Gossip As Moral Discourse And Why We Should Let It Happen

I just finished reading Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets, a memoir of his pastoral experiences in the small town of New Cana, Illinois. The whole thing is really good, but the chapter that challenged my imagination the most was the one titled, “Gossiping The Gospel.” It’s an unforeseen approach on the presence of gossip in the life of the parish and how it’s better to (mostly) embrace it than to try and stop it.

If you’re a pastor then you already know that your people talk about you. If you don’t know this or if you think you’re immune to such a thing, you may have an elevated view of yourself and your leadership abilities. Be sure to do a check-in on that.

People also talk about the goings on within the parish and what they think about certain people or programs or decisions that have been made. Every new idea or program is met with some level of resistance, and resistance motivates people to find others who feel the same way. It’s similar with preaching. Once we say something from the pulpit, it no longer belongs to us; our words are now in the hands of the people and those words can often get reshaped and passed on in various, sometimes strange and destructive, ways.

What makes gossip gossip is that it never involves the person at the center of the discussion. They aren’t around. There’s a circle of critique holding court without a witness. This is uncomfortable and scary for most people, and rightly so. No one likes to be the subject of a discussion they weren’t invited to.

But what is the right response to gossip in the life of the parish? Well, Lischer makes a case for allowing it to happen rather than shutting it down. (In light of the recent story coming out of the Dave Ramsey organization, this notion comes as a stark contrast.)

Lischer writes, “Gossip is the community’s way of conducting moral discourse and, in an oddly indirect way, of forgiving old offenses. In our town all desires were known, no secrets were hid, and every heart was an open book. Every life was gossiped by all, and all were gossips.”

Lischer peers into the practice a bit and finds what most of us can’t, which is the real possibility of something good emerging from gossip. And instead of jumping on it right away, we ought to allow it the space it needs to work its way back towards grace and empathy and understanding. Just give it time. Let it breathe. He carries a belief that most people want the best for others and that eventually the conversations will find their way home.

This is not to deny that some forms of gossip aren’t harmful. Far from the truth. There are discussions that take place in the life of the parish where hatred is the driving force and where ill-intent is the goal. These realities are painful and often hard to deal with. And when they are dealt with (I’ve never seen an effective system of doing so), it often creates more distance, more tension, more anger, more distrust, and predictably enough, more gossip.

Lischer also talks of gossip being a form of “continuing education.” He tells the story of his wife, Tracy, and their two-year old daughter, Sarah, visiting Tom and Lottie’s neighboring farm. Sarah wanted to see their baby chickens. When they walked into the chicken house, Sarah said, “lello!”, her word for “yellow.” He writes: “Lottie quickly turned to her own five-year old, Wendy Sue, whom Lottie always called ‘Miss Mouth’, and, making as if to box her ears, said, ‘Look there, Miss Mouth, and you don’t even know your colors. What’s wrong with you?’ Then she asked my wife, ‘How does that child know her colors? How does she know those chickens are yellow?’ Tracy said, ‘I teach her. You know, Lottie, I point to things like apples and rag dolls and name their colors. Then we repeat them together. See, I would say ‘apple, red; wagon, red,’ and so on.’ ‘Oh’, Lottie replied with a mixture of wonder and resentment.”

The obvious implication here is that Lottie would vent to her husband and friends about this, while also mulling it over and wondering if she ought to give a try herself.

This is how it goes with us, isn’t it? Change is always preceded by frustration and, sometimes, resentment towards the new idea. Most of the time we fight our way into something new. We have to shed old skin. I often find that when people are regularly venting about a new idea and making a case against it, they are also wrestling with whether or not they should also accept and embrace it. Often times, part of embracing something new is in the discourse of resistance, and we have to allow people that space and freedom to “work it out.”

Finally, Lischer see how gossip exhibits historical, moral, and pastoral dimensions. To illustrate this, he shares the story of (again) his wife, Tracy, hiring a teenage babysitter. The babysitter, of course, relays to her grandmother that Tracy doesn’t actually leave the property at all, but instead puts on a swimsuit and sets up a chair behind the garage, out of view, where she spends the afternoon reading books.

