Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Troubled churches

This past weekend I sat down and thought about some of the churches I know that are going through difficult times.  Each of these churches have different problems, but in every case their problems are the direct result of leadership issues.  In some cases, it involves pastoral leadership, and in other cases it is primarily lay leaders who are creating the problems.  For years now I have quoted John Maxwell's statement that "Everything rises and falls on leadership," and I have yet to find that not to be true in the church, in business, in families, and every other area of life.

The pastors who are responsible for the problems in their churches often forget they have been called to serve the church.  These are individuals who often want to rule the church as a dictator forcing out everyone who stands in their way.  I personally know of two churches right now that have lost long-term, good members because of this kind of attitude on the part of the pastor.  Interestingly enough, in both cases these churches had called persons from outside their denomination to be their pastor and then wondered why the pastor didn't do things as they are normally done in their denomination.  That part of the problem falls on the congregation who should never have called the persons they did as pastor, but that does not excuse the pastors from their iron-fisted approach to pastoral leadership.  I anticipate both churches will eventually self-destruct, the pastors will leave, and the congregations will be left to pick up the pieces and try to salvage what is left of the churches.  These churches, who have enjoyed many years of good ministry, will be forced to start over in order to recapture what has been lost.  In the meantime, ministry opportunities will have been squandered.

The flip side of the pastoral leadership problem is when the pastor doesn't provide any leadership.  Rev. Milquetoast sits on the sidelines pondering the great theological issues of the day while the congregation waits for him or her to lead them in ministry.  A few years ago I met with the leaders of one church who was going through a significant problem in the church.  One of the complaints was that the pastor provided no leadership to the church.  He was sitting in the room when the complaint was made.  I asked to meet with the entire congregation and asked the pastor how we could best invite the congregation to the meeting.  He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders!  I was stunned.  When I looked back at the other leaders they were looking at me as if to say "See what we mean?"  He resigned soon after, and it has been exciting to see what has happened in that church since they called a new pastor.

Lay leaders who create problems are most often controllers who view the church as their personal territory, and they can quickly get very territorial.  They will oppose anyone and anything that might be a threat to their power or position within the church.  Some work behind the scenes creating turmoil in the church through phone calls and parking lot meetings while others can be quite public with their actions.  Unless the pastor is well-established in the church he or she will usually be unable to stand up against these people, and any pastor who believes a congregation when they tell him or her that they will support the pastor against these people is likely to be very disappointed, and soon unemployed.  These controllers have often acted out for years in these churches because the church has tolerated their behavior.  In some cases, they are merely carrying on an old family tradition that was passed down to them from their grandparents to their parents and now to them.  It always amazes me that these churches act as if they don't know why they continually have problems.

Healthy leadership is essential to healthy churches.  Pastor search committees need to take time to thoroughly review a candidate before presenting him or her to the church.  If the church belongs to a denomination, the committee should work closely with denominational representatives and follow whatever their process might be for calling a new pastor.  One interview and a trial sermon will not give a search committee nearly enough information to make a good decision on calling an individual to be their next pastor.  Multiple interviews are needed over the course of a few months.  I know the church is anxious to have a new pastor; the committee wants to get their work done so they can do other things; and the candidate is anxious for the process to be completed so he or she can move to a new place of ministry.  But, calling a pastor has ramifications for the church for years to come, even after that person leaves the church, so it's critical that good decisions be made to call the right person.

It is equally as important for the lay leadership to be healthy as well.  Persons should be selected for leadership positions in the church based upon their spiritual maturity and commitment to serve, not on their seniority in the church or their last name.  It's also important that a church doesn't fill every leadership slot just because there's a line on the nominating committee's list that needs a name.  If you don't have someone spiritually qualified for a position leave it open.  You're better off without having someone in that position than you will be if you select someone who is not spiritually mature.  This will require a great deal of courage on the part of the church, but it will eventually lead to a healthier church that will enjoy a much more productive ministry.

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