Seeking transformation through the renewal of our minds
‘We’ve always done it that way’
An ode to ruling elders and what’s really going on when a church member resists change
by Jeffrey A. Schooley
As a relatively new pastor, I’ve heard the phrase “We’ve always done it that way” enough times to drown in it. No other phrase, I think, can cut the heart out of the exuberance and vigor of a newly ordained minister as that one can (spare, maybe, “people are saying . . . ”).
I suspect all leaders of change hear this phrase a lot, whether they’re in the church or not. And I suspect even my more experienced, older colleagues in ministry still get it. But my status as a “young pastor” seems to particularly draw the full ire of this phrase—my four years of graduate course work, two years as an intern at a robust, thriving church, and four years of part-time ministry while working on a PhD in theology notwithstanding.
“We’ve always done it that way.”
That refrain—like some unholy call and response, some sort of lethal liturgy—awaits each new, potential change.
“We’ve always done it that way.”
At first I really did think I was alone in this. I thought the tension that this line created was mine—and mine alone—to bear. But as I’ve spent more time talking with those leaders in my congregation who are open to change, I’ve come to realize that “we’ve always done it that way” is an even greater challenge to them.
I’m new to this particular congregation. I love its people because Jesus Christ calls us to love all people. But love, of course, grows with time. Love is like a good marinade. Its flavor and seasoning work best over the long haul. And so I love my people, but nowhere near the same way other leaders in my congregation—leaders who have been a part of this family for a long time—love these people. The people who utter this refrain are the same ones who held my leaders’ children in their laps during worship. They’re the same people who went on that mission trip with them in 1985 . . . you know, when I was three years old. They’re the ones who endured the long session meetings after that one scandal that “could’ve been so much worse.”
‘I’ve come to realize that this refrain is not a call to maintain the status quo.’
My church leaders have had their lives seasoned in this love-marinade of those who now utter, “We’ve always done it that way.” And that changes everything.
I’ve come to realize that this refrain is not a call to maintain the status quo. In fact, deep down I suspect those most resistant to change are actually those who pray for it the most! That this contradiction can exist is not proof of some profound paradox, but rather proof that this wretched refrain has nothing to do with change in the first place. It has to do with trust.
“We’ve always done it that way” is, especially for older congregants, a question. It looks like a statement. The grammar is certainly in the indicative. But it is a question nonetheless. It asks, “Don’t you trust me any more?” And, “Can I really trust you?”
And of course my church leaders trust them. Their lives smell and taste like the love of those who say this! If they didn’t trust these people any more, then they couldn’t trust themselves.
It is the recognition of this hidden meaning that can stop leaders who want to move forward dead in their tracks. They know that to say, “Yes, but its time to do something different,” would not be a statement about a church activity, event, or program, but a very condemnation of the character of the one who repeats this refrain. And they love them too much to do this. Heck, they love themselves too much to say this, because their lives are all wrapped up with these other peoples’ lives.
Is there a way out of this?
I’m not entirely sure. I do know that if the subtext can never be brought to the surface, then, no, there is probably no grace-filled way out of it. But having come to realize that this refrain is actually sung in the key of love does give me hope. It gives me hope that if leaders who want change can sincerely make their love known to those who resist change, then all parties are more likely to be satisfied by what truly counts—a continued, loving fellowship of believers.
This is, precisely, where I fall out of the picture entirely (and this is the moment where the wisdom of Presbyterian polity really gets to shine). I cannot affirm this love in its soaked-through nature to these people. I haven’t had the time yet. Only those church leaders (shall we call them elders who rule? No, “ruling elders” . . . that’s more concise) whose lives are perfumed with the aroma of a congregation’s love can walk the fine line between facilitating change and affirming the subtext behind “the way we’ve always done it.”
When compared to lives soaked in fragrant love, seminary stinks, and “MDiv” quickly becomes an acronym for “Maker of Division.” “Pastor” becomes code word for “Bully.” I’m realizing this. And so I’m retreating. Not out of fear or exasperation or disdain, but because the work before me is not one I can do. It is only work I can receive from others. I can teach (I am a “teaching elder,” after all), and then I can wait. I can wait for grace and love to win the day. Teaching elders can’t do this; ruling elders must.
Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD in Theology candidate at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at ThinkLikeChristians@gmail.com.