It can be a challenge for clergy and congregations to navigate the tricky waters of expectations and live together in positive and encouraging relationships rather than confrontational ones.
I’ve recently had three insights that bear repeating.
First, my colleague, Nelson Granade, introduced me to a novel title for a minister: the concierge pastor. In a superb article that first appeared on Duke’s Faith and Leadership website, Nelson decries the tendency of clergy and congregations alike to establish a relationship in which the minister and staff members are primarily expected to meet the needs and expectations of members of the congregation.
Like a fine hotel’s concierge, the ministers are there to make church members comfortable and happy. Nelson accurately notes that clergy are often complicit in this unbiblical model, and that everyone loses in the end. Extravagant expectations are never fully met, clergy grow discouraged, and the kingdom agenda is relegated to an afterthought. I have to admit: That has described me on occasion.
My second insight came not long after reading that perceptive piece, when I heard someone ask a group of church members if they really wanted to be part of a church that never challenged them. They had been complaining, with great vigor, about changes that had been introduced to their congregation. Admittedly, the staff and other leaders could have handled the process better. Assumptions were made, relationships not cultivated, warning signs ignored. Given that, there still seemed to be a prevailing attitude that anything that did not align with one’s preconceived notion of how to do church was wrong and to be resisted.
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Into that conversation came this query: “Don’t you want to be part of a church that challenges you to be more than you are? To do so will require some amount of pain and inconvenience. If not, where in the biblical text do you find yourself? If your church simply exists to make you happy, is it actually the church of Jesus Christ?”
There was an awkward silence around the room as the implications of the conversation sunk in. I wish I could tell you that the result was an enthusiastic embrace of costly discipleship. Unfortunately, my sense of the people in the room was that this was a group who wanted a church and a faith that affirmed their life choices, opinions and preferences rather than challenged them.
A final insight came from another brilliant colleague, Melissa Clodfelter. In a piece titled “Kindness vs. Being Nice,” she suggests that our propensity for being nice at church comes at a great price: We fail to be God’s people for each other.
A far more rewarding model for leadership and church membership is to “speak the truth in love” to one another. Compassionate confrontation is how Jesus operated with those he loved. He never saw his role as one of making his followers comfortable, but of helping them become the persons God intended them to be. To think that we can do that significant work without challenging one another or pushing each other out of our comfort zones is at best naÃ¯ve.
God’s people, the church, will only be able to flesh out the kingdom agenda (thy kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven) when we accept the fact that our task necessitates each of us agreeing that we are not all that God intends us to be. What if discomfort is a prerequisite to finding genuine meaning and purpose?
When we understand that truth and join with other believers to discover the joy of costly discipleship and followship, then clergy and laity alike will find the harmony we seek in the midst of meeting challenges – and the discomfort they bring.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.