Killing the Whispers and Other Reflections on Church Decision-Making

The Whispers

Does this sound familiar?

“I think we all believe this is an important decision. And, frankly, I’m on board with it myself. But I think we’re going to run into some resistance. I’d hate for us to lose people over this.”

If you’re in leadership in a church, you’ve inevitably been in that meeting. The church faces an exciting opportunity, the benefits of which promise to bring new energy and offer increased possibility for significant ministry. Unfortunately, it means somebody’s probably going to get upset.

I was pastor of a church one time that offered an 8:30 worship service, in addition to the more traditional 11:00 service. It was billed as an “intimate” service. It turns out that intimate didn’t mean that the congregation assembled for the service occupied a cozy space; intimate meant that we could count on about 4–6 people showing up.

The search committee told me that there had been discussions before about doing away with the service, but a couple of the regulars got really upset. So, the service stayed.

I showed up my first Sunday to eight people spread over one half of the sanctuary. The organist played. We sang. I spoke about something not particularly memorable. The whole thing felt, in a word, awkward. People cleared their throats. One guy had had oral surgery and spent the whole time looking miserable. I kept looking at my watch, thinking that, surely, 45 minutes shouldn’t feel so long.

We slogged through that routine for about eight months. Finally, I went to the team responsible for planning the ministry of the church, made up of the officers of the church and the heads of all the committees, and I said, “I think we need to talk about the 8:30 service. I’m not sure that it’s the best stewardship of our resources. I’m there. The associate minister is there. The organist is there. The janitor is there. Many Sundays we have more staff there than congregants.”

A woman jumped in and said, “That’s the golfer’s service. They come early so they can have the rest of the day to do what they want.”

Another woman said, “That’s probably true. But there are a couple of people who only go to that service. And if we only serve one person, it’s worth it.”

“I’m not sure it is worth it,” I said. “The service itself doesn’t inspire much passion in anyone, until somebody mentions doing away with it. It doesn’t appear to offer anything uniquely compelling, apart from the time slot. It seems designed to offer convenience, rather than spiritual edification. And even based on that criteria alone, I’m not sure it’s a clear winner. I have really young children, for instance, and my wife works 3rd shift at the hospital. It’s always an adventure just to make it here. So, for what it's worth, I don’t find it especially convenient.”

As I spoke, I could see the anxiety descend on the group. Brows knitted themselves involuntarily. People took deep breaths and looked at the ceiling. One man kept worrying his wedding ring, moving it up and down over the first knuckle on his finger. An uncomfortable silence ensued.

Finally, a long-time member of the board said what nobody else wanted to say: “It’s stupid for us to keep having that service. Everybody knows that. But if we cancel it, people are going to leave the church.”

People nodded their heads in agreement.

Have you ever been in that meeting? You know, the meeting where a decision to do one thing seems obvious, but the decision gets bogged down by fears that someone will get mad. There’s a sense of resignation about it. A lot of shrugging. You can almost hear the whispers thrumming just beneath the threshold of public utterance:

“My mom and dad started that service.”

“What if somebody who used to come to the 8:30 service, but has quit coming to church, decides to come back and we don’t have it anymore?”

Of course, just about everybody agrees; but we don’t think it’s a good idea to do away with the service, because it might run somebody off.”

Congregations in decline, congregations fearful for their lives tend to make decisions based primarily on a trusted calculation:

The right decision is the one that makes the fewest people mad.

The whispers keep congregations from making hard decisions, because the whispers lock them into a pattern of decision-making beholden to some other reality than the one that allows them remain true to their mission.

Primum non nocere

Central to the discipline of medical ethics is the overarching maxim: Primum non nocere (First, do no harm). That is to say, don’t make the remedy worse than the cure. Medical decisions are supposed to be based on the presumption that all treatment options should be made through the filter of the overall health of the body.

In decision-making congregations often believe they are practicing something like the principle of primum non nocere. They prefer, I think, to move as though “given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.” This is not an inherently bad position for the church to take. In fact, I think as a principle in theory, primum non nocere is right.

Unfortunately, I think the trouble comes not in the treatment, but in the diagnosis of the problem. Congregations almost reflexively believe that the worst thing that could happen is that someone could get upset over a decision (and maybe even leave the church). Consequently, built into most church decision-making processes is a particular constant: Mad people = Bad decision. The variable in the equation is the challenge to be addressed by a decision. Decision-making in many churches, therefore, comes out looking something like this:

a (challenge) + b (mad people) = c (decision) [where a < b]

The problem, though, is that the constant in this equation operates more like a procrustean bed than a useful metric for decision-making.

Procrustes

Ancient Greek mythology tells of a man named, Procrustes, who offered hospitality to strangers. He invited wayfarers in to eat, with the promise of a night’s rest in his special iron bed, which he said was the perfect size for any traveler. After a good meal, Procrustes would have his guests lay down on the bed. Anyone who was too short was stretched on the rack to fit the bed. Anyone who was too long for the bed, had feet and legs chopped off.

Procrustes was right—eventually everyone fit the bed.

Making decisions by defaulting to the maxim, “The best decision is the one that makes the fewest people mad,” is a procrustean bed, inasmuch as it treats all challenges equally. In medicine decisions made on a procrustean bed can be lethal (e.g., All cancer should be treated by surgery). Decisions made that way in churches can be just as deadly (e.g., We could never ______; or We must always ______).

