The pastor of a Disciples of Christ congregation in Colorado shows another way to help a church turnaround from decline: simply love the people:
When I came to Mountair I had a close friend tell me to do nothing but love people for a year. I didn’t like that advice much. I saw so many things that needed to change! I don’t like the status quo. But by the grace of God (and my respect for my friend) I heeded his advice (mostly). I spent a year listening to stories, making hospital visits, doing my best in preaching and Bible studies, holding my tongue on many things I knew needed to change. In that year a funny thing happened–I learned to truly love and care about our elderly congregation and they learned to love me as well.
When love enters the picture it changes things. I still knew many things needed to change and that people wouldn’t like many of the changes, but I also knew I didn’t want to hurt people in the process. So we began tackling one thing at a time. To me it felt like we were trying to put out a fire with a thimble of water at a time. To them it felt like I was spraying them with a firehouse. But in the midst of that tension we loved each other.
Another thing I’ve learned along the way is that momentum matters. As we changed something and the world didn’t end people were more willing to talk about changing the next thing. As they saw success happening–even a little at a time–it made them more willing to move into the next challenge. I can’t lie, at times it’s been excruciating taking what to me is such a slow pace, but the thing that has kept me from turning into the proverbial bull in the china shop is my love for the people.
It’s been two years and nine months. In that time we have reformed some unhealthy leadership structures, had elders go from sharing a communion meditation in the service once a quarter to seeing themselves as leaders in the church, moved from a “no” to a “probably” disposition in regard to change, spent $25,000 updating the building so it wouldn’t be a deterrent to reaching the people in our community, began a Missional Community where people are taking the initiative to engage our surrounding community, become a church of 50% long-time members and 50% people from the community, agreed to spend money from savings to hire an Associate Pastor to help us move into the new ministry we’ve been dreaming about, and had the older people give permission for me to run with some new things that will hopefully make Mountair a presence for the gospel in our community for decades to come. It’s seemed slow but a lot has happened in two years and nine months, and we’ve loved each other in the process. (And what I’ve written here is really only a fraction of the story.)
I think this is something we almost never hear about when we talk about trying to rejuvenate declining churches. We tend to blame the people in the pews more than we love them.
I am reminded of the response of a member a few years ago at a church board meeting. I shared a story about mainline churches and how they need to change and the man responded that he was tired of hearing how things are his fault.
Congregations can have a role in the success or decline of the congregation. While churches must change, that doesn’t mean we forget the people. We have to learn to love the people we serve, which is probably the only way to lead a church towards change.
PS: This was a good excuse to use one of my favorite James Taylor songs.