Breathing New Life Into Established Churches: Part 2

Carlus Guptonby Carlus Gupton

The first thing to keep in mind when trying to breathe new life into established churches is…

Keep the Mission, Maturation, and Ministry of the Church at the Forefront in Decision-Making.

At the risk of overstatement, the driving force behind most leadership decisions in established churches is holding down complaints and pursuing what Gil Rendle calls the “illusion of congregational happiness.”[1]

Here’s how it plays out. The leaders of a congregation want to make some needed changes in the worship assembly. They realize no matter which route they choose, significant individuals or groups in the congregation will be unhappy. Fearing stiff resistance either way they go, the leaders freeze, sometimes for years. This inertia increases congregational anxiety. One group wants movement and is upset about the stalemate. Another group fears change and is anxious about the “slippery slope” that could be around the corner. Everyone observes the “no-talk” rule about the issues, fearing that “if we bring that up, it will make some folks unhappy.” Church members dance around each other’s real concerns, practicing a fellowship of shallow church-chat. It’s like a gathering of porcupines doing a strange religious dance. Believers come together and waltz around the vestibule, come just close enough to feel each other’s quills, and then back off whenever the discussion starts going “where everyone knows we don’t go.” Then come the leaders’ meetings.

The elusive “Some of our people are saying…” and “you know that will upset so-and-so” become the all-sufficient force to bring discussion to a halt. Quelling complaints and keeping them from occurring become the measuring sticks of church effectiveness.

Rendle suggests this “happiness trap” hurts the congregation in at least three ways:

  • We practice only the parts of our faith that we enjoy or appreciate, which assumes we are already where we need to be spiritually. This constrains the spirit of God by not allowing us to grow and change in needed areas.
  • We preserve stability and status quo by reducing the evaluations of our effectiveness to whether we have complaints. If we have no complaints, everything is fine. If we have complaints, we eliminate the problems by returning to the status quo where happiness overrides complaints.
  • We focus the attention and energy of the congregation internally, and avoid or ignore the call to external ministry.

Paradoxically, efforts to stop complaints are self-defeating. They actually create opportunities for additional and competing complaints from those who feel different than the satisfied party. For example, if you try to address complaints about the lack of genuine community by allowing the minister to shift his time into developing small groups, new complaints will emerge that he is not available to make hospital visits.

What is the best response? Freeze? No. Again, inertia creates as many complaints as action. The truth is, there is no way to stop complaints, thus the “illusion of congregational happiness.” The best response is to move away from fixing complaints and make decisions based on a strong sense of congregational purpose. The chart below illustrates the principle.

Focus Less on Pleasing the Preferences of Your MembersFocus More on Pursuing the Purpose of the Kingdom
• Who wants what?• What does scripture call us to be and do?
• How do we satisfy [a person or a group]?• What are we called to do in this chapter of our history as a congregation?
• What should we do about [a problem or a complaint]?• What are the goals and/or objectives that we set out to accomplish in our ministry?
• What are the appropriate strategies for our ministry, and how will we measure their attainment?

Leaders should remember, however, that making this shift brings even more complaints. The temptation is to return to soothing others’ pain by anxiously adjusting decisions until happiness is restored. I call this “adjusting the shower water.” When we turn on the shower and the water is first too hot or cold, we go through several adjustments until we find just the right temperature. You can do this with water, but trying it with people brings three results:

  • It destroys leadership trust in those who favored your original decision.
  • It destroys leadership credibility even among those who know they can manipulate you back into their perspective.
  • It trains your members to get what they want by complaining.

Instead, Rendle suggests a three-fold response of principled presence.

  1. Stay connected. This involves both listening and talking. First, listen to everyone, including complainers, in order to understand congregational concerns. This can include listening to those who represent others, inviting focus groups to meet with the elders, convening systematic listening groups, etc. Second, talk and inform members of the what and why of the decisions. Always tie actions to the overall purpose, and challenge people with the church’s mission.
  2. Maintain a clear and reasoned position. Rendle says, “People have a right to be heard, but they do not hold a mandate to be accommodated.” If leaders have addressed the higher-purpose questions mentioned in the right side of the chart above, they will be able to articulate their positions in terms of purpose and not personal agenda or politics.
  3. Resist anxious reactivity. Allow people to adjust to changes, and realize they may not always be at their best behavior. Do not fight back. Be consistent in your communication with all interested parties. Do not take things personally. Listen to critics without caving to dissent. Keep a sense of humor. Help people through the chaotic wilderness into the new and better realities that your decisions are aimed at unfolding.


Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3 |  Part 4  | Part 5


[1] Much of this point is my adaptation of Gilbert Rendle, “The Illusion of Congregational Happiness,” in Conflict Management in Congregations. Alban Institute, 2001, 83-94.


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