He writes (and this is long):

The grandmother takes that story to the weekly quilting session held in the church basement and effectively disseminates it to the mothers of the entire community, who in turn report it to their husbands, who may be trustees or members of the cemetery committee, as well as to their daughters and daughters-in-law, who in turn convey it to their husbands, who will confer on the matter in the feed store, the post office, the church parking lot, or the poker game in Buford’s Garage. If there is a switch-master in this process, it is Burley Means, not because he gossips more than anyone else but because he is in a position to gossip more than anyone else. He is the postmaster. From the same concrete-block building, he operates the post office and a tiny grocery store with tins of ham dating from late in the Truman administration.

By eleven o’clock one morning in the post office, Burley repeated verbatim to me something I had said in exasperation two hours earlier on the parsonage porch. Some trustees with chain saws had shown up unexpectedly at the parsonage. The trustees had a weakness for chain saws. They revved them up and banked them down like hot rodders on the Snake Road. Put a chain saw into the hands of a God-fearing trustee, and he becomes a Visigoth. The trustees proceeded to “trim back” the trees until they were, to my eyes, grotesquely disfigured. By the time I got out on the porch, they had finished their work, and I was fuming. “They look like hell!” was all I could say, a phrase that Burley repeated back to me with pious accuracy two hours later.

“I hear your trees look like hell,” he said.

Burley was the figurative successor of an actual switchboard operator, a woman named Hilda Semanns, who opened a telephone line for anyone wishing to place a call and monitored all conversations. Hilda Semanns really did know everything.

Anyway, Mrs. Lischer hides behind the garage and reads books. The community first asks the historical question, “Have we ever seen anything like this? Have any of our other ministers’ wives hid behind the garage to read? Have we ever heard of this type of behavior?”

Morally, the community wonders, “What are we to make of her actions?” Does such behavior indicate anything about her fitness as a mother or a pastor’s wife? Must one leave the premises if one hires a baby-sitter? The community attempts to attach a positive or negative valence to the behavior. It weighs this habit against other perceptions of Mrs. Lischer as mother, church member, and helpmeet: “She pedals those kids all over the county on that old bicycle Percy Heins sold her for five dollars. Yellow hair flying in the wind, the little girl on the bar, the baby in the basket. The three of them carryin’ on like songbirds.”

On the other hand: “When we invited her to join the altar guild, she asked what we do, and I said we wash and iron the paraments. She said, ‘Oh no, an ironing club!’ ”

And yet: “She asked Wilbur to plow for a garden—a big one. Says she wants to learn how to put up beets and corn. We can teach her something about that. We’re starting her on zucchini.”

And this: “The minister’s wife has a beautiful voice. She belongs in the choir.”

“We don’t have a choir.”

“With her, we could.”

Gossip is always a painful business but, when it functions as speech in the community of the baptized, it can serve a constructive end. In my wife’s case, the sifting stories led to grudging appreciation of a peculiar sort of prairie wife.

I agree with Lischer, especially on the grounds of practicality. As I mentioned above, I have never seen an effective means of dealing with gossip that doesn’t end up as an unhealthy display of control and authority. I’m also not ignoring the negative impact of hateful gossip on the life of the pastor or the church. That is all very real.

But this chapter isn’t about that sort of gossip. Lischer’s challenge is that we learn how to give people the room to work things out among themselves, even if we (and our leadership wins and losses) are the subject of their angst and frustrations. As well, that we allow the space for people to discover pastoral solutions in the midst of their meddling. He says, “Gossip is the de-centered speech that belongs to the entire community. A newspaper’s article cannot sift the stories and come up with a pastoral remedy for a delinquent teenager or a financially careless farmer.”

There was a time when I equated religion with an intensely private faith. Sticky Lutheran piety suited my own introverted nature just fine. But I didn’t find much piety in New Cana and certainly no privacy. Instead, I got myself apprenticed to a community, and this odd little warren of friendships, stories, rivalries, and rumors turned out to be my ministry itself.

Richard Lischer

  1. This is a very interesting take on gossip. That some of it can be viewed as a healthy way of working things out. It can be a struggle on both sides of the coin; when you hear you’ve been gossiped about and when you are the one doing the gossiping. I think the twin brother to gossip is complaining maybe. Kind of a struggle to know when it’s healthy and when it’s not. I guess we all tend to do too much of both? So perhaps try to minimize and balance with positive and constructive activity. Like “try to catch someone doing something right”.

    Liked by 1 person

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