#1 – Dealing with Binary Thinking

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Contemporary congregations often find that they are recruiting against a background of decline or anxiety about decline. Whether receiving transfer growth from declining congregations, or losing members to neighboring churches or to the post-institutional realm, church-members may have an unspoken awareness that congregational life is a declining aspect of Christianity in the West.

If a congregation begins to sense a declining trend within its own gathered life – or feel that the congregation’s relevance or attractiveness to the community has dipped – it can feel overwhelmed. One pattern that can result from this sense of overwhelm is the temptation to simplify the picture and reduce analyses to the search for a single cause (an albatross) or a single cure (a silver bullet.) In moments of pressure in their desire to find an albatross congregations may point point to the current pastor, and for a silver bullet to a new pastor!

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An intentional interim has the task of enabling the congregation to pause. In this pause (s)he will draw this conversation out, to allow the people to see the wider picture, unpeel some of the layers in their own story, and so move the group’s thinking away from this kind of binary perspective.

Without such a process there might be some issues when a 3D pastor arrives in a 2D world! If this binary thinking is left unaltered then when a congregation sees that the new pastor is something other than a silver bullet the pastor will find they have been swiftly re-labelled – albatross! This is not a role anyone will wish to occupy for any great length of time! “We employed you to turn things round. but you haven’t. In fact we’re still declining! Fix it!!”

Interestingly, I know of a denominational region in Australia which has been in consistent numerical decline over the last two decades. For over more than a decade of that period the average tenure of a senior pastor has been two and half years. That’s just long enough for a new pastor to go through a single silver-bullet/albatross cycle!

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I have been meeting recently with, Don, the pastor of a semi-rural, independent congregation. His church serves a district that has faced significant challenges over the last 20 years, since the local mill – the chief source of the district’s employment – closed down. Not surprisingly everything in that town has had to adjust. Schools, shops, clubs etc have all disappeared or amalgamated. It’s not in disarray or depressed as such. But clearly the district is a very different shape to the community the church was built for just over  20 years ago.

By the end of his first 12 months, Don found that the Diaconate had shifted him from the silver bullet category to the albatross category. (I should mention that Don is a very capable and experienced pastor.) The deacons made this call because, evidently in his first 12 months Don hadn’t “fixed” the many layers of social, ideological, and generational challenges confronting his church (and almost every western church) in the 21st century.

The Diaconate made clear to Don that he has been re-designated in a meeting which laid the congregation’s declining trend squarely on the new pastor’s shoulders. Without acknowledging the longer picture and the many and various layers of challenge impinging on them, the deacons have graciously allowed Don a 12 month window to fix everything and get the church back to where it was 10 years agol! If he fails to deliver and reverse all those societal dynamics, then Don is assured the deacons will be looking for a proper silver bullet pastor!

From the outside it’s easy to perceive wrong thinking in the Diaconate’s process. But from inside that little community of faith – lacking the dispassionate perspective of an outside voice – all that judgment being piled on the new pastor would appear to make perfect sense!

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If, prior to Don’s arrival, the congregation had undertaken the very simple exercise of white-boarding together the various challenges contributing to the church’s decline, mapping the timeline too, even that simple activity would have positioned the people better to engage intelligently with their new pastor without the binary mindset that has scuppered relationships on the leadership team so quickly for Don.

At this stage it is an exercise that Don’s congregation might choose to outsource to a consultant to better equip deacons and people together to get a more accurate gauge of the needs of the hour at the end of Don’s 2nd year. Most church groups are a mine of knowledge and insight, which – when tapped by the right kind of conversation with a consultant, a whiteboard and a pen – can be quite acute in mapping terrain and charting possible courses.

A consultant with a pen and a whiteboard may seem rudimentary and old-tech. But in Intentional Interim ministry I have found it a powerful tool in facilitating a healthy transition from one pastor to the next. The reorientation it enables can contribute significantly towards a far more collaborative experience as the new pastor and congregation get into exploring the way ahead. Something well worth the investment.

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