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Looking Back
In a previous article recently posted on the Pastors Network, we explored “character,” the first of four traits of leadership articulated by the Christian Reformed Church’s “Leadership Development Team” several years ago. I described a real past near-disaster in fictional “Hopeful CRC.” That conflicted congregation was a place where otherwise morally upright leaders lacked sufficient “moral intelligence” and maturity to face each other openly and honestly. Using the metaphor of a construction project, the first part of Hopeful’s story showed that, even with the Gospel of Christ as a foundation, weak leadership timber built a framework that could not withstand self-generated winds of bickering or penetrate a foggy purpose for the church’s future.

From Building to Sailinga New Metaphor
As we dig into “conviction,” the second leadership trait that congregations can develop, we switch to a new image—a ship on a voyage. In brief, good ship Hopeful had foundered, was listing and in danger of sinking. Yet strength and depth of historical conviction and vision among leaders and congregation imaginatively helped right it and send it on its way. Here’s the story.

Early in Hopeful’s long-range ministry voyage, the leaders–planning team and council–failed to recognize, articulate and face disagreements. Over a year disagreements deteriorated into ever more secret and damaging conflicts among leaders and “crew.” Crucial trust was lost. Hopeful was filling from the inside with its own bilge. (That’s impossible in physical ships, but the oddest things happen when spiritual, “metaphysical ships” run into trouble.)

When vessel threaten to sink, even the best crew might panic; no one wants to lose her spiritual soul from self-inflicted scuttling. Some fearful officers and crew members donned life jackets, launched lifeboats in sadness, discouragement and anger for nearby ships. Some were within, others outside the CRC fleet. Hopeful’s long-range planning voyage stopped dead in the water as the remaining crew started bailing and pumping in emergency survival mode.

Using Available Emergency Gear
Where do a congregational crew and remaining leaders go when a voyage comes up short? When all hands feel literally at sea, maybe sinking, like Peter who took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the waves instead? Here is where conviction and vision can not only lift sinking sailors one by one, but help also plug leaks in our souls and start the ship’s engines and pumps again.

“Leadership: A Working Definition” asserts that, “many CRC congregations are struggling for direction and desperately need wise, strong leadership” (p. 14). Yet to plug the leaks of weak and ineffective leaders is not a job for lone-ranger rescuers who cruise in to weld on miracle patches and then scoot off to similar troubled craft. Rather, “effective Christian leaders are self-sacrificial and give their lives to turning their biblically shaped vision into reality” (p. 14). A corollary is this: Effective leaders do not work in a vacuum, but draw on the strength and resilient tradition of Christian faith, history and community.

In the case of foundering Hopeful, near sinking gradually gave way to a steady, effortful, if undramatic righting, that found its centre keel in the fact and power of Christ’s resurrection. Purposeful, patient and courageous crew members who stayed with Hopeful dug out tested and tried gear from lockers they had forgotten since the heady days Hopeful’s launch. Instead of becoming one of many late 20th century ecclesiastical Titanics, Hopeful steadied her sinking beam, with leaders and followers fixing their eyes and hearts on the Source of Life.

Despite the unexpected internal storm, Hopeful, a “good ship and true,” found within herself an unexpected “captain and crew, well-seasoned,” as Gordon Lightfoot referred to the doomed crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald 35 years ago. Hopeful was not, however, doomed. It was, as the Rankin Family--other Canadian folksters--crooned, destined to “rise again”–largely because of communal conviction based on Christian faith, history and future vision.

Finding the Leaks in Our Souls
When a church is in trouble, denominational protocols provide for a counsellor from its own classis. That pastor cooperates with council and search committee to look for a new ship’s captain. In Hopeful’s case the chair of the calling committee herself had almost lost her conviction and vision. When approached by the counselor and council to head the calling committee, she hesitated for several months, taking rest, a personal spiritual inventory and calling council to intercede for her and the church while she made her decision.

Later asked what persuaded her to risk the spiritual stability, she said, “I looked back at the history of the church and both back and ahead to Christ. Then I realized I wasn’t taking a risk; Christ was offering himself--not to die again, but to lift our congregation and me from waves of hopelessness to live up to our Hopeful name.” Evidently Galatians 2:20 played a huge role in convicting her and sealing Hopeful’s internal leaks: Christ had died; the congregation had died about as much as humanly possible with Christ. Now it was no longer they who lived, but Christ who lived in them.

Crew and temporary captain headed to the pumps, donned protective suits of prayer, study of Christian gospel resurrection, brushed off the dusty need for discipline and accountability in their own meetings and planning. They were not set to abandon ship, but to steady Hopeful and follow again the charts the congregation had determined years before were really God’s routes for their voyage.

Recognizing that much of the congregational crew was seasick and demoralized, a new emergency crew took charge. Previously untested replacements urged tired and battered council members to rest. With renewing trust among once suspicious crew and officers, most members slowly turned Hopeful not to just any safe harbour, but to seas where powerful, steady Holy Spirit winds were surely blowing. Hopeful slowly, faithfully caught that by now unfamiliar breeze.

Hopeful’s crew reviewed their formerly adopted vision:
• plan a building according to ministry needs;
• become a regional church not recruiting crew from other churches, but developing their own crew from growing young families;
• nurse back to health older, weaker members tossed about by the winds of internal conflict;
• provide a safe but moving haven of community of worship, Bible reflection and sanctified earthiness in worship to incorporate creeds and confessions in songs, readings and messages;
• restructure the second service to meet in members’ homes for study and fellowship, once a month gathering as a full congregation for a potluck and worship.

A New Captain as a Bonus
All of this occurred over a six-year period. A new building waited four more years. And what about a new captain/pastor? Aren’t we pastors needed to steer congregational ships through waters known and new, calm or rough? The resident crew and officers decided to re-set direction before calling. Most important was the congregation’s effort to raise tired, blurry eyes to Jesus who was marching on before, across the waves, calming seas of discouragement and inter-personal conflict.

In a denomination that ten years before had started to feel the crunch of pastoral shortages, Hopeful deliberately sought a pastor with good sea-legs, years of experience, sufficient energy to recognize exhaustion in crew members, and deep trust in Jesus’ power to make weary people dream of flying like graceful, tireless pelicans, and not scavenging eagles or squawking gulls. Together the pastor/captain and congregational crew now look at the surrounding seas that had calmed after years of choppiness and to this day stride eagerly through the seas where the Holy Spirit blows them where it will.

This article, commissioned by Sustaining Pastoral Excellence, appeared earlier in slightly shorter and somewhat amended form in Christian Courier.

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