“Love one another.” This is our mandate from Jesus, drawn from the laws of Moses and passed down generation to generation. While this seems simple enough, why do our relationships in the church often get so messy, complicated, even harmful? How do we instill a culture of loving well in communities made up of diverse, complex, and hurting people?

Sometimes I reflect on the messy struggle that it is to love one another in the church and I think to myself, “Wow … the church is so beautiful, we have such expansive aspirational theology in our polity, we are rife with gorgeous imagery and complex stories that are imprinted on our hearts through our hymnody, liturgy, and confessions. We make bold claims about working for humility, justice, and peace. There is so much potential for goodness in the life of a local church. Why do all these broken and messy humans have to show up and ruin everything?”

The truth is loving relationship take time, practice, and intention. As most of us know from our personal lives and relationship, the ones that thrive are the ones in which we can be ourselves and tell the truth, and where we can both give and receive care and compassion. Loving relationship are equal parts tender and honest. They are grounded in the desire to give as well as receive and often times they grow steadily over time.

Church life exists at a strange intersection. The church is a community, but it’s also an organization. The church is relational, but it’s also institutional. Some of our churches reflect a familial structure, either due to size or to the longevity of the membership. Others are structured more programmatically; they might be bigger, or they are designed around the activities and mission life of the congregation. Some of our churches have a corporate vibe. This is often due to size and the need for efficiency, but it is also a reflection of the values and expertise found in our communities.

Our approach to laying the groundwork of loving relationships will vary depending on our context and the culture of our congregation, but the first step is identifying love as a desired outcome. It seems silly, but in the midst of keeping our congregations alive we can become so consumed with maintenance of the system that we forget the “why” of what we’re doing.

Regardless of the congregation’s design or structure, is love at the heart of the church’s identity?

The first step in developing loving relationships is the good and scary work of becoming known. As members are brought into leadership positions, the pressure is to plug them in and get things rolling. We might take time to orient folks to the official roles and responsibilities of their leadership positions, we might even explain a bit about how our polity works and teach them about Robert’s Rules so our meeting can run decently and in order. But do we take time to know one another?

Authentic and loving relationships will only emerge if we are as intentional about forming them as we are in setting the business agenda or crafting the budget. This could be as simple as beginning meetings with opportunity for life updates and check ins. These communal conversations can be facilitated by story prompts or prayer requests. If it’s a brand-new concept, start small, invite folks to share about their week with a neighbor: one highlight, one low point, and then pray for each other. If you’re leadership has already established such practices, go deeper—invite conversations around topics such as seasons of change, fears and anxiety, work/life balance, and stories of hunger and joy.

The path to loving relationships in congregational life often begins with identifying what we need. This is hard and vulnerable work. Unfortunately, some of us, and some of our leaders, grew up in churches and families where we were never asked what we needed. We grew up in places where imperfections, weaknesses, mental health issues, addiction issues, family conflict, and trauma were often kept secret rather than shared. It takes time to create a culture in our communities where it’s safe and healthy to share our whole selves. It takes time to create systems of care and support where hard issues can be met with non-judgment, compassion, and resources. But we can begin by asking the question: What do you need?

For Reflection and Discussion:

What are the marks of your most loving relationships? What is the greatest challenge you encounter as you work to deepen your relationships? When you consider the ecosystem of your congregation, what are the marks of how you relate to one another? In what ways do you care for one another? Are there barriers that keep you from asking for what you need or sharing your whole selves?

Tell a story about a time you gave or received love in community. Where were you? How did you open yourself up to receiving love and care? Was it easy or difficult?

Engage together in “Remembering Our Baptism” (see Prayers and Spiritual Practice Resources).

Additional Activity: One-on-One Gatherings

If leaders have committed to a three-year term, invite them to plan to meet with at least four other leaders each of those three years. It could be a coffee, a meal, or even a walk. Invite them to start with folks they know the least before setting time with folks they know the best. As for structure, if it is needed, give three guiding questions:

What brings you joy?

Why do you love about our church?

What keeps you up at night?

Open and close with prayer.