At a time when Wikileaks is on people’s mind – I want to talk about MinistryLeaks.
Ministry leaders dread dealing with people who want to separate themselves or defect from a church. I use the word leak, because depending on the volume it can be an annoyance, or a crisis. There is a natural process for people to leave a church – people move, people go to be with the Lord, older people follow their kids/grandkids.
I thought about using a play on the old “huggies” saggy diaper that leaks ad campaign – “Do you belong to a saggy church that leaks?” – but reconsidered as it casts a negative pallor on the church.
I really want to have a discourse on how to contend with an unnatural leakage – people “dissing” the church – people leaving a ministry because of dissatisfaction, dissillusion, discontent, disagreement, disuinty, dischord… I want to define (for myself) what I think call a leak. A leak is a sustained period of declining membership or attendance or turnover in either category that exceeds 2-5% per year and is less than 30% in any 4 year period. A dangerous leak involves core leaders and historic or founding families. A pipe burst usually centers around staff or facility transitions – new pastors or departing pastors or directors or moving the congregation. Sometimes changes in worship service, or ministry programs are a trigger. Please do not conflate in your mind a trigger event and any person’s decision to separate. The reasons for leaving may have been forming over a long time, and the trigger simply struck the powder. Our job as leaders is to assess each situation, and determine whether there is a ministry problem to address, a personal problem to address, or simply an organic, natural separation because of circumstance.
Here are some “Don’t’s” to ponder when participants are dissin’ your ministry:
- Don’t take it personally – The sense of indignation or hostility that often accompanies ministry defections is perhaps the largest barrier to discovering whether there are valid reasons for people to vote with their feet.
- Don’t assume you understand what is really going on with people – Your ability to determine what is causing folks to dribble out the door is dependent on your willingness to hear from them what is really going on. Perhaps there are needs that they have that were not previously known, or that simply misunderstood.
- Don’t resist difficult truths – when you hear from people that say unpleasant things about your leadership, ministry community, ministry programs – start from the position that there is a kernel of truth behind what they are telling you from their perspective. No ministry is perfect. If you don’t have an inventory of your ministries gaps or weaknesses, start one. Behind the defections, there is likely a short list of gaps that you need to pray about.
- Don’t discount the value of a message because of the delivery style – just because the message is delivered in a stream of invective, or because the messenger personalized the message, or because the message feels like a parting shot. Wounded people tend to lash out. Deal with it, if someone was spiritually wounded on your watch – you are partly responsible – if not for the problem, then certainly for the solution.
- Don’t assume you understand the others experience – as a leader, you have likely been immersed and invested in this ministry for years. You probably have very close relationships within the community. Your experience of the ministry is probably very different from that of a newcomer, or even of a long time spectator. Their perspective on your ministry’s effectiveness and attractiveness is going to be vastly different from your experience. When relatively outsiders tell you your ministry stinks, they are smelling something different from you. When long time insiders tell you the same, you have to recognize that you may have become disconnected.
I recognize that each of these don’t’s is contrary to our human nature. As mature believers we need to be prepared to deal with people who are hurting, lashing out, misinformed, discontented, as well as being under spiritual warfare. We cannot afford to dismiss these dear brothers and sisters without at least trying to understand how things feel or appear from their unique perspective.
The “Do’s” are just as important:
- Do attempt to hear each individual who is leaving – having an “exit interview” process that is prepared so that you are able to detect themes and patterns in the reasons that people provide (true or not) that may provide clues to the “smells” that exist in your ministry.
- Do respond positively to each instance of criticism or critique – Since there are probably 10 who won’t for every person who will send a critical e-mail, you must assume that the critic is not alone in her opinion. Responding positively is not the same as a polite refutation of her critique, but an offer of genuine conversation aimed at building understanding. The temptation is to return fire by rationalizing or justifying the status quo. This response however polite, does not help the critic feel heard. It also presumes that you understand all of the context of the criticism, or that you and your critic are actually using the words the same way. You may find in a conversation that you completely misunderstood what they said in a letter or e-mail. Remove the beam from your eye before attempting to remove the spec from your critic’s eye.
