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.
Here’s what laypersons need to know: Your ministers may look OK, but they are not. All ministers, even those who thrive on challenges, are by now exhausted, anxious, and at least intermittently depressed. Ministers need affirmation and affection right now, but what they mostly need from you is that you manage expectations.
The word “slept” has been trending on social media—I’m not surprised. Most clergy I’ve spoken to in recent months say they are not just tired—they are “exhausted.”
Given all the challenges we face—the pandemic, political polarization, racial injustices, rising unemployment, growing inequities—it is no wonder that leading and ministering stretches our capacities and taxes our energy. But if we are willing to step out of familiar ways of coping that have not worked, these times can also lead us into deeper ways of listening and learning.
What can a congregation do when a pandemic, a political crisis, and a racial reckoning come knocking at the same time? We were already overwhelmed by a ten-month long pandemic and growing polarization. Then last summer’s nationwide protests against racialized state violence forced many white citizens to begin to come to terms with our country’s 400-year legacy of racial injustice. On January 6, a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, threatening revenge against those they believed had betrayed them. Three major crises at once pose unprecedented challenges for congregational leaders.