Saturday, March 29, 2008

Urban Legends

Today I received another of those e-mails that passed on a claim that some company was producing a product that was a danger to our lives. As I do when I have time I ran it through Google and quickly found that it had no basis in fact. One thing I have learned is that I NEVER pass them on unless I can document them as fact, no matter who they come from. I often have great respect for the person that sent it to me and know that they are people of integrity and someone I trust. When I take the time to do a little checking I find that about 99% of these are not based on fact or only tell part of the story. I often send an e-mail back documenting the fact that this is a hoax.

This got me to thinking about what happens in the church. Someone we trust tells us something about someone else in the church and because of who it came from we assume that it is true. We then pass that story on as fact to someone else. How many times have you seen one of these stories spread throughout the church body and cause great harm? How many times have you later learned that the story was in fact not true or only part of the story? I have been both hurt by these stories and seen the destructive power of the untruthful word. And, if I am honest, I have passed some of these on myself.

I am slowly learning, after 50 years, that I need to take a few minutes to check out a story before I assume that it is true and pass it on. Call the people that are supposed to be the source and find out more about the story. It is amazing what happens when I talk to the people that will be hurt if I pass this on without checking it out. I almost always learn there is more to the story. When I take the time to do this I save myself the embarrassment of later having to go back and say I was wrong. Or worse yet, ignoring the fact that I passed on something that wasn’t true and if and when others find out my integrity is hurt.

Many times when I start checking out one of these stories I find that someone that is unhappy has gone to someone and told a story that was meant to hurt. We all know someone that if we want a story passed on we can go to and know that it will become part of the gossip mill within minutes. As often happens in any organization that person passes it on and maybe adds something to it or “forgets” a fact. Once it gets to those that are respected and trusted it starts to be treated as truth.

At one time the church was known to be a place that you could come to seek out truth. When people become a part of your church, is the way that people treat each other tell them that this is a place of truth? In the internet world these e-mails have become known as urban legends and are fairly easy to check out. How much effort would it take to check out a story before we passed it on?

As a pastor in my denomination we have a committee known as the Pastor Parish Relations Committee (PPR) that is to be my support group in the life of the church. I always tell them they are to be my eyes and ears to the life of the congregation. I also tell them that I will listen to any complaint that comes to them as long as the source is identified. If the source is not willing to be identified then I will not listen to the complaint. This often causes anger and resentment, but I cannot deal with things I cannot get to the source of. If I do not do this then I have to guess where it might have come from or treat everyone as if they are the source. This is not fair to anyone.

Before I entered the ministry I served in many roles in the life of my church including lay leader and chairman of the PPR. One thing I learned was that the person that came to me with a story that they didn’t want to be identified with usually was not based in fact. When they said they didn’t want to cause trouble, I knew that was exactly what they wanted to do, and if I passed on that story I had to then own it.

In the internet world these stories have become known as urban legends. The church is full of its own urban legends, some that make it look better and some that destroy it.


The Thief said...

Oh, you mean you don't like the "there are people who are saying..." kind of complaint?

Me either. They suck the life out of the ministry, and usually they are simply one person's way of complaining that things aren't like they want them to be.

Jeff Kahl said...


Thanks for these thoughtful reflections. I especially like your policy of never listening to a complaint unless the source can be identified. So many complaints in the church get broadcast "second-hand" and, as you say, it just causes us to be on our guard against everyone instead of dealing with the proper individual and then moving on.

So yeah, I like your stuff!


Greg Cox said...

Kind of like a prayer chain?