I became rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Waco, TX a little over a year ago. I believe that the biggest part of my work is empowering the ministry of the people in my congregation. I have stressed this point repeatedly with the congregation, always asking people to come to me with feedback, questions, and concerns.
That was all well and good. People nodded and smiled.
No one came.
The dread started slowly creeping up my spine, until, several months ago, I got wind of rumors circling around a vital ministry. I will spare you the details, but they came down to stories that I was acting intentionally and deceptively to kill the ministry. These stories were being told at several hubs – around tables during coffee hour, at the knitting group, and in a few other places that people who care about the church gathered.
Wow. It stung when it came out. I hurt. I blamed others and raged to myself.
And then I realized something fundamental. As rector, gossip is my responsibility. At root, when the congregation runs away on its own, piecing what it knows together into wild theories, the first problem is not the gossip. The first problem is that the rector failed to tell the truth in the right places. I’m only the rector. I will never be able to dismantle the grapevine.
So, I began a process of repentance. I talked with the vestry about the issues, asking again that people come to me with question and issues, but I also took responsibility. I sat down with the ministry and gave them the opportunity to ask questions. It helped address the specific issue, but there was more to be done.
One Sunday after a particularly big Vestry decision, I went to see the knitters at their weekly meeting. I read them the congregational letter that was being sent that day. I answered questions and had a chance to talk in broad strokes about the future of the parish.
And, then, as if the sun had appeared in a cloudy sky, it started to happen. One morning, hidden in my office, getting ready for Sunday service, I overheard some of those same words I shared being shared around the Narthex.
Gossip is destructive because it fills the air with false facts and distrust, but no rector has the power to dismantle the grapevine. All one can do is find the hubs and go there to tell the truth about what’s going on, not being defensive or cagey, but genuinely sharing vision and mission with the people we are called to serve.
When people learn to trust us, that’s when grapevine starts to produce good fruit, the fruit of the Spirit, and we together learn to live into the mission of God.
The Rev. Jason Ingalls is the rector of Holy Spirit, Waco, TX and recently served as the Executive Director of The Scholar-Priest Initiative. He now serves on the Board of the Society of Scholar Priests.