I have been the Senior Pastor at Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since July 1, 1997. In this time we have grown from just over 200 per weekend to well over 1,700. We are constantly engaged in the economy of change and have found that change brings with it both growth and discontinuity. The secret to a long tenure (in anything) is not the avoidance of problems (that is impossible in a fallen world); it is to deal with difficult challenges in healthy ways. Tragically by historically moving pastors every three or four years, United Methodism has de facto built a culture where both churches and pastors have lost the relational skills to “stay at the table” when times get tough. It is not serving us well.
Here are eight practical ways we deal with push-back that have kept ChristChurch healthy and growing:
1. Get to the Bottom of It People will push-back in various ways during change. We like to say that often, “What folks are talking about isn’t what they are talking about.” When a complainer comes your way, ask yourself, “What is this conversation really about?” It is normally about personal preference, loss of power or fear of the future. These are very real concerns; it’s just that people often lack the sophistication to talk of such things directly so they bring up lesser things instead.
2. Handle it Biblically Operate by Matthew 18 and insist that others operate by Matthew 18. You must be consistent and relentless here. Jesus’ teaching on dealing with conflict is count-intuitive (imagine that). Talk to the person with whom you have an issue (not about them), get a couple of referees if you can’t work it out and finally give it to the church for a final decision if things get intractable. Deal with this kind of stuff swiftly and decisively.
3. Refuse triangulation People will often leave your office unhappy when you refuse to triangulate but they will be forced to deal with discontinuity in healthy and Biblical ways. Don’t talk to anyone about their concern until they have talked directly to the person about whom they are concerned. They won’t be happy with you but remember that many of them were not happy before they met you (so don’t take full responsibility).
4. Be Visible and Approachable We all want to hide when the hurricane is blowing but leaders can’t. A good working rule is that the less you want to be around people, the more you need to be around people. Let this be your mantra, “The worse the discontinuity, the more I am out of my office!”
5. Tell the truth Somewhere along the line being nice became a higher core value than being truthful. It is not unchristian to be honest with people but it is unchristian to make them think you are going to do something you have no intention of doing. Taking the time to answer questions and offer your position in a non-defensive way can turn a critic into a staunch ally!
6. Be a Christian Always be kind and pastoral toward the people who are in disagreement with you. You can’t let unchristian people take away your Christianity! You can’t give them that much power over you.
7. Be a Professional Never take it personal. Never raise your voice. Keep the discussion scriptural and missional. Never let them see you sweat. Even if they don’t emerge loving you (or even staying in your church) you will earn their respect by being professional. If they do leave your church, do everything in your power to enable them to leave on good terms!
8. Stick Around I simply don’t consider “divorce an option” in my marriage (30 years) or my church (17 years). When you decide you are going to stay at the table and work through discontinuity, your ministry has moved to a new level.
As we learn how to view discontinuity as an opportunity to teach the congregation, up our leadership game and model healthy conflict skills we put our congregations in position to grow with us.
-Rev. Shane Bishop, a Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, is the Senior Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois