“They want me to preach a three-point sermon, finish worship within an hour so they can beat the Baptists to breakfast, and not make any changes they don’t first approve. Above all not to push them.” Ruth sighed, deeply discouraged. This Native American pastor is a strong leader: compelled by vision, in tune with the Gospel, led by love. “I thought things were going so well,” she continued. “But then they told my district superintendent how they really felt.” She shook her head, eyes not meeting mine. “I’m not sure my leadership style really works here. Actually, I think it’s because I’m Native American. And female.”
“Girl,” I said, “It’s not you. It’s them. Don’t take this personally.”
How do I know? I had a similar conversation with Veronica, a skilled and talented African-American female pastor. Almost word for word. She, too, took it personally. It’s hard not to. I told her the same thing I said to Ruth.
As both of these conversations unfolded, echoes sounded from my own past. Previous congregants once said the same kinds of things to me. Yes, I’m female. But I’m neither Native American nor African American. But here’s what all three of us have in common: we each serve(d) congregations in the life-stage of retirement.
When a church reaches the retirement stage of development, a living vision is a thing of the past. Dreams of the future no longer guide them. In the post-glory days of the church, it’s all about managing the faded fruits of vision: activities, building upkeep, and finances. On their way down the far side of the bell curve, these congregations feel the pinch of smaller offerings, shrunken worship attendance, diminished possibilities, and the loss of friends and acquaintances. More pews are empty and the congregation is decidedly more gray.
Blame is a defining dynamic of retirement. “Whose fault is it?” is the unspoken question. The pastor is the most visible person to tag. Chances are, though, the decline started several pastorates before you got there, has been unfolding for at least 10-30 years and the congregation has resisted changes suggested by you and your predecessors.
At the time my congregation blamed me, I took it very personally. I figured the decline was somehow my fault. If only I worked harder, tried harder, was a better Pied Piper I could turn this church around. If only I had the wisdom to say, “Church, it’s not me. It’s you.”
Truthfully, for congregations in retirement it’s not you, and it’s not them either. They’re simply saying and doing what people say and do when they are afraid, uncertain of the future, and resisting the change they know they need. So just like you don’t need to take their comments personally, don’t make it about them either.
Instead, continue to step into your role as visionary leader. Much as they may want you to be a chaplain, your job as a leader is to be brave, bold, and faithful to the Gospel. Stand and cast the vision. A Jesus-like dream is the only thing that has any chance of making a significant difference. Otherwise, they’ll have every right to say: “It’s not us. It’s you.” Click To Tweet
Here are three best practices and two cautions when casting a vision in a retirement stage congregation.
Best Practice #1: Identify your sub-congregations. At this point you have several sub-congregations, even if they all worship at the same hour. Your people have come in waves under different pastorates and that pastor’s particular style, vision or goal. So, each sub-group is expecting something different of the church. Find out who joined when. Discover what they remember of that particular time and pastor. As you cast a new vision it’s important to scout out and address each sub-group distinctly and intentionally.
Best Practice #2: Connect the dots between the past and the future. Help each sub-group see how the new vision fulfills the vision they were first attract ted to. If the old vision was about growing the Sunday school with a promise of more young people, and the new vision is about easing suffering by reaching out to the homeless families in your neighborhood, help them see the common underlying principle: sharing the hopeful story of God’s love to create better lives for people.
Best Practice #3: Provide a strong rationale. Base your vison in a strong rationale that answers these questions: Why us? Why now? How will we partner with God to realize our vision? Include a strong biblical and theological foundation that connects the Gospel vision with your people and your context.
While you’re carrying out these best practices, do exercise caution. To bring retirement folks on board requires heartfelt emotional intelligence.
Caution #1: Be kind. Change isn’t easy. Look, they know they need to change. They just wish they didn’t have to. Give them as much input on the vision as possible. Even if you don’t take all their advice, complete the circle of listening by letting them know you heard them.
Caution #2: Give in on the things you can. I encouraged Ruth to preach a 15-minute sermon and finish worship in under an hour. Instead of fighting it, use that hour to gain their trust, love them, and begin to lead them in prayer for a new vision. Don’t waste the hour. Otherwise, I might say: “It’s not them. It’s you.”
Conflict can take us out when the stakes are high. But it needn’t have the last word. Build your emotional intelligence as you discover how to handle your own anxieties and fears during times of stress. Join me in January for a 2-part online Mastering Conflict workshop.