You could have heard a pin drop in the room when I unveiled the definition of “church” that came to light in my work with this typical mainline congregation.
It could have been a church anywhere in the United States and in any mainline denomination. Plagued by years of conflict and bullying behavior by a few members, this midsize congregation had just lost its pastor—again. With one exception, a pastor had left the congregation or been fired about every seven years. If there is such a thing as a seven-year itch, this congregation had it repeatedly. I was engaged to help them figure out what was going on and how they might find new and better ways of being a community of faith.
With the help of a small team of volunteers, I interviewed sixty members of the congregation, ranging from the most involved to those on the margins. We asked questions about significant spiritual moments, favorite memories, how the church dealt with conflict, and other issues. Analysis of the interview summaries revealed several perspectives functioning within the congregation. Key among them was the congregation’s definition of church. I met with the small group assigned to oversee this re-envisioning and conflict-resolution process and revealed my findings from the interview data.
I wrote the following equation on a white board:
Happy + Nice = Church
I then sat down and waited for their response. Dumbfounded, they all stared at the equation for a relatively long time, and then someone said, “Shouldn’t God be somewhere in the equation?”
“Exactly,” I responded. “I would have been happy with God or Jesus or even the Holy Spirit, but no one mentioned them.” In the survey, none of the congregants interviewed mentioned church-related experiences in response to the question about significant spiritual moments.
No one talked about God in the answer to any question.
The key things they wanted from a pastor were that she make them happy and keep the peace. The result was stunning and pointed to several key strategies to address the apparent absence of God from congregational life. Dealing with that concern was foundational to solving the congregation’s systemic issues long term, learning how to communicate, and eliminating the acceptance of bullying behavior.
The inability to understand God as the source of the congregation’s life and calling severely damaged this congregation’s ability to fully be the church—to be a place for members’ and others’ faith formation and a springboard for mission.
Focusing only internally and seeing the members themselves as the source and goal of their community had prevented them from effectively addressing conflict when it arose. This internal focus also kept them from knowing what they wanted and needed in a pastoral leader and developing any sense of mission to guide them through change.
Without God in the equation, this congregation struggled to find a sense of purpose beyond being simply a social club.
Excerpt is from “Change & Conflict in Your Congregation (Even If You Hate Both): How to Implement Conscious Choices, Manage Emotions & Build a Thriving Christian Community”, 2015 by Rev. Dr. Anita L. Bradshaw. Permission granted by SkyLight Paths Publishing, www.skylightpaths.com.