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Maybe you are killing your congregation. It is possible you do not mean to; but it happens. Your motives could be commendable. Yet perhaps you have fallen victim to EGO which is Edging God Out according to management guru and Christian leader Ken Blanchard. It could be that you are trying to reimage your congregation in your image of what it should look like rather than allowing it to be reimaged in God’s image.
In many cases, the classic Pogo cartoon is right when it suggests we have met the enemy and it is us. Often we discover that the person who is a fault—even killing our congregation—is the one we see in the mirror each morning as we put on makeup, shave, or brush teeth.
If you are undermining the health of your congregation, you may be the last to acknowledge it. Others around you may realize it long before you do. Maybe they are afraid to tell you, they have told you several times and you do not hear and understand it, or they have told you and you have protested.
Because three-fourth of all congregations are plateaued or declining in attendance, it could be that whoever is undermining the health of your congregation has as their motive to save it, turnaround it around, or help your congregation be more vital and vibrant. They just do not know how to do it without also hurting the congregation along the way.
Never forget that among the people undermining the health of your congregation, it is possible that one of them is you. Continue reading this article with openness to this possibility.
The Story of a Congregational Killer
One of my most memorable stories about a layperson undermining the health of his congregation was Zachery Taylor. That is not his real name, but he did have the name of a former president of the United States. When I met Zachery he was 72 years old and had been attending his congregation since birth. He knew all the ins and outs of his congregation which at its height had more than 500 in attendance, but was now struggling with around 125 in attendance in a building that would accommodate its former size.
He so much wanted his congregation to be vital and vibrant. He loved it. He felt its unhealth deeply and personally. He was just overbearing in his approach to trying to help his congregation thrive. Several times each year he would be in a meeting where someone would make a suggestion that he perceived to be ridiculous. He would stand up, yell at them, challenge their commitment to the church as compared to his, and soon thereafter these people would leave the church. He had a lot of notches in his life journal where he had fired shots that helped kill his congregation.
The pastor, staff, and many lay leaders were afraid of Zachery. When I worked with his congregation on envisioning their future, I was well aware of Zachery and his antics. At a leadership retreat when the flow of the conversation moved in a direction radically different from Zachery’s viewpoint, he sought to take over the meeting from me. I was ready. I gently, firmly, and consistently confronted him to where he left the meeting. The congregational leadership were both in shock and grateful that someone would stand up to Zachery. It was a healing time for them.
They then made the decisions they felt to be God’s call upon them, put them into action, and within a short period of time could be characterized as a vital and vibrant congregation. Their killer had been disarmed. They had been freed to soar.
Oh that it would be that easy for every congregation! This is the exception rather than the rule. However, there are ways to recognize, get out in the open, and deal with those who are undermining the health of your congregation. First, let’s name some of them.
Not So Hidden People Undermining the Health of Congregations
After the first generation of a congregation’s life, an increasing number of not so hidden people may actually be trying to kill the congregation. These can be laypersons, staff, or the senior or solo pastor. These can be people connected with the congregation for short time or a long time. These can be young people or old people. These can be official leaders or unofficial influencers. These can be people with positive agendas or negative agendas.
Often they do not realize they are undermining the health of your congregation. Many times they think they are trying to save the congregation. Usually they are trying to remake the congregation in their image rather than allowing the congregation to be remade in God’s image.
Here are some types of not so hidden people I have observed over more than four decades of working with congregations in the second, third, four, and following generations of their journey. These are a compliment to the 20 hidden factors killing congregations offered in my article What’s Killing Our Congregation?
I offer 20 not so hidden people here. Who would you add? [Send me an e-mail at GBullard@TheColumbiaPartnership.org with your ideas about these or other factors.]
1. People in Denial: Many people are in denial that their congregation is no longer fueled and driven by God’s empowering vision for them as a congregation. In fact, they are not sure this is necessary. They have a good church with good people and good programs. They ask “what is it about this vision thing?” They believe the church is just fine, yet they are unintentionally undermining the health of their congregation.
2. People Who are Apathetic: Over a number of years, people become comfortable with the way things are in their congregation. They enjoy predictable patterns, predictable worship, predictable holiday seasons focus around the liturgical calendar. The way things happen in the congregation feels good, and meets their need for stability. They will not take action to stop someone from undermining the health of their congregation.
