Carl sat down at the beginning of the elder’s meeting a little discouraged. He and most of his friends at church had received the vaccine by now, local business was starting to pick up and it seemed like there was a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. But church was another story.
They had been worshipping in person for more than 9 months. They had relatively few incidents of people who were upset one way or another about masks or sitting further apart or not shaking hands. People were pretty respectful and caring through it all. There was no bitterness that Carl could tell. A few times he had watched the live stream of the service and it was fine. But there was a problem. Attendance was way down. In person numbers were about a third of what they were before the pandemic. Online numbers were mostly now in the single or low double digits. Other activities like their Sunday school, Bible class, fellowship and other outings were almost non-existent.
Carl hadn’t thought it all through but it was beginning to weigh on him. He was feeling a sense of loss for what was. It is hard not to be discouraged. Where do they go from here? So much is different and so much has changed. To Carl, the church seemed to be just so much less of what it was. It was deflating.
But the pastor walked into the room with a whistle on his lips. He seemed different, but in a good way. The chairman of the elder board also seemed to be more upbeat. It brought a spark of hopefulness to Carl but he was suspicious. Without the energetic and inspiring worship buoyed by lots of people, without the programs to cater to seniors, youth etc, it seemed like nothing could attract people anymore. The steep decline seemed inevitable.
The meeting began with a devotion as normal. It was an interesting choice. The pastor read Lamentations 3:22-23 “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” The pastor spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem, yet how God’s mercy prevails and how that gives hope. Then he prayed for their community that has been ravaged by all that had gone on. Most people were feeling a sense of loss and pain, sometimes too weary to face tomorrow, especially if they didn’t have the hope from God’s promised mercy. Then the pastor asked that God would forgive their church for their short sightedness and that their church would be a safe harbor of hope for people.
Carl opened his eyes and it was as if there was a different kind of air in the room. The heavy weight of discouragement was replaced by an oxygen of mission and purpose. It seemed to spark possibilities and ideas and action on the part of these Godly elders. They knew God’s mercy personally and their eyes were opened at how they could be the messengers of that mercy in word and deed for the people living right under their noses. All at once their perspective shifted from depression about their church to an urgency to bless others. The script had flipped!
They forgot the prepared agenda and immediately began to jump into an energized brainstorming dialogue. They talked about how they could provide tutoring for children with Mary and John, retired educators, leading other members to do exactly that for kids. They talked about how their little food pantry could partner with the neighborhood association that meets on their property to find people who were unemployed, underemployed or otherwise food challenged. They talked about how each activity and event should be covered in prayer before, during and afterward and that they should be careful to share a Bible passage of God’s love at every turn. They said they needed to focus not on the activity itself to “promote the church” but rather to focus on people. They wanted to be sure to remember names and stories and follow up to love on them and give them hope in Jesus.
The pastor reminded them that it was not about attracting people and building up the worship numbers but to simply be salt and light to these people as we live and share Jesus. God would take care of the rest. He reminded them of the passage in Matthew 4 that they read during Christmas, “the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned…” He said we need to repent of just being here for ourselves (and trying to attract people) to now being Jesus with skin on for the people who live right across the street, to help them see that “great light.” Authentic, compassionate, nonjudgmental, we are the hands and feet of Jesus, to whomever God puts right in front of us! They may be different looking, a different economic background, a different first language, but Jesus died for them, so our purpose is clear. God has put us here for them! Our joy will come as we do for others.
What the elders later learned was that the pastor had met with his coach earlier in the week. Through the coach’s questions, the pastor came to the awareness that he was focussing on the wrong thing. Instead of trying to fix the decline in the church, the pastor and the leaders needed to focus on what they could do with what God had given them: gifted, caring people with a message of hope in Jesus. When the pastor had this insight triggered by the question all kinds of ideas also came to mind. The pastor then shared his enthusiasm with the head elder before the meeting.
Each member left the meeting with a clear goal to put the plans into action and to share the enthusiasm with others. Each one had a phone call to make to widen the circle of servants and enlist their prayers and hands and feet. It was new for them but it was not too late. Jesus had given them clarity about what was really important, and to a person, they were excited that they were going to make a difference and focus on people going forward. This was far from normal for their church, but they were convinced it was normal for any church of Jesus, especially in 2021.
Scott specializes in leadership coaching, consulting, coach and leadership training. He is called by Lutheran Counseling Services and partners with the FL-GA District of the Lutheran Church and others as an independent contractor. Listen to The Coaching Leader podcast and contact Scott to continue the conversation or experience a free sample coaching session. email@example.com or scottgress.com. Check out his YouTube channel and new online Church Leadership Training at scottgress.teachable.com
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