What if my congregation is a bad fit?

April 9th, 2015

One Sunday morning a wife is all dressed and ready to go to church. She says to her husband, “Honey, why aren’t you ready for church?”

“I’m not going,” he said, “and I’ll give you three reasons why. One, the sermons are boring. Two, no one likes me, and three, I don’t want to go.”

The wife replied, “I’ll give you three reasons to go. One, the sermons aren’t that bad. Two, some people do like you. And three, you’re the pastor. So let’s go.”

What do you do if the congregation is a bad fit? Well, you could quit, ask for a transfer, request a new appointment or tough it out. But these options aren’t always possible or desirable. Besides, what if God has called you to these particular people? Then what? It’s time to maximize the strengths of a bad fit.

In this post, I’d like to share a five-step process for doing just that.

1. Begin by getting some good independent feedback. Ask one or two people you trust if your sermons are boring or your personality is tough to get along with or you seem to lack passion. If you get any yeses, that’s the place to start. Take a good look in the mirror, sign up for some continuing education, work on your communication style, rediscover your passion. Now this is never a bad idea. After all, who couldn’t benefit from some fine-tuning? Likely, though, there’s more to it than that. If so, move on to step two.

2. Write out exactly what feels like a bad fit. Get a big piece of paper, lay out three-columns and put “Bad Fit” at the top of the first column, “My Preference” at the top of the second and “Good Fit” at the top of the third. Start by listing the behaviors that rub you wrong the way in the first column and how you wish things were in the second.

3. In the third column put “Good Fit.” Then note behaviors that are a good fit between you and the congregation. This will help you hold things in balance.

4. Ask God what their “Bad Fit” behaviors mask, and what values and commitments underlie these behaviors. For instance, getting easily bent out of shape when change is proposed may be a sign of resistance to the Holy Spirit. More likely, though, it’s a reverence for the traditions of the church, a fondness for the people who brought them to life, and a desire to feel stability. The second situation is actually easier to deal with than the first.

5. In the first situation, keep on praying. In the second situation, apply the Platinum Rule. In other words, treat others the way they want to be treated. While this is counterintuitive compared to the Golden Rule, it’s actually not that hard.

Leaving political conservatism aside, let’s take a look at the other Bad Fit behaviors from the Platinum Rule perspective.

They sing too slow. They may appreciate a slower pace than you. Notice what else they like to do slower than you. Are they are slower to take risks, try new things or implement new ministries? If so, take time to build relationships, listening more than speaking. When the time comes to take risks, be the one who steps out front with assurance and confidence. They’ll be more likely to follow your lead.

King James is the translation of choice. Perhaps they appreciate the grandeur of the text, the traditions of the past or they just didn’t know it was okay to embrace a new translation. Have them share with you the key traditions of their faith. Discover what’s truly important to them, and what is just habit. Habits can be changed. Key traditions need to be preserved, somehow, even if just on special occasions.

Hard to get a decision made. They don’t want to leave others out, or make an incorrect decision, or take a risk that may prove unwise. Present a multiple choice decision, i.e. We are either going to begin an outreach to the Veterans or the Middle School is better than voting on: Should we do a Middle School outreach or not? Multiple choice decision-making insures forward movement. Then, set a deadline for making the decision and stick to it. Also, tell people that together you will evaluate the ministry in six months, but no sooner. That gives people a chance to get used to it first.

Surprisingly low (or high) Christology. Either one can signal a certain hopelessness or helplessness. Either Christ can’t do anything for us, or Christ won’t do anything. They may feel they lack agency or the ability to make changes, and even Christ seems distant or unable to help. In this case, help them delve into their sources of hope, and remember times they have felt close to God. Talking about changing the world probably isn’t going to get you far in this setting. But seeing how you can adapt to changing circumstances will. Look for small wins, and build on those. Two new kids in youth group? Celebrate! One new baptism? Rejoice! A family who is now joining you on Sunday mornings? Give God the glory… and point out how their efforts helped these changes come to pass.

Easily bent out of shape. They may be reacting to a pace that’s too fast, an approach that ignores their sense of decorum or a program that turns their sacred cows out into the back pasture. Look at yourself: Are you moving too fast? Proposing too many changes? Not giving them facts but relying too much on emotion or vice versa? Take time to listen to them first. Then adjust your pace and style of delivery and see what happens.

To sum up, begin by supporting and dignifying the Bad Fit behavior. This actually maximizes your ability to introduce change. When you dignify who people are, it signals acceptance of them. When people feel accepted, they feel safe. When they feel safe, they are more likely to be open to new possibilities. When they are open to new possibilities, then you have a chance to show them how the changes you are suggesting actually honor the past while drawing upon God’s dream of the future.

Rebekah blogs at RebekahSimonPeter.com. If you'd like to learn more about how to navigate these types of situations, check out Rebekah's program Creating a Culture of Renewal.

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