A close friend of mine once told me a story about someone they knew who had been an alcoholic for over 30 years. After a number of precipitating events this person finally sought out treatment. But a week later the alcoholic’s spouse cancelled all of the treatment appointments because the treatment facility “didn’t know what they were doing.” Apparently, the spouse knew much more than the treatment providers, and the fact that it hadn’t worked for the past 30 years was irrelevant.
One of my college roommates was struggling in a literature class. He took his paper over to one of the academic counselors (we used to call them tutors) to get help with the paper. The academic counselor gave him some advice on making his thesis a little more clear and cleaning up the grammar a bit. My roommate came back from the meeting frustrated. He refused to make any changes to his paper thinking that the academic counselor was just being nitpicky. Several days later he got a disappointing surprise when his paper came back with a low grade. The professor had marked him down for grammatical errors and an unsupported thesis.
I once visited someone who was in the hospital after having a heart episode (not quite a heart attack, but close). The funny thing is, when I arrived at the hospital I couldn’t find him. He wasn’t in his room, anywhere in the unit, and the nurse didn’t have any record of him going in for a procedure. After a few minutes he came walking down the hall in his hospital gown. He had visited the patient courtyard for a smoke. During our time together that morning I couldn’t help but point out the recommendation form the doctor had given him the day before, which recommended that he change his diet, start exercising, and quit smoking. He was also given a prescription for medication. “You gonna listen to any of this?” I asked. “Probably not,” he said. He didn’t even attempt to quit smoking, change his diet or begin exercising. He never even had the prescription filled. It wasn’t even a year before he had a full blown heart attack. But at least he was honest.
What do all three of these stories have in common? First, they all actually happened. Second, they’re pretty universal. Most of you can relate to having experienced a situation similar to at least one of these, if not all of them. And third, they are all metaphors for churches.
Many churches have internal issues that hold them back. Although occasionally the internal issues stem from the clergy leadership in place, that’s not usually the issue. Usually the internal issues have very little to do with who the pastor is. Evidence of this is readily available in congregations that have had numerous pastors in the last few decades and the same problems have perpetuated throughout their duration.
So congregations in this situation do what they do best: fire the pastor or get the pastor to leave. “Then,” they say, “we can get a GOOD pastor in here who can fix all this.” In an obvious avoidance of responsibility they look for a new pastor. And get one…another one.
The intensity of their situation demands someone highly skilled, so they set out with exacting requirements.
They need someone who is experienced in overcoming conflict. They need someone who can bring in young families and kids. They need someone who is an outstanding preacher and teacher. They need someone who is experienced in counseling. They need someone who is a strong administrator. They need someone who is skilled in grief and crisis care.
So they set out, looking for someone who has the right education, the right skills, the right qualifications. And then they hire that person.
And they promptly ignore everything their new “good” pastor has to say.
Years of decline and pastoral turnover take their toll and the leadership of the church begin to get desperate. “There must be someone out there who can help us fix all this!” they say. And someone in the denominational leadership who has great intentions of helping them understand and take ownership of their internal problems recommends that they hire a consultant.
They are reluctant at first. But they are also desperate. So they finally pony up tens of thousands of dollars to bring in a consultant. And they do their research. They hire a consultant who is an “expert” in their particular areas of struggle.
The consultant comes in with a host of surveys, a schedule of meetings and interviews, and lots of other tools to analyze the situation. The time finally comes and the consultant gives them a list of recommendations. The consultant, being faithful to do the job thoroughly, has noticed the internal issues and makes recommendations geared towards substantive institutional change.
And sometimes the congregation totally ignores the recommendations they’ve just paid tens of thousands of dollars for. Other times the congregation gets the list of recommendations and follows through with some of the smaller, easier issues, but ignores the ones that might be hard, expensive, or time-consuming.
It seems many congregations go to their pastors or consultants and say, “Give me your expert opinion…so I can ignore it.”
The question this brings to mind is, “Why?”
Why bother hiring a pastor with the right education and training if everything they say is going to just be ignored? Why bother paying tons of money to hire a consultant if everything they recommend is just going to be ignored?
That makes about as much sense as smoking during your hospital stay, going to the doctor and refusing to take the medication you’re prescribed, going to a tutor and refusing to make corrections on your paper, or going in for treatment and refusing to listen because your decades of addiction have made you an expert on sobriety.
We bother because we want things to be different, but we don’t want to do anything different.
We want to experience the benefits of things being fixed, but we don’t want to fix anything substantive about ourselves.
We want a scapegoat, someone to blame our failures on rather than take responsibility for them and learn from them.
We want to see change, but not be changed.