jQuery Slider

You are here

Navigational Errors: A thriving church sank, not because it hit an iceberg...

Navigational Errors: A thriving church sank, not because it hit an iceberg, but because of six leadership mistakes afterward.

[Name Withheld ]

A church can sink in a hurry. Ours did. We never would have predicted it.

A year ago, Trinity Episcopal Church was a vibrant parish. While the congregation contained both conservatives and liberals, we had a peaceful and healthy coexistence. The pastoral staff identified themselves as evangelical, as did most of the Christian education workers, and (in the spirit of full disclosure) so did I, a seminary-educated layman who served on the church board. The Vestry—the governing board—well represented the theological make-up of the congregation, with a 10-4 conservative majority.

Now a year later—September 2004—the entire pastoral staff is gone, attendance is down 75 percent, most of the Christian education leaders have either left the church or are hesitant to sign up for another year of duty. The parish is deeply discouraged, mission giving is down, and the near future of the parish looks bleak, financially and spiritually.

While a number of incidents conspired to sink the hundred-year-old Trinity, for the sake of this article, I'd like to look at our leadership. Our pastor, Father Collin Shaw, is neither evil nor incompetent. He was largely responsible in his eight years of ministry for the overall vigor of the congregation as it existed on August 5, 2003. In the months that followed, he often led with political and spiritual savvy. But in the end, some of the mistakes he, and those of us in leadership, made proved to be terribly damaging.

No longer could we talk about biblical teaching or theological truth or what was best for the church. Every decision became personal: "If you do this, you're telling me to leave."

All names have been changed in this article because I see no need to hurt or embarrass anyone at Trinity, especially Father Collin. Like the captain of the Titanic, he is a good man and a good leader whose mistakes in judgment contributed significantly to the capsizing of the good ship Trinity. Perhaps these errors will be instructive for other churches heading into treacherous seas.

The precipitating event was international news. On August 5, at its 2003 national gathering, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ecusa) elected to the office of bishop Gene Robinson, a man who had left his wife and children and was living with a homosexual partner.

In addition, the convention agreed to let dioceses create experimental services that would bless same-sex unions. One side celebrated a victory for human rights. The other was appalled at the blatant repudiation of biblical ethics. The vote created a rift among both American Episcopalians and the body to which ecusa is a "constituent member," the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The Primates—heads of Anglican provinces worldwide—gathered in Canterbury in October and declared unanimously that ecusa's actions were divisive and that it should not proceed with Robinson's ordination. In November, a handful of ecusa bishops (including the presiding bishop, Frank Griswold) defied the admonitions of the worldwide Communion, laid hands on Robinson and made him a bishop.

The international reverberations are still being felt. But for Trinity Church, the crisis has been primarily local, and the damage immediate and visible. Here are six missteps by the pastor and those of us in leadership that contributed to the damage.

1. Don't let threats dictate actions
During the first Vestry meeting after the crisis, we were considering a motion that would have put the church on record as repudiating the actions of the recent General Convention. As the motion was being discussed, Jane, a liberal member, blurted out on the verge of tears, "If this passes, I'm leaving the church."

Since the Vestry had enjoyed cordial relationships to that point, such a stark ultimatum shocked all present, and soon the motion was tabled so that everyone's feelings and views could be more fully heard.

The motive was noble, but it created an atmosphere that turned out to be disastrous. Some conservatives became resentful at what they considered Jane's manipulation of the process. Others were angry at Father Collin for succumbing to that manipulation. Others just wanted to avoid any uncomfortable public disagreement.

In the ensuing months, threat-inflation became an unsavory fact of church life, as members on each side threatened to leave or hold back their pledges at various junctures.

Given the history of the Vestry, it was difficult to simply pass over Jane's ultimatum and consider the primary issue on the table. The feelings of a faithful member can't be ignored. But from then on, when such threats were made, they kept reframing the issue. No longer could we talk about biblical teaching or theological truth or what was best for the church. In essence, such threats made every decision personal: "If you do this, you're telling me to leave."

One senior pastor I worked with in another church handled this sort of thing much more effectively. A wealthy member came in to complain about the youth minister, saying that if her concerns weren't addressed, she would withdraw her pledge and maybe leave the church. The pastor listened carefully and then said, "I'll be saddened if you withdraw your pledge and leave; I want you to continue here. But whether you continue here or not, this young man is our youth minister. We'll help him grow and improve as a minister, but we're standing by him."

The woman understood that her concerns were heard but also that her threats would not be the deciding factor.

2. Avoid the unanimity trap
Naturally, in leading a divided parish, the more unanimity you can achieve at the board level the better. If the parish sees that the board unanimously agrees to do X, Y, and Z, even if the motions are intrinsically controversial, it goes a long way with the congregation.

The problem with insisting on unanimity, of course, is that an entrenched minority, even one person, can force the group into compromises that make everyone else feel they've lost.

From the beginning, it was important to the conservative majority that the Vestry publicly announce its intention to be a biblically orthodox parish and explicitly denounce the actions of the General Convention. Both halves were important, because the first without the second would have not addressed the issue facing the church. No one objected to resolutions about biblical authority, because everyone believed they were indeed following the Bible. But any resolution condemning the General Convention's actions was unacceptable to the liberals.

