Amid the conflicts and tensions that arise in congregations, we have more than enough opportunities to act on impulse. Too often, especially when we are upset, we lock into a reactive tug-of-war: “Yes, you did!” “No, I didn’t!” Before long, we’ve said something that we wish we hadn’t. Escalation seems inevitable, but instead of getting into a contest, we can simply—in the words of recent meme—“Keep Calm and Drop the Rope.”
When were your glory days? Pose this question and a congregation’s leaders will often tell stories of high attendance, engaged participation, and buildings that couldn’t hold it all. Glory-era memories are almost always recounted as blissful, happy times of pure goodness. However, parts of the story rarely get told—including how the seeds of decline may have been planted amidst the goodness.
In the third season of the Netflix series The Crown, Prince Philip meets with clergy attending a retreat at a newly-established “center of recovery and renewal” on the grounds of Windsor Castle. Dean Robin Woods is facilitating the retreat; I’m sure he expects the prince to give a word of welcome and encouragement. Maybe he hopes participants will be pleased by the mere presence of a prince.
Meaning-making and belonging are core human needs. For parents and others who care about children’s future, another urgent need is to pass along our values to the young. While not every congregation excels at meeting all three of these needs, nearly every congregation tries. How can congregations respond to those needs both for their members and for those who are now looking elsewhere?
Chaos is a natural by-product of innovation. Innovation happens best in conditions of upheaval, disturbance, and dissonance. However, people expect their leaders to keep things calm, predictable, and orderly. How do we coax order out of chaos without squelching innovation?
Years ago a bright Yale student asked me how I would describe the difference between a church and any other charitable group. I gave the sort of answer I imagine many of us might give. I emphasized the church’s unique life-transforming mission and its special responsibility to transmit precious traditions across generations.
It was a good answer, but today I am afraid I’d have to add that of all nonprofits, congregations—and especially mainstream, relatively liberal ones—are among the most cautious and least willing to accept risk in order to fulfill their mission. We’re not alone. Many sleepy charities, government agencies, and old-line businesses also avoid risk. But where risk is concerned, many congregations fall into the slow group.
How does a leader say, “I don’t know what to do next,” without seeming indecisive?