Birth of a Project
Psalm 19 exultingly reminds us: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” In one of God’s blessed whimsies, a quiet setting next to a Michigan lake under those heavens helped frame a far-reaching conversation about Christian Reformed Church leadership.
Several summers ago, Rev. Duane Kelderman of Calvin Seminary sat on the deck of the family cottage, mulling over informal discussions about pastoral leadership and congregational life and strife. Brimming with anecdotes of church hopes, both realized and frustrated, the conversations also rehearsed stories of sad pastoral crashes-and-burns, as well as of flourishing and faithful congregations. Kelderman’s lakeside deckchair became a staging area for the raw materials for a CRC leadership project.
Linking four leadership traits into a foursquare spiritual foundation, “Character, Conviction, Competence and Convergence”, Kelderman presented them to a group of seven CRCNA pastors and laymembers who have dedicated their lives to building churches and organizations to proclaim the work of God’s hands. Over the next months this “Leadership Development Team of the CRC”, who perhaps never thought they were construction workers, shaped and hammered those buzzwords into a modest paper called Leadership: A Working Definition. (CRCNA’s Ministry Council endorsed this paper in July, 2004 as a helpful resource for developing CRC leaders. It is available from Sustaining Pastoral Excellence: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 877.279.9994 X0805)
Blueprints or Bomb Craters?
For years I have poked around my own church-life tool boxes, scrap piles, finished projects and smoldering ruins, as well as those of unnamed and (mostly!) surviving colleagues. In this and subsequent articles, I will, like a building-, or some cases a fire-inspector, reconstruct plausible congregational settings. One by one, I’ll look at how those four leadership traits, or their absence, affect church-building or re-modelling sites and histories.
Though none of these scenes is exactly identifiable, enough planks, walls, windows, or sometimes wreckage, are so common that certain people might suspect I raided your confidential trophy case or pain-filled junkyard. Don’t think you’re so special! God has given MANY servants the years, wounds, failures, forgivenesses, recoveries and faith to have worked there, bent that nail badly or fitted this board just right, until we finally learned that the Lord builds the church or we all work in vain. So, no names are used to protect the guilty because no one’s innocent. Meanwhile, we can learn from our mistakes so well that we repeat them faster the next time, as my wife’s cousin says. Or better, we might learn to let God establish the work of our hands in building his church.
The Leadership Paper defines “character” as that which generates trust on the part of followers. Three dimensions are: moral excellence, the totality of life experience that form leaders and emotional intelligence (“Leadership,” pp. 1, 12, 13). As you read, ask yourself, “How does that definition of character affect the following building project and my own work?”
Hopeful CRC, located in a prosperous mid-sized city, was born from a large mother church with Dutch immigrant roots. Many of its new and grafted branches from outside the ethnic group were looking for a new place to grow after two morning services were stuffed. Hopeful received a generous gift from the mother church as an encouragement. Charter members rented a building from a shrinking congregation, whose members were eager for help to pay the bills. Many individuals and families coming from other CRCs and other denominations started attending Hopeful after it began holding formal worship services.
The young congregation of second generation professionals and business owners introduced new worship songs, developed fresh liturgies and encouraged lay participation in worship, ministry and governance. Its first pastor retired after seven years, the first of which were enjoyable, though the last several showed frustration and stagnation. Members fatuously dreamed, “When we get our own building and a new pastor, we’ll draw 20 new families.” Hopeful Church called a ten-year missionary as pastor. Six years showed steady growth, even after six families left to a traditionalist denomination.
Council approved the organization of a long-range planning committee, initiated by two men, not then in Council, but with proven experience in business and local government. Operating at arms-length from Council, they assembled a committee of members ages 18 to 70, pastor included. They started talking about Hopeful’s current ministries and how big a building to plan.
Twice-monthly meetings ate up almost a year, but with no plans for future ministry or building. The meetings gradually deteriorated into two-hours of largely cordial, but aimless rambling, occasionally with unnamed, but noisy flare-ups. They banged between some members’ likes and dislikes about worship songs or instruments to others’ passionate reactions that “we have to keep up with culture.” Discontent held tight in personal baggage built up for years in previous churches started splitting the seams that had held tight during the first years of new church excitement and idealism.
After about a year, the by-now uncertain and anxious co-leaders were finding it ever harder to speak to each other even about commonplaces, not to mention tense church-planning. Many unidentified but deeply felt issues seethed beneath surface cordiality. Meetings became tense; attendance shrank, with members making excuses about busy-ness. Some took a private step back, suggesting to the pastor that he try to break the deadlock by confronting the co-leaders about lack of movement, flagging participation and frustration. He did, and little bits of hell under the glory of God’s heavens soon broke loose. Hopefulness turned to anger, members’ defections and congregational desperation almost proved fatal to the pastor’s vocation and the congregation’s future.
Four months later the pastor took a three-month medical leave, occasioned by exhaustion and depression. He sufficiently recovered to pastor the church for eight more fruitful months, even welcoming several new families and baptizing three adults and eight children. Then he accepted a call to one of several congregations that had been knocking for the past few years. Other casualties took years to heal. One co-leader quit the committee and transferred to the mother congregation. Three Council members resigned. The other co-leader was not elected to Council for seven years. Hopeful lost some 50 members before it started growing again.
It’s easy to list superficial reasons why Hopeful Church suffered a near disaster. For example: craving a building without community analysis and ministry planning; allowing gifted, but untrained, unofficial leaders to run too long without giving substantial feedback to an attentive Council; the eager welcoming of people to a new church project without making sure they were committed to Christ rather than their own likes and dislikes all combined to a near-explosion. Many congregations have for almost 2000 years surmounted such administrative mistakes. What was really at root?
Our Leadership Paper helps us discern shared failure of character as the spiritual core of the damaging church-fire. Go through the check-list:
- Moral excellence: Not an issue. Happily, no scandalous sparks fed this church fire. All the leaders’ marriages survived, and eventually thrived, beyond the two-years of smoldering, outbreak and merciful extinguishing. God works in mysterious ways our blunders to reform.
- Totality of life experience: Well, maybe an issue. Some big boys were playing with matches; they should have been more careful. For his part, the missionary-pastor figured what worked among non- or new-Christians would work among too prosperous North Americans; sometimes it did; sometimes it didn’t. For their part, the congregation put too much hope in the pastor as a magic pill for growth. But those errors only fuelled to the fire that had smouldered long.
- Instead, let’s check out emotional intelligence: One mark of emotional intelligence is persistence in the face of trouble. It was remarkable that Council, pastor and committee leaders soldiered on for almost two years in the face of anxiety and conflict. But maybe that was not so much persistence as the sheer mulishness afflicting our particular gene pool.
- The truth of broken trust is more painful: During and after all the meetings, all leaders involved, Council, pastor and committee co-leaders, failed repeatedly “to manage their own and others' emotions, to reach out for support in healthy ways” (p. 13). Talk buzzed among friends and cronies on all sides, bit it was often accusatory, blame-seeking and guilt-giving. Everyone practiced secrecy and deceit instead of transparency and candour. No one dared go outside the congregation for advice or even prayer. While over years God graciously brought individual healing to most involved, don’t we wonder what might have been?