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Pastoral Ethics and Church Process

As I entered one pastorate, the church’s chapel hadn’t been redecorated in nearly 40 years. It had fixed pews with dust-laden, deteriorating cushions, peeling green paint, poor lighting, a dilapidated organ, an old piano, an antiquated sound system and a carpet that had long since lost its original color.

It was clear to me without much thought that we should simply strip that place and start over. From my perspective what we really need was a brighter, more versatile room with cheerful colors and movable chairs that could be used either for worship or for various kinds of group meetings.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
But notice I said, “without much thought.” The more deeply we got into the issue the clearer it became that powerful constituencies within the church were working against significant change.
 
Consider the pews. Some members of the committee discussing renovation had been married in that room. Removing the pews would take away that visual reminder of their special day. Not only that, at least one woman whose Sunday school class had made those cushions 40 years before was still active in the church. Were we going to negate her contribution?
 
In addition, there was within the church a powerful “traditional worship” lobby. This group tended to distrust movable chairs on principle as the first step toward “contemporary” perdition.
 
So how do you solve such a problem ethically? There is a way. It’s slow and difficult and often tricky, but it can be done.
 
The first thing to remember is that in the church process is almost always at least as important as product. By “process” I mean how you go about making the decision. With an issue such as redecorating the chapel, for example, the best way to proceed is to involve everyone with a stake in the outcome at some point in the decision-making process. A combination of congregational meetings, committee work and strategic pastoral calls can make certain that every key constituent gets their opportunity to be heard.
 
Second, it’s important to remember that progress in the church is often incremental. With the chapel, we first did those things on which everybody could agree. We redid the organ, improved the lighting, upgraded the sound system, and got a new piano. These improvements made for a more functional and inviting room even though they were by no means everything I would have liked.
 
Third, it’s vital to remember that you can never please everybody. Sometimes the church simply must move forward, even without full agreement on what should be done. In many church polities, the senior minister will have to decide when to push ahead.
 
That kind of leadership always comes at a cost. The yardstick I used in making such a decision was always the overall welfare and witness of the congregation. If I believed an initiative would significantly improve our witness as a congregation, I was willing to spend an appropriate amount of my “political capital” to move the process forward.
 
The pews, by the way, are still there.
 
Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary.
 
Adapted from The Competent Pastor: Skills and Self-Knowledge for Serving Well, The Alban Institute, 2005. Click here to order.