Time and Patience: Why Your Congregation Can’t Beat the System

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Time and Patience: Why Your Congregation Can’t Beat the System

I’m a Chicago Cubs fan. It has taken a lifetime of failure to get this miserable. In fact, in the case of the Cubs, it’s taken the lifetimes of my grandfather, my father, and me to get this miserable.

Two years ago, the Cubs hired some boy geniuses, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, with a reputation formed in the crucible of the struggles of the Boston Red Sox. The boy geniuses said that what the Cubs needed was a complete cultural overhaul—a fundamental shift away from hiring expensive free agents to a focus on dismantling the minor league farm system, and rebuilding it. That was the only way, they said, that the Cubs could be perennial contenders.

Epstein and Hoyer said from the outset that the process was going to take time and that it was going to be painful. Cubs fans, they said, should expect some losing years as they retooled a broken system.

And they were right. The Cubs have had the two worst seasons in their history. And it looks like next year doesn’t promise to be much better.

Two losing seasons already, and most likely a third to come, has many fans in Chicago yelling for somebody’s head. You’d think that fans of a team that hasn’t won a championship since before World War I would be able to scrounge up a little patience from somewhere. But many of them are angry.

“It’s taking too long. The geniuses must be doing something wrong if we can’t see the progress we were promised. Something better change quick or we’re going to have to think about going in a new direction.”

With all the writing I do about congregational transformation, I sometimes think I fail to emphasize the difficulty involved in reorienting a congregational (or worse, a denominational) culture. I suspect that I come off sounding sometimes as if there could be nothing easier than whipping a congregation in decline back into shape.

I apologize if I give that impression. Changing your flossing habits is difficult; reordering a culture is nigh on impossible.

It’s not completely out of the question … but it’s close. Changing a culture takes time. And patience. And more time.

Think about how long it took our culture to move from the idea that some people aren’t people at all, but a category somewhere south of “human being”—whose very nature consigned them to the unfortunate position of being good for nothing more than servitude. Slavery, as an institution, persisted for millennia. And think about it, as culture we still haven’t gotten over the problem of considering some classes of people—whether because of race, immigration status, sexual orientation, or the fact that they require public assistance to meet their basic needs—inferior.

Or how about this? How long did it take our culture to rethink its understanding of women? Remember when women had no business doing something as important as voting? “Women are emotional creatures,” the thinking went, “ill-suited to the serious ramifications of the vote.” It took 72 years from the first Women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 to the ratification of the 19th amendment granting women’s suffrage in 1920. But just because the law changed, people’s attitudes about women didn’t automatically change. Beneath the surface, there still exists a great deal of doubt in some spheres about a woman’s ability to deal with something as important as (if not voting, then) running a country or a corporation or a church.

Here’s another one: In my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the fight for full acceptance of LGBT people in the church has been going on in an organized way since the 1980s. It wasn’t until this past summer that our General Assembly was able to say that we desire to be a people of welcome and grace to all, without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity. And though it seems like to many that change on this issue is now unfolding at a rapid rate, there’s still a long way to go. It will be years before we can say as a denomination that the culture has shifted.

When congregations in decline recognize that something is wrong and needs to be changed, the impulse is most often to do cosmetic tweaks: hire a new minister, get a web site, invest in a canned evangelism or stewardship program, buy a better sign, have endless meetings about how to attract young families, etc.

When that doesn’t work, a few congregations will think about stripping everything down and starting over again: give up ownership of the old building (at least in ways recognizable to previous generations who invested so much in it), start ministries to people that a short while ago nobody in their right mind would have considered, have fewer meetings, make an effort to deal with deeply embedded conflict, etc.

What almost everyone forgets in the rush to keep from dying is that real change takes time. And patience. And more time.

There aren’t any quick fixes. There aren’t. And anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is lying or incompetent (or both). Anything that requires you to make a fundamental change, a reorientation to the world you inhabit takes time, and a great deal of sacrifice.

  • losing weight in a healthy way
  • recovering from addiction
  • learning to play an instrument
  • defeating racism, xenophobia, sexism, or homophobia
  • learning a new language

If you just started playing guitar and you failed to play like Jimi Hendrix by this time next month, would you call yourself a failure? Some people would, which is why they’ll never be Jimi Hendrix.

What if in a year, or two years, or five years you still weren’t a virtuoso? Would that mean that all the time you’ve spent playing scales and nursing calluses on your fingertips was wasted? If you think so, you’ll never be who you wanted to be.

If you think you can cheat the system, if you think you can figure out a shortcut that nobody else has discovered, if you think your congregation is different and that the rules about time and patience don’t apply to you, you’re going to give up before real cultural change ever has a chance to happen.

You can’t beat the system.

I don’t make the rules; I’m just telling you what they are.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Derek Penwell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

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