¶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.

18 replies

  1. This is a great post… I pastor a church which suffered a split a decade ago. Certain people supported the pastor’s decisions, others did not. The ones that did not left angry. This split tore apart families which still haven’t healed.

    I think the reticence to make tough decisions is that people have been beaten and bloodied on the altar of making missional decisions, and they can’t handle another nervous breakdown.

    I am happy to say that our church has turned around in the last 3 years and that we now have more people that we did a decade ago, before the split.

    But it sure seems that leadership and missional decision-making is a lot more naturally expressed in new church start situations.

    I’d like to see many many many more successful UM church plants. But in order for that to happen there’s going to be a lot more missional leadership from those higher up in the heirarchy than the local church. I think the fear of making tough, unpopular decisions is rampant in every level of mainline bureacracy.

  2. It is one of the great problems that the United Methodist Church developed because we started trying to please everybody, and have become the church that really pleases nobody. Our laity are disconnected and have no idea what being a Methodist means. In many cases the only connection with the denomination is that many years ago, some ancestor decided to join a Methodist Church somewhere, and the family has been stuck there for years, even though they have no Methodist leanings, or learning, and really don’t want to be. Too many of our congregations are not practicing Christianity and are certainly not Weselyan in their beliefs. They instead want to practice a form of Celtic Paganism, worshipping sacred trees and buildings built by long-dead ancestors.

  3. I think it is so much harder for volunteers to feel that they are actually empowered to make those decisions. We who serve on church boards need to remember that the body has given them that responsibility, even when that same body complains about the decisions made!

  4. I agree completely with what you say. I, too, have seen people talk endlessly about what ought to be done without ever taking charge and doing anything. I have also seen the rare congregation take charge and act on its beliefs, to the great benefit of the Kin-dom of God.

    In some cases, I have seen leaders impatient with the comfortable do-nothing pattern scold its practitioners and drive change with harshness. I find it works better to acknowledge the pain and difficulty of change and the cost of taking a stand. At the same time, it’s important to lift up the costs of NOT taking a stand, and the benefits of faithful action. Then, the leader must model the change he or she wishes others to make (with a willingness to pay the cost). It doesn’t always work, but I’ve never seen anything else work at all.

  5. Okay, so I am a pastor in exactly the church you describe. I have a group of intelligent, highly skilled people who talk endlessly about what we should do. Any time we get close to agreement, someone says that this group shouldn’t make a decision for everyone. Anything major is taken to the whole congregation where it gets dissected, debated, and shot down. We do lots of good things, but the laity leadership is afraid of really leading, and every time I make a decision it is second guessed and undermined. How do you change this? I am at my wits end.

  6. Amen. But it cuts both ways. Many times our Bishops and their cabinets are just happy to appoint a warm body to fill a pulpit so long as apportionments are paid–a problem that has persisted for years. Thus, some new pastors are greatly discouraged to find that the churches they’re appointed to are really Baptist with UMC signs out front. Advent? Candles? Lent? What’s all this Catholic stuff? Since when do we baptize babies? Such questions and comments are not out of the ordinary in many UMCs. All United Methodists–lay and ordained–mutually share in the UMC’s decline.

    • And it extends to our general boards and agencies, where leadership spends their entire tenure asking, “What should we be doing?” and then hire secular consultant firms to “brand” us, “market” us, and tell us what “business” we’re in. As one of my episcopal friends laments, “we’re paying millions of dollars to corporate America to tell us we might want to try missions and evangelism for a change!”

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