It’s hard to be patient when things look like they’re falling apart.
Which impatience is why congregations in decline start thrashing about, running away from anything new at the first sign of failure—and oftentimes before. That which is new appears threatening in virtue of nothing more menacing than its newness.
So, here’s what happens. A congregation sets out to do the difficult work of transformation—not just a cosmetic tweak here or there, but total tear-out-the-walls-and-change-the-footprint kind of reclamation project. At first, people are excited.
“We’ve been saying we needed to do this for a long time. It feels good to finally get started.”
Everyone’s been told that this is a long, arduous journey, and that they’d better gird up their loins.
“We know. The journey of a thousand miles … and all that stuff.”
But working without measurable results—which, in this case, usually means new young families, in which at least one spouse is a doctor or lawyer—taxes the patience. People have a difficult time laboring in the absence of, what appears to them, as tangible benefits.
The natives get restless.
“Remember when we talked about this, and I said, ‘It’s going to take a while?’”
“Yes, but it’s been a while.”
“We need to do something now!”
The intensity of the impatience grows. And the temptation is to give in for the sake of placating the anxious. Give them a little something. Set the long term plan aside, and offer them a reassuring gesture that, no, seriously, it’s all going to be fine, and they won’t have to endure any more pain. Because change shouldn’t hurt so much, right?
I worked as a pastor in a congregation in need of transformation some years back. We laid out a way forward that, we were very clear, would take some time (years not months) to begin to see the kinds of changes we agreed were necessary.
“Everybody on board? It’s going to take awhile.”
But even as they said it, I could see the slightest hint of hesitation. They wanted to mean it when they said they understood, but it’s hard to be patient when everything looks like it’s falling apart.
Sure enough, not even a year in, some folks began wondering out loud where all the new young families were. We’ve got to do something fast. That’s why we hired a young minister, for crying out loud! Where’s the payoff?
I said that I understood how difficult it was to work without seeing immediate results, but there are some things you can’t rush. Just because it’s uncomfortable to wear a cast while your broken leg is healing, doesn’t mean that taking it off for some immediate relief will solve the problem of a fractured tibia. Blah, blah, blah …
Normal bellyaching. It’s inevitable. Like the sunrise. So, I wasn’t surprised.
Many can withstand the frontline expressions of anxiety from the usual suspects. You know the ones I’m talking about—the folks most likely to complain. (You can see their faces in your mind right now.)
It’s what happens next that proves difficult. Even though it’s possible to discount the perpetually aggrieved in a congregation when it comes to the impatience, it’s when the people you generally count on start absorbing the anxiety of the impatient that things get tough.
They pull you aside after a tense board meeting and say, “Look, I know we said we’re in this for the long haul. And you know I’m totally on board. I think it’s what we’ve needed to do for years.”
Here’s the difficult part, the anticipation of a “but.” Wait for it …
“But, Janice’s head is about to explode. She and Howard are making life impossible for everyone. Is there any way we can make them feel better?”
Unfortunately, to do what they want to do would require us to change directions altogether, abandoning the longterm goal.
“Yeah, but they’re really, really anxious.”
It’s here where I have to say something that just reaffirms to those who suspect me of being an uncaring narcissist: “I have a high tolerance for your pain.”
Cue jaw drop. Usually, your supporters won’t say it, but you can see by the look in their eyes that they’re thinking: “How can you say that? You’re supposed to be compassionate. How can you stand by and do nothing while we’re suffering?”
It’s not easy. I don’t like seeing people I care about in misery. But I’m totally willing to do just that if it means that we accomplish our longterm objective. If I do the easy thing now, I’m just putting off the real pain for a bit longer.
If you’re really serious about congregational transformation, if you really care about those folks whose anxiety is so close to the surface, then when things get difficult, here’s you new mantra: Don’t just do something, stand there!