Father Collin was a good consensus builder. He had been able to get controversial and risky decisions made by the Vestry—like the go-ahead to add a multi-million dollar wing to the building. So it was important to Father Collin that the Vestry act unanimously in this crisis.

The first resolution, in August, spoke vaguely about the crisis facing the Episcopal Church, the need for prayer and dialogue as the church worked through the issue. Conservatives were frustrated that despite their 10-4 majority, they could not say anything stronger than this, but they acquiesced to Father Collin's desire for unanimity.

A second set of resolutions in November was more controversial (and too complex to detail here), but still achieved unanimity after a compromise was worked out. At the time, I was thrilled because I thought it a realistic compromise. I felt the liberals had conceded a lot, and this was a way to move ahead.

But talking with other conservatives (those who had not personally worked out the compromise), I was shocked to discover that most of them thought they had been defeated! They were alternately angry and depressed. They felt a small minority had derailed the needed action, forcing their will on the majority.

Seeking unanimity did not prevent loss of members. But instead of a few liberal members leaving, we now started losing conservative families. Insisting on unanimity gives a minority extraordinary power. We had used consensus well when it came to controversial decisions about the budget or whether to start new construction. But that model failed us when the issues turned on biblical authority and matters of conscience. Unanimity was, in the end, more costly than making a tough but timely decision earlier.

3. Amid a crisis, don't seek affirmation of your leadership
It was one of Father Collin's most unfortunate moves, but one I've seen many pastors make. In the midst of the crisis, Father Collin inadvertently asked for a vote of confidence regarding his leadership.

Leading up to the November meeting, Father Collin said to Vestry, "I can't in good conscience serve under a bishop that defies orthodox biblical teaching and the admonitions of the worldwide Anglican Communion." What he was implying was that if the church did not seek and gain alternative oversight from an orthodox bishop, he was not going to be able to stay as rector.

It was appropriate to acknowledge where he stood on the issue. But raising it in this very personal way had an unfortunate consequence: the issue now was whether the congregation should back Father Collin. It changed the focus from the Episcopal crisis and placed it on our rector's need for a different reporting relationship.

Initially, this move seemed to solidify the congregation. Conservatives responded emotionally: "We need to pass this motion to keep Father Collin!" Liberals, who didn't want to leave the diocese, nonetheless wanted to support Father Collin. They were basically loyal people—loyal to the diocese no matter what it did, and loyal to their rector, no matter where he stood on issues.

But while it appeared to unify people, the only thing that united everyone was a feeling of affection for Father Collin. It didn't address the substantive issues dividing the church, and in another couple of months, when Father Collin became discouraged and openly talked of going to another church, everyone, left and right, was devastated. How could he do that after we had shown him such support?

Another way to handle the crisis was demonstrated by a rector in British Columbia. That parish was deeply troubled because its bishop had sanctioned same-sex ceremonies. The rector decided he could no longer honor his vows to obey his bishop, so he too wanted to seek alternative oversight.

But he never made this a referendum about himself. Instead he led the congregation as best he could. Asking his governing board to support him, he called a series of congregational meetings, limited to 25 people each, and he explained what the issues were and what he thought the parish should do.

After making the rounds, he called a meeting of the entire parish. He called for a vote to leave the diocese, and 99 percent voted to leave. The parish has remained united, despite some turbulent moments since.

To be sure, it's important for a pastor to say clearly where he stands on an issue, but in our case, issues would not have been confused if Father Collin has emphasized not his but the congregation's situation. If it was not right for him to live under a non-orthodox bishop, it was also not right for the congregation to do so. If the corporate situation had been emphasized, the issue would not have devolved on keeping Father Collin at all costs.

4. Don't invoke the family factor

As the crisis evolved, the pressure on Father Collin started to be felt by his family. Some insensitive members made disparaging remarks about Father Collin in front of his wife. This, naturally, bothered her deeply. The tension also affected his two girls, who had difficulty sleeping, and came down with flu and headaches.

Father Collin was concerned and told me privately, "I'm not going to continue to pastor here if it's going to affect my family like this."

I certainly appreciate the need "not to sacrifice my family on the altar of ministry." We've all seen families destroyed by pastors who were inattentive to the home. But there are certain professions in which, during a crisis, the family simply has to come second for a time.

A fireman cannot tell the fire chief, "I'm not going to enter that burning building and rescue those people because, well, it's a risk, and my wife and my kids lose sleep when they know I'm on the job." The captain of a sinking ship doesn't jump into the first lifeboat because he has a family to think about.

There are some jobs—and they tend to be the most vital in a community—in which pressure, worry, gossip, and rejection are felt not just by the person but also by his family. Pastoring is one of those vital jobs. Pastors are wise to remind their families how vital their calling is to the community, and how difficult that calling will be sometimes, not only for the pastor but for the family.

This confusion only complicated things. Since Father Collin was wondering which responsibility came first—family or congregation—his loyalties were divided. The question wasn't just "What's right for the congregation?" It was also "What's best for my family: staying here or finding another church?"

