I like sharing an umbrella with someone. It gives me an excuse to get close to them in our special safe place, cared for and caring. Maybe I need to like it, since I often forget to carry an umbrella! (It is hard being a native of California).
I also don’t like walking in the rain next to someone who I don’t think wants to share their umbrella, them dry, me not. And I don’t much care for sharing a tiny umbrella that deposits run off down my collar. (You can tell I have experience with all this).
A leader’s “umbrella”
I am thinking of umbrella’s and rainstorms because the metaphor of existing under the umbrella of someone is a relatively common way to describe how people function in a group. They are often protected by someone else’s greater power; they are “under their umbrella,” so to speak. Some people think of this picture as being about authority, I think of it as being cared for and caring.
To think about being under a leader’s umbrella, let’s start with the Apostle John, the master teacher on community in the early church. His time period was so tumultuous and threatening, he might relate to Jon Snow.
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. (1 John 2:18-20) As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. (2 John 1:6)
John’s three letters provide a lot of guidance for sorting out the intricacies of relationships in the body of Christ, especially relationships with leaders. The leaders have a limited but crucial function in keeping the church together and moving ahead while it faces all the opposition it always faces. As a leader, John seems to be having a tough time with people who push the boundaries – they say they don’t sin, they leave the fellowship to start communities based on the perverse understandings they call the truth, they don’t walk in love, and more. It looks like things have not changed that much, have they? We are still having trouble dealing with people who brazenly sin. We are never sure what to do with beloved friends who decide to set up shop just outside the boundaries of our church. We are not always sure whether they or us are not walking in love – or even if we like thinking about they or us. We are always sorting things out.
An image that helps do some sorting is about being “under the umbrella” of someone. In John’s terms, being under his umbrella, would be under the “anointing from the Holy One,” and showing that an individual “belonged to us.” He is writing to “dear children” so he undoubtedly thinks of them as under the protection of his parent-like love. When you have someone sharing your spiritual umbrella they have a special, intimate place you provide for them. Some of John’s friends used to be under his umbrella as he is under Christ’s umbrella. He is in pain as he writes his letters, since they are now out in the rain. It is even more painful that they call the rain sunshine! The whole point of his umbrella was to keep people spiritually dry and they are all wet.
When under a leader’s umbrella seems too special
One time we had an intense discussion among some leaders about how certain people seemed to function “under the umbrella” of a leader (particularly people who seemed to be buddies with a pastor). We were sorting that idea out. Some people seem to get special treatment. When they sin (sometimes repeatedly), the patience shown them looks like it is too patient. It is like they get a “bye,” when other people get opposed. Some people even get elevated into leadership through less-than-typical ways because another leader facilitates that. It can make a person wonder how that happened when others go through a lot of scrutiny and function with a lot more accountability.
It was an important discussion. I had a couple of immediate reactions:
1) When the church is not having a vibrant mission — that means it is not including new people who need to be fed with truth and love, people turn to the niceties of their structure and start wondering about injustices. When the “umbrella” is not expanding, people begin to squabble about getting wet.
2) Pastors and other leaders in the church are allowed personal choices and preferences about who shares their limited umbrella space. Intimacy is not unlimited and is usually subjective. It is not necessarily something one can demand. A leader might have a special interest in someone, have a history with them, or have a deeper knowledge of them than they have of others. They should not show favoritism, but certain people might be under their “protection” in a deeper way than others — that’s OK until it’s not. It is a blessing that we all care for one another — and we have many leaders, not just one pastor. So having a special place with the pastor is not the main marker of one’s value.
Umbrellas take some discernment
As I thought about the conversation some more, I felt a lot of sympathy for people who feel “out in the rain” and for leaders with an umbrella strapped to them:
1) I feel for people who innocently enter the church with hope and trepidation and become subject to the whims of inconsistent leaders. Leaders can often be so blind and we can so often be oppressed by their blindness. They forget that what they do usually teaches more than what they say or write. When their friends get special, even undeserved treatment, the rest of the people they oversee don’t feel much like friends. If they don’t even know that they turn a blind eye to an influential friend’s weaknesses, the whole church can feel dangerous.
2) I also feel for leaders who get monitored for any hint of injustice by people who never do the difficult things they are doing. Before one can criticize someone for protecting someone in a perverse way, they should probably have someone under their umbrella themselves! John called people “dear children” — the people he had nurtured in faith are like family to him, so of course he is concerned for their protection. Such care is a beautiful thing; we wouldn’t want to turn it in to a commodity that should be equally available to all from the “pastor store.” We should all be producing that love ourselves, not just demanding it.
It is no wonder that people have deserted the capital-C-Church in droves during the last decade. In general, the leadership is likely to be inept, unconscious or experimenting with things John would call antichrist. It is no wonder that people who manage to stay connected often resort to being nice but a bit remote, lest they have to deal with the intricacies of love in a missional community. John knows it takes the anointing of the Holy Spirit to persevere and truly walk in love.
I hope we stick with it. The deep-level discussion among the leaders encouraged me. It’s not like it is typical for regular people to worry about how to help the person needing discipline while attending to the desires of people who need someone to be disciplined! We are so not antichrist! Though our relationships can get so sick, they are also the places God is making us so well. I hope we keep praying, with John, that the Holy Spirit enables us to walk in love and keep sharing our umbrellas.
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