One slightly unhinged pastor’s attempt to love (and laugh with) a slightly unhinged church, from the inside out.
Why (and how) to kill a church program
Want a healthier church in 2016? Prune the tree!
by Joshua Bower
Here’s a typical week for my family, on top of school and work: Monday is my daughter’s gymnastics class; Tuesday’s a sports practice for my son; Wednesday’s dinner and Bible study at the church; Thursday’s another sports practice; Friday’s my day off (read: grocery shopping, housecleaning, yard work); Saturday morning is our son’s game; and Sunday’s the weekly church bonanza. Throw in a couple night meetings each week along with the kids’ homework, and you have a life that makes me want to pull out hair by the fistful. But the truth is we chose most of this stuff.
We add more and more activities to our life and never take anything away. And so we spend a lot of time being tired, grumpy, and unproductive.
Does your church feel anything like that? The church calendar’s packed with events; there’s programs for every age group listed on your website or in the Sunday worship bulletin; there’s always something going on at the church . . . but something’s missing? You’re always moving, but you’re never going anywhere?
Many of us seem to think that a busy church is a healthy church. And that is a big, fat, dirty lie. “Busy” is not the same as “faithful.”
That’s why I’d like you to kill at least one program at your church this year. Not “tweak” or modify it. Bury it. Arborist (tree guy) Bill Pollock says, “Pruning stimulates growth. The goal is to encourage the tree to grow strong, healthy branches headed in the right direction. You have to remove competing, misdirected, and weak branches for the tree to thrive.”
Most programs in your church probably started for great reasons. They addressed a felt need at the time they were created. But then you added another program that addressed a new need, and then another, all while trying to maintain everything that was there before. If your goal is to be a busy church, you’re on the right track. But if you want to stimulate growth and encourage strong, healthy ministry in your congregation, there really is only one option: it’s time to prune your tree.
But how? Churches are torn apart over this sort of thing. It takes courageous and wise leadership to end church programs well. As a church lifer, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when longstanding programs get the ax. I want you to be able to prune your church’s tree well, so here’s how to kill a church program with grace and love.
1. Ask the right question.
When evaluating whether to keep or kill a program, the right question is never “Is it good?” If it were evil the church probably wouldn’t have done it in the first place. The right question asks, “Is this what God’s calling us to do right now?” Jesus’ mission hasn’t changed, but the church has, and so have the people and culture we’re trying to reach. Even if a program was highly effective 20 or even two years ago, if it isn’t helping you connect people in your church and community to God’s love now, it’s OK to let it go.
2. Don’t be the Lone Ranger.
If you’re a pastor and you value your paycheck, don’t make yourself the judge, jury, and executioner of church programs. And no matter who you are, don’t be so arrogant as to act like you alone know God’s will. When deciding what program has to go, always seek the input of others. To the extent possible, make it a team effort. If you think a program’s number is up, talk to others about it. Whether it’s your church’s elders or valued leaders or whoever, seek the counsel of those who have proven themselves to be discerning and thoughtful Christians. If you’re a fellow Presbyterian, no major decision should be one person’s responsibility anyway. Make sure the session is on board, or you could alienate a lot of folks in the church.
3. Be direct and honest.
Once it’s been decided which program’s headed out, be honest about it. When communicating the change, especially to those invested in the vanquished program, say clearly why the change needs to happen. Talk about how difficult change is. There’s no need to apologize, but let people know that this decision was made thoughtfully, motivated by a desire to do the will of Christ for the congregation. And be honest about what’s going to happen next in the life of the church, even if the honest answer is, “I don’t know.”
4. Expect resistance.
Some people will love the change. Many won’t care one way or the other. Some will hate it. Be prepared for the ones who hate it to be the loudest and most aggressive of the three groups. But if it’s the right thing for the health and mission of the church, be prepared to stand firm in love and go back to suggestion #3. And smile. Always smile.
5. Give thanks.
Publicly express gratitude for the departing program, all those who were involved in it, and the impact it had on the life of the church. Tell the story behind the program. Affirm why it was good. Celebrate it. Thank God for what it was. If it truly was a deeply loved program by many in the church, it’s great to formally celebrate it in a service of worship or at a church fellowship event.
If you want to stimulate healthy growth in a tree, you have to cut off some branches. The same is true in the church. If you keep doing all you’ve ever done and adding more to it, you’ll end up busy . . . and exhausted. This year, have the courage to lop off a program or two. It just may make your church healthier than ever.
Joshua Bower is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Albany, Georgia. His passions include laughing (especially in church), Starbucks Italian Roast, the Buffalo Bills, trying new things in old churches, empowering those in poverty, and being half of a clergy couple raising two kids who touch his soul and try his patience daily. Josh is on Facebook at facebook.com/jleebower.