The middle-aged minister expressed deep frustration as he poured out his heart to me. He had started his ministry full of energy and excitement. Though the numbers were small when he started, he was sure that his faithful preaching of the Word and his clear strategic plan would turn the situation around. That was a decade ago. Now the numbers were even smaller, his excitement was long gone and the financial situation, which had never been good, was now perilous. He was not sure how long he could continue in his present ministry, but he was not a quitter, so he didn’t want to leave. He was in a quandary.
I encounter some version of this scenario numerous times each year as I meet with pastors, church planters, Directors of Missions and other ministry leaders across New England. In these situations, I ask a lot of questions. I try to listen, not only to what is being said, but to what is being left out. Though the person I am meeting with is often hoping I have a quick and easy solution, so far that has never been the case. It took that leader awhile to get to that level of discouragement, and it will take a while to get out of it.
In these situations, typically either I, or someone on my team, will also speak to other leaders in that ministry to see how their perception is similar to, or perhaps different from, the primary leader’s perspective. It is interesting to hear what they have to say. Most often, they agree that he is a faithful preacher of the Word. Only on very rare occasions does theology seem to be the problem. What is often expressed is that he is a “dry” speaker or his sermons lack “practical application.” I am actually relieved to hear answers like that, because they are the easiest to address. While there are many people who will never be stellar speakers, everyone can improve in their presentation style. For willing leaders, there are numerous workshops and techniques to address this. When someone tells you your preaching or teaching is dry, REJOICE, because that is something you can and should fix!
What is much more challenging is when the primary leader’s ideas are just wrong. Not theologically, but methodologically. One leader told me the “real way to grow a church is door-to-door visitation.” His once-rural church now sits in the middle of half a dozen gated communities that had sprawled out to his area. He couldn’t even get inside those communities to go door to door if he wanted to. Yet he was insistent that was the only way his church could grow. Since he no longer had access to this system of growth, his church was in decline.
Another leader was convinced that the “public reading of Scripture” was the most important part of the worship service. And so he would read a chapter, sometimes two, each week at the beginning of the service. Those scriptures had nothing to do with the rest of the service; they were just randomly selected passages. He couldn’t understand why many in his congregation would show up 15 minutes late every week or why his members rarely brought friends to church. His system just did not work.
A different leader was convinced that “outsiders” should not be in leadership because “they did not understand the context of the local culture,” even though the leader saying that was also an outsider. His insistence that only local people could lead caused many highly qualified Christians who were moving to his area from other parts of the nation to move on to other ministries instead of serving in his. As a result, his own ministry eventually died out.
I could give dozens of other examples. Sadly, these types of wrong ideas prevail in many churches and ministries. Let’s all be honest and just admit that sometimes we are wrong. Sometimes our plans do not work, and instead of being stubborn, we need to change our plans in order to move forward. We must not let pride or ego hold us back. We must be willing to move forward and embrace change when it is needed. Fortunately, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us in that. Let us heed the words of James 1:5, “ Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him.” The Lord is happy to give us the wisdom to do things differently so that our strategies can actually work for the Kingdom instead of against them.
Lord, reveal to us wrong motives or ideas so that we can repent of them and serve You more faithfully. Amen.
Dr. Terry W. Dorsett serves as the executive director of the Baptist Convention of New England.