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Do people who won’t budge want a leader?

Do people who won’t budge want a leader?

Christian Century has an article online by William H. Willimon, examining the importance of truth-telling in church leadership.  Entitled, “Why Leaders are a Pain,” the article examines why truth-telling can be a challenge for both leaders and congregations.  The article also brings up an interesting point, that seems obvious but isn’t always acknowledged in this juncture in American Christianity; namely that it’s been generations since leadership in the church has been called to undertake such wide-ranging and significant change and re-imagining.

“Just a couple of decades ago, ministers wouldn’t have had this kind of conversation. The church has handed us some hard work, work few of us expected and for which none of us is trained.”

This may be the first generation of pastors in centuries to whom God has given the intimidating assignment of not only loving but changing the church. When the San Damiano crucifix spoke to Francis of Assisi, it didn’t say, “Love everybody, particularly the birds.” Christ told Francis, “Rebuild my church.”

Suggesting that a significant barrier for many leaders and clergy is their empathy and desire to avoid causing pain or discomfort for others.  Many church leaders, especially clergy, see themselves as bringers of comfort and as peacemakers.  And though Willimon doesn’t seem to suggest those are negative traits he does suggest they can be barriers to the kind of effective change the current cultural climate is calling for.

Caregiving, the default mode of most pastors, is always less costly than leading. But the problem with caregiving is that no group survives or thrives without continually refitting and repositioning itself—and certainly not an institution that’s accountable to a living God.

But as much as church leaders may seek to avert inducing pain, congregations are often reluctant to acknowledge or even recognize the barriers to their own thriving.

Visiting a church in Louisiana, I marveled at the turnaround that had occurred there in just a couple of years. I asked the lay leaders to tell me their story.

They told about the time they met with their bishop, Janice Huie (UMC), to discuss the profile of their next pastor. They reported how much they appreciated their current pastor. “We love him and he loves us,” one member said. “We hope that our next pastor will be as good.”

The bishop asked, “If he is so beloved, why has your attendance slipped by 20 percent in the last two years?”

They replied, “We didn’t know that.”

She said, “And you are the church’s leaders? You must have worked hard not to notice.” Then the bishop whipped out charts that showed the congregation’s rising age, declining giving, and lack of diversity.


The author speaks to the need for leaders to be willing have a high tolerance for other people’s pain, while also acknowledging that fear of that pain being reflected back is a major issue for many clergy and other church leaders.  There is a persistent idea that that the church is a place where certain truths cannot be expressed and where “niceness” is the highest virtue.  And yet, there are very few major figures in scripture who could be considered as nice people, not even Jesus.  No one’s suggesting we need a bunch of jerks leading the faithful – but where is the balance between the need to hear and the need to listen to hard truths?  And where and how can we train our leaders in these important skills?


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Cynthia Katsarelis

Agreed about the lay leadership. We did a major expansion, requiring worshiping at another church for about a year, and even grew, without a rector (it was during the search). The leaders of the various aspects of the expansion did great presentations. We made a major leap of faith and voted to continue when all of the constructions quotes came in higher than the architects. A lot of great work happened.

It’s hard to beat great lay leadership and an engaged parish. It seems like a great situation for a rector to be a priest. My complaints now are that after doing so well, the new leadership (not just rector, the vestry, composed of new people who weren’t around when we were carrying the responsibility and vision), is very hierarchical, very top down, and it is closing off some of our mission. There has to be a balance of listening and empowering to achieve anything.

So yes, if people are waiting for salvation from the rector, that seems like the wrong job description…

Jerald Liko

I think people want an impossible combination: a leader who will (1) solve all of the congregation’s woes singlehandedly, while (2) maintaining 100% member happiness through the sheer power of her vision or exuberance of his personality. I won’t say that can’t be done, but I’ve never seen it.

For many TEC congregations, the task is greatly complicated by the late hour. Many of our congregations in TEC have suffered such precipitous declines in membership and participation that further losses will hamper their ability to afford the level of pastoral leadership they need to right the ship. Luther’s scalpel is harder to wield when the patient is already on life support.

Finally, and on a somewhat different note, Willemon makes little mention of the role of lay leaders in the church. The idea of pastor (or priest-in-charge) as an autocrat, visioning and forming the church of the future largely without significant support from committed lay leaders, has not been a feature of the successful churches I’ve seen lately in TEC.

Eric Bonetti

My experience is that clergy tend to take it personally when things like declining budgets or HR issues are pointed out. Rather than engaging and asking the question, “How might we address these issues?”, they instead label such conversations as “anger and criticism.” Parishes that cannot have such conversations are, if not doomed to die, poised to enter difficult times.

Cynthia Katsarelis

I guess the situations differ for different parishes. Our issue is a leadership that isn’t listening to parishioners, apparently because they don’t “need to.” Our parish is growing. But we have declined in social justice by 30 to 50 percent, depending on what you are measuring, volunteering, fiscal giving, the InGatherings for the homeless and food bank. The richer we get, the less we are doing for those in need.

We’re on this trend because the leadership did not listen to the parishioners who are most concerned and most involved. Of course, we can turn this around, we have resources. But the problem isn’t “painful truths” from leadership to parish. It’s a leadership that needs to listen, and a parish that needs to recalibrate our focus on mission. It needs a heart check.

We are growing because we fit all the good demographics, growing downtown in a transportation zone, liberal, family friendly, with great liturgy and music, and with a significant history of mission and community engagement.

What I’d like to hear about in the “painful truths” department is what happens when parishes aren’t engaged in mission? And how does that impact growth or decline?

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