Diagnosing the situation correctly certainly requires that the congregation take the health of the body into consideration. But, as in medicine, It would do churches well to remember that sometimes the health of the body requires painful decisions—decisions that risk making somebody angry. But, if you’re Christianity isn’t making somebody mad, you’re probably not doing it right anyway.

Oftentimes, congregations become convinced that their primary mandate is to be nice. On this account of the church’s purpose, doing anything that might be interpreted as “not nice,” ipso facto, runs contrary to the mission of the church. However, when the church exchanges its function as the equipper of disciples for the reign of God for a customer-service oriented posture of placation, it has seriously departed the radical path of following Jesus—who never seemed to shy away from making decisions that irritated just about everyone.

The whispers are those attempts to reign in decision-making, to keep choices confined to the procrustean bed.  They gain purchase in the conversations on the margins.  By the time the whispers are spoken in public, they've generally been amplified to the point that they achieve an air of inevitability.

So What’s the Answer?

  • Have a mission. I’m an Aristotelian, which means that I think the first step to anything important is to figure out the endgame. What’s the purpose? What are we trying to accomplish? Where are we headed? As my friend, Steven Johns-Boehme is fond of saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, even an ill wind will take you there.” Congregations need to determine the goal by which they will be defined. (Important: “We are the friendly church,” isn’t a mission. Jesus didn’t die so that we could be nice.)
  • Analyze decisions by referring to your mission. This sounds easy, but in practice it takes some disciplined reflection. What are we here for? Making widgets. We have an opportunity to promote boxing matches. Should we do it? If boxing matches don’t help you make widgets, don’t do it. Alternatively, if you find the best widget maker in the world, and she has tattoos and rides a Harley, you ought to seriously consider hiring her. If your mission as a congregation is to be the neighborhood center where people can find the love of Jesus in action, every decision you make—from the type of curriculum you use in church school, to the type of dinnerware you use in the kitchen, to the way you allow your building to be used by outside groups, to the kind of stationery you use—ought to be made with that mission in mind. Difficult decisions often become clearer when laid next to the mission you’ve set down.
  • Focus on integrity, not unanimity. When I worked in a church in Eastern Kentucky, I buried a man who was fond of saying, “The truth will stand when the world’s on fire.” If a decision is the right thing to do . . . do it. That’s quite a bit different from the way congregation’s often decide a course of action: “If a decision is the right thing to do . . . everyone will agree.” Sometimes everyone agrees on the right thing to do. Yay! Congratulations! Life is good. As the decisions get more difficult, as decisions threaten past patterns of behavior, as they veer off into an uncertain future, the rate of people expressing reluctance will almost certainly increase proportionally. But think about it this way: It’s 1968, and someone proposes that it’s time to admit African-Americans into membership in your congregation. Remember, if you decide to do this, people are going to get angry—not just muttering-around-the-edges angry—but church-quitting, maybe even minister-firing angry. Knowing what you know now about the arc of moral history, would you make the decision to admit them anyway? Yes. Why? It’s the right thing to do. Oftentimes, the right thing to do may cause uneasiness when you finally make a decision to do it. Do it anyway. Admittedly, most decisions a congregation makes don’t involve great moral courage. But if your congregation makes decisions on a procrustean bed when determining whether to let the youth paint the youth room purple, it’s much less likely that you’ll be guided by your sense of mission when it comes to a conversation about becoming Open and Affirming.
  • Be compassionate; but be firm. After you’ve made a decision, do the necessary work to check in with everyone. Be compassionate toward those for whom the journey is difficult. But don’t undo decisions because of anxiety. It’s probably good to be reminded that if you’d done exactly the opposite thing, people on the other side of the issue would be just as anxious.
  • Speak with one voice. After a decision has been made, the people who were a part of the process need to speak with one voice to the congregation. Good leadership can’t afford Monday-morning quarterbacking in the parking lot by those who disagreed in the meeting. This is a covenantal kind of relationship to which the church must self-consciously draw attention. Being a part of a group means that there will be times when I don’t get my way. The answer to that (as I tell my six year-old—and my wife occasionally has to tell me) is not pouting.
  • Communicate honestly with the congregation. Let the congregation know what decisions have been made in a straightforward fashion. Nothing undermines leadership more than news of a big decision trickling out without explanation. Use the proper forums to announce decisions to the congregation. If you know beforehand people will be mad, it makes more sense to work actively to manage how the conversation will unfold.
  • Find a friend in failure.Congregations need to get comfortable with failure. Any group of people who claim to follow an executed messiah shouldn’t be so squeamish about failing. The whole point of Easter is that God can tease life from the clutches of death. You should expect to make decisions that don’t pan out the way you want them to pan out. Congregations that are growing (and I’m not speaking necessarily about numbers here) aren’t congregations that get every decision right; they’re the ones that see mistakes as an opportunity to learn. Failing is part of the process of growing. Doing nothing for fear of doing the wrong thing is unacceptable. Making decisions based on a congregational culture that existed a generation ago is a sure path to failure. Failure in the service of moving forward toward mission is helpful. Failure in the service of placating the past is death.

The whispers are a reality in every congregation.  It's good to remember that leadership can never fully extinguish the whispers; but it need not let itself be ruled by them.

Be courageous.  The Christian life is an adventure . . . not a risk-management seminar.