This is not something a pastor should be thinking about in a crisis, any more than a fireman should be thinking about changing jobs in the middle of a fire.

5. Take control of heated meetings

In January, during the last meeting for those about to finish their term of office (about a third of the Vestry, nearly all conservatives), patience had run out. Conservatives kept pushing the Vestry to pass one motion about the authority of Scripture and a clear condemnation of General Convention's actions.

They were increasingly irritated by the months-long process of refining this motion. As the motion was again being discussed, one irritated conservative called for the question. Others managed to keep discussion going for another ten minutes. Feelings were running high.

"You're being disloyal to this parish and trying to start a breakaway church," one member shouted. Voices were raised and several people were shouting at once. Things started to spiral out of control. Eventually time for discussion ran out, and the resolution was put to a vote, a resolution that included the phrase: "We affirm that the Church is not able to 'ordain anything contrary to God's Word written.' Therefore we reject the decisions of the 74th General Convention to ratify the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, and to recognize the blessing of same-sex unions."

It passed 7-5 with one abstention (one conservative member was absent; another voted against the motion because he felt the decision was being rushed). The liberals were naturally disappointed and angry. Among the conservatives was hardly a feeling of triumph, only deep weariness and frustration about the opposition they had endured for so long. Ill feelings remained, and when the meeting finally broke up (without the customary closing prayer), people left hurriedly and those on opposite sides didn't even speak to one another.

Father Collin is by nature a calm man, able to discuss the most controversial issues in a most amicable way. When it came to one-on-one conversations during the crisis, this served him well. But when people started shouting accusations at one another, Father Collin, the one person both sides respected, didn't interject himself into the fray to settle things down.

He could have said something like, "Can we slow down for moment? This is out of bounds. We can't be making personal attacks. I'd like to hear what Susan has to say, then we'll have Phil explain his remarks, but let's stick to the issue."

This is pretty standard conflict management advice, admittedly not easy to practice in a tense moment, but nonetheless critical.

6. Don't talk about leaving

A constellation of factors started to wear Father Collin down. The biggest, of course, was the matter of conscience: he could no longer promise to obey his bishop when he felt his bishop was breaking biblical and ecclesiastical standards.

Collin also was increasingly paralyzed by divisive meetings. His family was reeling, and he could not imagine what a "win" would look like. His vocational eyes started seriously wandering by December.

That is human and understandable. What was less understandable was his need to tell people that he was considering an offer from another parish.

Thus once again, the Episcopal crisis—over serious moral and theological issues—took second place, and once again, the issue at Trinity became Father Collin.

Liberals who felt they had sacrificed principle to show him loyalty were angry. Conservatives who were desperate for his leadership were in a panic. A handful of conservatives called an emergency meeting on New Year's Eve to talk about what to do.

Why not start an independent church in the area, and ask Father Collin to lead it? When word got out that some of that group were on the Vestry—well, members were rightly alarmed. Here were people who had taken vows to guide and protect Trinity, and they were talking about splitting the church!

At this point, issues got complex as never before. It was now impossible to separate people's feelings regarding homosexuality, Scriptural authority, Father Collin, the Episcopal church, and the actions of conservative Vestry members.

Father Collin could have nipped this new church conversation in the bud—or encouraged the group to move forward with their plans. Instead, he continued to say that he was thinking about moving elsewhere, and that he was not sure what he thought about the church start-up, and that he was praying about what exactly he should do. It was no doubt a sincere effort to seek the will of God, but going public with his options and indecision only allowed uncertainty and confusion to fester.

Epilogue: Sheep without a shepherd

By the end of January, Father Collin announced that he was leaving Trinity to pastor a church a thousand miles away. A combination of political reality, concern for his family, and a sense of God's leading prompted him to resign. I'm sure he found himself at the end of his spiritual and psychological rope.

Perhaps it was the right thing to do, all things considered, but what needs to be acknowledged in such a moment is that with his resigning, Trinity disintegrated. Sheep without a shepherd simply can't sustain any sense of direction.

Conservatives lost another seat at the next Vestry election (two weeks after the resignation). Within a month, three more conservative Vestry members resigned (two of whom had just been elected). A month after that, the children's ministry director resigned, as did the youth director. By mid-summer, most conservative members of the church had left.

Today, Trinity averages 150 in worship, down from over 400 the previous year. With that downturn comes the usual plethora of financial "challenges." The remaining congregation, which includes a handful of conservatives who for a variety of reasons feel the need to hang on, is deeply discouraged.

History, personalities, and a complex matrix of other factors all played a role in this crisis. I've noted some of the mistakes of Father Collin, but I can't sit in judgment on him because I concurred with many of his decisions at the time.

The lessons outlined above are merely six of many that could be pointed out. Other chroniclers at Trinity, including Father Collin, would no doubt have a different list—perhaps with my leadership errors highlighted! Fair enough.

To be sure, even avoiding these six mistakes will not guarantee smooth sailing through every church crisis. But in the case of Trinity, they could have gone a long way toward helping a dynamic, thriving parish stay afloat after hitting the biggest iceberg in its history.

Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
Fall 2004, Vol. XXV, No. 4, Page 28

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top