“You know your body better than anyone.” It was late June 1989 and I was reading in the Detroit Free Press lazily one Tuesday morning. The article was about women’s relationship with their obstetrician, and clearly stated that if as a pregnant woman you had any question, no matter how trivial or odd or stupid it sounded, you should pick up the phone and call your ob/gyn. You live with yourself 24 hours a day, seven days a week; you feel your pain; you know yourself best. It was odd, the article said, how women so easily give up their responsibility for themselves. At the time I was 20 1/2 weeks pregnant. I am convinced this advice saved the life of my daughter … yes, the same one who was married earlier this summer.
You know your body better than anyone. This premise changed the way I approached doctors from then on out. They weren’t just taking care of me, or “fixing” me, or keeping me healthy. They were offering me advice so that I could take care of me, so that my body could heal, so that I would remain as strong and as healthy as I could. It meant asking questions. It meant standing up to student doctors at the teaching hospital in the middle of night demanding they explain why my doctor did not order a specific medication, when I had been on it for four weeks. It meant getting second opinions. Later, as the internet developed, it meant doing research on the diagnoses I received, evaluating how they lined up with my experience, what other experts were saying, and then going back to my doctor with questions, asking for more explanation, etc. My doctors, and my therapist, and my coach are partners with me in my own well-being. They are advisors, but, ultimately, I make the decisions for my own care, for my own life.
We live in an age of responsibility. More is required of us to be the decision-makers. We need to be able to not only read articles linked to our Facebook page, but we need to be able to assess how “true” that article might be. Is it propaganda? Is it manipulating evidence to make a point? Is it based on false premises? Is it logical? Is it based on credible sources? Is it trying to sell me something? We need to take responsibility for ourselves. This week my doctor gave me the results of an MRI of my lower back. She shared the findings of the MRI, explained them to me by illustrating with the model of the spine, and gave me the pros and cons of three different ways forward. It’s not my doctor who needs to make the decision about what treatment I try next; I get to make that decision, because I know my body and my life and my priorities and my mission better than anyone else.
In the church, it’s the session’s (or governing board’s) responsibility to know your church body better than anyone else. The session has the responsibility to know the mission and vision of the congregation, its particular peculiarities, its strengths and its weaknesses, its passions and its foibles better than any other entity. Taking responsibility for your “body” … the church … requires getting the advice of others who have particular sets of knowledge and experience. Sometimes it means “taking one’s pulse” or “blood pressure” or reading the church equivalent of an MRI.
As a presbytery leader, I have come to understand that the role of the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry is to be the advisor, the doctor, the coach, in this process. We have a different set of knowledge, experience and tools than most sessions. While the session is the expert on their own church body … the COM has expertise in how to search for a pastor, how to work with the Board of Pensions, how to handle conflict in the church, how to read the demographics of a community, how to understand the system of congregations, how to moderate a session meeting, how to interpret the book of order, how to deal with pastoral misconduct, how to deal with trauma or crisis in a congregation and much more.
One of the biggest mistakes, I believe, COM’s make, is thinking they are the ones to “fix” the church, or “heal” the church, or “decide” for the church. And our sessions encourage it; they expect it. I cannot tell you how many congregations have called me or the COM to “wave our magic wand” and take care of the problem (whatever it is.) Most of the time, the presbytery’s role is not to fix, or take responsibility for the congregation, but to partner with the session. We advise, we share our experience, we evaluate the situation, we suggest surveys or town hall meetings or other “tests” to gather evidence, we offer explanations, we teach, we pray, and we encourage the congregation, the session and the pastor/s. It is the session’s responsibility to act or not act on the COM’s advice.
It’s not easy. For the session it often means hard work. For the pastor it means taking some risks. For the COM it means being patient and allowing the session and pastor to make decisions, even when they decide something contrary to your advice. For all of us, it means trusting. It means sharing control and responsibility. It means entering into a new partnership. “No,” I told my ENT in the late 1990’s, I wasn’t ready for surgery to remove the goiter on my thyroid. The risk was too great to my voice; I was a preacher and a singer. So we just watched it for three years. The doctor understood; it was my choice. I knew myself better than anyone. When the goiter grew to the size of a tennis ball and was pressing in on the trachea, I changed my mind. It was time for surgery. At that time, we reassessed and found a small pocket of cancer on the other lobe of the thyroid … if we had removed the goiter three years earlier, we wouldn’t have found the cancer on the other side. Being responsible for ourselves doesn’t mean being reckless, being obstinate, or denying reality. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It means being perceptive, it means constantly evaluating and learning, it means keeping in mind the whole not just a part, it means praying, it means trusting, it means changing our minds, it means forgiving.
It was a Tuesday when I read that article in the Free Press. I had an appointment scheduled with my obstetrician on Thursday. I was afraid I’d look like a “silly pregnant lady” if I called the nurse that morning, because I had experienced only a minor symptom; it was probably nothing. My pride was at stake. And, I also can’t deny, I was afraid that it was something, and my child’s life was at stake. Denial was easier. But the article gave me pause. I let it sink in. I was the one responsible for my own body … and now the life of the child growing within me. The doctor couldn’t know what was happening with me at my house that morning, at least not until told him. So I did. That afternoon the doctor had admitted me to the hospital and was attempting to stop the much-too-early delivery of my child. Some would say that doctor was a miracle worker. Some would say we were lucky. I thank God for the writer of the newspaper article. I thank God that I stopped, listened, and prayed. I thank God for the boldness of the Spirit who led me to pick up the phone and dial. If I had waited until Thursday to talk to the nurse, I wouldn’t have been able to attend the glorious wedding of my daughter in June 2013.