Confronting fear and selfishness

The most fraught time in a congregation’s life is transition. A new pastor arrives, a new cohort of leaders emerges, the world we serve demands new ministry from us — and things fall apart.

The new pastor is often gone within 18 months. The new leadership cohort gets frozen out and leaves. We ignore the emerging world outside our walls.

When I began to see this happening, I developed strategies and methodologies for handling change more effectively. I led workshops, leadership trainings and spiritual retreats. I wrote a book on the subject and a weekly newsletter. Others were doing the same, because we all recognized the same problem: poor transitions were killing our congregations.

But nothing worked — because our dilemma isn’t methods or strategies or training. It’s fear and selfishness.

Here’s a story:

On a drive through rural Ohio, I stopped at a restaurant that was a shrine to the 1950s. Red and chrome decor, leatherette booths, perky waitresses slinging burgers and the jukebox sound of teen romance.

Its customers were older men and women who remembered the 1950s. In the modern tumult of terrorism, factory closings, partisan rancor and drugs, they could feel safe here and sing along with Elvis.

What they didn’t remember, of course, was that the 1950s were also tumultuous years. Cold War, racial unrest, white-flight suburbs, disruption everywhere, schools imploding, sexual freedom, youth demanding attention. The rock songs that now seem so safe were originally the soundtrack of change.

The difference was that we were teenagers then and change was our friend. Our parents, after all, had made it happen.

It is ironic and tragic that those same churning teenagers and change-agent adults began leading the charge against change. They began to close down whatever they could close, often starting with their churches. They fought bitterly against allowing women to lead. They resisted new forms of worship and music. They froze out newcomers who changed the demographic equilibrium.

By any objective measurement, their battles against change were self-defeating. They drove away one generation and then another. They turned neighborly pews into seething pockets of resentment. They ruined the careers of good ministers. Starting in 1965, as a direct consequence of poor decisions intended to stop change, membership across mainline denominations crumbled.

They had lost their nerve. They had lost their self-confidence and their optimism. They stopped trusting the people around them. They did exactly what Jesus had told the disciples not to do: they became afraid. Teenagers who had embraced being a “new generation” now said “no” to everything.

I employed my strategies for helping religious organizations handle transition. But training and empowerment made no difference. If people dread change and look only at their own interests, they will destroy the future.

They will cling stubbornly to poor decisions (namely, self-serving decisions) and think themselves the “righteous remnant” keeping religion on the right track.

If our churches are to have any future, we have got to deal with fear and selfishness. Boldness comes from faith and from trusting one’s companions.

TOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York.