Keeping Score—What Matters Most?

Last week, a friend, via Facebook, asked me how I was doing. “Excellent,” I wrote. “My family is healthy and happy.” At this stage in my life, everything beyond my family’s health and happiness is like desert, nice, but unnecessary.

Like individuals, organizations can’t evaluate how they’re doing without first clarifying what’s most important. That’s why so many teachers are frustrated today, schools obsess about students’ test scores instead of whether students are curious, kind, and able to accomplish meaningful things in small groups.

On Sundays, I often wonder how do religious leaders keep score? What’s most important in evaluating how a church, synagogue, or mosque is doing? That the budget is balanced, that attendance is increasing, that a lot of mission work is being done?

Our church is in transition. Sometime in the next four or five months, a new pastor will replace our two departing ones. The reduction is partly due to a 20% decrease in membership and a 13% decrease in giving.

Here’s my imperfect understanding of what’s happened. Four or five years ago we hired two progressive pastors who were left-of-center politically; some key church council leaders were lefties; our synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America decided to ordain gay clergymen and women; our state voted in favor of marriage equality; and we rewrote our “Welcoming Statement” to explicitly reach out to GLBT members of our community.

That pace of change overwhelmed some people. Also, as it turns out, people inside religious organizations have dispiriting personality conflicts just like people on the outside. One of our church members told me the members who won the political debates about gay clergy, marriage equality, and the wording of our Welcoming Statement were not gracious winners.

How do religious bodies negotiate political differences and does that factor into how they are doing? Conventional wisdom is that religious leaders and their congregants should leave politics aside. I disagree. Churches, synagogues, and mosques would be much more vital places if they modeled mutual respect for contrasting political viewpoints. Public dialogue about controversial issues is so anemic right now, lots of people on the outside would take notice.

Granted, that’s easy to assert in the abstract, but when talking about abortion, the death penalty, or even marriage equality, it’s much, much harder to implement. In fact, I wonder, are there examples of political diverse religious communities thoughtfully engaged with contemporary issues? Birds of a political feather prefer to flock together, but is that inevitably true inside churches, synagogues, and mosques as well?

I hope not. And I hope our next pastor considers that challenge among the things that matter most.

9 thoughts on “Keeping Score—What Matters Most?

  1. I think a larger part of the church issue was the mundane “rearranging of the furniture”. We used to have a vibrant contemporary service and a children’s drama program. The drama program brought in lots of people from the surrounding community. There was also a question of personal style, like not greeting people after service as they exited the sanctuary. Perhaps a little too many changes.

    • That’s really interesting, thanks. Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of more subtle changes. It reminds me of something I read last week about Mark Jackson, the Golden State Warriors coach who was fired despite winning and having the support of his players. The owner said, “He looks right past you. You can talk to him 100 times, and on the 101st he won’t remember your name.” The funny thing about that is Mark Jackson is also a pastor of a Southern California church. Don’t ask me how he coaches in Northern Cal and pastors in Southern.

      Also, I went to an adult Sunday School class yesterday that was described as a debriefing of the pastors’ tenure–led by them. Disappointingly, it didn’t turn out to be that. Honestly and openly assessing tumultuous events of the past is challenging. We weren’t up to the task yesterday. I guess it’s human nature not to want to revisit events that were exasperating the first time around. It’s too bad though, because then we’re destined to repeat our mistakes.

      • Also, the surveys that the church constantly does do not tend to reach the people who have left. Those are the ones who have the most needed feedback.

      • Another thought. Maybe we are too pastor-centric, liking church when we like the pastor(s), disliking it, maybe even to the point of leaving, if we don’t. Same in education. My high school colleagues and I never sweated incompetent principals because we knew they didn’t impact our classroom too terribly much, and in the end, we’d outlast them. I suspect people enjoy their church experience the more involved they get involved. When people leave, we think they’re rejecting the leadership, but another interpretation is they’re abandoning their friends.

        This exchange convinces me we have to approach the new pastor with more of an open mind. The assumption should be that they’ll be different than previous pastors in unanticipated ways and things will change some more. No one likes change, but I’ll stick it out because I like the Sawhills.

  2. Totally on target: “Churches, synagogues, and mosques would be much more vital places if they modeled mutual respect for contrasting political viewpoints.” But man, it’s extremely hard AND very necessary work. Thanks for pushing things in this hopeful direction.

    Your words made me think of this article:

    It’s a story about a gathering of 14 rabbis who found a way to connect even in the midst of differing opinions. The author concludes, “At our best, that’s what we do in congregations: struggle with our differences in the name of a shared purpose.” I long for the day when this will be the common practice among Christians.

    • Thanks for the link and encouragement. Sometimes I think my vision is hopelessly unrealistic. I’d submit your name to our search committee, but your denominational background and frequent surfing-induced absences would probably give them pause.

  3. We will stick it out, for the reasons you mentioned, but a pastor in many ways is more like a classroom teacher than a principal. The organization of worship, the effectiveness of teaching/preaching , the tone of the Sunday experience seems to be set, to a large extent, by the pastor. Shared leadership is the most effective model, but a pastor is harder to ignore than a principal.

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