Introduction: “Raiders of the Lost Spark: How Congregations can recover from Chronic-Anxiety to get on Mission.”

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Since my pastorate in San Jose that I transitioned from in 2008, I have had the opportunity to transition one historic church in the denomination that I am affiliated with in Southern California and am now launching a campus church for a very large and vibrant congregation that was once a former church plant of this large church. I have learned a few things about transitioning churches that have been both eye-opening and challenging.

Most pastors today if they are not planting a church will be transitioning one and in this first blog I want to set the stage with some realistic notions concerning church transitions that I would desire to be one of many resources that may spare you some disappointing moments.Many congregations in America are in decline and they are looking for that right leader that is going to bring them out of their misery. Here is the challenge – Most Christian leaders do not think “system’s” which sets them up to over-react to symptoms of issues in an organization versus dealing with the core factors that are causing the problems that are systemic within an organization. Because leaders do not think systemically families, organizations such as churches, and other kinds of institutions are constantly attempting to cure their own chronic ills through amputations or transfusions of fresh people only to find that these measures are temporary as the tumor has been excised and later the “mutated cells” return with a vengeance. In the words of Edwin Friedman, “New blood” rarely thwarts malignant processes, anywhere. Indeed, with both cancer and institutions, malignant cells that appear to be dead can often revive if they receive new nourishment. Or, to put the problem another way, when we say something has gone into remission, where do we think it has gone?”[1] Often leaders think if I simply change the technique of some method the whole organization is going to get and change. Thus, in future blogs I will present for discussion that many leader’s fail in “Come Back” church situations because they do not understand the difference between “adaptive changes” which is the reality that changes that need to be made requires giving up an important value or a current way of life.[2] There are problems that leaders and people in churches and organizations face every day that they know the solution for with the necessary know-how and procedures to resolve the issue. These are called “technical problems.” [3] Thus, here is one of the dilemmas that pastors create in transitional situations which are to come into a church context that has a chaotic history making technical changes to adaptive issues. Here is the reality that a pastor in a transitional situation must realize that most changes outside of whether you are going to have powdered cream or half and half in your café’ demand that there be new experiments, new discoveries, adjustments from numerous places and most people cannot make the adaptive leap until they deal with the underlying issues that got them to the place that they are at in their current state of entropy.
As a point of introduction I will entitle these blogs “Raiders of the Lost Spark: How Congregations can recover from Chronic-Anxiety to get on Mission.” Here is my thesis for these blogs that pastors and church leaders are working harder without obtaining significantly new results of becoming healthy and getting on Mission. Much of what I will share will be using what is known as the Bowen Family Systems Theory which takes into account that leadership is not just a cognitive process but it is an emotional process that requires understanding of why and how people behave in community contexts related to their own family systems. One of the keys to functioning in a healthy manner as a church is for leaders to look at the church as a system rather than a collection of individual members. People in the church, as in any group, are intricately interconnected.[4] Not understanding this creates a risk for the leader of a transitioning church to understand that depending on the level of trauma that has been experienced “group thinking” becomes the manifestation of their reaction to change. Thus, a congregation of people creates their own reality in order to stay together as way of resisting the changes of leadership. In family systems theory this is called herding in which it is more important for a group to stay connected rather than to be healthy and to be on kingdom mission. The language that is used to Herd is: “We need to remain a family, our culture has changed, I am not being fed, and I just do not feel loved.” We will discuss in future blogs that most leaders over-react to these issues labeling the groups behavior as simple rebellion because the leader personalizes the push-back. The truth is this is all projection and what is often the case is there are family dynamics that are not healthy that the group they are connected with masks the pain and reality of these dysfunctional issues. For instance, “Dominating wives who husbands are passive (and are along for the ride), Marriages that have lost intimacy, Parents who do connect well with their children). All of these become triggers for the acting act of what is occurring in the relational system. We will journey through these points in future blogs.
There are four things that I would like to leave you in closing this blog if you are reading this and you are a leader in a church that is transitioning:
· First, have fun and be “Playful” because “Playfulness” can get you out of a rut more successfully than seriousness.
· Second, triangulation will happen and be lovingly courageous on how you respond to these situations. If you compromise your position you will end of “Dancing with the Devil.” What do I mean by this? The person who is creating the triangle will use “flattery” in order to entice you into creating alliances. These will always boomerang back on you as a leader. If you detach from them around the idea that you need to be on task you will become the enemy. Exercise spiritual discernment and at the same time with-hold judgment because the stuff will surface.
· Third, if you are a leader, expect sabotage.
· Fourth, “the colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change.” Do not spend your time fixing them but rather you continue to allow God to shape you and serve those who are in their behavior desiring to see change.
· Finally, take time to often reflect and meditate on the Scripture and maintain your connection with God. This is the first discipline that seems to decrease with most pastors who are leading congregational change.
Thank you for taking the time to read this Blog of Introduction and if you have any comments to post p[lease post in the blog area because I would enjoy to hear your feedback. In my book, Pastors are my heroes and thank you for being willing to obey Christ and to respond to the call of God on your life.

