Are church people like apes? If so, how much? Frans de Waal’s book, Our Inner Ape:A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, is about the apes that are most like us, chimps and bonobos. De Waal observes the mixture of aggression and cooperation that is seen in both groups (far more aggression in chimps, far more cooperation in bonobos), and observes that humans have both qualities. De Waal has the greatest respect for the complexities of ape communities. He writes, “Keepers who fail to take apes seriously will never get along with them, and those who take them too seriously will succumb to the web of intrigues, provocations, and emotional blackmail that suffuses every ape group.”
I wonder whether there might be a corollary for church leaders: “Leaders who fail to take church people seriously will never get along with them, and those who take them too seriously will succumb to the web of intrigues, provocations and emotional blackmail that suffuses many church groups.” I hope we all have the same respect for those we lead that de Waal has for the communities he studies. Some pastoral leaders don’t respect their followers and don’t take them seriously. They assume the followers need to be enlightened and that they are the ones to enlighten. These leaders often end up in a battle of wills with their congregations. Some leaders spend all their time caught up in the emotional morass church life can become when people are anxious. They end up sucked into the web of intrigues and unable to move forward.
When you respect those you lead, without taking them too seriously, you honor their perspective and contribution, and you stay free enough to keep your sense of humor about the vagaries of church life. “Here it comes again,” you may think, and move on to the next goal. At least, on a good day, you can. When you get caught up in the web, you can get out of it a little more quickly. God created relationships, in ape communities and in human communities, and we all get the chance to practice relating every day.