Sometimes we don’t know that actually we are the ones keeping our congregations from thriving. Ouch.
Last weekend I experienced one of the greatest joys in professional ministry: I was invited to return to a congregation I served for many years to celebrate a church anniversary and witness how much they have accomplished to the glory of God since I left. Fairlington Presbyterian Church is not a large church in terms of membership but their impact is enormous. Not only have they done what many/most churches do (serve dinner at shelters, offer space to 12-step groups and other congregations, collect money, furniture, and non-perishable foods for those in need) but they opened a computer training lab over 20 years ago which has since trained over 5000 adults from over 99 countries in computer skills. And they will be dedicating Waypoint – an affordable housing community with 81 apartments in the coming week. God is amazing.
Before worship last Sunday, we all gathered to tell the story of how Waypoint came to be, led by the Pastor Juli Wilson-Black and – in a circle – each person shared a piece of the story. The best contribution – for me – was when one of the elders who was a leader when I was pastor and who continues to be a leader today said something like this:
We couldn’t move forward with our next big thing until Jan left.
Yes! And I’m so grateful that God called me away. After 27 years in parish ministry (5 in my first call and 22 in my second) I”ve been able to do some cool things that I could not have imagined.
Sometimes we are the ones who have to step away for ministry to bloom.
All church leaders can name people who get in the way of congregational growth.
- There’s the long term member who says “no” to everything new (and threatens the church either by withholding money or sabotaging the vision.)
- There’s the church pillar who doesn’t want anything to change until after they die.
- There’s the elder whose only power in life is in the congregation (being in charge of the candlesticks is better than not being in charge of anything at all) and it’s more about the power for that beloved child of God than Jesus.
- There’s the pastor who needs to leave but can’t find another call.
- There’s the pastor who is tired and should retire, but retirement is another decade away in their timeline.
I once worked with a person who – upon being advised to consider leaving their church position – commented that they hoped that – if they did leave – everything would fall apart like a Jenga tower, because they couldn’t bear for the church to thrive after they left.
Okay – this is terrible. To hope things fall apart when we leave is the opposite of healthy leadership. If we are good leaders then things will bloom after we leave because we have equipped others, we have shifted the culture, we have cast a common vision. Unfortunately too many of our congregations may find that – after their current pastor leaves – things fall apart because the pastor did everything themselves or they never moved their church from a 1970s model of ministry or there was never a clear vision.
Who needs to step away for ministry to bloom in your congregation? With humility and grace, we need to acknowledge that it might be us. Thanks be to God for those leaders (clergy, educators, musicians, elders, deacons, volunteers who’ve “run” the same program for over a decade) who constantly ask, “Am I still the right person to lead? Or do I need to get out of the way?”
I agree. It’s one of the reason I stepped away when I did.