History’s most transformational change agents—Jesus of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others—engaged consistently in three kinds of activity: they built movements, they spent years working for change, and they demonstrated a deep love for the individuals and societies they were striving to change.
This season has been relentless in its assault on our equilibrium. Mistakenly, many feel that they must resolve their own sense of overwhelm before they can effectively lead others. But overwhelm isn’t a problem to be solved; it’s an invitation to shift perspective.
As more folks get vaccinated and COVID restrictions end, we all long for a return to normalcy. Still, leading congregations is hard work and may get harder as we pivot once again in response to changing circumstances. Some people and some congregations struggle even as good news comes. Part of our ministry will be to help each other move from languishing to flourishing.
Every congregation is unique. It is located in a specific place, has a particular history, and evidences a unique culture. Yet dynamics and patterns of behavior recur across denominations, polities, and locations. Following are a set of congregational constants that I’ve observed across religious traditions. Each reader can decide whether they are true of your congregation, and if so, how they might help you to become a more effective leader.
Every busy person knows that if we want to add something new to our schedule, we need to let something else go. (You know this, right?) Religious institutions face the same dilemma—unless blessed with unlimited dollars for additional staff, they know that programs and projects need to end in order to start something new. Letting go is hard, though. It disappoints members, who are usually not only fans but donors. How does a church decide when to let go?
When I was a young seminarian, I worked in a factory that made doorknobs for historic buildings. In class I studied new, improved ideas about faith and life. At the W.C. Vaughan Company—working with Joe, Homer, and Fred—I learned to value what my elders had to teach.
That was more than forty years ago! Today pastors often ask me, “What should I do about the Elders?” They’re talking about the old guard—longtime and former leaders. Different congregations call them Deacons, Past Presidents, the Women’s Fellowship, or something else. Sometimes Elders have no formal name at all—but rest assured, if your congregation has existed for more than a decade, they do exist! Like Joe, Homer, and Fred, they can be challenging, but have a lot to teach.
The “go it alone” model of congregational life is dead. That’s my takeaway from a recent conversation with Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh. He is convinced, and I agree, that congregations that insist on going it alone it will be dead in due time, as well.