You just spent the last three hours at your first church council meeting. You have a new binder full of papers, and a head crammed with facts and figures and opinions. Climbing into the car for the dark drive home, you ask yourself, "What have I gotten myself into?"
After three years of service on church council, you know more than you ever wanted to about church politics, in and out groups, power struggles, financial realities, and more. Thoughts of these things dominate your mind and heart, and you find it hard to go and simply "worship" Sunday mornings. So on completion of your term, you take a break, and even do a little church shopping.
You just recently became the church secretary, and now instead of being able to worship on Sunday morning, you come with all kinds of anxieties about typos in the bulletin, and people keep coming up to you with questions after church about the location of the flower guild meeting.
You take your first preaching class in seminary, and suddenly find yourself over-analyzing the sermons you hear. In fact you tend to just tear them apart. The problem: now all you do with sermons is analyze them. It's hard to let God simply speak to you through them.
You are nominated to your church call committee, and are caught by surprise that in addition to calling the right person, your team also has to "sell" the idea to the congregation also. You think, "What did I sign myself up for? Do I have the energy for this?"
All of these stories, and many more, indicate the difficult spiritual challenge leadership presents to new leaders. Leadership isn't just about figuring out how to do the task set before us. It also sets leaders on a course of spiritual discovery and challenge, seeking ways to enter a second "naiveté" after some of their earlier naive understandings of church and how it functions have been shattered or transformed.
I'm hoping to offer some resources to aid you through inevitable periods of disillusionment and disenchantment, in a journey towards even greater faith and vitality.
For those who simply attend worship on Sunday mornings, make their financial contribution, then return to their homes and daily life, there is a beautiful simplicity to church. From week to week the liturgy might be strong or weak; the sermon might be fascinating or boring; but overall, the experience is reception of the sacraments, time for prayer, and hearing the law and gospel proclaimed. It all feels spiritual and churchy.
Some few of these "regulars" in any given year are called out of the majority into positions of leadership in a congregation. Somebody--a staff person, a nominating committee, a pastor--identifies gifts for leadership and ministry, and suddenly, having prayed over the opportunity and been elected, a participant becomes a leader.
Take church council as an example. A new council person shows up for their first council meeting not quite knowing what to expect. In a short two or three hours, suddenly they are aware of many, many ongoing conversations they hadn't been privy to prior to service on council. They learn that leadership is debating minutiae, weighing the interests of one group over another, struggling to balance the budget, dealing with an incalcitrant staff member, and so on.
They leave the meeting energized by some of their opportunities for leadership, but also overwhelmed to know the whole backstory behind so many decisions and processes. It's like going to visit the family of someone you are dating, only to learn the family is incredibly complicated, even dysfunctional, and you wonder, "How is the person I'm dating related to this system? I'm so in love, can it possibly be that he/she is actually as dysfunctional as this?"
So what should you do? Two negative options present themselves, neither of which I recommend. First, you can quit. Go back to the simplicity of your previous life, and avoid exposure to the nitty gritty of church leadership.
Second, you can endure it, make it through your term, gritting your teeth all the while, and then run like heck away from that place when you're finished. I've met more than one Christian who has taken this second option. I don't recommend it either, because it leaves you, in the end, untethered from a faith community, lonely and wondering why they don't miss you more than they do.
Here are my best positive suggestions for how to handle the transition from participation to leadership.
First, be prepared. Know the reality. The church is unavoidably an institution like any other human institution. It has, as a result, all the foibles, weaknesses, quirks, oddities, and dysfunction of any other institution. The fact that you didn't know this until you were elected to leadership isn't proof that your church was perfect until you came on board, but rather that you had the blessing of living in a happy illusory place prior to taking on leadership that led you to believe that church could be a castle in the air rather than a battle on the ground. The church is the latter. The former doesn't exist anywhere.
Second, get connected with other leaders for mutual support. Those of us in church leadership are in this together, after all. Commit to pray for and with each other. In the same way you study Robert's Rules to learn how to run the meeting, or study the constitution to learn what the council can and can't do, establish some patterns for prayer that will carry you through this time.
Third, take it as a spiritual growth opportunity. There's nothing wrong with a good challenge, and this certainly is one. Set yourself the goal of getting back to that second naiveté. Let me give you an example from my own ministry. For the first five years after I finished seminary, I had a really hard time listening to others preach. I had all kinds of ways to evaluate their preaching, all kinds of tools to use. So I sat in the seat of scoffer whenever I attended worship. Slowly it dawned on me that by doing this, I was missing out on an opportunity for God to speak to me. Even the worst sermon (maybe especially the worst sermon) still can be an opportunity for God to speak to us, if we are open to it. So I started coming to sermons with a different set of questions. Instead of asking, "Are they doing this right? Do they have the right interpretation? Is it boring?" I ask, "What does God want me to hear in this? How is the way they speak of the text differently a teachable moment for me? What can I learn? How can I grow?"
Fourth, remember that the spiritual journey is just that--a journey. We should be more surprised if our faith were stable and unchanging than if it changes and morphs over time (for lots more on this, see Janet Hagberg's The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith). Serving in church leadership is an opportunity--if you will let it be--to take the challenge as open space for struggle, doubt, pain, and growth. In fact, the harder it is to serve as a leader, the more potential for growth there is. If you need an example, just think of the ministry of Paul. His letters, which are among Christianity's most spiritually rich, were almost all written in the context of church strife and conflict. Read Galatians 1, or 1 Corinthians 1, or the entirety of Ephesians, and you'll see how much the struggle and punishments Paul endured actually contributed to his spiritual insights.
Finally, see if there is a way for you to get over the idea that church is supposed to be "different" from the rest of the world. I often hear people say things like, "I can't believe they robbed a church!" as if robbing a church were somehow worse than robbing in general. Actually, it's not. If something is bad, it's bad, regardless of where it happens. Something comparable is going on, I think, in much of our disillusionment with the church and leadership in it. We may come to the table with higher expectations than are actually warranted. We want a church council, or life on church staff, to be nicer, cleaner, and more fluffy than other kinds of life. It's all supposed to be about Jesus, right? Well, the truth is, if you read the gospels, the ministry of Jesus had all kinds of sharp edges to it (he is, you remember, like a two edged sword--Hebrews 4:12). The ministry of Jesus was rife with temptation and strife from the very beginning (see Mark 1:12-13).
Exactly at the point when we take on a leadership role in the church, that is when the devil will go after us--that is the place of greatest temptation, the place where the devil would like to get in there, has to do with our faith and our spiritual life. Be ready for it. It will happen.
My final word: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. So many of us who participate in the church (or any volunteer organization, for that matter) benefit from the hours of leadership you devote to our churches and institutions. We don't thank you enough. We forget how tiring it can be, how you fit these tasks in between work and family life. It's a miracle you do it at all. God must have call you to it, or something. :) So thank you, and God bless you.
I'm sure there is considerably more to the spiritual dynamics of the transition from participant to leader than I have outlined here, so I rely on my readers to contribute their own additional reflections.