Facing Brick Walls
“Nobody ever liked Eileen anyway.”
“Eileen, I’m really hoping that you will be our next pastor.”
These words, and many variations on them, polarized the congregation when I left it over 20 years ago. What I know now, is that the church was in conflict for reasons neither they nor I actually understood at the time. Neither did the fancy church consultants who came to save the day. Their lack of understanding only poured gasoline on the flames of a fiery situation.
The consultants offered the congregation a “magic wand” and invited them to wish for any solution to their current problems. Some of the congregation saw me as the problem, and they wished me gone. Others of them wished I would be called as their next senior pastor.
Getting to the Church
Years earlier I went to seminary and entered ministry with enormous skepticism and suspicion about the church. I knew I was called to ministry. That was not my primary source of doubt or questions. But the church had a lot of problems. Did I really want to be mixed up in that mess?
Nevertheless, the calling was persistent. Seminary was invigorating. Then a dozen failed interviews and one failed church vote all made me seriously question that calling. I literally lost my voice on that last one. I was not sure how to recover from being voted down 90% to 10%, so I sat on my couch for three days. My voice was lost to laryngitis. My hopes were squelched. My husband Lynn even had a job change lined up so we could move to the college-town church. Did we have to move anyway?
In spite of all those brick walls springing up around me, my calling to ministry remained steady and unwavering. But the church itself? It was going to be a challenge.
Then I met a wonderful new church. They were leaving behind a lot of baggage from the SBC, trying to be a welcoming, thoughtful, service-oriented congregation. This mirrored my experience in many ways. It was a good fit. And the Sunday they called me was a red letter day. I was as happy as I could remember being. All the years of schooling, preparing, convincing people my call was genuine in a world where God didn’t call a lot of women to ministry. Finally, here it was a place where I could serve and be myself.
And for five years that is what I did.
Brick Walls inside the Church
The last six months in this congregation were a huge contrast to the first five years.
The words I heard in those last months were not ones of calling or support, but bricks in a growing wall that was shutting me out of the congregation.
“I can’t believe this is happening.” Shock.
“Sometimes it’s the best thing that can happen, because it is the thing that did happen.” Fatalism.
“Can’t we just let this be? Without tearing up the countryside?” Fear.
Then there was the nasty, ill feeling in my body that I carried around with me for those six months. Secret meetings to plot how to get rid of me. People refusing to support activities I was leading. Sunday school classes skipping bible study to discuss the entire mess. Church wide meetings with the fancy consultants where I was on the hot seat.
Word came back to me daily. There was no ignoring the conflict.
What had I done exactly?
The ministry they called me to do.
Did I do it perfectly?
Of course not. Like any novice or beginning minister, I made my share of mistakes, but most of them caused no lasting harm. Some of the missteps were laughable. Saying the wrong word in a sermon. Almost setting my robe on fire at communion.
Other risks were bigger. Some changes disrupted comfortable habits. Shaking up the Sunday School curriculum and class structure can be upsetting to people. Refusing to plan a ski trip and and planning a winter retreat instead can disappoint youth and their parents. I was attempting to lead changes that kept the mission and purpose of the church front and center. I was in a slow process of learning how to make these changes.
Firing up Bricks for the Wall
But when the heat turned up in the final six months of my time on that church staff, I was not the problem. In spite of the gossip, secret meetings, and magic wands wielded by church consultants, I was not the problem. The conflicts focused on me were symptoms.
I was a convenient lightning rod. I was unwilling to stop being myself. I am a woman with a very progressive theology.
I tried building bridges, but I ran into brick walls instead. I sat in living rooms where people listed their grievances against the church, the recently retired pastor, and my leadership. I heard the daily reports of unrest and growing appetite for major change in the staff. Meanwhile I could not eat. I lost more than 20 pounds. Some days I could barely speak. I lost my voice. Again.
Holding up a Mirror
Finally, the show down at the OK Corral could be put off no longer.
In my resignation letter I said I was. Holding up a mirror for the congregation to see themselves. I did know that much without any help from anyone else. I was a mirror of their polarization and conflict. They cracked the mirror because they did not want to see. I was the one broken in the process. But I could not see fully either.
Clarity about what happened only dawned with time. A few years after my departure, I began to see the larger picture of what was happening in those six months.
Short answer: misplaced conflict over decline.
It is part of any organization’s natural lifecycle to grow, plateau, and decline. The church seems to have amnesia about this process and instead of asking how will we renew ourselves? They become distracted by more immediate and far less important problems.
When we don’t understand what we are seeing, the conflict appears to be only what it is on the surface. Problems where there are not really problems. The conflict masquerades in petty questions such as, What color should the carpet be? Or more urgent theological debates like, Can we remove the flags from the sanctuary? And frequently the conflict becomes focused on questions of personnel, Can we afford to pay the pastor? Should we fire the youth minister because she didn’t take a ski trip?
Congregational conflict can be a major symptom of decline rather than all the petty or earth-shattering problems and questions that suck us into misguided fights and rash decisions.
Where to Focus
As long as we focus on the conflict over these impasses and problems, banging our heads on brick walls of our own making, and at the same time fail to see the declines in attendance, money, spiritual engagement, or other markers of vitality and life, we will miss a perfect opportunity for community renewal.
When we see the natural life cycle of a congregation, however, we can recognize when the community markers of growth are in a slump. Then rather than descend into secret meetings, parking lot conversations, and scapegoating vulnerable people, we can ask ourselves and each other, What do we need to do to seek renewal? How is God calling us into community at this time and place under these new circumstances?
Courage, insight, wisdom, and persistence are required for this kind of intervention.
Meanwhile many pastors and ministers and lay leaders and youth of the church slam their heads into brick walls of the church’s own making. They leave us bruised and hurting. They leave many people outside those walls and unsure they ever want to try church again.
Facing the Brick Walls and Going Around
Would you like to look at how these dynamics work and hear stories from other ministers and congregants who have face such brick walls and learned to go around?
I invite you to be part of the new learning community baptized & ordained.
Ministers in these situations, those who are already in a position of lesser power, and who lack assumed trust by congregations, are far more vulnerable in moments like the story I have described here. It’s not always because they are a minister who identifies lgbtqia+ or woman or person of color that harm is directed at them. Sometimes of course it is. But in situations like this conflicted one, the more vulnerable or marginalized a minister is, the more likely they are to become a target of misplaced conflict.
These are dynamics worth understanding. They are complexities we will consider over the next year in the baptized & ordained community. Please consider joining us and taking this conversation further. We need you and you need us. Together we will find more wisdom for facing the brick walls of ministry and for going around them.