The leadership or nominating committee of any local church is a place where we pastors can do our most productive work. In a best-case scenario, committee members put their heads together, draw their inspiration from the various New Testament listings of spiritual gifts, and pool their knowledge of the membership. They then pray for God’s guidance with the firm belief that through spiritual discernment they will be able to identify the right leader for the available church office or ministry. They will weave both new and established leaders together to guide the church as the Holy Spirit directs.
However, in churches filled with members who experience increasing influence as their church grows smaller, the nominating process rarely results in leadership capable of navigating the waters of change. Even when available, new leaders are rarely identified unless they fit into and support the congregation’s existing power structures.
Most leaders in declining churches have been holding given offices for decades or have rotated through key leadership positions over time. Declining churches resist changing their structure, and their leaders have roles mapped out in order to maintain the church’s status quo, even amid decline. If the church was once large, with a complex structure, long-standing leaders typically agree to take on more than one office, rather than reducing congregational structure. Over time, this results in power being compounded by a select group of individuals who hold multiple offices.
For example, the finance chairperson also heads the stewardship committee, counts the offering, and is on an additional administrative committee as well. Or, the choir member is on the worship committee, the personnel committee, and the church council. The work of ministry becomes reduced to the known circle of leaders. The leaders may feel overworked, burdened and even burned out, saying, “No one else will do it.”
Imagine such a declining church has a sudden spurt of growth, with many new people in attendance. The power equations begin to shift. The responsibilities are shared among many, and the overworked members can take a needed rest, right? But if this were to happen, long-time leaders’ personal sense of power would decline, which is a “double whammy” of bad news to older adult members of a declining congregation. As they struggle to adapt to feelings of lesser value in society, they face the same prospect of a decreasing role in their church community. If the pastor is the person leading the change, the leaders complain, “The pastor doesn’t care about us.”
In teaching local church revitalization with pastors and lay leaders, we often ask for and receive a list of current church officers. What follows is a discussion like this:
“I see Bill is listed as a member of the finance committee, memorial committee, the trustees, and is your head usher. How long has Bill been a member of the finance committee?”
“As long as I can remember.”
“What is the defined ‘term of office’ or length of term for this committee?”
“I don’t believe we have a term limitation.”
“Why do you keep electing Bill to be a member of the finance committee?”
“Bill is up at the church every time the doors are open. Bill is devoted to the church and he is willing to serve so we keep electing him. We don’t have any folks stepping up for leadership here so we are grateful to Bill. He attends every meeting and he is always willing to share his opinion.”
“And the trustees?” we ask. “Bill serves there as well?”
“Yes,” one member explains. “He is handy and can fix things. He heads up our spring work day. He calls a couple of his buddies and they work under his direction all Saturday fixing what needs repair.”
“Same story with the memorial committee?” we ask.
“That’s right,” comes the quick response. “His family has donated all the art work hanging in our church building. That generosity spans three generations!”
“No different for the ushers?” we assumed.
“Correct again,” replied the church member. “It is amazing how much Bill does at this church! He gets all his family members and his friends to serve as ushers. Mostly they hand out bulletins in the back and then visit together until the offering rolls around. Bill is the face of our church; nothing gets past him. It’s been that way as long as long as I can remember!”
“And how long has this church been in decline?”
“As long as I can remember,” responds one member, who may be making some new connections about what has been happening to her church.
We don’t tell this story to question the common belief in this local church that Bill is a Christian saint. He may very well be a deeply disciplined Christian and generous beyond measure with his volunteer time. Church growth will be hard on Bill and the situation has produced for him a hidden payoff in decline.
Bill probably started out serving in only one committee office. As the church began to decline, he was asked to serve two offices at the same time. As the decline continued, he was asked to continue serving his offices longer than was customary for this local church. Over time, no new persons came forward who were both gifted and available to serve the offices Bill had occupied for several years.
As the pond shrank, Bill became a bigger fish. People called him “Mister Methodist.” Other members commented, “This place would fall apart without you, Bill.” The smaller the church became, the more power, honor, and praise Bill received from his congregation, and the more Bill developed an unspoken personal incentive for the decline to continue.
The polity of many denominations specifies term limits for certain offices. Many of our churches, though, have one or more members who rotate in and out of these committees. Often in the name of continuity, keeping ‘institutional memory’, and not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, churches will ignore or circumvent the intention of such term limitations with a conversation like this:
“Carol’s term of office ends with the trustees this year, but she told me she’d like to continue. Let’s nominate her to a new three-year term.”
“That makes sense. Every year since I can remember she has been on the trustees and led the kitchen brigade.”
“We used to have all kinds of complaints from women who said the kitchen was filthy after some outside group used it. Carol has put a stop to that!”
“You’re right! No one can use the church kitchen now without checking in with her and following the rules she set up. We hardly ever have complaints about the kitchen’s availability or about cleanliness!”
Problem solved. Write down Carol’s name and move on. Carol will get more accolades for her selfless service and the leadership committee gets to check off the “office now filled” box. Carol enjoys sustaining her strong position of power. Her declining congregation will have an increasing need for her to serve this office and several others in the near future as the local church’s labor pool continues to shrink.
Carol is a recently retired bank executive who supervised one hundred employees. She went from a place of power in her business to retirement, and it was a difficult adjustment. Yet, retirement offered her the opportunity to do more for her church and more opportunities to supervise others. As long as her local church cooperates with continuing decline, she’ll have plenty to do. Her fellow congregants see her as faithful and selfless, which adds to the reward of doing the same tasks for the church year in and year out.
What incentives does Carol have to participate in behaviors that will grow her church into a thriving congregation? Not many. The church may have a mission statement to make new disciples, but there is a personal loss in working such an evangelical purpose, because new leaders carry a double danger. First, their very presence brings less power to established leaders. Second, new people have a pesky way of bringing new ideas—even more so for new converts. New ideas mean even more change, along with loss of recognition and power.
Once leaders such as Carol find their way into elected church leadership, they will cling tenaciously to that position of power. This temptation to accrue power and the feelings of affirmation it provides operate at a subconscious level. But it is nonetheless a major barrier to growth and revitalization of the congregation. Leaders of this type lack the motivation, and sometimes the ability, to reverse the local church decline.
Tips for counteracting this and other incentives for church decline can be found in 10 Temptations of Church: Why Churches Decline and What You Can Do About It, from which this article is excerpted.