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It was a brief exchange, but it explained so much about congregations and their problems embracing change.

I was helping a congregation’s leaders move forward after several years of stagnation. After weekend workshops on strategic planning, I joined them for worship on Sunday and went on to coffee hour.

An elderly couple approached me and said, “We’d like to make one request. Make sure there are people like us on the committee.” She pointed to her gray hair. I knew what she meant: Unless there were other elderly people on the planning team, she feared her interests would be ignored.

I assured her the team had plenty of gray hair. If any group was missing, it was young adults. Leaders were acting to rectify that.

Her comment, however, stayed with me. It troubled me three ways.

First way: of all the possible concerns raised by a planning process, the most pertinent to her was getting her needs met. Not a concern for wisdom on the team, or breadth of vision, or energy, or transforming lives, or serving the city. Just self-interest.

Second way: her comment suggested a lack of trust in fellow parishioners, as if middle-agers and younger couldn’t be trusted to care for the elderly.

Third way: she seemed to believe that the church is an “economy of scarcity,” with limited benefits to confer. If someone else gets a benefit, she won’t get one.

I could tell she and her husband are wonderful people, much beloved by fellow constituents. I know she didn’t mean anything dire by her question.

But I hear such comments wherever I go. How did we come to such a dim view of our enterprise, as something grounded in self-interest, populated by untrustworthy people, and mired in an economy of scarcity?

A better starting point would be to ask, “How can I help?” “What new ideas and new ministries seem to be emerging?” “How does our future look?” “What difference will we make in this community?”

By starting with fear and distrust, we make change threatening and the pursuers of change antagonistic to our interests.

I understand that such feelings are normal. But Christians are supposed to know better. We are supposed to be dying to self, not clinging to self-interest. Trusting and loving our neighbors, not fearing them. Relying on God’s abundance, not gaming the scarcity.

Church leaders need to be enthusiastic about change, not timid. How can people move forward if their leaders are fearful about getting hurt in moving forward?

Church leaders need to teach and model Jesus’ fundamental teaching about dying to self. When they reward certain groups, like big donors, and bow to complainers and whiners, they proclaim self-interest as king.

Church leaders need to take a magnanimous view of church constituents. Believe in them, trust them, assume the best.

Church leaders need to stop budgeting fearfully and predicting doom. If Christian leaders can’t proclaim God’s providence and abundance, who can believe in it?

tom-ehrich-new.jpgNurturing a healthy future, you see, isn’t just a matter of having a better plan. It’s also about having better attitudes in the pews, more trust and confidence, and better teaching and modeling by leaders.

This is work for many hands and many years.


TOM EHRICH is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is a founder of the Church Wellness Project His Web site is