Lovett Weems shares the story of how a church leader brought around a critic of a new homeless ministry by approaching the individual with a presumption of grace rather than a presumption of judgment.
A few years ago, a seminary student in my church leadership class was serving as an intern at an urban congregation. The church had a strong commitment to serve their community, though it had a history of exclusion that made their community relations more difficult and, for a few members, unwelcomed. With strong pastoral leadership, the church engaged issues that could easily have been ignored. Homelessness was one of them.
The pastor had observed that many homeless individuals frequently spent time near the church. After numerous conversations with several of these persons, the pastor realized there was a need for food and a safe place to be during the day. She sensed God calling the church to respond to this need. Slowly, a vision of hospitality with unhoused neighbors emerged. However, some people in the congregation resisted this vision. One person who was very resistant was Sam (not his real name), an 87-year-old man and a 50-year member of this church. Sam was very vocal about his unhappiness with the vision of hospitality for homeless persons. He would even lock the doors when the worship service started so no homeless men and women could enter the sanctuary.
It was tempting to just get upset at Sam, who was standing in the way of our outreach to the homeless, but I have realized that it is much more effective to treat him with love and grace, helping him live into the vision.
Presumption of Grace or of Judgement?
At the same time, the student intern was learning in class the importance of church leaders operating from a “presumption of grace” rather than a “presumption of judgment.” In other words, you always assume the best about others rather than the worst. She thought she had found in the grumpy door-locker, Sam, the exception to this rule. However, she decided to give it a try, not really expecting it to make a difference with someone so negative and set in his ways.
One of the intern’s responsibilities was to recruit sponsors for youth and adults who were to be baptized. A baptism was coming up, but it was a bit different. Claude (not his real name), a homeless young adult who had started attending, was to be baptized in a few weeks. So, she took courage in hand and approached the critic of the homeless outreach to be the sponsor, refusing to assume the worst about him despite the evidence. “What would it mean,” she asked herself, “to approach him with love and grace, assuming he cared as much for this homeless man as she did?”
Since Sam had often been a baptism sponsor, she approached him first with affirmation. She began, “Sam, you have been such a wonderful and caring sponsor for so many people. You always take that role so seriously. When you are a sponsor, everyone knows it will be done well.”
She continued, “I’m coming to you because of your experience with a request to be a sponsor for someone who may need some extra help getting to know others here. You probably have seen him. His name is Claude, and he started attending due to our outreach to nearby homeless persons. I know you would be a wonderful sponsor for Claude and that he could learn a lot from you. I understand that we call on you often to be a sponsor, so I will certainly understand if you feel this is one too many.”
A Surprising Change
Sam said, “I would be honored to be his sponsor. Thank you for asking.” Before the baptism, Sam spent time with Claude and learned more about him. The pattern was for the sponsor to come forward just before the baptism and tell something about the person to be baptized. The whole congregation was surprised when Sam stood for this task. Sam began, “I am so proud to be Claude’s sponsor, and I’m honored to tell you a bit about my new friend.”
Not only did the two of them become friends; people began noticing that Sam no longer locked the doors after worship started. The intern’s reflections on this experience: “It was tempting to just get upset at Sam for locking the doors and being inhospitable, but I have realized that it is much more effective to treat him with love and grace, helping him live into the vision. I never gave up on the vision or on Sam.”
- Lead Positively by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
- High Yield: Seven Disciplines of the Fruitful Leader by Tom Berlin and Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
- Leading a Ministry with Homeless People by Rudy Rasmus