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How to Know When to Let Go

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My sweaty legs stuck to the piano bench in the heat of a late August Sunday evening while I led the congregation in a song before the sermon.   When I finished up the worship time, I peeled myself off the damp wood and turned towards my spot in the front pew.  23 folks, out of a congregation of over three hundred, looked back at me.  They appeared to be stuck to their pews also, and were feverishly fanning themselves with bulletins.  I drooped into my pew, discouraged, while Ken began a sermon for another poorly attended Sunday evening service.

This type of scenario is repeated in thousands of churches across America regularly.  I’m not sure lay people can fully grasp how disheartening it is for church staff when they are required to pour piles of personal resources into services or programs which are poorly attended or supported.  Unfortunately, attempts to discuss change or even cessation of floundering programs, is often met with hostility by congregations.

Jesus embodied radical change to the church of his day.  He didn’t fit their distorted paradigm of a Messiah.  Worse yet, he showed scant respect for their traditions and publicly ignored some of their rules.  To say the relationship between Jesus and the religious rulers was strained might be politically correct but is grossly inaccurate.  They wanted him dead and actively conspired to accomplish that. Pastors and ministry leaders should not expect hugs and homemade cookies when God calls them to be instruments of change.   

“See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”  Isaiah 43:19 (NLT) Our creative God longs to plant new crops in fallow fields, to generate streams of water in dry places.  Ministries and programs that suck down precious resources while producing little fruit, are not pleasing to Him. He challenges every believer, personally and corporately, to make the most of what He’s given us.  We must be lashed tightly to the gospel message yet keep open hands and minds concerning our methods.

God is love and He is orderly, not chaotic, therefore his processes of change will be in keeping with His character.  We must initiate transitions courageously with kindness.  Step one is identifying areas in your ministry which need updating or possibly, retirement.  How do you determine what to hold onto or change and what should be let go?  There are some telltale signs that indicate endeavors once blessed and favored by God are now simply historical landmarks of how God moved in the past.

  • Attendance matters because people vote with their feet. When felt needs are met, people show up.  Needs change from generation to generation and evolve just as society evolves.  For example, in my childhood, daytime women’s Bible studies dominated since the number of women in the workforce was much lower than today.  Now, evening or lunch hour studies are just as prevalent because working women still long to crack the Word open together.  In fact, some churches leave behind the daytime women’s study completely because, in their neighborhoods, the vast majority of women are at work during the day.
  • People will work sacrificially and passionately for something they believe makes a difference. In the midst of an election cycle we see passions running high for candidates and causes which people believe will make a difference in their lives and families.  The same is true in the church.  Please don’t make the mistake of assuming that everyone who says no to your current volunteer vacancies is flakey, uncommitted, selfish, etc. etc.  You might be trying to run too many ministries based on the number of willing volunteers.  People might also be withholding themselves for two reasons.
  1. Your ministry IS making a difference and producing fruit but you are not effectively communicating and demonstrating that to your congregation. Announcements off the pulpit aren’t the be all and end all, folks.  More on this in future posts.
  2. Your ministry used to produce great harvests but it did not evolve to meet today’s generations or recognize its time is complete and step aside for new ideas to take the stage. Often, church members see this truth before ministry leaders who remember the days God used to move mightily in this particular area.

Some people passionately resist changing or retiring a program that played a significant role in their lives or the greater life of the church in the past.  Their lonely daughter found lifelong friends and became a believer through a Pioneer Girl ministry. A prodigal brother returned to the Lord during a Sunday evening service.  Families bonded with other families at the church’s monthly roller skating night.   They fear they will not see this kind of fruit again if you make updates.  The job of pastors and church leaders is to teach them otherwise.  Did Christ come to abolish the law as the Pharisees feared?  No! He came to fulfill it and make access to the Father greater than ever before.

Our role is the same.  The purpose of any changes or retirements should be to make the Father more accessible to the lost and engage His children in ministry with increasingly larger significance.   In the next post I’ll talk more about the nitty gritty process of leading people through change.

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