When Ministers Change Their Minds
Summertime provides a lot of opportunity to interact with ministers from around the world. As we make our way across conferences and lectureships, I often use the interactions as an occasion to listen for trends in ministry. What kinds of sermons are people preaching? How are our churches growing or shrinking? What struggles do our ministers face right now? This summer I picked up on one trend that seems to be rather pervasive. I began to notice it when I grabbed coffee with an old friend back in May, who looked utterly exhausted. “How’s everything going for you? How was this year?” I asked, unassumingly. He paused, holding his breath as if to hold back an ocean of words. “Well,” he started, “do you really want to know?” Of course I did. I encouraged him to explain. “This has been my hardest year of ministry. But I guess it really started about ten years ago, when I began to shift in my understanding of church. Over the past five years, that shift has taken me pretty far from the things I once set in motion at my congregation. I’ve been in ministry for so long—and I was always just doing my best to guide our church. But I think I created a monster. This year I tried to implement a couple of changes in the way we do things—nothing too major! I have been prayerful, slow, and patient. But I feel like everyone is turning against me now.” He looked away, as if to fight back tears. “Do you have support from your elders?” I asked. “Oh you know…some of them wish we would have made the changes five years ago! And some of them, I’m afraid, will never change.” It was later that week that I ran into another old friend. This friend is an active member at a different church, and often takes it upon himself to go to ministry conferences. I asked him how things were going back home, and immediately received the eye-roll of the century. “DON’T even get me started on THAT. Our church is going down the drain!” With some hesitation, I encouraged him to share. “Look. We are an established church. We have been around for over fifty years. I always trusted our minister. Heck, I even liked the guy! But he lost his way. I don’t know what got to him, but he changed. Did you hear that they want to use instruments now? Everyone’s been talking about it! And they changed communion too! He thinks he can just do whatever he wants. Well, WE’RE not gonna have it!”
These two interactions were repeated in various ways throughout the summer as I met with different ministers and congregants. Being a preacher’s kid, I wasn’t really surprised by the disgruntled congregants. There are always congregants who expect the preacher to champion all of their personal notions, and are frustrated when the preacher does not. However, many of the people I spoke with were reasonable, good-natured, theologically astute, and loyal congregants. They simply could not wrap their heads around the fact that their churches were changing. Moreover, they felt betrayed by their ministers who implemented those changes.
Why is it so shocking that the minister would change his or her mind in regard to church practices? Well, as it turns out, minds do not change very easily in matters of belief. I recently read a few articles about how people engage in political conversations. Some statistics that were recently released by a social media marketing company show that even our best and most eloquent efforts to persuade people to our political leanings on social media are entirely ineffective in changing peoples’ minds. In matters of belief, people tend to be resistant to change, especially if it feels like they are being cajoled into it. Thus, a preacher or eldership may come to the conclusion that in order for the church to continue to grow towards God’s will, the church will need to make some changes. And suddenly congregants feel betrayed by their preacher, who no longer seems to be championing their long-held opinions. In the case of my preacher friend, as he strived to be faithful to God’s call, and even as he moved slowly and carefully, many in his church still felt betrayed.
So how should a minister proceed in this situation? How should the congregants proceed? First of all, churches do change. Churches are in many ways an interpretive expression of our beliefs, and the interpretive work is never complete. Churches, like any other living thing, naturally change. In fact, when something that is alive stops changing, it is dead. We should not be surprised when our churches change—especially over the course of many years. Secondly, a preacher’s primary task is not to change minds. Certainly we employ the most rhetorically strong, and often persuasive language that we can muster when we step behind a pulpit. But we are kidding ourselves if we think we are responsible for the changing of minds in our congregation. When we preach we cast a vision, we speak a reminder, we offer a challenge, but more than anything, we invite people into the wonder of God. We extend the invitation, and that is all we can do. We invite the people, but God transforms the people.
For the congregants who are angry with their preachers, I offer this reminder. A good minister does not represent you on Sunday morning; a good minister represents what God is revealing to the community, as an ordained leader of the community. Yes, many ministers do act out of selfish ambition, and we should be mindful of that. But just because your minister changes his or her mind, does not mean they have betrayed you or betrayed their calling. Change can often be a sign of a vivacious and healthy ministry. Change is sometimes an indication that your minister is more dedicated to the movement of God than to his or her own fears of rejection.
Romans 12:2 encourages transformation and the renewing of our minds so that we can discern God’s will. If we are unwilling to accept transformation, we just might be missing out on God’s will. So thank goodness for ministers who are willing to change their minds. Thank goodness for congregants who are willing to change their minds. While the rest of the world holds on to their opinion like it’s their last breath, let us deeply breathe in change, as God shapes us and transforms us. Let us approach God and others with such humility, that we won’t be surprised by our differences. Let our differences be worth honoring, and let our interactions be saturated in mercy. When our minds change, let us remember that famous 17th century adage that guided our Stone-Campbell forerunners: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity.”