Posts Tagged ‘stress and decisionmaking in churches’

One of the primary factors in causing – and perpetuating – conflicts in churches is narrow thinking.

When people feel highly anxious … and under stress … their thinking ability shrinks.

Here are several examples taken from my own ministries over the years:

*When I was a teenager, our youth group used to meet before the Sunday evening service on the church campus, but the trend was toward meeting after the service in a home.  When the issue came before the congregation (which it never should have done), a furious discussion ensued.  The church secretary was so against the youth meeting in homes that she stormed out of the meeting, entered the church office (the door was at the back of the auditorium), and slammed the door behind her.

When she slammed the door, she in essence quit her job and left the church.

That’s narrow thinking.

*In my second pastorate, our youth pastor took the youth group to a Christian rock concert, which was fine with me.  The deacon chairman’s two children seemed to enjoy the concert, but not their father, who gave me a 15-page summary of a silly book slamming Christian rock music.  I wrote comments in the margins and asked to meet with him to discuss his viewpoint.

He asked me, “Are you going to let the kids go to any more rock concerts?”  I replied, “Yes.”  He responded, “Then we’re leaving the church.”

That’s narrow thinking.

*In one church, a woman on the worship team convinced herself that the congregation was going to start singing for half an hour every Sunday even though I had different plans for our worship time.  Because she was causing dissension, I invited her to my office, listened to her concerns, asked her if she understood my reasoning, and asked her to bring any additional complaints to me personally.

A few weeks later, she was basically telling people, “Either Jim goes or I go.”

That’s narrow thinking.

When we’re anxious and under stress, we often see only one or two ways to resolve a situation.

One common reaction to stress is the classic fight or flight syndrome.  In churches, this is usually directed against the pastor when someone says, “Either he goes or I go.”

On the old 24 TV series, Jack Bauer would often do something rash … like kill someone … and when he was confronted, he’d say, “I didn’t have a choice.”

That’s narrow thinking.

In his excellent book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, church conflict consultant Peter Steinke writes:

“When we are flooded with anxiety, we can neither hear what is said without distortion nor respond with clarity.  Bruce McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist, comments that stress limits our repertoire of responses.  Fixated on what is endangering us, we forfeit our imaginative capacities.  We act with a small and sometimes unproductive repertoire of behaviors.  With fewer alternatives, we act foolishly.”

When a church leader … like a pastor, staff member, or board member … is under great stress, they are tempted to make decisions that will end their temporary stress.

But the problem, of course, is that they may alleviate their own stress but create much greater stresses for others down the road.

Here are some thoughts as to how church leaders can better handle stressful decisions:

First, the bigger the decision, the more time the leaders should take.

I once spoke with the chairman of a church board that had fired their pastor.  Based on what the chairman told me, the pastor deserved to be removed from office.

The pastor did something in a board meeting that was not only wrong, but dangerous.  His actions created enormous trauma for everyone involved.  After the pastor left the meeting, the board chose to let him go and voted to give him a token severance.

I told the chairman that it was fine to decide to fire him that night but that the board should have waited several days before deciding on his exit package.  They were so stressed that, in my mind, they would have made a better decision had they waited.

Most of the time, I believe church boards should give a departing pastor a generous severance package because it provides the pastor with more options for his future.  The fewer the options, the greater the stress … and the greater the chance the pastor will start a church in his former church’s backyard.

Second, the bigger the decision, the more experts should be consulted.

In the first chapter of my book Church Coup, entitled “Pushed,” I recounted how the church board in my last pastorate tried to force me to resign.

When I met with the board at a showdown meeting, I asked them how many experts they had consulted to make their decision.  Their answer?  “Two” … and one person gave me the name of a pastor in another state.

By contrast, a few days later, I had consulted with seventeen experts, including seminary professors, conflict professionals, Christian counselors, an attorney, and several former board chairmen.

To this day, I remain convinced that the board’s thinking became so narrow that they didn’t really know what they were doing … and I told them that to their faces.

Proverbs 15:22 says, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers, they succeed.”

Proverbs 24:6 adds, “… for waging war you need guidance, and for victory many advisers.”

The pastors, staff members, and board members who create the most chaos in their churches are the ones who either don’t consult with anyone or who listen to only one or two others.

To truly resolve a major conflict, a leader needs “many advisers.”

Third, the bigger the decision, the more options need to be generated.

In his book, Steinke tells the story of a church board where their thinking was dominated by money worries.

A new board member named Chip offered various imaginative ideas for dealing with the church’s perpetual financial crisis, but the other board members “couldn’t accept the fact that their offerings reached the top five years ago and were steadily declining.”

The four leaders who were focused on finances had blocked an attempt to turn one of their two worship services into a contemporary one five years before.  When they made that decision, about forty members left … and took their checkbooks with them.

Over the previous five years, the board had come up with only one option continually: a line of credit at the bank.

Chip finally asked the board this question: “Are we going to stay focused on difficulty or are we going to look at the possible?”

(Besides many more options, that church also needs a new board.)

New leaders often bring fresh approaches to stressful situations … and should at least be heard.

Finally, the bigger the decision, the more calm the leaders’ spirits should be.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m super-stressed, I don’t tend to make good decisions.

Pastors … church staffs … and board members react the same way.

When church leaders undergo stress, their tendency is to alleviate the stress quickly … and in the process, they often make horrendous choices.

It’s better to take some time … dig into God’s Word … cast your burdens on the Lord … and ask Him to give you a peaceful heart.

That can be done individually, but it’s often wise to do it as a leadership group.

My third pastorate was my best, but it was also the most stressful.  In the first few years, we often had board meetings that lasted five to seven hours.

Our first chairman would usually choose a passage of Scripture and read it aloud to the rest of us.  Then we’d pray around the room, asking God for His guidance and direction in the decisions we were about to make.

While some board members probably wanted to “get in and get out” of the meeting quickly, the decisions we made were so important that we needed to have peaceful spirits.

This concept is so important to me that if I were running the church board, I’d tell the others, “We’re only going to make decisions when our spirits are calm.”

Taking time … consulting experts … generating options … and creating peaceful spirits are great ways for church leaders to expand their thinking.

And expanded thinking leads to churches that advance Christ’s kingdom.






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