Last winter I was asked to meet with a group of leaders from a United Methodist church that is facing some all too-common issues: sliding attendance, less money in the offering plate and a general malaise. As I discussed a number of ways to help members shift from giving out of obligation to giving out of generosity members of the group shot down each one. The usual reason was “that’s just not how we do things in this church.”
It was the most frustrating meeting of my career.
A few days later I was debriefing with the pastor who had invited me in to face this firing squad. It was clear that for the last several years she had been beating her head against this wall and was hoping that if I beat my head against it for a while it might start to crack.
As we talked more she made what I thought was a sad but astute insight: “Our problem is our leaders are more interested in running the church than they are in doing the ministry of Jesus Christ.”
Our United Methodist Book of Discipline gives the pastor the role of chairperson of just one committee: nominating. This means the minister has significant influence over who the other leaders in the church are, which I think is critical to helping a church run smoothly and have everyone pulling on the same rope.
Jettisoning an ineffective or even toxic leader in a church can be a terribly difficult task. No man or woman is an island and the repercussions can come from a variety of corners. But it is often far more dangerous to not make this leadership change. There is no shortage of churches that have found themselves in serious financial trouble after a long-serving treasurer finally retired, long after everyone in the congregation seemed to know she was in over her head. A worship committee chair who insists on a narrow variety of hymns or a youth director who still believes kids wear poodle skirts and bobby socks to school can be equally damaging.
Very few pastors will see eye to eye with every single committee chair in their flock, and this is to be expected (unfortunately). But if there is a real weak link in a critical leadership role, you need to carefully make that change. A year from now you and your congregation will be better for having done it.
Because if all they’re doing is running the church, they’re not really doing the ministry of Jesus Christ.