3. People Committed to the Traditions of the Past: One way to define a traditional congregation is that they enjoy the historic traditions of the church. They believe they are the keepers to the core ideology of the congregation. As such they have a responsibility to maintain the heritage and history of the congregation in a recognizable form. They are holding back your congregation.
4. People Still Trying to Fulfill the Founding Mission: People who can remember when a congregation was started, have relatives that have constantly talked with them about the early years of the congregation, or people who had significant spiritual and emotional experiences during the first generation of a congregation, are often seeking to relive those days and complete a founding mission that was never realized. They are undermining the future health of your congregation.
5. People Who Think Programs for Non-Adults Are the Answer: Many laypersons buy into the often stated idea that the preschool, children, and youth of today are the leaders of this congregation tomorrow. They also buy into the notion that if you reach children, then their parents will follow. This is partially true. The bigger issue is the need to focus on adult discipleship development. But that does not carry the same emotion as reaching children. However, the impact of reaching heads of households is geometrically greater. Adults help renew the core and extend the ministry.
6. People Not Maturing as Disciples: When more than 50 percent of the average number of adults present on a typical Sunday for worship are not intentionally growing spiritually and emotionally as disciples, then it is an unhealthy sign in the congregation. Congregational killers may be people who are spiritually stale or stick, and their undermining actions are a cry for wholeness. When people are maturing spiritually and emotionally they are healthier and produce a healthier more vital and vibrant congregation.
7. People with Closed Relationships: People who are part of cliques in a congregation tend to have blinders on about the congregation as a complete system. They see things primarily, perhaps even exclusively, from the perspective of their small group, close friends, people who have sat around them in worship for years, or a specific program of the congregation about which they have great passion.
8. People with Shallow or Myopic Thinking: Continually moving a congregation forward is advanced science and art. It is complicated. Few people in a congregation understand how to do it. Too many people have shallow or myopic thinking about how a congregation ought to function. They take Hebrews 13:8 out of context [which talks about Christ being the same yesterday, today, and forever] and believe their church should not change, but should embrace the foci near and dear to their heart. They misunderstand the difference between simple church and simplistic church.
9. People Who Manipulate the Congregation Based on Their Life Issues: Too many people play out their life issues in their congregation. They cannot seem to get a handle on their personal and family life, or control their work life, but they gain position or influence in their congregation and play out their need to be in control of something. Over my ministry career I have especially noticed this in people beginning in their 50s when they realize they are never going to get to where they feel they deserve to be in their career and other aspects of their lives. They get angry, and they express this anger within their congregation.
10. People of Long Tenure: Similar to the people who are apathetic or want to worship the heritage of the church are people who have been in the congregation for a generation or more. They believe they have preferred stock in the organization, and that their vote ought to count as more than one vote. They believe people ought to listen to them because they have been around, given a lot of time to the congregation, and given a bunch of money—as if their money buys favor with God.
11. People Committed Only to Attractional Approaches: Some people believe it is all about size and growth. They want their church to grow and be bigger. The lack of growth they believe is the failure of leadership; especially someone else’s leadership other than their leadership. If the church is not growing then there must be something wrong with the leadership. They fail to realize the complexity of growth, its causes, its sustainability, and how to count by households rather than individuals.
12. People Captivated by a Churched Culture: Even in the Bible belt of the United States, much less the urban areas of Canada, the churched culture has diminished and may even be gone in some places. People who have been life-long churched culture people do not understand the innovations in ministry needed to reach people from a non-churched culture. So, they block innovation and style transitions and changes.
13. People Committed to What the Community Once Was: Another characteristic of long tenure church members and people deeply committed to a churched culture is that they often remember the congregation community context the way it was. They believe that people will easily and naturally come to church if invited. They do not see that the demographics of the community context may have changed to the point that what the church offers is irrelevant, and does not meet the spiritual and social needs of the people.
14. People Who Worship the Bible and Not the Triune God: Some people have an Islamic view of the Bible where the Word of God itself is sacred rather than a Christian view where the Word is made flesh. They make the Bible the fourth person of the Trinity. They worship what they understand—or misunderstand—the Bible to say, and cannot allow God’s Word to speak into the lives of people in a variety of ways. They often have a bounded faith.
