November 18, 2014

Scratch-and-Sniff Stickers

Wouldn’t it be great if we had an easy way to gauge when our churches were in trouble?

Our local utility company sent a letter this week and included a scratch-and-sniff sticker. Yes, you read that right. Scratch-and-sniff sticker. The text encouraged people to smell the sticker so folks would be familiar with the pungent smell of natural gas. This pre-emptive measure would alert people to danger because they would be familiar with the odor of gas.

Before we move onto how to apply the same methodology to our churches, let’s take a second to applaud the creativity of this company. I can only imagine the person who came up with the idea, perhaps hesitantly raising his or her hand, in a squeaky, uncertain voice, recalling the bygone days of sticker books and trading, and offering the suggestion, “Perhaps we can create a scratch-and-sniff sticker.”

Though I wasn’t in the room, I suspect the idea was not initially met with widespread applause and backslapping. After all, it’s a little silly. Except that it’s also kind of brilliant. I scratched the sticker. And so did my kids. And now they’ll know to speak up if they ever smell that stench again.

I wish I could summon the same brilliance pixies and pitch a similarly wacky but targeted solution for our congregations. But I can’t (at least not yet!). 

Instead of a scratch-and-sniff sticker, I offer three warning signs that your congregation is headed the wrong way. 

  1. Same topics, different nights. Like a cow and its cud, the vestry keeps regurgitating and chewing the same issues. Regardless of the agenda items or the time of year, the same topics keep coming up, without any lasting resolution. One possible way to break this stalemate: Call a timeout. Impose a three-month moratorium on the subject. If people try to bring it up, remind them of the ban. Maybe this will give some space for other issues or at least an opportunity to consider new ideas. 
  2. Church members are obsessed with Toby Keith. Or at least they’re giving flesh to the lyrics of one of his songs: “I wanna talk about me/Wanna talk about I/Wanna talk about number one/Oh my me my/What I think, what I like, what I know, what I want, what I see.” A church that can’t think about the needs of the community, of people beyond the pews, will never be a place of transformation, a place that reflects grace and peace and radical hospitality. A suggestion to move from the me-centric model: Take a look at the church’s budget. What percentage supports “me?” How much reaches out to others? What do the financial decisions say about the priorities of the congregation? 
  3. The worst night of the month? Vestry meetings. If your senior warden dreads vestry, something’s wrong. If your priest calls in sick or members regularly schedule root canals on vestry nights, then there’s a problem. Sure, vestry meetings can’t be all sunshine and unicorns. Being a leader means having to grapple with and make difficult decisions. But these meetings should also have an element of life-giving to them. If it’s all drain and no re-fill, then serving the church becomes a chore, not a gift. One possible fix is to restructure the meetings. Who sets the agenda? Who runs the meetings? Are there opportunities to share good news? Do the meetings run on and on and on or is there an appreciation for stewardship of time? Are decisions made and abided by or do people try to keep bringing the same vote, hoping for a different outcome? Consider a variety of meeting models and experiment. You might also need to change the composition of the vestry. Some people simply won’t be able to embrace a new way of being. That doesn’t mean they’re not valued, but they should serve in another way. 

These three elements aren't the only warning signs, but if a congregation can't pass the sniff test on these, then it's likely in trouble. 

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