Dear brothers and sisters, PAX!
As you know, the Diocese has been investing spiritually, intellectually and financially in the process of revitalization, formation and commitment with the clergy and laity. This is an integral part of the process of establishing a common vision and mission for the Diocese. Ofcourse, the vision and mission of our Diocesemust be clearly adapted to the idiosyncrasies of each congregation. This requires an honest effort, a real commitment and Diocesan thinking as opposed to a congregational thinking.
During my visits around the Diocese, I see the excellent things going on in some of our congregations and also the problems that arise in each congregation. The pastoral visits are very interesting and at the same time, challenging, because people expect from their bishop responses and solutions to their concerns.
One of the things that I tell members of the congregations who approach me with their problems and concerns is that we need to understand that problems arise in any and every congregation. The church is made up of fallen people seeking to serve a fallen world where Satan and his cohorts are seeking to destroy the church. This means that we will encounter all types of difficulties and challenges. The problems within the church may range from organizational struggles to conflicts, from problems with attendance to issues of program effectiveness. This can be especially problematic in the small congregations of our Diocesewhere some of our brothers and sisters feel that they are always living on the edge of losing financial and organizational viability. Anytime there is even a minor decrease in attendance or giving we feel pressure to respond quickly and decisively to the perceived problems lest the churches lose more people and suffer greater financial shortfalls. Within small congregations, problems are exponentially felt because of the rippling effect within the small church and the impact even the loss of one or two families can have upon the whole congregation. Consequently, our natural tendency when problems arise is to react quickly in fear that the problems will escalate and further damage the congregation. So we becomereactionary rather than prayerful and thoughtful in our response. Sometimes, our people have knee-jerk reactions that may provide short-term solutions without addressing the real issues involved. How we respond can often have a greater negative impact than even the problem itself. In addressing the problems and issues in the congregations, it is helpful to avoid some of the pitfalls that not only fail to solve the problem, but further add to it.
The recommendations that I have given to clergy and members of the laity are:
Look for the causes, not just the symptoms. When problems arise, the first reaction is to identify and treat the symptoms. When issues arise within the church, there are often underlying issues that are causing the problem. If we fail to understand and examine the underlying causes, then the problem will manifest itself in other areas and we will end up spending all our time “putting out the fires” rather than preventing the fires from starting. For example, some conflicts may arise over the style of worship. At first glance, it may appear that the problem relates to music and personal tastes regarding style. However, when examined more closely, it may be that the real issue is low morale because the congregation is not attracting new people. As a result, disagreements arise because people have different ideas of how the style of music may contribute to or hinder the outreach of the church. Just addressing the issue of music may ease the tension regarding the choice of music, but soon tensions will rise in another area (such as the style of preaching by the pastor) as people continue to struggle with identifying possible reasons new people are not coming to church. When the congregation is struggling with problems, one of the questions that the Vestry/Bishop’s Committee should examine is whether or not there are underlying problems that need to be addressed as well.
Address the problem, instead of ignoring it. Nobody likes conflict and tension and as a result, when the congregation is facing significant struggles, the natural tendency is to ignore the problem and hope that it eventually will go away. There are times when it is an appropriate response to delay action in order to see if things do resolve themselves, otherwise the Vestries/Bishop’s Committees would be constantly dealing with petty problems that would both paralyze the leadership as well as develop a controlling atmosphere within the congregation However, when problems arise that begin to affect the whole congregation, or they are not moving towards resolution, but creating more tension, then it is necessary for the leadership to examine the issues in order to determine if immediate action is necessary. When problems continue to grow rather than resolve themselves, then further delay will only cause the problems to increase and the damage to the congregation to worsen.
Look for long-term solutions, not quick fixes. The natural response to problems and issues is to look for an immediate solution. We seek to address the immediate problem but often overlook the deeper problems that require long-term solutions. For example, a problem may arise in the Sunday School because of a decline in attendance. The initial response is to look for ways to increase attendance. But an even more important question is how the changes in culture and society affect what people are looking for in the Sunday School program. When dealing with problems it is important to look for long-term health rather than short-term solutions that do not address the overall health of the congregation.
Tradition versus “the way we’ve always done it.” As we seek answers to issues, we first turn to the past and how we dealt with the issues before. While the doctrines and content ofthe church’s teaching are never changing and are grounded in the unchanging Scriptures, how the church conducts its ministry is constantly in flux. The church of today is vastly different from the church of our grandparents and the structures of their church were vastly different from the church of the first century. The reason is because culture and society are constantly in flux; and to maintain relevancy in a contemporary church, we need to do things differently. This is seen in everything from the style of music to the manner in which we organize and structure ministries. “The way we’ve always done it” attitude must disappear from our congregations. Sometimes “the way we’ve always done it” is the element that is driving people away from the church. “The way we’ve always done it” is not always the right way. We must look for ways to approach the people of this century without compromising our Christian faith. Solid tradition is rooted in the teachings and doctrine of the Church and not in our own way which sometimes is in conflict with said tradition.
Work as a team. Like a professional sports team, the church is only as strong as the individual members of the church and the changing of a priest does not change the problems within the membership. Instead ofblaming the priest, it is important that the Vestry/Bishop’s Committee work with the priest in identifying the problems and seeking positive, biblically driven solutions in order to bring about necessary changes within the congregation.
The Church is not a secular business. While there are many principles from business leadership and administration that are beneficial to the church, we must equally recognize that there are fundamental differences that require a different approach. Within many businesses, the end result determines the process. People are not as important as the overall organization. However, within the church, the process is often more important than or as equally important as the outcome. Even if we achieve the right outcome (i.e. the growth of the congregation), but do so with the wrong motivation and process, then it ultimately will be detrimental to the church. So also people are more important than the organization itself, simply because the church ultimately is not an organization, but a community of believers who were brought together for the purpose of following Christ and providing mutual support and encouragement.
Prayer is central. Because the church is a spiritual organism living as the body ofChrist and not just a physical organization, the church needs to follow purpose and will, rather than just what is organizationally expedient. Ultimately the answer to all issues, struggles, and problems within the church is not in our wisdom, but in the wisdom, will and direction of Christ. Therefore, prayer is central to the process of addressing issues. Prayer is seeking to align our will with the will of Christ. It is the recognition of our desperate need for his agenda and direction and the humble setting aside of our agenda and desires for the church. The initial response to any issue facing the church is first to pray. But it is not just the starting point; rather it is to permeate the whole process and govern the implementation of any solution that we arrive at. Too often we react to the problems and issues by seeking solutions rather than seeking God. As a Diocese, we need to spend more time in prayer.
Supremacy of Scripture. Along with prayer, Scripture is to guide us in all our decisions. The most important step in determining answers to the problems we face is not to seek information, but to seek the guidance of Scripture. Recognizing the supremacy of Scripture involves the recognition that within the pages of Scripture are all the necessary principles to provide the wisdom to respond to any situation that we are confronted with within the life of the church. Searching out and then applying the principles of Scripture that relate to the situation that confronts the congregation is critical for maintaining its health.
I trust that these recommendations will help us all in furthering the vision and mission of ourDiocese which is to be an ever growing faithful and caring community of believers, transforming lives by delivering the unchanging message of the Gospel to a changing world.
Bp J. Alberto Morales, OSB