Recently I took a couple teenagers to a local theatre’s Haunted House fundraiser. As we descended the stairs to enter, we were led by a guide, a woman dressed up as a crotchety old lady, who promised to stay with us through the maze of terrors. At first, she took my hand, leading us through a hallway of spider webs and strobe lights. But then she let go, and she seemed to disappear. As we entered each room, with its coffins and skulls and monsters shouting “Boo!”, I would occasionally hear her voice saying, “Try that door!” or “Keep walking! Don’t stop!”
At one point, we entered a maze-like corridor that was pitch black. Unable to see even our hands in front of our faces, we were forced to feel our way along the walls, sometimes bumping into them. Around us, we could hear the groans and screams of the various ghouls and goblins that haunted us. But our guide was silent.
We were still clutching each others’ hands when we emerged from the tunnel of horrors into a lighted stairway. It seemed that our guide had abandoned us. But when we were all out, there was our guide, close behind. My guess is that she had been there all along.
I hope your experience of being in the Church is never like being in a haunted house! But there are times of fear, foreboding and uncertainty for congregations that have faced decline. As a church leader, I used to assume it was my job to keep my congregation “comfortable”, like a flight attendant on an airplane. But I think now there are times when it is best to step away a little, and let a congregation enter its own experience of loss and searching. It is their job to hold hands with one another and walk the dark corridors of decision making to find their way. It is my job to stay nearby and remind them of God’s presence and guidance. But I cannot protect them from the truth of their situation.
It’s hard for me to write that, and even harder to do. It goes against all my “pastoral” instincts. But I know how I felt when I emerged from that haunted house: I did it! I may have run into a few walls, but I survived! Congregations deserve to pull together, experience grief and discomfort, to find unique ways of coping and creative solutions. For the pastor, that may mean letting the arguments happen, letting the jobs go undone, letting God’s truth be told.
The pastor is not a buffer against painful decision making, but a coach who keeps encouraging her/his congregation: “Keep walking! Try that door! Don’t stop!”
What do you think? As a pastor, how do you see yourself guiding your congregation through change? As a layperson, what do you think you need from your pastor as you negotiate change?