Thursday, September 10, 2020

Telling it Like it Is

It wasn't the conversation I particularly wanted to be having, but I knew it was coming.

Just the year before, my little congregation...generous to a fault...had given me a modest bump in salary, along with agreeing to pick up the hefty costs of health insurance for my family.  My concern, expressed to leadership at the time, was that this would not be sustainable.  Unlike most small congregations, we have no debt and have slowly amassed an emergency reserve fund over the last nine years.  But even with that, I could see the writing on the wall.

We're a little church in a time when little churches are struggling to maintain the old model of congregational life, and as several long standing church families moved away or prepared to move for retirement, there was only a marginal possibility we'd make up the difference in giving.  Much as I love the small church, folks just don't come through the doors like they used to, and gentle-hearted, unassuming, and intimate servant communities aren't where the cultural energy lies of late.

So last year, I had to be sure we all were clear: the church was going to be facing a financial crisis.  We were burning through reserves, and unless something radical was done, we'd find ourselves with our backs against the wall within a year.  It wasn't what anyone wanted to hear, and it wasn't what I wanted to tell folks, but it was the truth.  Leadership had those hard conversations.  We made sure we told the rest of the church, because hiding or ignoring problems only makes them worse.

We'd have to make some major cuts, and those cuts would have to involve my salary.  Again, this was just the reality.  In small churches like ours with total budgets that barely reach six figures, pastoral salaries are the farthest thing from Osteen levels, but they're still the largest chunk of expenditure.

The financial bleeding stopped.  We stabilized, and made the difficult but necessary adjustments.  Which meant, as it so happened, that when the pandemic hit, we still had emergency reserves to carry us through this new time of crisis.

If you're in a position of leadership, you have to be honest with your community.  This isn't the easy thing.  It's hard, particularly if you don't like conflict.  And Lord knows, I'm as conflict averse as anyone.  But I've had to learn to overcome that, because leveling with folks is absolutely essential for the survival of a community.  If there's a crisis, there is always the temptation to sweep it under the rug, or to minimize it, or to come up with rosy fantasy scenarios that keep folks from getting all upset.  "Oh, it'll be fine."  "It's not a big deal."  "I'm sure God will send us a miracle!"

There is also the temptation to cast blame, to find someone else who's fault it is.  Anything to avoid having to say the hard thing, and to make the hard choice, and to take the harder path.  Those things set heavy on the ego.  We'd rather dwell in the reality in which nothing is demanded of us, and where everything always goes our way, where we are bright and shiny and always, always right.

Telling people what they want to hear is the realm of the pitchman and the promoter, not the leader.  To lead wisely and well, you need to tell it like it is, to be a straight shooter, to speak even those truths that don't benefit you personally.  You have to trust your people and your community.

Leaders who can't present their people with the truth, who choose the comfortable fantasy over speaking the hard challenge?  They have no business leading.  They are why churches...and