Lessons in group wordsmithing


Have you ever tried to hammer out something—a slogan, a mission statement, a position, a letter to the editor, an op-ed or other communication from a group? Frustrating, isn’t it?  I recently had some useful lessons in wordsmithing.  It happened in my congregation, but it could happen anywhere—a business, a neighborhood association, a volunteer organization.  In this case, we got stuck, and then unstuck (more or less) on the use of two words with multiple meanings.  The first was church.  The second was law.

Like many congregations in my faith tradition, in place of a creed we have an affirmation.  There are variants of the original in different congregations, but they are pretty similar. The first line of the version we had been using for decades was “Love is the spirit of this church.” The word church kicked off a heated discussion.  After we turned down the flame, we agreed that the word church had multiple meanings.  A building (the Presbyterians are building a new church), A worship service (The minister announced… at church this morning). A congregation (Fred is a member of First Baptist Church). A faith tradition (The Catholic Church practices infant baptism, while the Baptists baptize adults.)

But with all these meanings, there is no question that church is a Christian word.  Jews go to synagogues or temples, Muslims to mosques.  My faith tradition is an inclusive one, with Christian roots but also strong infusions of earth-centered, humanist, and Eastern religious teachings. I grew up in a liberal Christian tradition, so the word church didn’t bother me, but I understood the objection of others.

Church derives from the Greek kyrios, and roughly translates as house of the lord.  In French, Spanish and Italian, the word for a place of worship is derived from the Greek word ecclesia, or congregation, which would apply to any faith tradition.  But we decided that congregation was too long and too specific, because it did not affirm the larger faith tradition to which we belong.  After considering several alternatives, we rewrote the first line to read “We gather together in a spirit of love…”   Church had been replaced by we, which incorporates all of the meanings except a building.

As we worked through the rest of the affirmation, we decided to follow the lead of a sister congregation in replacing the word law. Originally the second line was “And service is its law.”  We replaced service with justice, but the real focus was on replacing law, which several of us found objectionable.  Our two philosophers (literally, both have graduate degrees in philosophy) liked yhe word law as something we chose to impose on ourselves.  But the multiple meanings of law again were a source of dispute and confusion.  The law of gravity? Don’t try defying it, although a few of us escape it for a while with the aid of space-age technology. The laws of nature? Hard to argue with them.  But the more common meanings of law are governmental or religious.  We have to obey the speed limit laws, the no-littering laws, the laws governing domestic violence, theft, and a host of other things that we ignore under peril of fines or jail sentences.  If you are an observant Jew you will also keep the sabbath and observe the dietary laws.  If you are a Muslim there are food prohibitions as well as obligations.  Seventh Day Adventists abstain from caffeine and alcohol, as do Mormons. Our  faith tradition affirms shared values, and has some rules or guidelines for behavior within the community, but no laws.

There is a widespread understanding of the word law as rigid, undebatable, and externally imposed, with violations subject to punishment.  Carrying that understanding into a religious community strikes a sour note with some of those who are asked to repeat this affirmation each Sunday. Philosophers notwithstanding, the second line now reads, “with justice as our guide.” Our philosophers still prefer law, but they did bow to the wishes of the several dozen participants who felt otherwise. language.

Wordsmithing in a group is a challenging exercise.  Poorly done, it can lead to ongoing conflict.  Well done, it can enrich mutual understanding. I hope your next effort in crafting a mission statement, a set of goals, a communication, or an affirmation is also an exercise in thoughful listening and practicing mutual respect.

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