- Do admit to challenges and weaknesses – people respond very differently to people who are willing to accept their position and admit that there may be a problem. Every ministry has weaknesses and challenges. They should not be a secret – there should be an active and public process for adressing them. Even if you are temporarily unable to address the criticism, this will let the critic know that they are not unappreciated – it can move them from being part of the problem, to part of the solution.
- Do ask for positive suggestions – to take the last point one step further, many of your critics are smart folks who may have ideas you haven’t considered yet. At a minimum, it turns the tables from being them telling you that you stink, to asking them to wash your feet. Even if “they got nothin'” – your critic is allowed to move from a position of disappointment, conflict, emnity – toward a position of empathy, collaboration, progress – she is allowed to change teams. The choice is hers, but the opportunity is there.
- Do leave the door open – it is easy to see those who ultimately decide to leave our ministry as “the problem”, “the enemy”, “difficult”, “divisive” – whatever adjective or noun you assign to them. Recognize that when they disagree with your prioirities, policies, or choices, perhaps the most mature thing that they can do is to separate – so that they are not a divisive influence. They may continue to serve in your programs or affiliates because they genuinely do not want to damage the valuable parts of the ministry. If the issue is not centered around sin or doctrine, and you have confidence that the defector is still qualified for ministry – there is no reason to disqualify them because of disagreements over matters of less spiritual consequence. Establish and maintain communications in ways that do not make it more difficult for them to change direction or reverse their decisions.
- Do wish them to find a safe and satisfactory place of worship and fellowship – OK differences are irreconcilable. We can’t meet on this. It doesn’t matter why, but you don’t want them to leave feeling like they are persona non grata – like you said “…and don’t let the door hit ya on the way out…” If you are not praying for them and their next church, you should be looking to your own heart in this situation.
Our job as leaders is primarily one of stewardship. While people are leaving, perhaps the most tangible impact is in contributions. Perhaps right behind that is volunteer program staff. As a steward of these resources you should be actively managing the impact and looking to expenses and programming and recruiting volunteers. ‘Cuz you are still accountable for the fruit.
This is tough. I feel it. So maybe the best approach is to maintain the seals. What do I mean? I believe that many swells of dissatisfaction develop over a period of time. Perhaps more frequent candid feedback is a good thing – would it not be better to see the swell forming months before people start defecting? Would that not give you time to respond with more than a “that’s too bad.”
The church I am currently attending has an interesting process, each year every member renews his or her membership in a formal conversation with leadership. It is advertised as a time to re-commit – and a time to provide feedback. It is a form of regular accounting – that is people can drift away, and if they are not regularly attending (because of lifestyle) you may not know that they have defected – or are dissatisfied.
I am aware of a church that gave a congregational survey periodically with what the leadership saw as their top 5 challenges asking the congregation to rank them and also a place for a write in challenge – so they could capture items that they had not thought of. They reported back to the congregation the following week with a report on the congregation’s response, and a committment to build a plan to address the top 1 or 2 items on the list. The next week they had a proposal for a plan to address the first one and so on.
These churches have pro-active mechanisms to “maintain the seals of satisfaction”. I don’t advocate either method – make up your own. Just recognize that if you don’t act – you may be forced to react.
Last point – really! Some times a new church “shows up” on people’s radar in the area. This church is growing rapidly. It has momentum. It is different, has a bit of spectacle, the pastor is a showman, and, and, and… Your congregation have “snuck in” a service at “CoolNewChurch.com”. People don’t leave your congregation to attend because they are lured and seduced by the shiny stuff happening at CNC. They leave because they are dissatisfied with your church. Don’t blame CNC – they are doing the best they can to produce fruit for the kingdom. Don’t blame your folks or think of them as shallow for being attracted by the big show at CNC. CNC 4 years ago used to be HappyNormalChurch.com just like you. Somewhere along the way their leadership had a vision for change that allowed them to overcome 30 years of inertia to transform themselves into something cool and new to attract more people to God’s Kingdom. Good for them. If this has happened or is happening in your area of ministry, your job is simple:
1) figure out what is happening or not happening in your ministry that allows people to become and REMAIN dissatisfied long enough to consider leaving.
2) Formulate a plan to do something to prevent them from remaining dissatisfied for very long.