In his book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, William Bridges writes that every transition to something new begins with letting go of what has been. Recently several conversations with pastors reminded me how true this is for church leaders (lay and clergy) when it come to congregational transformation. The biggest hurdle to moving on to more fruitful ministry is sometimes the difficulty of letting go the way we have been doing it. Let me give you three very personal examples.
We had started a contemporary Saturday night worship service and like most new worship services the cringe factor was pretty high in the beginning. A couple years into it, though, our praise team was doing a tremendous job; our planning team had learned to manage the flow and transitions artfully; and we were selecting service themes and designing worship services that were aligned to bring home an integrated message. My son, Kalon, now a worship leader, was the keyboardist of the service from its inception. Usually we talked about the service on our Saturday night drive home. One evening everything just felt perfect to me and I was thinking how fortunate we were to have such a great team of people working together to plan and lead worship so effectively. It dawned on me that Kalon seemed uncommonly quiet, so I asked him what was on his mind. He hesitated and then blurted out: "Dad, we've got to do something about the music; it's so lame!" I was shocked. Here I thought we were being "contemporary" and I realized that what I liked, what I felt comfortable with, what was meaningful and moving to me, just didn't work for my son. If we were going to reach youth like my son, it wasn't going to be in the same ways that reached me.
The first challenge of letting go in order to move on to more effective ministry may be the difficulty of accepting that what works for you personally just doesn't work for everyone else -- especially if they are younger.
Many congregations are discovering how effective Dave Ramsey's video small group resource "Financial Peace University" is at helping people learn how to reorder their financial lives so that they are able to become the generous disciples they truly want to be. When I was a pastoral leader, I worked hard at motivating people to be generous. I tried to figure out ways to speak Biblically about money that were effective and memorable. And over the years I got a whole lot better than I was in the beginning of my ministry when I basically just said, "The church needs you to give more." I'd been in ministry two and a half decades when I heard a tape of Andy Stanley talking to a bunch of pastors about cultivating generous disciples. He said that it’s not fair to motivate persons from the pulpit to be more generous, if you don't also teach them how to reorder their financial lives so that they are able to. He even went so far as to say that motivating people to be more generous without helping them to gain the tools and skills and social support necessary to do so was . . . mean. In that moment I knew he was right. I had done the best I knew to do. But there was a real sense of loss recognizing after all these years that there were better ways to do things than I had known and practiced. Frankly it was painful to acknowledge all the lost opportunities.
Another challenge of letting go in order to move on to more effective ministry may be the difficulty of admitting that there are more effective ways of doing ministry than you have been doing -- sometimes for decades.
A lot of pastors have now gone through "preaching with presence" and been challenged to get out from behind their pulpit, set aside their manuscripts and just share with people what's on their hearts. I'd been preaching over 15 years when I took the challenge. I was a good manuscript preacher. I didn't read it; I memorized it and delivered it pretty much just glancing down from time to time. I remember those first weeks of going into worship with only a few notes and without a manuscript. I remember stepping out from behind the pulpit and feeling incredibly vulnerable. It seemed crazy to have been in ministry as long as I had been and now once again to feel as insecure and off balance as when I first began preaching. After all these years, it seemed I would have had all this figured out, but here I was having to let go of my hard-earned sense of competence and feeling like a beginner all over again. An old dog learning new tricks!
And that's another challenge of letting go in order to move on to more effective ministry: the difficulty of leaving behind your sense of competence, in order to try something new which, at first, you don’t do very well.
As the world keeps changing at an ever increasing rate, those who are in church leadership (both lay and clergy) must continue to change in order to stay effective. This change is not without some real personal losses. Sometimes we need to acknowledge this and cut one another some slack -- even as we keep encouraging one another to keep letting go so that together we can be more fruitful in ministry for Christ.
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Office of Congregational Transformation