Having served on staff for many years in Christian churches and ministry organizations, there’s a pattern of dysfunction that must be addressed. I look around and see so many churches struggling to be effective in today’s environment. While the reasons are often numerous, one in particular seems to wreak havoc, especially in terms of unity and momentum.
It goes beyond worship styles and preaching styles. It has little or nothing to do with denominational ties or affiliations. And it’s not something that prayer alone can fix.
A closer look, usually including honest conversations with members and staff ministers, often reveals that the key problem is a failure to appropriately move through the stages of grief. Whether related to a specific ministry — or a specific minister — drastic change, even over a period of years, can bring feelings of shock, denial, anger, sadness and despair. However, acceptance of the new reality is extremely difficult for many people, particularly those who place great value on tradition and history.
Inherent in the much-needed acceptance stage is the important process of recalibrating life and perspectives in light of the loss, whether real or perceived. This lack of emotional recalibration is potentially paralyzing and poisonous to the health and growth of a church.
Let me explain.
It’s not uncommon in the life of a church for a key leader to attract a cult-like following. And I mean that in the best possible way. Many times, the leader is simply so loved and so instrumental in personal ministry that members may come to think of him or her truly as part of their extended family. When the time comes for that leader to move on, the members frequently find themselves emotionally longing for his return — or to be wherever he went. This is the point at which it’s all too easy for those members to begin comparing the current ministry with that of the past.
This is a very dangerous situation because, as is often the case in an actual death of a loved one, the individuals tend to remember only the positive parts of that person’s life and personality.
Sometimes the sense of loss is compounded by the fact (almost always unacknowledged) that the effectiveness of the particular minister or ministry is essentially masking the ineffectiveness of other ministers or ministries.
Here’s the fact: A church or ministry cannot successfully move forward if a significant number of its members are always looking backward. Our country is different. Our culture is different. Our communities are different.
It’s one thing to remember, celebrate, and learn from the past, but it’s another thing entirely to be stuck in it.
Does this hit a nerve? Does it make you uncomfortable? If so, then perhaps you are stuck in grief over the loss or drastic change of a church, ministry, or minister you hold dear.
As we approach a new year, maybe it’s time to have the funeral for whatever it is you’re grieving so deeply. Current leaders should not have to live in the constant shadows of their predecessors, who though gifted, were very much the product of a different time and culture.
It’s time to invest all our energy, attention, passion, and vision in our future. Let’s get serious. Let’s get creative. Let’s get all-in for the Kingdom!
God wants to use churches big and small to make a difference and have lasting impact for Him. I pray that 2015 will be a year of forward advancement for the gospel — in your church, in your community, and especially in your heart. In many ways, that’s up to you. Don’t waste another year pining for what was; instead, prayerfully consider what can be.