They’re really good people.
He’d been staring at me all morning with an expression unlike any in the room. I’d been teaching for over an hour. A hundred local church leaders and their pastors were gathered around tables, preparing to dive into a yearlong journey of discovery and discussion. Our goal? Find the future for the dozen or so congregations represented in the room.
Things at his table didn’t look too promising. His pastor looked like a good guy. He’d been at the church for a couple of years now and seemed determined to slow the church’s decade of steady decline. I wanted to believe he could. This pastor appeared enthusiastic and his wife seemed to genuinely enjoy the people at their table. Better days were ahead, I was sure…except for the look on this one guy’s face.
This is what I do. I work with churches, trying to help them navigate a climb to greater effectiveness or turn a downward spiral in a new, more promising direction. Some days I sit with leaders from one congregation. Other days, the door’s been opened to multiple congregations, and I try to aid the unique discovery of purpose and direction occurring at each of the room’s round table. This was one of those days.
But he wasn’t buying it. Every other face showed signs of genuine engagement. These people came to learn. Motivational speeches aren’t usually needed when folks give up an entire Saturday to help their pastor find answers. Each participant had been chosen for this assignment. Pastor needed their faith, their hope, and their ability to dream with him. It’s usually a fun room.
This one man wasn’t having fun. His face didn’t fit with the others. They smiled and nodded and jotted notes vigorously. He pushed his chair back further from the table, folded his arms, and glared at me, as though he’d accepted a mission to prove me wrong at every turn. I could read his thoughts (not really). I could anticipate his complaints (I’d heard them before). I could quote his list of reasons why nothing I suggested would ever work at his church (I figured he was the reason).
We made it to the lunch break without him derailing my confidence. I wanted to embrace the affirmation others in the room extended as I grabbed a sandwich and a plate full of chips, but he was too close. By the time I reached the drink table, he had me cornered and asked if he could sit with me.
Now, I’m a pastor, at least I had been one for quite a while. Most of us know when we’re about to receive someone’s well-meaning correction. You’ve heard it too—the auditorium was too cold on Sunday or the sermon was too long, or in that one announcement we failed to mention the part that everyone really needed to know. Such moments are meant to help us, to make us aware of what people are saying, all the while being sure that the messenger means no ill intent.
So I slid my tray in front of a couple of empty chairs and motioned for my new friend to join me. I quickly took a bite of my sandwich, believing that the chewing motion would hide any other reactions my face might have toward his rebuke. But then something else happened, and I wasn’t as prepared as I had thought for what the next few moments would bring.
He wept. His shoulders began to vibrate and he fought hard to muffle the sobs that wanted to burst forth. “You don’t understand,” he whispered, trying to keep his overwhelming emotion from drawing the attention of the room. “You don’t understand…I can’t see a future…we can’t have a future for our church when we’re all afraid to face the past.”
Suddenly my food didn’t taste so good. I tried to swallow quickly, anxious to console him, wanting to trade in my suspicions for a much-needed dose of compassion. Pastor had seen the tears and slid into the seat next to me. “What is it, Bill?” he asked in such a soft voice that Bill and I could see his concern. In an instant, I went from the center of a conversation to its bystander, and I knew that I needed to do just that.
“Pastor, you don’t know all that’s happened. You don’t know about the Jenkins and the Simpsons, and the thing with the Walkers.” There was no reaction. The names didn’t seem to register in the pastor’s expression. “How can we talk of vision and a future when we can’t deal with all the hurt of the past?”
Good question, Bill.
After a brief conversation and the pastor’s pledge to engage whatever hurt Bill and his other tablemates might be carrying, our afternoon resumed. Bill wiped his eyes with a friend’s oversized handkerchief and pulled his chair back up to the table, seemingly ready to participate now that he was sure his new pastor really cared enough to face whatever ugliness had been a part of where they’d been. Over the next few months, Bill was as pleasant and engaging as anyone in the room. Apparently, he was finding reason to reach for the future again.
But his question underscores something your people want you to know before you lead them in change, Pastor. We’ll go where you go if you’ll come where we are.