We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Heroic Model of Church Renewal

In his book on church renewal entitled, Turnaround and Beyond: A Hopeful Future for Small Membership Churches, author Ron Crandall places the hope of small churches to gain traction in the world of church decline on their pastors.  The book is largely a how-to manual for pastors filled with advice and admonitions, which when take together present a daunting list of demands on pastors.  The set of skills required to turn churches around is broad, and the attitudes a pastor has to cultivate are those of a near-perfect follower of Christ.  And, unfortunately, most of the advice is presented as things pastors must do if they are to achieve church renewal.  Little is said about the role of the church, particularly other leaders in the congregation, which leaves the impression that it's up to the pastor whether a church grows or not.

Tell me it ain't so, Joe.

Now, it is true that pastors play a key role in helping churches turnaround.  In most cases, a church isn't going to reverse decline if the pastor isn't committed to that goal and provides effective, enabling leadership.  The problem with Crandall's heroic model of church renewal is that it fails to acknolwedge the fact that a successful turnaround depends on the church more than it does on the pastor.  This is especially true in a small church.  If the members, including especially key lay leaders aren't on board, renewal won't happen.  Period.  A capable pastor can do things to encourage a church, but at the end of the day the church has to have some degree of willingness to be encouraged.  Some churches are capable of renewal, but frankly many are not because of the attitudes, fears, and just plain humanness of the members.

Perhaps some of those that are unlikely candidates for turnaround can in fact turnaround with heroic pastoral leadership.  Granted.  The problem is, sadly, that most pastors aren't up to the heroics.  We make mistakes, fail to present things "the right way," trip over our own foibles, struggle with our own baggage, disappoint people sometimes with cause & sometimes through no fault of our own.  Those of us who are less than heroic can still pastor churches pretty well, but we can't carry the immense burden for renewal that Crandall places on us.  We're just not that good at it.

Compounding the problem of pastoral limitations is the reality that the small pool of "really good" pastors tend to gravitate to larger churches while many smaller churches either have no pastoral leadership at all or depend on part-time pastors or lay leadership.  And, again, in some situations lay pastors and part-time pastors provide outstanding leadership, but as a rule they are even less likely to be able to provide heroic leadership than are full-time pastors.  They are still more dependent on the quality of the church's other leadership as well as the general membership.

At the end of the day, renewal depends on the mix of pastor, lay leadership, and congregation.  Usually renewal depends initially on the initiative of the pastor, although I know of cases where it originated with lay leaders in the church itself.  If the pastor seeks to jump start renewal, it then depends on the response of the membership, and at the end of the day a church can't be tricked or cajoled or finessed into "going along."  It has to want to, especially its key lay leadership, leaders who just might perceive a threat to their own place in the church in the whole idea of renewal.  If they resist, the result can be conflict, which only makes renewal less likely.

There are those who will interject that the Holy Spirit can transform any situation into something good.  "Where there's God, there is always hope."  That, in fact, is an important observation, but it comes with its own issues.  The Spirit does work with and through human agency, but it apparently works best when we are reasonably willing to be worked through.  The Spirit does not magically turn incapable pastors, resistant lay leaders, or weak churches into something else.  In our humanness, we can either open channels for the work of the Spirit, clogged up as the channels may be with that humanness, or we can throw up dams that frustrate the work of the Spirit.  The trick, then, is to know how to be a channel rather than a dam, which is very different from mastering all of the skills, investing the life-consuming time, and always displaying the proper attitudes demanded of a pastor by Crandall's heroic model of church renewal.

Various sports figures are reputed to have said, "The harder I practice, the luckier I get."  In terms of church renewal,  we might well say that the more church and pastor together behave in line with the Spirit, the more likely the church is to grow.