As I sit at my desk and look at the 14 inches of snow piled up outside my window, I think back to the weather forecasts that filled the TV screen in the days leading up to the storm. The forecast went from 8”-12” to 5”-8”. It went from heavy snow to freezing rain and finally back to snow. Folks in Roanoke, VA were promised 3”-5”, but they got 15”! So much for the prognosticators. As one meteorologist put it, “It all depends on where the line is for freezing temperatures.” Predicting the future always depends on other factors.
It is not just the weather that is difficult to predict. Virtually every pre-election poll in the 2016 presidential election got it wrong. Great teams, once labeled unbeatable, sometimes lose. Duke basketball. Businesses, once wildly successful, often fail. See Sears. Marriages, once a dream come true, can turn into nightmares. Churches, once a thriving mission point, may weakly fade with the passage of time.
Of course, the question is always the same. How did that happen? Never saw that coming. Perhaps that is why such an emphasis is placed on staying ahead of the curve, which requires predicting the future with some degree of certainty. For the few leaders who have that kind of precise insight, it is truly a gift. These are the folk who see what is coming and make good, long-term decisions in light of it. Most of us do not have that luxury.
We have to react to multiple changes and the resulting uncertainty they bring. In a word, we have to be flexible; but we have to do that without sacrificing our guiding principles. Given the fact that most of us cannot predict the future, we need to be really good at flexibility. We need to be able to adapt when circumstances dictate. The 14” of snow caused us to cancel worship on Sunday. That one was easy. Not all adaptations are that simple.
Leaders in churches often have a more difficult time doing this than leaders in other settings. Many churches are slow to change anything. Several of them require too many groups or committees to sign off on some proposed change to ever get it done. So, churches put off making important decisions, often waiting too long to make the tough choices or needed changes. They lack flexibility. Three examples will illustrate the impact of this dilemma.
Despite all the prayers, reference checks and interviews, a church sometimes calls a person who, for whatever reason, is not a good fit. Most everyone knows it, but because it is the church, we bend over backwards to try to make it work. Meanwhile the church and its ministry suffer. These people are not bad folks. It is just that their gifts and personalities do not mesh well with others or with the ethos of that congregation. I have seen a church keep someone like that for twenty years or more. I have seen others who made a change in a more timely fashion. They were generous in a severance package, etc. Which one do you think was the healthy decision for the long-term viability of the church? We have to be flexible.
In the 40s and 50s it had been a thriving congregation in a wonderful neighborhood just at the edge of downtown. In the 60s and 70s that neighborhood began to change. Most of the members moved to the suburbs. While many of them continued to return to the church, a lot of them found a new church home. The erosion of membership continued unabated into 80s, 90s and 2000s. But it was gradual, and hardly anyone noticed. No one notices the loss of one person a month in average attendance. But after ten years, that same church has 120 less persons joining them for worship. There are redemptive paths forward for such a congregation, but in order to thrive, they will have to be flexible.
The last example has to do with church buildings that were once full, but that now sit empty and deteriorating. There is a lot of square footage in a lot of churches not being utilized today. Bringing old buildings up to code can be expensive. Asbestos abatement and environmental concerns can generate obstacles very difficult to overcome. But letting buildings sit and age is hardly ever the best option. Again, there are many redemptive paths. Leasing space to a non-profit, sharing space or merging with another congregation, or even deciding to demolish old structures can prove to be the best action for a church. Whatever path is chosen, they will need to be flexible.
Since none of us can fully predict what the future may hold, we are left to navigate it as it unfolds. In the church it will require conversation, courage, trust, hope and flexibility…believing that the best is yet to be.