How to repair a church in mid-flight

(Apology:  For the places where I have occasionally mixed my metaphors in this piece, readers may want to know that this is my spiritual gift . Thank you very much.)

Smiley Anders, humor columnist for the New Orleans Advocate, ran this story this week.

An automobile mechanic was removing the cylinder head from an engine when he spotted a well-known cardiologist in the customer area.  “Hey, doc,” he called. “Want to take a look at this?”

The eminent physician walked over. The mechanic said, “Look at this engine, Doc.  I opened its heart, removed the valves, repaired or replaced anything damaged, then put everything back in place. And when I finished, it worked like new.”

“So, how is it I make $64,000 a year and you make a million when we’re both doing the same work?”

The cardiologist said, “Try doing it with the engine running.”

Repairing a damaged church “with the engine running”–that is, in the midst of continuing operations–is much harder than starting afresh with a church plant and building it right and healthy from the ground up.  You’re making repairs “in flight,” so to speak.

By “repairing a damaged church,” we refer to any number of situations. Some we have encountered include these:

–The leadership is rotten to the core and needs to be replaced.  A small group of leaders have kept one another in office for decades, squelching all attempts at accountability, innovative ministry and outreach.  Major surgery needed.

–The church has no written guidelines (i.e., constitution and by-laws), leaving a vacuum which is filled by strong personalities determined to get their way.  A healthy written plan which sets up orderly procedures for selecting and replacing leaders can work wonders.

–The elected leaders are kind, well-intentioned people but without the courage to make tough decisions or the willingness to take a bold stand.  They need to be replaced as soon as the Lord raises up a stronger team.

–The Sunday School in that church is dead and needs to be replaced by an entirely new structure for teaching the Word and reaching people.

Fixing such churches would be easier if everything could grind to a halt and the church be “put on the rack.”  All the church members could retire to the waiting room and get a soft drink and read the paper. Meanwhile, in the service bay the ministers and other key leaders could open the engine, remove the defective components and replace them with parts straight from the factory with a full guarantee standing behind them.

Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. Leaders will have to do surgery on this patient while the motor is still running and the car is tooling down the interstate.

It’s a great metaphor, and an apt one.

So, staying with the metaphor, the  Lord’s mechanic who would do heart surgery on a church “barreling down the interstate” will need skills in at least ten areas….

1) Leadership needs a clear vision on what needs to be done.

Unlike surgeons in the operating room, pastors cannot do exploratory surgery on their patient, the Lord’s congregation.  If a leader has no idea what’s wrong, he should bide his time and do his work and pay attention.  Do no surgery–i.e., make no large-scale changes–until the diagnosis is complete and He is certain of God’s leadership in this.

2) Likewise, the leader needs an equally clear appreciation for what not to tamper with, the areas which are keeping this engine running.

In a building, some walls are said to be load-bearing and some cosmetic.  Tear down a load-bearing wall and the entire structure is endangered. Likewise, with the church, some things should not be changed lest everything come loose.  Wait on the Lord, pastor.

Some entrenched leaders have been kept in place for decades because they are faithful and irreplacable. Remove no one just because they’ve held a position for ages. Young pastors in particular should respect the veteran workers who have kept the body of Christ functioning well through the years, and not be threatened by them.

3) Leaders will need good people skills.

In the medical field, they call this the “bedside manner.”  Any pastor intending to do major surgery on a church had better build a consensus among the people and earn the trust of his leadership.  The only way to do that is by faithfully serving them.  Given time, most will see whether the Lord’s servant is trustworthy.

4) The leader will need a support team.  No heart surgeon works alone.

This would involve professional staff as well as laypeople. A pastor needs to be constantly building his team, men and women who share his vision and the same commitment to Christ and this church which he possesses.

5) Leaders need courage. This is risky business and some patients die on the operating table.

Doctors often tell patients the risks of surgery as well as possible side effects so an informed decision can be made.  The risks may be expressed as, “If we do surgery, you have a (blank) percent chance of being well. If we don’t, you have a one-hundred percent chance of dying.”  In the same way, congregations need to know what they’re getting into when they vote to do the changes leaders suggest.

Both the patient (the church) and the surgeons (the ministers and other key leaders) should be equipped with Holy Spirit courage in attempting to revamp a church on life support.

6) Leaders need tenderness.

Sometimes leaders have to be very tender and gentle, and sometimes strong and plain-spoken.  If the leader is operating in the flesh (“Well, this is just the way I am; you knew that when you called me!”), many will be unnecessarily hurt and left wounded in the road as the others try to go forward.

7) Leaders need to give attention to detail.

Surgeons must be meticulous and have staffs just as devoted to getting the details right. In the operating room, a thousand small procedures protect the patient from infection and the team from error.

Among the church leadership team, someone should be checking to make sure proper procedures are being followed, that everyone has been informed, that resources are on hand, and eventualities planned for.

8) Leaders need patience.  Often the surgical team puts in long hours, and then stays close-by during the recovery.

Pastors trying to turn a diseased church into a healthy one need to remind themselves that this is often labor intensive and time-consuming.  They should not expect the changes to happen easily or overnight.  This is why the best and strongest churches tend to keep their pastors and staffs for decades. Churches with quick turnover in leadership almost never thrive.

9) Leaders require the full support of the patient.    No cardiologist would attempt heart surgery without the agreement and participation of the patient.  Likewise, pastors cannot “fix” a church if the congregation is unwilling.

In counseling a young pastor who had taken a church of older members who assured him they want to change in order to become viable, I urged him to stay close to the membership and not assume that one show of hands a few years ago suffices for all time. Let them constantly be involved in decisions and periodically vote to go forward. Allowing them “ownership” will head off many problems.

10) Once leaders have learned to repair the vehicle “while the engine is running,” they should not assume this is a once-and-for-all operation.  As cars need constant tune-ups, churches are always needing maintenance and adjustments.

The exhausted leader will want to tie a ribbon on the patient as he/she/it is discharged from the hospital and take a vacation.  Bad idea.  Just as no patient can be pronounced as healthy forever, no congregation should be abandoned by its leaders who have written their constitution and bylaws, removed defective parts of the engine, and put good workers in their place.  Stay with this now.

We are not saying this is a one-man show and the pastor should do everything himself (and infrequently, herself).  Quite the opposite. And, just as firmly, we recommend that the pastor have close at hand staffers and other leaders who are constantly monitoring the congregation and can tell by the sound of that knock in the engine where the problem is.

Some are always knocking.  Pray for helpers with trained ears, pastor.

 

One thought on “How to repair a church in mid-flight

  1. Even though I have strongly disagreed with some of your other recent articles, I couldn’t agree with you more on this one. In this modern age when so many pastors are more interested in following the preachers with the biggest crowd (i.e. Rick Warren, Billy Hybels, etc.), this is good sound advice for any pastor or other church leader. It avoids the foolish notion that anyone that disagrees is of the devil. Having served under a pastor that was skillful at maintaining harmony while leading us through many challenges, I can attest to your comments about not alienating the congregation or beating up the workers toiling in the background.

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