Lessons I Learned from My Congregation
Reflections by OKWU’s Vice President of Student Development, Rev. Kyle White
The Summer of 1987 changed me. I surrendered my life to Christ, accepted the call to ministry, and shared all this publicly with my home church. A week later, my pastor invited me to speak at a local congregation. I was overjoyed! That Saturday, I bragged to my probation officer that I had my first “speaking gig.” I told everyone “I did such an amazing job when I shared my testimony that I am already getting calls” and my arrogance grew with each telling.
On Sunday, July 19, 1987, I had a friend drop me off at the church. As I stood looking at the front doors—my oversized collar providing the only ventilation for my borrowed wool suit—my arrogance left me, following the rivulets of sweat. I heard the sound of singing as I slowly opened the increasingly heavy door.
I was late.
A song ended just as I finally wrestled the door open, and the weight of the silent walk to the front of the church turned my legs weak. (Months later, I realized the suspicious eyes and uncomfortable stares I experienced during that walk were a daily experience in Oklahoma for this African-American congregation).
The head deacon offered me a seat next to him on the front row as the organist began another song. I leaned over and whispered an apology for my lateness and told the deacon my name. His blank face made it clear he had no idea who I was or why I was there. I mentioned the name of my pastor and saw the realization dawning that I was the guest speaker. His lack of enthusiasm drained the last remnants of my confidence.
As I finally made my way to the podium, I folded my sweat-soaked notes and put them in my pocket. Trembling, voice cracking, I came clean. I told them my story, the story of my abusive family, the story of my abandonment, the story of my arrests and the truth of my unworthiness. I finally finished with a hokey, “If God can love an unlovable person like me imagine how easy it is for him to love all of you.” I walked off the stage, and the congregation surrounded me and shook my hand with genuine gratitude. They saw through this terrified little white kid to see something worth salvaging. They loved me, and I could do nothing but love them back.
They asked me to come back to speak the next Sunday, and I did—for four years.
This congregation became my spiritual mentors and taught me about God’s unifying, healing love. Let me share a few highlights from those lessons.
Unity Starts with Christ’s Love and Grace
At the end of a problematic church leadership meeting, one of my deacons pulled me aside and said, “Regardless of how difficult families can be, know that we are in this together.” Interpreting my skeptical look—as a kid who without the context of family—he gave a deeper explanation. “You were born into a world that broke you, and that brokenness separated you. We saw your brokenness when you found us, but Christ’s healing united us. Sin and brokenness separate, but God’s forgiveness unites.” He put his hand on my shoulder and concluded, “God’s love is stronger than our disagreements.”
I can’t tell you how many times I have plagiarized those words throughout my ministry.
The next Sunday, I spoke on Romans 10:12-13: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
After reading the verse, I declared, “We are united under Christ’s love, and any other banner than that banner won’t sustain us. We are family, serving the same father.” The boldness of my claim of family paused my words. I looked down at my notes. A few heartbeats later, looking up, eyes wide with hope, “You are my family!” I let the words hang in silence. Then someone from the audience: “That’s right, Reverend, you’re my family.” Another one, “We love you reverend.” After a moment, I was able to croak out, “And I love you.”
This congregation exemplified unity. One of my favorite examples came years later after I sent out my graduation invitation to the church. Sunday morning, Mrs. W. stopped me: “I got your invitation in the mail. When I first got it, I was upset, and I said, ‘Who is this White boy sending me a graduation announcement?’’ She chuckled, and patted my hand, “I forgot that you were White.” She leaned forward and put her forehead against mine. “I love you, Reverend Kyle.”
Here is the message you didn’t hear in that conversation:
Mrs. W. hated white people, with good reason. What I heard her say in that moment was “I forgot that you carry within your pigment the representation of all those men who called me horrible things. I forgot you look like those men who beat my now-deceased husband in front of my children. I forgot you look like the monsters from my childhood. Christ’s love is more powerful than my hate.”
She loved me and I could do nothing but love her back.
Unity is Strengthened by Truth and Doctrine
Monday morning, sitting in my small church office, a clanging filled the room, and it took me a moment to realize that the little phone in the corner worked. I slowly reached for the receiver and felt disappointment at the tenacity of the caller…On the other end, the person said, “Hello? Kyle? This is DL.” Our church had recently joined a new denomination, and DL served as the local denominational leader. In the millisecond it took for me to recover and return a, “Hello!” my mind raced through all the possible reasons for this call, few of them hopeful.
“Hello Dr. DL. How may I help you?” DL explained that he had a “treat” for our church—a Big Time Preacher (BTP) who wanted to come and fill the pulpit on Sunday at no charge to the church. As I processed this news, DL asked, “What time does your church start?” My intimidation level left the charts, and I failed to notice the absence of consent for this BTP to fill the pulpit and simply gave DL our starting time. I did manage to ask, “Should I reach out to BTP and let him know what we have been covering and what verse we are on this Sunday?” The DL mentally patted my head with a chuckle and said, “I think BTP will be fine coming in without that distraction.”
That Sunday morning the BTP showed up in a suit that cost more than six months of our offerings and a personality that filled our sanctuary. He graciously took time with each of our members and showed kindness and grace towards me. His sermon delivery demonstrated the justification of his popularity. I still remember the big idea that he left us with, “Doctrine should never divide. Doctrine should always be sacrificed for unity.” He left the stage with many an amen and a feeling of having listened to a high-quality speaker.
When I sat down to Sunday lunch with a couple of my trusted leaders that day, they were unusually silent. I broke the awkwardness with a, “What did you all think?”
