There's Something in the Air...Hold On...Hold On...
Long ago, and a few hundred miles away, I was one of the founding partners of the Sing! family of newsletters (for those who remember Sing! thank you for letting us serve you...it was great while it lasted). At least once a year the four of us would go on a retreat, at which a lot of extraordinary conversations took place. In one such conversation (probably early 1990s, but I couldn't swear to it) one of the guys said something like this: "Face it guys, "traditional" "church" (my quotes, and how they are placed is not a typo) is over. If churches don't adapt to the new reality (meaning worship teams) their churches won't survive. It is going to get ugly over the next 10 years for church musicians."
And I clearly remember saying in reply: "At least we're going to go through it first here in California. When it gets to the midwest and the south it is going to be bloody."
That time has arrived, and it it turns out I was wrong. It has been brutal...and I don't mean just the terminations, and the resulting loss of good, competent, caring, called church musicians. I mean the manner in which the transition has taken place. Every day my email box or my voice mail brings another tale of insensitivity and rudeness (at the least...how would you like to get a certified letter while you are on vacation informing you that you shouldn't come back to work?) on the part of churches (and pastoral staff).
The Glass is Half Empty
Let me give you some reasons why I think this is going to go on for a while.
- Pastors are being taught to be a "CEO"
People Matter because the only way a CEO can "move up" to a bigger church is to demonstrate success. In most cases, "success" in a church means more people at worship.
People Don't Matter because to a CEO, staff is interchangeable: they are employees, not individual people. If a CEO doesn't like the way someone is doing their job (or the way they look, actually, since working at a church is an "at will" position...read about that here, but get out your tissues and be prepared to weep), it is a CEO's prerogative to replace that person with someone who is not [fill in your favorite whipping person here...]. And...taking a page from large corporations and academia, you replace a full time person with a part time person so that you don't have to pay benefits. Then you give that part time person the same job description, plus a little more (see below for more on this).
Oh, and one more thing before we leave this topic. Are you, the church professional, following the CEO model in your ministry? Are you the CEO? The blame should fall where it is due, and pastors are not alone on many church staffs in believing that People Matter and People Don't Matter.
- You're Hot or You're Not
- Nobody has time to see the forest for the trees
- Good/Quick/Cheap: Pick Two
The Glass is Half Full
I believe it is not all doom and gloom, though. Let me give you some reasons why I think the worst is over, even though it may not seem like it.
- You can't get a world class steak dinner at a fast food restaurant
But if you want/need to have a memorable meal with good company and extended conversation with your dining companions? Go to your local equivalent of a four star restaurant. In my experience, you don't spend that much more than at your local neighborhood chain spot, but you remember the meal for a long time.
I'm heartened by the fact that I'm beginning to hear, on a fairly regular basis, of churches that have decided to opt out of the numbers chase. Instead they are taking a step back, evaluating the gift/skill set of their staff, their natural congregational demographic profile, and they've chosen to concentrate on doing what they do well even better. More about that in a minute.
In the process, these churches are actually hiring to need (not hipness), spending time and money on staff development (instead of on assimilating new staff), and narrowing job descriptions to allow staff to do what they do best.
Perhaps the best example of this strategy is the paradigm which is becoming more common in church music ministry: A (contemporary) worship leader who is in charge of the department, with the traditional church musician being looked upon as a specialist, much as children's music ministry or instrumental/handbell directors have been historically.
For the pastor CEO, this means that the person who attends meetings is one with whom he or she shares a common jargon. For the "traditional" church musician it means giving up power in return for more or less being left alone to do the work of ministry (alas...in a part time capacity, but again, that is for another day).
- The Willie Nelson Strategy
Years ago, when he was one of the hottest performers on the planet, I heard an interviewer ask Willie Nelson what he did to get to be so famous. Willie's answer is, I think, a word to the wise. I paraphrase, but he said that he was just doing what he was passionate about, and the world had rotated around to the point that a lot of people had heard what he was doing, and agreed with him.
Since I'm talking about him, here's a great clip of Willie for those who are interested. The lesson here is that not every church can be Willow Creek, or Saddleback, or Brooklyn Tabernacle. If your church can, God bless your ministry. But if you don't have the resources, or the resolve, then it makes a lot of sense to be who you are, and be passionate about it. It has been my experience that once a church makes that decision, it is liberating. Suddenly there is no pressure to be "that." Instead, everybody can concentrate on being "us." And in my experience (and observation) it doesn't matter what "us" is, as long as you are faithful to Scripture, and passionately authentic in delivering the Gospel message. That's my other mantra: Local Solutions for Local Situations.
- What Goes Around Comes Around
“Contemporary” churches are becoming "traditional."
One of the difficulties of following the mass market trend is that, as we talked about above, you look, act, and feel a lot like the church down the street. Eventually there is critical mass, and you become the most common form of church. It doesn't take long, particularly in this era of shorter generational periodicity, until what was hip is now traditional. When that happens, an institution begins to care more about defending that tradition than being open to renewal. Sooner or later, another reformation comes along.What is different now is that the internet has made every previous iteration of "tradition" available for study, and potential emulation. You need look no further than the Ancient-Future trend in worship to see that everything old can be new again.
- The Outlier Imperative
Postscript: 3 of the 4 of us (including the guy who was so sure he was out in front of the curve) at that retreat were either fired, or left the positions we had at the time because if we didn't we knew we were going to be fired. The talent drain in church music ministry continues, and the American church suffers greatly because of it. Yet I believe there really is light at the end of the tunnel, and hope on the horizon.
For one thing, not every pastor, irrespective of their training, believes that the CEO model is appropriate. If you are reading this, and you feel your position is in jeopardy, consider being proactive about some of the things I am suggesting. If your position is truly in jeopardy, you have nothing to lose really. And if you can get past your own issues when it comes to the size of your program, or the scope of your responsibility, or being near (or at) the power center, you might find that there is happiness (and peace...again pun intended) in a smaller church...one that isn't so concerned about being the "big church on the block"...or being a key person with a smaller portfolio in a larger church: either situation has the real potential to let you do best what you are passionate about.
© 2011, 2021 All Rights Reserved