¶252.7 Book of Discipline — The Church Council shall endlessly discuss the best course of action for the local congregation, finally approve it, and then present it to the whole church where it will inevitably be rejected after contentious debate.
No, don’t bother looking this up in the Discipline. It isn’t there. I made it up, based on lived reality rather than abstract intention. I cannot believe the number of times I see the leadership of the church abdicate its responsibility and authority to make decisions under the pretext of being nice and kind and inclusive. We keep looking to books, seminars, and studies to magically deliver us from our plight, and wonder why we never seem to get anywhere. In our misguided, but well-intentioned, efforts to keep everyone happy we undermine our structure and process by turning our representational hierarchies into democracies. We end up with anarchy that works to preserve the status quo. Jesus wept.
Why, in the church, do we get so upset when leaders lead instead of manage? Our resistance to change is so strong. We are a mass of paradox and irreconcilable contradictions: we want growth, but not change; we want new members but fear strangers; we want benefits without costs and gains without losses. We want shepherds that will protect us from the world rather than empower us to transform the world. We like what we like the way we like it — regardless of what God’s vision and will might be. This puts visionary and transformative leaders in a terrible position. They are elected to move us into the future, but they are criticized for doing anything that dishonors the past. They are charged with the task of creating a congregational environment that reaches out and receives new people, relates and connects people to God, strengthens and nurtures people in a dynamic spiritual growth, and equips and sends them into the world as witnesses to and members of the body of Christ. They are attacked for anything and everything that challenges people’s sense of comfort, security, and the familiar. Trouble is, we can’t have it both ways.
When elected leaders (and paid staff) take seriously their work as defined by the Book of Discipline (for real this time), they are almost guaranteeing themselves some discomfort and strife. Leaders take people where they would not ordinarily go. Church leaders are not defenders of what is, but champions of what can be. As church leaders together, we work to create what God is calling us to, and our God is a God who challenges us to grow, to sacrifice, to give, to share, to witness, and to serve — all activities that will move most of us from our comfort zones. When leaders encounter resistance, they don’t cave in — they deepen their resolve to help the whole community of faith move through the wilderness (and out of captivity) toward the Promised Land.
I often meet with church leadership groups that are very cautious about making decisions. “Who are we to think we know what’s best for the congregation?” one man asked me recently. Well, the answer to that is simple: we are elected to lead in our churches through prayerful discernment, faithful conversation, patient consensus for the very purpose of… MAKING DECISIONS! You don’t hear ditch-diggers ask, “who am I to dig this hole?” or musicians questioning “who am I to play this song?” When we are charged with a task or hired for a purpose — paid or volunteer — then we have both the right and the responsibility to make decisions (and then to deal with the consequences, both positive and negative).
Certainly, we can gather input and listen to the hearts and minds of our congregants, but when push comes to shove, it is up to those elected and hired to make decisions to do just that. Our churches are mired in the status quo. “We’ve always done it that way,” are some of the most destructive words ever uttered in service to the Christian gospel. Good news goes right out the window when it becomes old news. The ability to adapt, to discern opportunity, to begin new initiatives and to end old initiatives, these are the essential work of our boards of trustees and church councils. Allocating human and material resources, training and equipping leadership, setting priorities, and holding the entire congregation accountable to its mission and vision is the job of those who say yes to lead in the congregation. Anything less is inadequate to meaningful, transformative ministry.
Our dominant cultural consumerist values make church leadership all the more challenging. Many people attending our churches carry in an entitlement mentality that expects (demands) the church serve their needs and desires, and they can be quite vocal about the things they don’t like. While they have a right to their opinion, they cannot be the voices that carry the day. Our mandates and marching orders come first from scripture and second from our denominational mission and vision (as contained in our Book of Discipline). Ours is a higher calling than the cultural expectation to be coddled and accommodated. We are called to be the body of Christ for the world, and we simply cannot do that sitting still.
And we also cannot do it sitting around conference tables waiting for secret spiritual knowledge to magically appear. We have created a silly paradox in the modern-day church. We look for other people’s formulas and processes to follow, then we call that leadership. We look for “how to,” “we did it, you can do it too!” magic bullets, and then we wonder why we are so mired in mediocrity. We believe the answers to all our problems are “out there” somewhere, ignoring the fact that we are a unique group of people in a unique setting with a unique set of skills, knowledge, and gifts, empowered by God’s own Holy Spirit. It is highly unlikely that what works for Church of the Sainted Savior in East Jesustown is going to work for us, but we keep on looking and hoping, copying and cribbing, nonetheless. There is no secret knowledge out there just waiting to be discovered — just the opportunity to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling — and deep joy, satisfaction, and excitement. It is time for our leaders to lead and stop worrying so much about keeping everyone happy. Leaders, encourage one another in love, build trust, pray together, and take thou authority. Your church needs it now more than ever.