Fighting the Last War: Churches with Bad Habits

By Derek Penwell

“We’re looking for a minister who can preach and teach. We’d like the successful candidate to be able to keep people from falling asleep during the sermon. We feel like we need good preaching because we want our people to grow; so, being able to challenge us intellectually and spiritually is a must.”

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“We’re looking for a pastor who will pay attention to us, who’ll spend time in the hospitals and nursing homes. The successful candidate will be a nurturing presence committed to loving all of our people during the difficult times, as well as the good times.”

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“We’re looking for a someone who knows how to manage a large staff, who knows how to lead and offer vision. The successful candidate will be creative, but more importantly will know how to follow through, get things done.”

If you want to know what a congregation thought its previous minister lacked, sit in a pastoral search committee meeting. Like generals, churches always seem to be preparing to fight the last war.

a. We won the last war.

b. Our massive navy presence determined the outcome.

c. The key to winning wars is a big navy.

It happens.

They may not come right out and say it, but churches often attempt to compensate for, what they perceive to be, the inadequacies of their former pastor by emphasizing those needs in their search for a new one.[1] But this phenomenon is not limited to pastoral searches.[2]

Congregational planning often bogs down in seeking either to avoid or to recapture the past.

How many churches still think that getting the right worship style is the key to a vibrant congregation?

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How many churches think that their problems would be solved by getting a young minister–one who looks like a thirty year-old, but with the vocational experience of a fifty year-old?

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How many churches think that if they could find the right VBS material, and some committed volunteers, they could have 100 kids roaming the grounds–just like they did back in 1986?

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How many churches think that there’s an elusive evangelism (or stewardship) program (or workshop) that, if they could just get their hands on, would ensure that people and money would come flooding in?

But, let’s be honest, those are easy ones, aren’t they? Low hanging fruit. There are tougher situations to identify–ones that are often transparent to us while we’re in the middle of them.

You can usually tell you’re witnessing a church fighting the last war when you hear some variation of the following:

“Well, we could do that … but we did that once, and it didn’t work.”

That, of course, can be just about anything. In fact, anything that takes your eyes off where the church is headed for for too long is a distraction.

Look, I have a degree in history, so I’m not saying you should ignore your history; I’m just saying you shouldn’t relive it. If you want to move forward, you’d better be focused on the road ahead, and not the road you’ve already traveled.

Following Jesus takes courage … for congregations as much as for individuals.

Here are a few random thoughts:

  • If you’ve opened up your church in the past to be used as a soup kitchen and somebody trashed the bathroom, try it again.
  • If you threw over all your committees, and your problems didn’t all of a sudden disappear, give it some time, stay strong in the face of criticism and uncertainty.
  • If your congregation had a battle over whether or not to become Open and Affirming that caused people to leave the church, that doesn’t mean you can’t ever have that conversation again.
  • If you’re a minister and you got fired in the past for what you believe, don’t become somebody you don’t recognize just to get (or keep) another job.

Cum hoc ergo propter hoc

Congregations, like human beings, often commit the logical fallacy of mistaking correlation for causation (cum hoc ergo propter hoc). It’s a simple parlor game, really. Anyone can do it.

a. Mainline churches have experienced declining membership.

b. Mainline churches tend to be more liberal.

c. Therefore, liberal theology has caused a decline in membership.

It’s fun! Try it!

a. We used to have a huge Sunday School.

b. We used to have a Sunday School superintendent.

c. If we tried having a Sunday School superintendent again, we would increase Sunday School attendance.

See how easy that is?

Choose a past success or failure, plug in a variable (any one will do), and shake vigorously! You can reach just about any conclusion you want!

The problem is … the answers you come up with may or may not have anything to do with the variables you use.

“So what do we do, smart guy, since you seem to have all the answers?”

I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure there are any easy answer in this case.

I think, though, that the place to start is right here and right now.

  • Make sure the problem you’re solving isn’t the one that kept you up at night 5, 10, 15 years ago.
  • Don’t be afraid to try something you failed at before.
  • Don’t be afraid to abandon something that was successful in the past.
  • Be sure the variables you plug into your decision-making formula are the right ones, and not the most convenient ones.

It’s not easy. It’s never easy.

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  1. I realize that once in a while, congregations are so thoroughly pleased with their former pastor that they go looking for the former pastor’s long lost twin, but, I would submit, that is exceedingly rare.  ↩
  2. Indeed, it’s not limited to churches; pastors also carry with them the hurts and joys of previous experiences. It’s no more fair for pastors to treat new situations as simple retreads of the old than it is for congregations to do so.  ↩