Monday, March 12, 2012

Dinosaurs and Dragons in Church

 A friend called last week to talk about a conflict in their church.  It was about a resistance coming from some of his members to change things for a new day according to the friend, a pastor of a mainline denomination.  He commented that the dinosaurs in his church never want to try anything new.  They often say the seven deadly words that can stop church growth and new possibilities for vitality – “But we’ve never done it that way.”  His frustration was palpable even over the phone.  He was disheartened and frustrated. 

Another friend of mine had called just the week before – another pastor friend – to talk about a “problem person” in her church.  The person she was calling about was causing all manner of conflict because she did not get her way in a recent church decision.  So the member was acting out in aggressive ways.  The pastor called to see what I thought of how she was dealing with this behavior.  She was struggling with the anger spewing from her member that seemed out of control.  The pastor was tired and confused.

In every church you can find examples of both dinosaurs and dragons.  Dinosaurs can and will often cling to out of date realities and long for bygone days of the past.  They can also be the holders of tradition and heritage.  Dinosaurs can be the foundations upon which our mainline churches are built.  The difficulty is when the demographics of a community demand change, a new type of worship experience, or an innovative outreach strategy and the dinosaurs refuse to change to allow for these new possibilities.

You will likely also run into various dragons in the church.  Some stomp around throwing their power around like a bulky swishing tail and others literally and figuratively breathe fire whenever they are angry.  They can make life in the church very problematic – for both laity and clergy alike.  They can become angry over what seems like small things – moving a painting from one room to the other or the changing of the location of a meeting.  They can make the process of decision making extremely difficult by breathing fire in meeting after meeting, in worship and in study, and in formal and informal settings.  They can leave a path of destruction that baffles those around them with their angry behavior.

So what do we do about dragons?  One of these friends who called recently said the best thing about them is that they will simply die out eventually.  But what of the church in the meantime?

There are ways to deal with dragons and their issues from Marshall Shelley’s Well-Intentioned Dragons: Ministering to Problem People in the Church:

1. When criticism or critique is offered – “consider the spirit in which it is offered.”  Even in anger the critique may have merit and one would be wise to at least consider the criticism’s possible realities.
2. When the criticism or critique comes in the midst of “hot anger” this “is a sign that something more is involved.”  Anger, fiery or otherwise, that is beyond the expected norms in any given situation could likely mean there is something more that the person is frustrated or angry about.  Try to work on discovering the root of this anger in order to deal with the fallout.
3. When criticism or critique is offered – respond prayerfully.  The best model we can offer when people are angry is to pray for and with them about what they have concerns about.
4. When criticism or critique comes in concrete forms – give these instances of critique more weight.  The more concrete someone is the more validity their issue may be.  Explore what they are offering and examine them carefully for possible issues you can address.
5. When criticism and critique comes – deal with them calmly and with great care.  Dismissing the concerns out of hand only adds anger to the situation.  React calmly and they might as well.
6. When criticism and critique comes – deal with it corporately.  Gain perspective through the advice and counsel of others you trust.
7. When you are finished with all of these considerations you must act – either by making changes or letting the person know that you have weighed their issue carefully and determined that a different decision has been made.

Dealing with dinosaurs can be just as tricky.  Dinosaurs are often feeling like their issues and needs are being left behind for new people, new ideas, and new methods.  They believe what they hold dear in the church is being taken away from them piece by piece, step by step.  Their desires to cling to the past can be dangerous to a church that finds itself in the position of moving forward and reaching new audiences. 

Honoring the past while making room for what’s next can be tricky.  Sometimes it involves being a chaplain to “what was” to its final end in order to create “what can be.”  Sometimes it involves radically envisioning a new beginning that the dinosaurs can support as an additional ministry of their church.  Sometimes it means spending time learning the story of the dinosaurs so that one can tell a new story they can respond to positively. Sometimes it means leaving the dinosaurs and dragons behind and starting something completely new and different.  All are hard.

When dealing with the dragons and dinosaurs of your church follow some important advice – they are not the enemy.  They are children of God just as you and those who agree with you are.  They are part of the beloved community and as such need our care and love.

When dealing with angry dragons and prehistoric dinosaurs – handle with care.  Likely they are as afraid of you as you are of them.  Communication and shared beliefs are important to honor.  Take the time to deal justly and compassionately with them and you might be surprised how much progress you can make.

Handle with care = love, honor, respect, and grace.  But it also means moving on to a new reality when necessary – both dragons and dinosaurs no longer exist in the real world, but they can be all too real in the church. Remarkably they can help us honor the past and move into the future.

Hopefully the church of what is to come learns the lessons of the past and makes decisions that honor it while not clinging too tightly to it.  The church of what’s next needs to be birthed.  NOW!

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