In churches across our nation, the time has come for crucial conversations about the future of each congregation. As churches face the realities of changing communities, demographic shifts, unexpected ministry opportunities, and financial challenges, their continued effectiveness demands difficult conversations about mission, vision, and use of resources.
Most pastors are not equipped to lead these discussions. Even those who realize the need are often either untrained to do this or unwilling to do so.
Our programs of theological education rarely train ministers to lead these crucial conversations. Seminary training does several things well. First, it tends to strengthen the spiritual foundation of the potential clergy person. Second, it equips the minister to exegete the scriptures and deliver sermons competently; however, the topics of such sermons tend to address matters of personal development rather than community engagement. Third, it trains the minister to provide pastoral care for congregants, especially in times of crisis, death, and family transitions.
For the most part, seminaries have failed to train clergy to facilitate meetings, develop staff, problem solve, or engage the community. There are exceptions, of course, but they have emerged only in recent years. Some Doctor of Ministry programs address these issues very effectively.
The other observation is that most ministers don’t want to engage their congregations in these crucial discussions because they are messy, they upset the equilibrium of the congregational system, and the pastor is usually the one who is blamed for any outcome that will require changes in the church.
When a church realizes that it is in decline or crisis and must have this crucial conversation, members may turn to an outside consultant--either from the denomination or another source--to walk with them through the process. This can be very helpful, but only if the congregation is committed to engage, makes hard choices, and then implements these decisions. Although the consultant may coach the pastor or leadership team through the time of transition, there comes a time when the local people have to step up and exercise self-leadership without the assistance of the consultant.
The most effective coach/consultant is one who will help the pastor or leadership team to develop the skills to facilitate the difficult discussions themselves, to implement the changes, to deal with the consequences, and foster a culture that embraces continuous improvement. This is an approach to church health that benefits all of those involved.
Crucial conversations about change and changes are never easy, but we must find ways to have them. This is the way that the church moves forward.