Congregations Have Wish-Dreams Too

When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God
— Bonhoeffer, Life Together

That little book is one of the most formative of my life and ministry. And as a pastor, I take the particular section on what Bonhoeffer calls the “wish-dream” very much to heart. I wrote extensively on this subject in The Pastor’s Justification, but the gist is this: The vision for the church that a pastor wants can get in the way of his ministry to the church God has actually given him, and because the wish-dream church is an idol, it prevents us from actually loving our church well.

I think Bonhoeffer’s words are quite sobering and every pastor ought to consider them well. Idolatry is never far from us. From any of us.

Because the laity have wish-dreams too. They can have a wish-dream church experience or community. They can have wish-dream pastors. And these visions quench the Spirit’s working in the real stuff of church and ministry.

When a congregation becomes preoccupied with a vision for the church experience it wants, and then has to actually participate in the messiness of authentic Christian community, the contrast is jarring. Disappointed by the church’s failure to measure up to the image, the complaints begin, the justifications of the complaints take root, along with bitterness and irritation.

When a church person becomes preoccupied with their vision of the ideal pastor, their current pastor’s flaws become more pronounced, more egregious. Scores are kept. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations flourish. Slights are imagined. Strengths seem negligible, weaknesses insurmountable. The criticism begins, then the grapevine chatter, then the anonymous complaints, then the cold shoulders, the specious charges, the spirit of discouragement. All of it gets spiritualized, even as the wish-dreamer’s heart is hardening. The wish-dream keeps churches from loving their pastors and often abets hurting them.

Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
— 1 John 5:21