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?