15. People Who Are Just Plain Dull: Life in Christ, and thus life in a congregational community, is intended to be exciting and joyous. Christians should continually celebrate as Easter People. When people connected with a congregation are just plain dull without any obvious joy in the Lord, they contribute to the death of congregations. They offer no evidence to spiritual seekers that life in Christ makes a positive difference in their lives.
16. People Part of the Same Old Leadership: When the leadership systems of a congregation are closed to new members, people with different perspectives, and/or younger members, then those who lead can become stale in their leadership. If there are not open doors or windows for newer, younger, more diverse people to move deeper into the life and leadership of a congregation, they often look for another place where their value and worth is appreciated.
17. People Who Believe Business Management is the Answer: A congregation is not an organization. It is a spiritual organism which is living, breathing, dynamic, and ever-changing. As such, business models do not allow congregations to soar with faith. People who attempt to make their congregation operate like a business limit the future of the congregation and often smother the congregation. While some principles of business are appropriate in a congregation, the overarching tone must be one of a Christ-centered, faith-based, spiritual community.
18. People Devoted to Maintaining the Museum: When the facilities of the congregation, paying down debt, memorializing vast parts of the facilities, reserving portions of the facilities for one group or use so that it can be set up permanently like a museum display or attraction, then the people driving this are undermining the health of the congregation.
19. People Who Hoard and Mismanage Money: When the priorities for the finances of the congregation move to supporting the maintenance of the facilities, and other places of fixed costs, and when the facilities and personal costs exceed 70 to 75 percent of the budget, then little money is left to do the real ministry of the congregation. People who empower and endorse this unbalanced approach to the use of tithes and offerings are undermining the health of their congregation.
20. People Anxious About Their Eternity: People who are scared to die because they are not sure about their eternity, people who are afraid to allow too many changes in their congregation because it might displease God and negatively impact their eternity and people who underestimate the grace and unconditional love of God are undermining the health of their congregation.
Why Have I Identified These Not So Hidden People?
First, I have identified these people because one or more of these people might be you. If you can see yourself in any of these people, then with the help of the Triune God and your congregation you may be able to transition and change. That is my greatest hope for you as a Christian affiliated with a congregation. You can move from undermining the health of your congregation to empowering the health of your congregation.
Second, I have identified these people because there are so many of them in every congregation. We all need to realize a couple of things. One is that we are still very human even though we have redeemed by our relationship to God through Jesus Christ. Another is that we can help one another in a congregational community to move from being people who intentionally—but often unintentionally—undermine, to people who empower.
Third, the present and future ministry of many congregations has such great potential in the midst of the rule and reign of God kingdom that is worth the risk to raise these issues and characteristics of people who undermine the health of congregations. The hope is that intentional, positive decisions will be made by many individuals and congregations to move in a different direction.
What Should We Do About the Not So Hidden People Killing Our Church?
Thus far in this series of articles, we have dealt with the subject What’s Killing Our Congregation? and Who’s Killing Our Congregation. The next topic will be Pastoral Leadership Failure: What if it Really is the Pastor’s Fault?
We are working our way through this crucial topic. Stay tuned for more on this topic. In fact, let me know what you would like to know about this topic by connecting with me at GBullard@TheColumbiaPartnership.org.
Important Things to Know
George Bullard is a Ministry Colleague and the Strategic Coordinator with The Columbia Partnership. He is also executive director [General Secretary] of the North American Baptist Fellowship of the Baptist World Alliance. He is the author of FaithSoaring Churches, Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of Your Congregation and Every Congregation Needs a Little Conflict; published by Chalice Press and Lucas Park Books of St. Louis. With Chalice Press he is the Senior Editor for the TCP Leadership Series which now includes more than two dozen books.
The Columbia Partnership is a non-profit Christian ministry organization focused on transforming the capacity of the North American Church to pursue and sustain Christ-centered ministry. Its current vision is to engage 2100 congregations in transformation annually by the end of 2017. Travel Free Learning is a sharing knowledge emphasis of TCP. For more information about products and services check out the web site at www.TheColumbiaPartnership.org, send an e-mail to Client.Care@TheColumbiaPartnership.org,
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