A series of recent events have conspired to make me get back in touch with some of the churches I interviewed and studied during my Vital Signs research. Out of fifteen vital congregations, the good news is that eleven of them are still going as strong as ever. The bad news is that four are not — and all four are struggling at this point, not because things have gone wrong, but because the success of the congregation resulted in a pastoral change that altered the vital dynamics of the community of faith. This is further evidence of the need to “pastor-proof” our congregations (make sure the strength and success of the ministry is not dependent on any one person) and supports my deeply held conviction that, while a pastor may have virtually no power to make something positive happen, he or she has almost unlimited power to prevent good things from happening.
In one of the churches, an empowering and nurturing pastor was “rewarded” with a pastoral move to a larger, more prestigious appointment. The church left behind received a pastor with a strong vision for his own ministry, and a heavy-handed approach to casting the vision to the new congregation. As congregational leaders presented the vision and passion of their faith community, the new pastor patiently explained that he was not the former pastor and he had no interest in continuing his predecessor’s ministry. Over two dozen church leaders were replaced, and most of them left not only the congregation, but also The United Methodist Church. Worship attendance is down, participation of a large percentage of the membership is down, giving is down, and enthusiasm and spirit is at a ten-year low.
One pastor lamented to me, “I don’t understand what has happened. I came here and the church was thriving, but no matter what I do, things just get worse and worse.” As the story unfolded, this congregation was seen as the perfect environment to nurture and develop the skills of a promising young pastor. The problem, it appears, is that the church was too active and too innovative for her. “I think we scare her,” the lay leader told me. “She wants to be a shepherd, not a leader. She wants to tend a flock, not empower disciples. Our vision for ministry is out in the world, hers is here in the building. We just don’t have a good match.” In her own defense, the pastor explained, “I am the trained expert here. I am trying to create a tight-knit community of Christian believers. It makes my job impossible when I don’t know what people are doing.” There are real problems when the vision of the congregation is so radically different from the vision of the pastor. The congregation feels further frustration because the pastor is receiving the full support of the district superintendent, who advises the church not to demand or expect so much.
In one setting, the church’s growth and vitality was so remarkable that it became a plum appointment — “too good” for the young pastor in place. The church was rewarded for its success with the appointment of a long-tenured, more experienced pastor. Lay leadership was replaced by paid staff, worship was redesigned around tech and technique, money was reallocated to remodel and update the building — and participation dropped by 70%. The church is in financial crisis, is cutting staff, and will need a new pastor at a much lower salary in the coming appointment year. Hmmm…
The fourth story is similar to the first — pastor rewarded with a promotion, replaced by a pastor that doesn’t understand vitality. The church is trying to be like Saddleback and Church of the Resurrection and Willow Creek and it is failing miserably. Lay leadership is frustrated because they feel that the pastor doesn’t care about what makes them unique — he wants to make the church look like some generic mega-church wannabe. Recently active congregational leaders are leaving the church, seeking other congregations where their gifts and passions will be honored.
These disappointing stories highlight how vitality in United Methodism cannot be a purely congregational phenomenon. If the system isn’t vital and won’t honor and support vitality, little long-term transformation can occur. In each of the four situations, the desire to reward success directly resulted in moving the congregation away from vitality toward decay. In each case, the consequences were unintended but dramatic nonetheless.
Ours is a system enslaved to numbers and growth. Each of the four vital churches impressed higher-ups with their numeric increase, setting in motion the desire to make things even better. But not understanding the real reason for the growth, the wrong changes were made. This is a matter of values. Where success is defined by numbers, the rewards may end up being worse than any punishment. Where success is defined in terms of health, different kinds of rewards ensue (as in, there is a greater collaboration in deciding what changes to make…)
Interestingly, two of the vital churches still experiencing deep vitality have also received pastoral changes. In both of these cases, the appointment was based on the vision and plan of the congregation, not on salary level, years of service or church size. Mission trumps membership and service overrides size. The appointments have been made in partnership between parish and appointive cabinet to fashion the best possible fit. Leadership can change without undermining vitality, but only when the decision-makers focus on health rather than growth.
We’ve got to find a way to reward good leadership without punishing our congregations. We need to do a better job exploring what makes for congregational health and stability, so that our standards for evaluating success actually measure something worthwhile. But this isn’t about blaming. Pastors, bishops, and district superintendents are using the best judgement available to match leaders to congregations. The problem is square pegs and round holes. Putting entrepreneurial pastors who use worship as an evangelism tool and spend large amounts of money on buildings and advertising can work in some settings to grow large audiences and raise more money. But putting these same leaders in disciple-making congregations seeking to minister in community and world will generally fail. Just because an environment is healthy doesn’t mean it can withstand any assault. Putting a pastor committed to numbers in a congregation committed to mission is simply not a good match.
There are so few truly vital United Methodist churches that it breaks my heart when we lose one. It also breaks my heart to find out that many of our brightest and best, most deeply committed and spiritually gifted laity leaders are not only denied ministry in our denomination, but that they are leaving because of it. We need to step back and redefine our metrics. “More” simply isn’t good enough. We need clear, widely shared standards of “better,” instead. We can’t afford to continue punishing success and rewarding the wrong kinds of success.