My Head Deacon spoke first, “Reverend, I know he is a big deal in our new denomination, but please, don’t let him in your pulpit again. It is your responsibility to protect the pulpit, and we can’t allow bad theology.” One of my other leaders chimed in, “We have several new Christians who don’t know the basic Bible stories, and it is your responsibility to protect them from bad ideas.”
Eyebrows furrowing, I asked, “What bad idea are you referring to? I’m not following.”
The Head Deacon put his fork down and said, “Doctrine and truth should never be put aside for the sake of unity. Philippians tells us that we are to strive together for faith and so if faith and truth are violated we must not set it aside to maintain unity. Instead, we must call out those violators.”
He sat back long enough for me to think he finished. Just as I took a breath to speak, he sits up and says, “True unity is strengthened by the truth and doctrine of the scripture and unity is broken by false doctrines and lies.”
Not wanting to be taken in the second time, I waited till he speared his steak and then replied, “I agree that we can’t set aside doctrine and truth, but we do have baby Christians that need milk. Maybe they aren’t ready for doctrine.” I leaned away from the table, patting my back with a sip of coffee.
“Kyle, all scripture and truth are meat, we have baby Christians who have a milk understanding. It is your job to break it down to help them understand.”
Over the years, his wisdom proved itself out. I quickly discovered that teaching sound doctrine and focusing on the truth of scripture strengthened the unity of our congregation. I also learned that a poor understanding of scripture builds disharmony.
Unity is Sustained by Obedience
Placing my keys on the table as I entered the house, I noticed a folded-up piece of paper with my name: Mrs. S. wants you to call her. She doesn’t care how late. Grabbing the phone, I typed the number by heart, and she answered on the second ring, “Reverend Kyle?”
“Yes ma’am, are you okay?”
Sniffling, she chokes out, “It’s R.” Her son, R, recently started in our congregation’s mentoring program. He had a magnetic personality and a promising future as a leader in our church. Prepared for the worst, ready to tackle my pastoral duties I asked what happened; her words caught me off guard.
Still crying, “Reverend, tonight, I found out that R. is living with his girlfriend and is engaged in premarital sex with her. Will you please confront him and let him know that he can’t act that way and still be part of our mentoring program?”
I opened my mouth to exclaim, “So, he is safe! Thank God.” Instead, I closed my mouth as the panic of her request filled my mind. She wanted me to confront him. Shame pushed panic aside as I realized that my fear of confronting him outweighed my gratitude for his safety or even my worry for his soul. Concealing the storm in my head, I asked her if we could sit down and talk the next morning. She agreed, and we set a time to meet. I spent the rest of the evening exploring ways to allow R. to stay part of our mentoring program.
The next morning, while getting dressed, I owned up to what I had been doing. I spent all night exploring ways to shirk the responsibility of confronting sin.
Mrs. S. arrived at my office first and handed me a cup of coffee as I sat behind my desk.
Sipping my coffee, I asked, “How are you doing?”
Exhaling with emotion, “Fine. I am upset and embarrassed over my son’s actions, and I told him how I feel. I told him that I love him, and he will always be my son, but I do not accept his behavior. I also told him that I was going to let you know what he was doing. Not that he is hiding.”
Keeping my eyebrows from raising, I asked, “How did he respond?”
Closing her eyes, “He told me that other people in our church are doing wrong things that we don’t know about, so, the only thing that makes his sin worse is the fact that his is public.”
I murmured, “He’s got a point.”
Mrs. S.’s eyes flew open, “Excuse me Reverend? Did you say he has a point?”
She did not let me respond, “He has a point, sure, and his point is stupid! The fact that we know about his sin doesn’t make his sin worse but requires a response. Publicly accepting sin is publicly condoning sin. The lack of knowledge of someone else’s sin doesn’t excuse the sin in your own life. How stupid!”
The truth in her words slapped me; I rubbed my reddening cheek.
Immune to my discomfort, she continued, “Reverend Kyle, I know you are feeling uncomfortable with the idea of confronting my son. However, confrontation and kindness are not opposites. Both are aspects of God’s love. My son needs both, and he needs it from his pastor.”
Her genuineness elicited a simple, “Yes, ma’am.”
Her forthrightness and honest desire to see her son brought back to the fold profoundly impacted my ministry. I learned from her that as a follower of Christ I cannot compromise on obedience. No matter how much I want to be accepted or liked, my responsibility belongs to the values of Christ. Our response to the offender is to confront them with the love of Christ and the Truth of scripture with the desire of pointing them towards Salvation through repentance.
Later that afternoon I called R. and counted the rings thinking, Five rings, and I hang up. R. picked up on the fourth ring.
“Hello?” He answered.
“R., this is Kyle, do you have time to meet?”
“You talk to my mom already?”
Considering the ethical implications of a pastor lying I eventually answered, “I have.”
Surprisingly, R. agreed to meet.
During that meeting, I told R. that I cared for him, but as long as he chose to live promiscuously he could not serve in any leadership capacity in our church. I explained that we must not compromise what the Bible says about sexual purity.
He left my office without saying a word.
Nine months later and R. walked in the back door of the church and sat on the last row. I did my best to not stare at him during the sermon.
With the message completed, I made my way to the rear of the church and just saw the back of R. as he walked out the door without acknowledging me.
It took another six months before I spoke to R. This time he called me and asked to meet.
I beat him to the church and handed him a cup of coffee as he walked into my office. R. sat there, staring into his cup. I waited.
A few minutes later, he looked up, eyes red, “Reverend, I was wrong. Can I come back?”
Unable to hide my smile, “Of course you can.”
And he did.