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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Council in need of Counseling

This week we have a question from a colleague dealing with a church system that doesn't seem to be functioning as it ought.

I am a solo pastor in my first call at a small ELCA congregation in a rural community. I have been here for about year now and in that time it has become clear to me that the church council is not trusted or expected to make decisions for the congregation (when they do they have been accused of overstepping). It is hard to explain without going into too much detail but I see this as a big problem. How I can educate the congregation to let the council lead, that is why we elected them.

The situation is complicated because several months before I came, without consulting or even notifying the congregation, the council voted to fire the interim pastor. What must a council do to earn trust from the congregation that has felt in the recent past betrayed by the council. I should note that since that incident there has been significant turnover on council, so the council is overwhelmingly filled with people who have been elected since that incident.

We are a small congregation and I have the sense that most decisions have traditionally been made outside council, which would explain the negative reactions anytime council does make a decision, not matter how small. So I want to empower the council to be the council and lead the congregation. How do I do that? And how do I deal with the negative reactions I expect such a change to generate?

What are some models for healthy congregational leadership I could look at or show my council?

St. Casserole
offers this excellent advice:
Really, this is the Council's problem. Do they feel the congregation's distrust? Does the distrust bother them or interfere with what they want to accomplish?

You, as pastor, want the congregation to function according to the ELCA guidelines. These guidelines work but the Council may be out of the habit of paying attention to denominational guidelines (or not know "how" to be ELCA).

You can help with this by standing back from both the Council and the congregation. From the sidelines, let them know how other congregations function with Councils. You aren't chiding either group, just matter-of-factly providing information on functioning groups. If the discomfort is great enough, change will happen.

For your own information, discover who *really* makes the decisions in the Church and get to know that person. Relate to this person as a pastor rather than an organizational strategist and listen.

As for healthy congregational models, consider what you know right now. How do good relationship's work? Good communication, healthy respect for one another, feeling like a group, enjoying being with one another and play.

Matriarch Sue adds:
Well, for me the short answer would be to look to the wider church for some leadership here. In our denomination, someone from the Presbytery would likely be called in to speak with the whole congregation, including the council, to lay everything out on the table and start some discussion around trust issues, appropriate structures and systems and so on. Failing an intervention by a higher court of the church, could you, as the minister, call a congregational meeting for the same purpose? In my ideal world, the more that church people stop whispering in discreet corners ABOUT one another and start talking TO one another, the better.

I would add to these thoughts that our colleague is most likely correct in assuming that there will be negative reactions to any changes she helps make in this system. Those who have been making the decisions, or who have been happy with the decision-making, will want things to change back to what they are comfortable with. Your role is to remain non-anxious, to listen to fears and negativity, but to continue to support positive change. In some cases, you may feel the need to explain why things are changing, and why you support the empowerment of the church council. In explaining, though, try to remain non-defensive. Speak from a sense of strength but also compassion. Some people may need you to listen to them give voice to the betrayal and disappointment surrounding the issue of the council's firing of the interim. You can do that without defending or criticizing the council.

So what about the rest of you? What advice and resources would you offer?

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  1. As an interim pastor, I wonder if they fired the interim because that person pushed on the issues you are identifying now?
    In a truly small church (I find we all have different definitions of small), say one where there are fewer than 40 adults in worship, you might want to consider gently laying the cards on the table. If you can get back-up from a denominational representative, that's great, but unfortunately that's not available to us in all situations.
    And even if the church is a little larger, how about calling the church together as a "committee of the whole" for a conversation about how decisions are made? I'm UCC, so I don't know if your internal structure is the same from one ELCA congregation to another. But if you have a model for how it's meant to work, it's probably time for some education on that model. Make it non-judgmental. Ask them to tell you how they have done things in the past, as an interim might have done in a history-taking exercise. Do this over lunch after church some Sunday and let small groups do some kind of ice-breaker about making decisions in life, then move into education and discussion about process. Do it without an investment in the outcome.
    Again, I suspect the interim hit this nerve, so go gently.

  2. If you have never heard of "gatekeeping," this article may be helpful. Regulating the flow of information (and decision making)

    Sometimes, it's the informal governance that has the "real" power. Not all churches are willing to undo or challenge that for various reasons.

  3. Vicar and SB have hit on the problem for you, I think. I interviewed at a medium congregation that had turned over the leadership to another group and generation of people. In some cases, relatives of past leaders were now on the search committee. But when the time came to vote, there was a small group that hadn't really ceded power. They were ok with the new leadership as long as they continued in 'approved' directions. Hence the problem with merely instructing in good leadership. I think listening - for everyone- is going to take awhile. Inviting the congregation to prayer and discernment may open some other windows of insight. Best wishes.

  4. WE once asked a counsel when push comes to shove who in the church has to agree for something to happen..they looked at each other and said..we don't have anyone like that...and turned and then we Carol?

    ta da.. there she was

    In the smaller congregations I've served the whole group has to sign on for them to happen. Not that the Session in our case doesn't have the right and just needs to be owned by everyone.

  5. I would make sure that the Council is installed during a regular worship service and you focus on their responsibilites, as well as those of the congregation.

    You might do well to check out the Alban Institute for resources. I am sure that they have materials for church councils as well as for healthy congregations.

  6. These are all such great thoughts, y'all!

  7. If I had the luxury of a denominational structure and oversight, I sure would use it!! Talk to your district/area superintendent/bishop. If you feel comfortable or are allowed, talk to the interim. (Granted, the interim's perspective will be jaded, but it will be jaded nonetheless.)

    In every church I've been in, there has been an "uber-councl" (the group that makes the decisions really.) Sometimes they are also the people who write the big checks. Knowing who they are, and working them in a Christ-like way is essential.

  8. What I meant to say was that the interim's perspective will be jaded, but any perspective in this discussion will be jaded nonetheless...

    (obviously I need more coffee... LOL)

  9. Looking at church sized based on how many are in worship helps, too. It sounds like a classic case of the 'matriarch/patriarch' situation, where final decision making is usually out of the hand of both pastor and council. See if you can identify who the real decision makers are. And find some support from you local area with a few rostered leaders who understand both church size and family systems. It will help you to know what is worth your energy to counter and how best to use your pastoral authority and persuasion.


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