Why Do We Struggle to be Open and Honest?
There are many temptations common to a church. Among the most deadly is the temptation to appease. Let’s face it, in most church cultures being nice is a much higher core value than being open and honest. Not so many years ago we had a fantastic couple at Christ Church. They were positive, active, involved and were contributors in every sense of the word. However, when we concluded that our mission necessitated shifting all worship services to one worship style on Sundays (and it wasn’t traditional), they could not adjust. Over time, they became much less positive, less active, less involved and their contributions to the church lessened. It became clear to me that we were no longer effectively connecting them to Jesus Christ (our stated mission) and that they were beginning to shoot cannonballs below the waterline in their frustration. They had turned malignant and the cancer was spreading…quickly.
We needed to have a conversation. Not an e-mail or a Facebook message but a good old fashioned conversation where people who care about one another but find themselves at odds can be clear and candid with one another. I called and we set up a date for our meeting. The first part of the meeting was spent sharing warm memories of our shared experiences together and then we got to the tough stuff. They shared their position and made a strong case for keeping traditional elements (i.e. piano and organ hymns, liturgy) in the weekly worship mix and I truly sympathized with them. The changes we made were not wholly in line with my personal preferences either and if we could have drawn a critical mass in our recently abolished traditional worship service to justify the time slot, we would not have changed a thing. But we couldn’t. Our rock and roll service was growing by leaps and bounds and our traditional service (in the best time slot) was withering. When they had stated their case, I thanked them, assured them I shared many of their sentiments and asked if they felt I had heard them.
Now it was my turn. I thanked my dear friends for their substantial contributions to the life of the church and informed them that the decision we had made was difficult but final. We would not be reinstituting a traditional Sunday morning service and I carefully explained why we felt the decision was necessary to our mission of “connecting people with Jesus Christ.” Upon the conclusion of our conversation, they informed me they were leaving the church and I cried with them, shared a warm embrace and a couple more memories. They quickly assimilated into a smaller and more traditional church of our same tribe where they became healthy and active. Back here, the attitudes amongst the people with whom they had influence improved precipitously. As I look back, having the courage to invite difficult conversations such as this one and letting people walk out the door with my blessing has been a necessary and healthy step as we have grown from 200 to 2,000 over the years. I truly miss their presence here but when I recently ran into them in a local restaurant, I was able to walk up to them and warmly greet them without either of us feeling we have to run and hide.
When churches get open and honest about their growth strategies, people who have been integral to the church’s past are able to self-differentiate as to whether they wish to become a part of the future. Being able to let good people walk with your blessing who could never adjust to the necessity of change is every bit as important as welcoming that new family who sees your church as the “perfect fit!”
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop is the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois