Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Punishing Success, Rewarding failure

"This denomination," writes William Willimon, speaking of the United Methodist Church, "has a way of rewarding its failures and punishing its successes. That's what I heard veteran church observor Lyle Schaller say to a group of us clergy.

"The clergy-dominated system tends to promote and empower its failures - those incompetent or at at least ineffective pastors who just get by, who never rock the boat, and who never cause problems for those in power - and tends to disempower its successful clergy."

I'm not sure what Willimon means by "promote" or even "success" or "failure." But I think his point is a good one.

"Just let one of our pastors serve a church with great effect - a dramatic rise in giving, large growth in new members and listen to how the rest of us will respond," Willimon explains.

"'He has such a large ego,' they will say. 'He has built an empire around himself.' Anything to explain what the new life that seems to be breaking out there is really not so wonderful after all."

"The system is threatened by new life," said Schaller. "It robs the rest of us of our alibis for poor leadership, it causes us to question our excuses for our ineffectiveness. Effectiveness is a threat in any declining organization."

That same could be said of most mainline churches. But I don't see this as readily here in Alberta than I did in the Eastern Synod.

"Church is not a numbers game," I would hear. "A church that is growing must be compromising the gospel."

"I'm not going to play that evangelical game," another would say.

This is a convenient theology for many pastors who've seen their congregation rapidly decline on their watch.

I see many of these same dynamic at work in the political arena. "We aren't supposed to win," one NDP operative told me. "We're the conscience of the House."


"The Liberals and Conservatives play dirty to win. We're just not going to play that game."

These are the stories we tell ourselves to relieve the pressure of not meeting our ministry or political goals.

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