Emotional Landmines: Leading When Explosions Occur

April 17th, 2014

For many the church is a place of comfort and support, but for leaders within congregations it's an emotional minefield. The emotional landmines leaders encounter sit below the surface waiting to explode and are often hidden until stepped on unknowingly.

What exactly are emotional landmines? They can take the form of worship styles, furniture, music, rituals, programs, and organizational structures. When an emotional attachment within a congregation is perceived to be threatened, a church can rattle and shake from an explosion within that congregation. Stepping on an emotional landmine and dealing with the irrational behavior that often follows is one of the most difficult things a church leader must face.

The Minefield

Maneuvering through the minefield of ministry is complicated for leaders because parishioners are emotionally attached in many ways and on different levels. There are more emotional landmines within a congregation than there are pages in the pew Bible. Feeling trapped between those who want the church to change and those who wish to maintain the status quo places those who are entrusted to lead in a difficult position. A veteran church leader recently reminded me that “leaders who attempt to initiate change within a congregation must not forget to strap on their hard hat and brace for the coming explosions.”

Recently, a colleague told me about an emotional landmine that exploded in her church. She serves a church that has experienced significant decline over the last decade, placing her in the challenging position of leading a vulnerable congregation. The decline requires her to respond to challenges by experimenting with new ideas. One of the challenges is a worship space that no longer fits the size of the congregation. Worshiping in a sanctuary designed to seat over three hundred people with an average worship attendance of one hundred creates a disconnected feeling due to empty pews and people scattered to all four corners of the room. In an effort to address this obvious problem, my colleague decided to rope off a couple of the back pews to move people forward and create a more warm and connected atmosphere. She announced this change in advance and received no feedback. The explosion didn't happen until the first worship service when the ropes were in place. Upset about the closing of three pews, church members threatened to leave, sent emails to the governing board, and responded with other forms of irrational behavior.

Although appearing to be a simple and needed change on the surface, the closed pews became an emotional landmine that erupted and created an anxious environment within the congregation. Despite attempts to communicate the purpose of the pew ropes, the congregation continued to resist by taking down the ropes until they were removed completely. Because of their intense emotional response, the status quo was maintained and the problem of a disconnected worship service persisted.

Learning from the Explosion

Emotional landmines are a reality that must be taken seriously because the question isn't whether you'll step on one, it's when it will happen. One of the most difficult parts for those who are courageous enough to seek change is that it often reveals the dark side of a congregation. Looking into the dark corners of a congregation’s personality can overwhelm any leader with negativity. Leaders must deal with rigidity that is both discouraging and deflating. Pastors and lay leaders are often left feeling disillusioned in the wake of an emotional landmine, and it's not surprising to find a pattern of leaders leaving congregations after they gain a glimpse below the surface.

Despite the unpleasantness of dealing with the aftermath of a landmine, within the explosion lies an opportunity to learn about your congregation. The conflict can provide a deeper understanding of the people you are serving. For better or worse, you'll see  the true values and commitments of those who sit in the pews every week. No longer will you have to wonder what's on their minds and what priorities they hold.

An explosion can also be an opportunity to acknowledge the division between individuals and groups and to work towards finding common ground. Rubble left from the explosion can even be used constructively to build stronger relationships and a more solid foundation for the mission of the congregation. If you're listening, the things you learn from emotional landmines can shape your leadership in helpful ways. But they can also open your eyes to the reality of a situation that isn't going to change. This will allow you to accept it for what it is and move forward.

Jesus and Emotional Attachments

It's a challenge to love and lead people in general, but it's especially hard after an emotional landmine has detonated. As followers of Jesus, we're called to show grace and to acknowledge that emotional attachments are part of being human. Everyone has their own set of these based on their life experiences. In religious communities these attachments are closely tied to our identities and how we make sense of life. This explains why attachments are more intense in this type of setting.

Violating an emotional attachment within a religious community is interpreted by many as a significant loss. Consider how you would feel if a sacred space was altered in your life. As leaders, this is why it's crucial to be aware of how people connect to the places where they live out their faith, while at the same time reminding ourselves that Jesus, the model of our faith, warned us that our attachments can hinder our relationship with God.

Jesus was willing to step on emotional landmines when they stood between individuals and their relationship with God. He insisted that his followers let go of the things they valued most to be with him. For Jesus, explosions were worth enduring because they created opportunities to invite others into the presence of God. In his ministry he used this tension to create openings for the Spirit of God to work.

These moments of openness can also be used by leaders within congregations to find deeper levels of meaning. A moment of truth that has never been experienced before can rise to the surface, and a strange, awkward and unique closeness can be reached. This deeper connection will be felt in the tension, and there will be holy ground to stand on, even if it's uncomfortable.

If one of your heart’s deepest desires is to be a faithful leader within the body of Christ, there are ways to lead others to this deeper place, but it takes courage, and a willingness to accept the fact that explosions will occur.

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