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How “conventional wisdom” hurts churches: part 2


People assume the “conventional wisdom” is actually wise. In the church world, as I wrote last week, that means the belief that churches must have facilities, must worship on Sunday morning, and must have ordained clergy.

But as economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote, the “conventional wisdom” is likely to be wrong. Acceptable, yes, and comfortable, but running counter to facts, ideas, emerging constituencies and new needs.

In fact, churches don’t need facilities, don’t benefit from fixating on Sunday worship, and don’t necessarily need ordained clergy.

In this report, I want to address three additional elements of conventional wisdom that work against churches and need to be reconsidered.

CW 4: Churches need to focus on the rituals and benefits of belonging

In the years after World War Two, an entire society was in upheaval, as soldiers returned, families formed, and rural folks moved to cities and suburbs. People were desperate to belong. They joined churches, they joined service clubs like Rotary and Kiwanis, they joined fraternal organizations, they joined swim clubs and country clubs, they joined PTAs. This was the great era of belonging.

That era ended. By the 1960s, especially in the suburbs, finding one’s place in society was more personal and child-centered. That, too, gave way in time to socialization centered around the workplace and youth sports. It didn’t happen overnight, but belonging ceased to matter so much. Service clubs struggled to recruit members; country clubs began to fail. Churches discovered – if they were paying attention – that fewer new people walked through the doors on Sunday morning. Churches that focused on rituals of belonging found little interest in activities like women’s guilds.

Thriving churches focus on transformation of life – the personal journey of faith – and on missions in the community.

CW 5: Charity-based missions draw out the best in people

The enemy of mission isn’t obstinacy or lack of caring; it’s an attitude of noblesse oblige. When people are in the grip of this attitude, they think themselves superior to those needing help, and they are stooping to help, a choice that redounds to their credit. As a wealthy matron once told me, the wealthy expect to be asked for money; it’s proof of their status.

Churches that pursue charity-based missions pay a high price for what little they get: Givers expect to be stroked and affirmed even when they give little. Givers want control. They want the visibility of leadership. They give as long as they feel like giving, whether or not the need has been met.

Mission lasts longer, changes more lives and makes society better when it flows from a sense of oneness — both giver and receiver feeling their kinship — and when it flows from a sense of overarching purpose. Instead of giving because my class is obligated to do so, I give because God has touched my life. I don’t need to be stroked; I need to be given more to do. Mission should stretch me, not heap praise on my head. I should meet new people, not get a tax break.

CW 6: When a pastor leaves, an interim is required

It has become almost automatic that a lengthy interim period led by a trained interim pastor should follow the departure of an incumbent pastor. Talk about conventional wisdom that ignores countervailing information.

Requiring an interim reinforces the dysfunctional notion that the pastor and congregation are in a marriage, and when one leaves, there needs to be a time of “grieving.” Clergy do a job. They aren’t the husband or wife in a one-to-many marriage. If the pastor-parish relationship has gotten so emotionally wrought that everyone needs a cooling-off period and a time for regaining their equilibrium, leaders haven’t been doing their jobs.

Part of the clergy job ought to be choosing and training a successor, in partnership with key lay leaders. Instead, the pastor is forbidden to participate. I don’t know any other enterprise that treats succession of leadership in this bizarre manner.

Momentum is trashed. Everything stops when the pastor leaves, and all those good ideas that lay leaders and clergy had been formulating are set aside or put on hold.

I hear talk about work that only an interim can do, like updating church records and trying out new ideas and new practices, to get people softened up for change. A responsible pastor should be doing that work as a matter of course.

Some situations are indeed problematic, such as a long pastorate and a pastorate ended under fire for sexual or financial misbehavior. Interims don’t usually clear the decks. They just delay the process of learning to trust again.

Conventional wisdom rarely gets adequately questioned. I encourage you to consider the six elements offered here and last week, and at least consider the possibility that the conventional wisdom is leading you astray. After all, if it was working, we wouldn’t be closing so many churches and watching entire denominations deflate.

About the Author

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the publisher of A Fresh Day online magazine, author of On a Journey and two national newspaper columns.


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