I have a former colleague who used to say he could solve the preacher-elder wars. To elders, you can’t make everyone happy. To ministers, don’t be stupid. I think both pieces of advice might be unrealistic.
But I do think that ministers can be smarter about issues related to change. So, here’s to making smarter ministers.
1. Ministry is not a race or a competition. Ministers spend too much time comparing themselves and their churches to other ministers and churches. And this makes us stupid. It doesn’t matter who from your Mdiv class is the first to keynote or publish or break the 500 barrier or get the big pulpit. It doesn’t matter. These kinds of comparisons create gaps between our experience and our desires that keep us and our congregations in constant deficit thinking. And this creates anxiety, and anxiety makes us stupid. Do not do this thing.
2. I know that its easier sometime to ask for forgiveness than permission. But do not do this thing. It makes you stupid. There are plenty of things that your church needs to improve that they would be thrilled for you to change and work on. You don’t need to spend authority capital on things that you don’t have permission to do. In a volunteer system that is held together by common consent, you have no more valuable asset than personal, not positional, authority. Spend it wisely.
3. If there’s change you want to see, do not preach a sermon series about it. The problems here are numerous. First, its naive about change. Significant change does not happen typically as a result of people changing their minds. It’s more complex than that. People don’t change their minds because they receive new information, but when they obtain a new frame of reference by which to make sense of the information. And that typically comes through new experiences, not sermon soundbites. Second, the sermon should not be thought of as the communication vehicle of the institution. The sermon should be thought of as a way of feeding people, of giving them a balanced spiritual diet based on the word of God, not as a way to get things done. Third, when you preach on the change you desire, the congregation thinks the fix is in. And they would be right. And congregations, like people, have a resistance to people who want to fix them according to a pre-determined agenda. Do not do this thing.
4. Focus first on worship substance, not style. I know your worship service is hopelessly 1960’s. I know it suffers in comparison to every congregation in a fifty mile radius (see point one), but worship style is both the hardest thing to change and often the least impacting. It’s the third rail of church politics. And style is not simply a mater of preference. Style means something, and you should at least understand what the current style means to others before you mess with it. Focus first on adding substance to the things that are already in place. Make the connections between the various things you do in worship clearer. Point to the ways that you believe God is actually present in your congregation’s worship. Create an appetite for more. I know this can be slow, frustrating work. But deep change is lasting change and it takes time. I know its tempting to change the music right off the bat, but do not do this thing.
5. Try to understand the people who oppose you and honor their commitments when you can. It’s tempting just to go for the win, get your way and write difficult people off. And you do need to be wise about how much energy you give to complaining voices. But you should at least try to understand them, all the better if they notice your attempts to understand them. Beyond the fact that you might influence their future behavior in positive ways, you also often learn about how your actions are being understood. And in change, there is nothing more valuable than accurate self-perception. You can play ministry as the game that is only in your head, but do not do this thing.