We all like a good shortcut, but not all shortcuts mean less work.
Here are four anxiety-producing church scenarios to think about– versions of what we at Thrive see from time to time. You might be able to relate to one or all of them:
- During a heated discussion in council, an office bearer or two storms out of the room and one of them resigns.
- The pastor announces that she is taking a call to another congregation after sixteen years with the church.
- Long-standing relationship tensions among the church staff turn into deeper conflict when the most prickly staff member shares, in a Facebook post, that another staff member isn’t doing her job.
- Multi-year congregational decline shows up in a new and alarming way when, for the first time, there are too few volunteers to run the church’s annual Easter program.
What do these scenarios have in common? Leaders and members alike experience them as painful disruptions of the stability that they have worked hard to achieve or to imagine. And in such scenarios, the people involved often search for the quickest way out of the discomfort and into stability:
- Council leaders decide to proceed as if the last council meeting never happened, hoping that council members figure out how to get along, and persuading the disgruntled office bearer to un-resign.
- Church members insist that the council get a search committee going as soon as possible.
- The council fires the staff member.
- The pastor preaches a sermon that urges people to do their religious duty and live up to their commitments.
You might already sense this, but each of these responses is actually a shortcut.
- By ignoring the issues, the council is leaving undone the work of naming challenges honestly together and working graciously together to sift through the options for next steps.
- By diving into a search process the church is missing the opportunity to step back and assess its health and its mission, to discern what kind of pastor would be the most effective partner in its ministry.
- By “fixing” the one staff member (by firing her) the church is avoiding the important and time-consuming project of addressing tensions in key relationships within the staff, and building trust in those relationships.
- By preaching commitment, the pastor is burdening an already struggling congregation, and the congregation is confirmed in its assumption that it is primarily responsible for its own vitality.
Most of us are drawn to shortcuts. We don’t want to experience pain. And so we are frequently tempted to do whatever requires the least amount of work today (and the most amount of work tomorrow).
So we rush to easy explanations. We find someone to blame. We rush the process. We fail to listen to others, and confer only with those who agree. We deliver unclear messages about our decisions, designed to offend no one.
Such shortcuts are natural and, almost always, unhelpful. In the end, they create more work than they save.
In Mark’s gospel we hear Jesus say, three times, that he will not take shortcuts on the way to restoration and glory. In Mark 8:31-33, 9:30-32, and 10:32-34 we learn, alongside the disciples, that Jesus hasn’t come merely to teach, to heal, to model righteousness, or to kill Roman soldiers. He has come to die, and the journey to victory, to glory, and the New Creation is through his suffering and death.
Jesus’ entire ministry reveals this shortcut-rejecting pattern. He empties himself of his glory in order to become an unplanned pregnancy. He later rejects the three shortcuts to glory offered to him by Satan in the wilderness. He spends three years walking to unclean places and impure people that the Jews would normally avoid. He travels through Gethsemane, the high priest’s interrogation, the Roman machinery in Jerusalem, to Calvary, and to death on the cross.
Question: When this Jesus takes up residence within broken people today, what do they begin to do a little bit less of? Choose shortcuts– especially when the welfare of others is at stake.
Instead, they learn to slow down when the urge to hurry up is strong– they trust God’s timing. They learn to be curious about what others, including opponents, think and value– they relate to others with humility. They learn to befriend awkwardness and discomfort– they remember that infinitely harder things have been resolved in their favor. And they develop a sense that shortcuts may actually have a dark side, that they might be ways to avoid the struggle and challenge that God often uses as he makes us more like Jesus.
On a related note, Thrive has a number of ways to help churches take roads that are a bit longer but more likely to lead to health and wholeness. Our consultants help people slow down, listen well, and take things step by step. Our guidance resources, like More than a Search Committee and Next Steps Discernment, help churches aim for good process rather than the quick way out. And our Specialized Transitional Ministers enter the lives of congregations, when pastors have left after long tenures or after seasons of conflict, and help those congregations to deal well with their stuff rather than avoid it. You might say that shortcut-avoidance is one of our values. It supports another value: Congregational health.
If you would like to learn more, please visit the Thrive home page.