May 13, 2014

Tearing Down, Building Up

Sometimes the hardest part about rebuilding is tearing down.

Most of our churches are longstanding institutions, with dearly held traditions about firmly ensconced expectations. Making changes requires a delicate touch.

A case in point: Our congregation has moved to mission and ministry committees. With an average Sunday attendance of about 200, we’re moving from pastoral to program-size. But, as with all transitions, we’re experiencing some of the pains that come with growth and change.

The vestry and other key leaders worked for several months to discuss the future of the church, including its structure and administration. They determined committees were an important feature. They decided which committees were needed. Recommendations were requested and given for members of each committee. One of the key purposes of the committees is to spread the leadership of the congregation from a small group to a larger one. The committees are designed to empower and encourage members, to give them voice and a stake in the ministry of the church. Already, we’ve discovered talents, generated creative ideas, and witnessed the work of the church spread among eighty or so people, instead of the vestry and a handful of devotees.

So it was a surprise when a church leader wanted to know why the priest wasn’t attending all of the committee meetings. In the past, the priest was the hub of all the ministries of the church. Before, their priests weighed in on every decision and participated in every discussion. If the current priest isn’t attending every meeting that must mean he’s slacking off. Right?

Well, this is the part of tearing down, of changing expectations. As a congregation grows, the church must embrace a different style of leadership. Otherwise, the church and its ministries will be limited by the time and energy of its clergy. In order for the commissions to function and to grow into the leadership role, the members need some autonomy. They need some space to weigh and measure difficult decisions. They need the grace to make some mistakes. They know that the work they’re doing matters and won’t be easily overturned by the priest (except perhaps on rare occasions).

Tearing down this long-held expectation of a priest isn’t easy. Not for parishioners. And frankly, not for some priests. But this is an important step that will support healthy congregations that live into our baptismal covenant and the value of all people, lay and ordained.