OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIsn’t congregational ministry the most fascinating bag of mixed blessings? This week’s question is about the joys and challenges of an energetic new friend who comes to church:

Dear Matriarchs,

I serve a small congregation, and we are desperate to grow. We’ve done some outreach, and we have a regular visitor, from exactly the demographics we were trying to reach! Very exciting. He comes regularly and sometimes stays for coffee hour. He’s very congenial and very open with his story.

Sounds wonderful, right? Here’s the challenge: he has proclaimed, loudly and frequently, to all, how his former church grew very quickly. He has outlined step-by-step procedures for growth in emails to me. He has shared how he had been visiting another local church but quit going there because of several minor things they didn’t correct for several Sundays in a row (a burned-out lightbulb, a typo in the bulletin that was repeated, etc). It seems to me that he is setting things up so that he will soon be dissatisfied with our congregation, too, if we don’t follow his prescription for growth. Some of his ideas are good, and our governing board will consider them. Some of his ideas are good but not a good fit for us. Some of his ideas are wacky.

So, Matriarchs, is he more trouble than he’s worth? Do we try to appease him? Do we let him go with our blessing when he gets annoyed with us? Do we just love him in the meantime? 

Signed,
Receiver of a Mixed Blessing

An unimaginable scenario? Oh no, it is not. Our Matriarchs are all over this one:

Dear Receiver-

I think I know this guy!  He and his wife came to our church and bought congregational sweatshirts from the youth group on their first visit!  They were so excited.  They told my colleague and me that they had been members of every church in our denomination in a five-mile radius.  (This added up to five churches.) He told us they had been asked to leave the last place.  We started to feel a bit nervous.

People thought Mr. and Mrs. Friendly were so wonderful.  Great ideas.  Lots of energy. Strong church background.  After some discussion, my colleague and I agreed, that while the Friendlys might want to get deeply involved right away, we needed them to get to know us a little better.  As a staff, we did not ask them to run anything until they had been around for a full year. We worked hard not to match their level of enthusiasm with our own.  We took our time. Area clergy told us a few cautionary tales about the Friendlys but we tried to be open minded. (Which wasn’t always easy.)

Mr. Friendly has been a member of that congregation for almost twenty years. When his wife was dying, there were many who supported them with care and love. I must admit that knowing them was not always easy, but it was simpler when I assumed that they were acting out of their strongly professed faithfulness, even when I completely disagreed with their latest idea.  I hope that your Mr. Friendly finds his niche within your congregation. He is probably going to ruffle some feathers and try your patience. He will keep tossing out ideas and some will be excellent.  Commend him for those.  Try out one of the risky ones.  And try to be gracious about the rest.  Hopefully, the two of you will find the right rhythm to be not just friendly but friends.

Best wishes,
Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath, sometimes known as RevHRod

Dear Receiver of Mixed Blessings,

Thank God for this new disciple in your midst. I’m sorry that his presence comes with mixed blessings. 

 We minister together as the Body of Christ and, therefore, all members of a faith community are important in the building up of the Body of Christ.  Each of us have our own gifts to share and use in service to God.

The “red flag” for me in your situation is that this new disciple in your midst seems to approach ministry very independently, with the idea that he has the sole solution to church growth in your congregation.  It is also a bit of a “red flag” that he has moved from one church to another, and left a church because they didn’t respond to his suggestions as he wanted them to respond.

My advice is:

1) Yes! Definitely love him while he is in your midst.

2) Receive his ministry ideas with gratitude and share those which are appropriate to share with your governing board.

3) Arrange a time to speak in person with him about ministry being an act of the whole body and not just one person, all the while affirming his offerings of ministry.

4) Find an area of ministry where he could use his gifts and energy, and also learn to work with other members of your church family.

5) Keep your spiritual and emotional eyes open to see if there is something deeper going on with him besides his high energy and desire for control.

5 If he does choose to leave, give your blessing and let him know you will miss him.

This is a tricky one, for sure.  My prayers are with you as you find your way with wisdom and compassion.

Rev. Kelley Wehmeyer Shin
Centerville, Ohio

Dear Receiver of a Mixed Blessing — 

You already know this, but let me say it straight out: this visitor will leave before long. From what you describe, there is zero possibility that he will stay and become a long-term contributing member of your church. However, that isn’t a bad thing. You are right to see his presence as a blessing. A huge problem in small churches is stagnation, and this visitor can help un-stagnate you, before he moves on to the next church.

You say you are “desperate to grow.” Grow what? Grow how? What are you trying to nurture in this field? And what condition is the field in? Chances are that the presence of a stranger will change something. What would you like it to change? Is there some hard-packed ground that needs to be plowed? His energy and suggestions might do just that. Are there nasty weeds that need to be uprooted and exposed to the sun? His loud proclamations could be useful. Are there furrows ready to receive seeds? Even if you rightly spurn the seeds he offers, other members might gain clarity about what seeds they want to plant. The caveat, of course, is that you must be prepared to watch him walk away at any moment, cursing as he goes. No matter. You can still send him with a blessing. 

Ruth Everhart
rutheverhart.com

* * * * * *
Thank you, wonderful Matriarchs. Once again, you have graced us with your wisdom and compassion.

How about you, dear reader? Has this person come through your church doors? How have you assimilated this challenging one (or not)? Please share your thoughts and strategies in the comments below.

We are here to help! Are you confounded by a ministry challenge or wondering how to navigate a professional jungle? Send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com.


Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor serving in Nashville TN.  She is a contributor to the RevGals book, “There’s a Woman in the Pulpit” and blogs at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.


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3 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: A Church Visitor With All the Answers

  1. Oh yes, he is very familiar to me too! When I met him in my previous congregation, I quickly learned to suggest to him that his idea(s) was/were wonderful and invited him, with Christian love, to put together a proposal of the way(s) in which he would take the lead in bringing them to fruition. Guess what? He never did follow through with any of his suggestions and is still there, taking an active role in some things and other things, not at all. He has been, and continues to be, one who jumps in with total, what I call ‘Tigger’ enthusiasm then disappears for a while then back again.

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  2. I think I have met this man! The red flag for me is the subtext that your church must follow his prescription or else (…the church won’t grow? He will leave?). Do not fall for his implied expertise/need for control, as I did. Proceed with extreme caution. I hope there’s a church policy on membership of three/six/nine months/1 year prior to board membership. Share your tingling spidey sense with your ministry leaders, too, in case you need to work together. I may sound paranoid, but having experienced someone who started out like this and ended up trying to push me out of the pulpit, be ready to nip it in the bud if needed. I hope I am wrong and he is just the blessing you’ve been looking for!

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  3. The church I serve has this member. She is a bully sometimes and a blessing on other occasions. I try to love her into another way of being. And sometimes she loves me back. But she also is well known in my small community and her mere presence as a member means that there are many who have told me this means they will never come through the doors. She throws her weight around in all circles apparently. When I am at my most frustrated, I remember the words of a very wise elder in a former church. A similar kind of member was close to being asked to leave. During the conversation about her removal, the elder drew me close and whispered, “Don’t let this happen. She may be a pain in the ass, but she’s OUR pain in the ass. And if we can’t love her, then we aren’t the church.” Chords of truth resonated in me as her words sank in. I think she’s right. So, I’d embrace anyone. And stand up for their presence in ways that are well balanced and strong in community.

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