Reflections of a Rookie Specialized Transitional Minister at a crucial point the first time through the process 2
Part Two: Connecting the concepts to church life more specifically
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OK, I misled you. My thinking has changed. I’ll try edit the lie out of the previous page, but authenticity might prevent me from ‘cleansing’ in that way and may require me to let the lie and it’s apology stand. I’ve chosen a different direction for Part Two. Sorry if you feel misled.
As I started part two, I recognized that it might be best to now take the concepts and connect them in a general way with church life before going into my specific work in my current congregation.
The church realities of the sinking ship analogy are that there is a list of elements common to many many congregations that make the comparison with a ship that is slowly sinking and becoming less and less redirectable legitimate and effective. A first application could be: the size of the vessel is close to ideal for the size congregation was at it’s peak, but it is now declining. So there are fewer folks on board to ‘man the ship.’ That creates extra anxiety and stress, which contributes to burnout and drop out (and even abandoning ship) — what could be item two on the comparison list. Third, only the essentials and basics become the focus of those who are left behind, creating opportunity for decay or ‘rust’ to make small leaks or holes (see this Alban article for more on all this). Creativity, vigor, fresh ideas and destinations do not come to people on such a ship. They are too busy trying to stay afloat in survival mode. Dreams and visions are unrealistic, unaffordable luxuries, or feel like they are. One could go on having fun connecting the dots between analogy and reality. Have at it on your own.
What tends to happen to people who remain on such a situation is an unspoken-but-acted out “collective denial”. The story of Titanic is a great illustration of this. For as long as the imminent sinking is deniable, the party goes on, tunes are picked and chairs arranged. When the sinking becomes undeniable, the anxiety brings out the true character of many, and chaos and conflict increase hugely.
Technical or superficial changes like “pick another tune” or “play faster and louder” or “Line up the chairs nicely” are the actions of that collective denial, and feel — to those participating in the denial — like at least some kind of action is being taken. Some such activists can even appear heroic in leading and taking them. But true leadership is found in those who are seeing the danger well beforehand and who have been calmly and assertively naming and investigating what is developing. Ideally this is happening well before a crisis arises. However, collective denial may be stronger than the voice of the healthy leader(s) calling for proactive change to prevent a disaster.
So too with the medical analogy. Symptoms of malaise are common to many churches in North America: Aging core, loss of youth, lack of zeal, worship doldrums, major conflict over minutia, minor conflict over crucial things, crumbling and oversized facilities, burnout, anxiety, failure to thrive etc. You can make your own list. All are symptoms of a problem.
Here too, the tendency in looking for quick technical solutions in collective denial mode is to want to mimic healthy symptoms from other situations: “We should do XYZ because church ZYX did it and things turned for the better. But really, that is importing what is seen to be a healthy symptom and layering it on an unhealthy organism.Creating that symptom artificially does not make for a healthy unit. So too with symptoms that are preferred. Often a case like this will be made “We need to ramp up our worship style.” Rarely though is that an adaptive response, and more frequently it is similar to picking new songs on the Titanic.
What it comes down to is that a way needs to be found to avoid the ‘easy’ run to ‘whitewashing’ or changes which are merely external cleansings, and find a way to facilitate setting those aside in favour of a search for deeper solutions.
So, that fleshes the two concepts out a bit into real life applications. At this point I’ve realized that the very immediate and direct application to my congregation is not appropriate to be shared publicly at this time. So, though I will write it now, I will have to wait until it feels appropriate to share it clearly. That will probably be about 4 months from now. Meanwhile, I have some thoughts to share that relate this to the Exodus story. I think that reflection will be called “Crossing Denial.“