The holiday season is filled with teachable moments. As you prepare for the children’s Christmas pageant and approve various images for advertisements and to placed on the worship screen, have you exercised care to represent the diversity of the world that Emmanuel entered into? We might have a black wiseman in our nativity set, or at Easter, make mention of Simon of Cyrene’s race, but is this mere tokenism? What about wrestling with the exclusivity of our approach to the holiday season?
The recent brouhaha over President Obama appointing a soap opera producer as ambassador to Hungary reminds me of the way congregations choose their leaders. There is a word for when nomination committees give out church offices as rewards for financial or political gifts. It’s the sin of simony, much protested by Martin Luther. But, I wish there was a word for doing the opposite. Too often, nominating committees beg people who work 9 to 5 at finances or in the building trades, to serve on the stewardship committee or as trustees. The resulting leadership is articulate and knowledgable, but lacks passion.
The story is that Alexander the Great had a mistress named Campaspe. She was beautiful and he was proud of her, so proud, that he took her to the famous artist, Apelles, who painted her in the nude. Alexander loved this painting. He noticed something, though. The reason Apelles did such a good job at the painting, was because Apelles saw Campaspe’s beauty more clearly than Alexander did. Now you would think, Apelles would get in trouble for ogling the Great’s girl. But Alexander chose instead to give Campaspe to Apelles as payment for the painting, which he took home to his palace.
Have you heard this one?
Baptist: How many disgruntled members does it take for your church to change the pastor?
Methodist: Oh we don’t have to worry about that. They change themselves.
Many churches are in conflict today. Often these fights have become abusive, traumatising parish leaders. I can give at least three reasons for why the American church scene has become so rancorous:
1) The steady decline in American church participation has caused us to feel depressed in our church work. Depressed people are risk adverse, passive aggressive, and argumentative.
2) The constant emphasis on church growth and how laity are keeping their pastors from being successful, has made us all feel ashamed. Shame-based cultures shuffle blame around rather than dealing problems in an objective fashion.
This week in Illinois, I had a lay person complain to me about his church. The church had been one of those success stories. A small congregation in the 1980s, receives a dynamic and gifted pastor who stays for over 20 years. In that time, the church grew. It became a large church with staff. When that pastor left, however, a rapid decline set in. They went through a series of pastors and now they are a small congregation again. “Wow,” I said. “I have just heard the same story from a church in Pennsylvania.”
About once a year, I attend the contemporary worship service at a church adjacent to the University of New Mexico. I like this church and enjoy the informal, but well organized, youth-oriented service. The praise band is lively, but punctual. The pastor knows how to give an appropriate message for that setting. The church has invested heavily in lighting and sound, so that the fellowship hall is ideal for contemporary worship. But, where are the college kids? I didn’t see any.
From time to time, churches go through transition. It may be a change of pastors, made more traumatic by the length of the exiting pastor’s term (more than 8 years), an over or under-functioning leadership style, or the presence of parish conflict. It may be that the church is changing locations or involved in a merger or parish realignment. It may be a transition to a different form or category of clergy leadership. These major changes require theological understanding and prayer. They are best undergirded by congregational study and a renewed emphasis upon the importance of worship and the sacraments.
On two occasions, I have pastored congregations whose people and leadership had less expendable income than the average resident of the the state. I noticed that when I went to meetings, I was the only person with a calendar. It was part of the culture of both of these congregations, to focus only on the present. I had a hard to time drumming up interest in planning programs that occurred in the future. A Zen master might praise these people for being mindful and living in the moment. Imagine how frustrating I found it.
Every church deals with four kinds of people: Faithful, Snackers, Near, and Far. To be successful, you need to tailor your evangelism and mission to meet the needs of each group. You also need to be brutally honest about your programing and budget. It’s very easy for the Faithful to consume all of the resources to the exclusion of the other three people groups.
The four groups are:
To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Denominational officials have a very limited tool box. They can credential new clergy and defrock inept ones. They can move pastors from place to place (or make suggestions if it is “call” system). They can keep both the congregation and clergy persons informed about policies and best practices. Given this tool box, every church problem looks like a leadership issue. The nail that fits the denominational official’s hammer is a church that will do better, if only they have the right pastor. But, what if governance of the congregation is dominated by a group of dysfunctional lay leaders?
In San Diego there’s a boat museum with three old submarines tied to the dock. I was visiting the Russian Whisky Class submarine from the 1970s, when I noticed a beautiful sailboat tacking against the wind in the harbor. What’s the difference between these two boats? The sailboat is dealing with wind and current. It is taking risks. The Russian sub is securely fastened to the shore. It is a museum piece. I find that when I talk about the church in the postmodern world, the image of the sailboat resonates with only a few church leaders. Most pastors and lay people would prefer to have their house of worship firmly entrenched in tradition.