Wednesday, March 19, 2014

If I Needed a Doctor, I Wouldn't Call You

Years ago, a well-meaning family member almost shouted at me to “do something” about another dysfunctional family member who was acting out at the time.  Let’s just take it as a given that I was the one who ‘should’ do something.  The totally frustrating, even angering, thing for me was the vast universe of presuppositions contained in that single statement.

What I said back at the time was, “what, exactly, is it that you propose that I do?”

The well-meaning family member’s response was silence and my retort a snort.

That’s pretty much how I feel about all the advice out there in ether-land about how church is being done so very, very wrong, especially by the wee tiny ones.

Everybody is pretty quick to diagnose the many (as they see it) problems.  But they’re pretty darned short on sound, concrete advice about what to do different, better.

So to all the advice-givers, I have some advice for you:

1. Stop presupposing you know what the problem is and that we don’t.

2. Stop presupposing that we’ve been busy lo these many decades doing nothing until you came along.

3. Never write another diagnosis piece without offering the cure.  Without a proposed cure, you are a waste of my time.

4. Be specific.  “Be nicer” is about as helpful as . . . well, my mother reads this, so I won’t say how helpful it isn’t, but I hope you take my point.

5. Strive for a bit more compassion.  Use those pastoral skills you were taught.

6. Think about context.  For example: I live in a remote rural county with a total population of roughly 2,400 people and declining.  The average age has to be about 60.  The folks who move here (largely in retirement) have self-selected to live in a remote geographic area.  They think and act individually rather than in a community fashion on many issues.  There are quite a few people of faith who eschew church entirely, worshiping alone at home not because church has failed them but because that’s the kind of people they are.  In the eight years I’ve been here as pastor, roughly 40 new folks have come to and through this church.  In other words, for every new person, we lose another at the rate of almost 100%.  How do you ‘gain’ ground in numbers when it’s an ageing population, which means your members will (a) die; (b) move in with the kids; ( c) go into assisted living; or (d) simply stop attending because of difficulties in hearing or embarrassment about things like incontinence in pretty short and fairly predictable order?  People literally have joined this church to die or be buried here.  Over 50% of our attendance is by people who will never join the church.  What exactly do you propose I do to increase membership when we die about as quickly as we join?  What should I do to boost the pool of leadership material when it’s leadership that many seek to avoid?

So, I ask you what I was asking the well-meaning family member those many years ago: What, exactly, is it that you propose that I do?  What should I do that I have not already done?  Really, tell me, because I’m fresh out of ideas.  So tell me and I’ll do it.  Otherwise, it’s probably best that you say nothing at all.

I’ll get specific since I’ve asked you to.  Carey Neuwhof recently posted in his blog a piece entitled, 5 Signs Your Church Culture Needs to Change.

#1?  Stop judging people.  Really?  (I realize I am overusing the word.  If you’ve a better one, I’m open to suggestions.)  Other than the simple observation that judging others is bad and Christians should stop it because Jesus doesn’t like it (which we’d all pretty much take as a given), exactly how do you propose that I as pastor help and assist my congregation to amend or change judging behavior, assuming that’s a problem in this particular location?  Most folk that I know of the Christian stripe do not think they’re judgmental even when they are.  Some honestly believe they’re offering care when they offer criticism.  And perhaps they are.  Wouldn’t it be more helpful, Carey, to pause for a moment to define what judgment is, what it looks like and some simple steps on how to overcome that tendency within ourselves individually and as a group?

#2 Handle conflict better.  I have the same response as to #1 – really?  How?  Churches embroiled in conflict know that they’re embroiled in conflict.  Telling them to stop it is silly.  Pointing out that it’s harmful is actually, I would posit, an increase in the harm.  The I’m not worthy mantra is well-played in churches.  What perhaps isn’t is the news that change is not only possible, but easier than we think.  A few well-placed suggestions on how to settle conflict in a healthy way is much more meaningful than the declarative statement to cut it out.  I’d be curious to know what’s worked for you, Carey, in your past dealings with unhealthy conflict.

Perhaps I am simply pointing out the obvious limits to the blog post as a source of important learning.  Blogs tend to be more headlines than detailed analysis.  In fact, Carey has written books about various subjects dealing with church change.  I probably do him an injustice by picking on this particular blog, which stands as one small piece of an entire body of work.

But please, fellow advice-offering ministers, believe me when I tell you: congregants in small churches, if mine is an example, have taken on very well the diagnosis that there must be something wrong with them (otherwise they wouldn’t be so small, now, would they?) and have heard precious little of the good-news gospel about themselves from the larger world.

So to my fellow pastors of small (particularly rural) churches, I would offer a different voice, the Spirit’s voice of encouragement:

1. Maybe there are things that are wrong with your church.  Work on them.  But do not let those things let you lose sight of the things that are right.  The faithful who have been there since they were born need our love, encouragement and support as much as the potential seeker walking by on a Sunday morning.

2. Maybe you’re dying.  Maybe you’re just holding steady.  And maybe holding steady is what God has pronounced good in your particular neck of the woods.

3. Never doubt the difference you make.  A whole world can tell you how you got it wrong.  But don’t forget how you got it right.  Those congregants who wear you down are busy calling folks . . . taking casseroles and crock pots to those in need . . . lovingly maintaining a building as if it were their home, because it is . . . checking in on their more feeble neighbors even when they themselves are feeble . . . bringing food for the food bank from their own cupboards . . . straightening your stole when it’s skewed because you represent them . . . crying as they face you with the offering plate as they’re moved to tears they’d hate the world to see . . . avoiding you out of shame when they’ve behaved badly . . . calling you in desperation when they haven’t been to church in years . . . those people make a difference and so do you.