Pastorful: Don’t Just Fill Seats

I once served a church that was very interesting – they had somehow partitioned themselves, unconsciously, so that some of the lowest-functioning people were serving on the governing board (for the PCUSA, the Session). I came to see it as a kind of quarantine, and the church functioned in such a way that the Session was called upon to do as little as possible so that the rest of the congregation could get on with things.

This led to a couple of disasters, as one might expect.

One vivid one involved a member of the board climbing onto the table to scream threats at another board member, saying they would strangle them. In the wake of that disastrous meeting, four of the twelve board members resigned. They had seen how the sausage was made, and wanted no part of it. I couldn’t blame them, and realized we had a lot of work to do.

What fueled this recipe for disaster, in part, was the idea that they had to find people to fill the seats on the board. There were twelve seats and so they had to find twelve people, and what resulted in this particular church was that there were a number of people who were serving on the board not because they felt called to do so, but because they were pursued and even guilt-tripped until they capitulated and served their time.

So you had a room full of leaders who didn’t want to lead, who didn’t want to make difficult decisions, who didn’t want to learn how to lead, and who wanted to find the easiest way to relieve any problems that came up.

The principle that I drew from this experience was to always remind churches that their job is not to fill seats on the board. Let’s say we have twelve seats on the church board – I would rather have seven or eight people who want to be there and feel called to be there. I tell nominating committees again and again, until they tell it back to me, that their job is not to fill seats. Their job is to discern who is called to leadership at this time, period. If zero people are called, then we add zero people to the board. If one or two, then one or two are added, even if each year we are ‘supposed’ to find four.

I really can’t stress this enough. Never just fill seats. You never want more people there than have been called to be there.

Pastorful: The Karl Shadley Method

I had an idea for a series of posts I’m calling “pastorful”, which lay out some things I’ve learned in the last 10 years of being a pastor. I’m not sure this is actually of any value, but maybe I have helpful ideas to add, not only to pastors but to similar folks – nonprofit directors and so on. So here we go…

As an intern in my last two years of Seminary, my mentor and the pastor of the church where I served was named Karl Shadley. I learned a lot from him, and I think I did a decent job as intern, making the usual number of dumb mistakes in a gracious, forgiving multicultural and multi-lingual context.

One way that Karl and I were (and likely still are) opposites is the degree to which we experience anxiety. I experience it a lot – Karl not nearly so much. Being a “non-anxious presence” for me is often a professional performance, like being polite and gracious to a rude customer in retail, but for Karl I think it came more naturally. He was often entertained by how upset I got about things before they happened, or after, or during.

Without going into detail, there is one situation that stuck with me at the church. The Session, or governing board, felt that something needed to happen, and they believed that it was Karl’s job to make it happen. Karl disagreed. So what he did, for months (I remember maybe six), was just sit calmly in Session meetings while people expressed their anxiety and frustration. Most people would have caved and just done the thing – but not Karl.

Here was the theory – if people truly cared about what they wanted to happen, they would come together and find a way to make it happen themselves. In the meantime, if Karl took it up, it would just become another thing he had to do that he didn’t want to and that he didn’t see as part of his job as pastor. Over time, it’s likely that bitterness might creep in, and having someone grudgingly do the work would lead to the work not being done as well as it could.

Finally, people came together and did whatever it is they were demanding themselves. I remember Karl’s calm smile. The Session moved on to the next issues.

I took this to heart, and have tried to build myself up to where I can reflect this kind of patience. I’ve definitely been tested, but in situations where I am being pushed to do something to alleviate other people’s anxiety, which I don’t think is part of my job as pastor, I remember this story and try to be patient.

What I took away from this experience, and have seen reinforced since then many times, is this idea that it doesn’t do anyone favors to take on their anxiety and do their work for them. If members of the community truly want something to happen, they’ll find a way – but sometimes they are just anxious and want to relieve that anxiety by seeing something happen, but they don’t want it enough to put any effort into it.

And it’s OK if people don’t get what they’re not willing to work for.