Shame and the Dying Church

Karen McClintock has written a new book for the Alban Institute called  “Shame-less Lives, Grace-Full Congregations”.

In one excerpt, she points out how shame can bring down a congregation dealing with decline.  When we stop believing in ourselves, we cut off the future.  But in a little story about a choir director’s faith in her singers, we hear how remembering the great things we have done in the past may help restore our pride and confidence in the future:

In worship one morning, members of the choir, dressed in their beautiful robes, processed into the chancel area, shuffled into place so that everyone could see the director, and after hearing their pitch, began to sing. The women in the front row started singing the melody and the men in the back row came in, but they were obviously not in sync. As they plowed ahead for a few bars, their faces became flushed and distorted, their shoulders drooped, and their breathing grew shallow. The choir director waved her hands to stop the pianist and looked up at them. The choir members all held their breaths like children about to be scolded. What would she say? This could have been a moment for shame. She might have sighed and said, “Let’s try again,” exposing her frustration and their failure. Instead she said, “I want to start over, because I have heard you sing this song beautifully.” They stood up taller, they breathed more deeply, and when they began again, it went off without a hitch. They were singing from a place of grace. They were led by a grace-based leader. You can become one too.

Shame may be deeply embedded in a church that is facing closure.  Every attempt by well meaning judicatory leaders or clergy colleagues to help you revitalize only deepens the shame that, although other churches are growing, yours is not.

Lay aside your shame and start talking about the beautiful music you have made in the past as a congregation.  Then ask yourself, “What gifts for ministry do we have now?”  Those who have the capacity to celebrate the past may also find strength to hope and celebrate the unknown future.

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