general ineptitude. My husband’s take is that ever since so many of the conservatives have left, we have no one to fight with so we fight with ourselves. Isn’t that sad, if it’s true.
But here’s the thing: this is my circus, and these are my monkeys. We Presbyterians hold fast to the idea that we are a connectional church, which means we are connected when we get it right and we are connected when we get it wrong.
Many years ago a friend of mine was the moderator of her presbytery. She served at a time when the pastor of a very big church had been found guilty of sexual misconduct with a member of the congregation. The church court voted to have him reprimanded on the floor of presbytery. There is a script for these things, and the time came for the reprimand. The moderator asked the pastor to stand, and as he did, about fifty members of his congregation, who could not fathom that their pastor was guilty of such a thing, stood with him. My friend quickly got the lay of the land, and in a stroke of brilliance, said something along the lines of “when one member of the body sins, all sin, so let us all stand with our brother.” I’m still awed by her quick thinking and deep theology.
She had a point. When people talk about “them” – the presbytery, the national office – I always want to jump in and say “there is no ‘they’ – we are the presbytery!” “We are the PC(USA)!” And we are the national office, too, in the sense that we’re all Presbyterians and we are all connected and we are all in the same beautiful and broken three-ring circus.
I pray for the national staff because it must be pretty rough right now. Everyone who works in the center can be lumped together – those who made the awful decisions and those who had no part in their making. And I pray for the people of color in our denomination who have long felt that their voices have been neither heard nor heeded. It’s all my circus.
I’m just glad I’m not the person in the middle in the top hat.