[1] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve. (New York: New York, Seabury Books, 1999) p 6.
[2] Ronald A. Heifetz & Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line. (Massachusetts: Boston, Harvard Business School,
2002) p 13.
[3] Ronald A. Heifetz & Marty Linsky, p 13.
[4] Ronald W. Richardson, Creating Healthier Church, Minnesota, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1996) p 26.

About PastorAl

Al Soto has been married to his incredible wife Valerie for 30 years and they have five sons and one grandson. Al has been in Local Church Ministry for 35 years as both as a Lead Pastor, Associate Pastor, and for five years as a Regional Overseer for his denomination. He has a BA degree from LIFE Pacific College and is currently completing an MA in Leadership & Spiritual Formation from Vanguard University. He currently resides in Lincoln, CA where he is the new Lead Pastor for one of the Campus locations for Bayside Church. He continues to coach High School Football for the Lincoln Fighting Zebras for the Junior Varsity Program and is facilitating Leadership training and coaching as well as facilitating Spiritual Retreats. His hobbies include Golfing and Scuba Diving as well as he is a veracious reader. His Life Statement is “Real Success is Helping others to Succeed!”
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6 Responses to Introduction: “Raiders of the Lost Spark: How Congregations can recover from Chronic-Anxiety to get on Mission.”

  1. Pastor Al, I really appreciate your blog post and have read it several times. Here are a couple points that have been especially eye opening to me: 1. People in the congregation who are not willing to embrace the leadership change and get on board with the mission have not dealt with the problems that have got them to the current state that they are in. This is especially encouraging to me because if we can identify the problem, confess it to God, and ask for his mercy and grace to change we can move past this and enter in to the promises that God has for us. 2. You mention, that we as leaders, should not try to fix the people with issues, but rather to continue to allow God to shape us and serve those who are demonstrating, by their behavior, that they are desiring to see change. What I like about this point is that it is a good reminder to us that only God can change hearts. This point also encourages us to seek out those individuals who are desiring change and to focus on them. Perhaps, their growth will spill over into the rest of the congregation, ultimately leading the church to health. Thank you again, Pastor Al, for such an eye opening blog article. I am eager to read your next installment.

  2. Awesome write up, Pastor Al!

    I am in a transition myself, and this was informative, and very encouraging. Keep the post coming!!

  3. Doug Tawlks says:

    I agree that insight and cognitive change are not enough to transition a system anymore than instruction from a single source. In order for the system/church to transition or change someone must come from outside of the system (a new leader/pastor) and that new leader will get resistance to any change they try to enact because the current system has established homeostasis. That new leader must first join that existing system even though it may be toxic. In joining it he will be able to understand it and experience its dilema and those in the system will trust him. But not until the joining.

  4. Paul Kuzma says:

    I’m excited about this series, Al! Those of us in Pentecostal circles usually have little patience for what it takes to work systems thinking into real action. We are centered way too much on what we DO, and much less on WHO we are.

    I can’t say I have completely worked the church I pastor back on to full mission, as our identity historically was tied strongly to mission at the cost of overall health. That’s a house built on sand.

    Working back toward health is moving us more toward real mission, but it’s not the quick process many of us desire as leaders. The health that comes if we will dedicate ourselves to true health and growth spiritually is worth the struggles we face in the process. But it comes only for those willing to “wait for it” and willing to, as Doug mentions, join with the system even though it may be toxic.

    Working it for all it’s worth, and ultimately, for God’s Kingdom here on earth!

    Paul

    • Doug Tawlks says:

      What a great statement Paul. >mission at the cost of overall health. That’s a house
      built on sand.” It seems difficult to find leaders who have a balanced commitment to both health and mission. And I agree that mission is a part of a healthy profile.

  5. pastoralsoto says:

    Great thoughts Paul! Edwin H. Friedman states that it is difficult for us to think systemically. Really great thinking.

We are all here because we are not all there!