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September 24, 2012 / Richard Bass

Resources and Comments in Response to “The Challenge to Change”

In “The Challenge to Change” (the September 24, 2012 Alban Weekly, adapted from Shame-Less Lives, Grace-Full Congregations), Karen McClintock explains the decline in church membership by first describing the experiences of a young woman she calls “Amanda.” After her first visit to a worship service, Amanda concludes that people seemed to “be suspicious of me.”

What caused the behavior that resulted in Amanda’s experiences? In McClintock’s view, it’s largely shame. Seeing Amanda evoked uncomfortable reminders of the church’s inadequacy on any number of issues—rote and boring worship, unresolved incidents of misconduct, the loss of young people from regular church participation. Shame, in the author’s words, “blocks our ability to grow and thrive.” And it’s only by openly reviewing past mistakes, accepting “our own congregational climates,” and acting on clear goals that something new and vital can emerge.

What resources can support you and your congregation in facing and resolving shame? In addition to the items listed at the end of the article, please consider The Faces of Forgiveness: Searching for Wholeness and Salvation and The Way of Forgiveness.

What are your stories and thoughts on this topic? And what resources do you suggest? We look forward to hearing from you.

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12 Comments

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  1. Annette Bedford / Sep 28 2012 5:46 pm

    Please don’t put all the blame on “aging” congregations……as an “older” adult (and a pastor) what I frequently see is many ‘older adults’ not only willing to change and wanting to change the style of worship, etc., but have wonderful ideas about how to do it. It may be a generational thing, but having participated in worship at a small church composed of few members over the age of 50….they were friendly to me because I walked in pretty much being approachable myself. Please don’t kick us older folks aside because you think we cannot/will “change”……show us a way and we will follow. The Lord’s path is full of twists and turns for all ages and lives can be transformed by all generations guiding one another down the path of life and of worship.

    ATBedford

  2. Rebecca Crise / Sep 24 2012 3:38 pm

    Good article. If you want further reading take a look at Brene Brown. She has been doing research into shame and how destructive it is in oursociety. Shame resilience can be learned.

  3. Tripper Dave / Sep 24 2012 1:13 pm

    Yup.
    I keep praying for change, working for change, hoping for change and, after 35 years of conciously doing this I am asking myself why bother? The institution will not change. It is hard-wired to resist. So if those of us who are striving to change it just stop and give up and go elsewhere what will happen?

  4. Thomas Margrave / Sep 24 2012 12:54 pm

    I’ve ordered the book and look forward to reading it. I think that the snippet provided regarding Amanda is not particularly a good one unless Professor McClintock was able to do enough research to determine that shame and the experience of Sunday visitors have a definite cause and effect relationship. It sounds more like ‘Amanda’ experienced the ‘closed’ church that everyone writing on how to make the visitor welcome and newcomer ministry tries to correct. For example, I have found that people of all ages, visitors as well as longtime congregants who are older appreciate the announcement of page numbers related to the worship. It seems to me that every human organization delights in having acronyms and abbrieviations which confound the outsider. Anthropologists like to call such things an expression of organizational argot. ‘Amanda’s’ alienation says more about the experience of the long-unchurched who can only be integrated successfully if someone takes the time to be appropriately friendly and helpful so that the discomfort lessens.
    As a pastor for some years I am convinced that many congregations exhibit some form of pathological grief, ie. grief that has not gone through the complete cycle we associate with a healthy human experience. Congregational organizations aren’t able to make decisions; there is blaming and guilt and, in agreement with Professor McClintock, shame.
    A number of years ago a Presbyterian Executive Presbyter wrote an excellent book for Alban identifying the issue of congregational grief but she didn’t really explore what happens when the congregational culture is stuck in grief and often not aware of it. As a result of whatever happened in the past, the prevailing way of doing things begins to reflect dis-ease rather than health. People cannot be completely present to others and truly welcoming. If the culture begins to conform to this hamstrung existence, it will persist long after the congregants who first experienced the hurt are no longer alive.
    What kinds of things can cause this grief? Among others, there is the issue of clergy misconduct whether sexual or pastoral; the death of a beloved leader particularly traumatically; the departure of a loved pastor when forced out by a small but powerful group, financial malfeasance long undetected. The very aging and decline of the membership can cast a pall over congregational life.
    I think the interrelation of fixated grief and shame, their effects on congregational life, and how to help congregants accept that there are festered issues and then successfully work through them are important issues for congregations with traditions of corporate life and worship and need a hulistic approach sooner rather than later.

  5. John Wetzel / Sep 24 2012 12:34 pm

    Force Field Analysis is an aid in discovering how decisions are made in many organizations. Simply put it suggests that in many decisions, two forces are at work in reaching a goal, a driving force and a resisting force. There are many driving forces churches depend on to reach their goals. However FFA suggests that in dealing with the resisting forces, you can move more rapidly towards your goal. I hear many congregations stating what they have to offer. I see few congregations willing to examine why people do not come or remain when they do. They expect this new generation to conform to patterns of worship and organization developed decades if not centuries ago. Yes, many churches speak a foreign language to a new generation of seekers. And many congregations would rather die than change.

  6. Wendy MacLean / Sep 24 2012 11:20 am

    We have a mechanism built into our liturgy to help create health: the act of confession and reconciliation holds the possibility of offering the gift of freedom. “Shame” is only helpful if it opens us to changing our behaviour. We are released from shame when we accept grace, forgiveness and reconcilitation. These are not alien concepts outside of the church: “Let it go” is a commmon piece of advice and wisdom.
    If we are carrying shame for things that are beyond our control, then this has the taste of inflation. Our corporate confession acknowledges that we are part of something much bigger than our reach. We seek healing for the world, and ask for power to do our part. Grace is an antidote to shame. If we think we are too important to merit grace, we end up carrying around a huge burden (shame). I appreciate Karen McClintock’s insight about shame. It is a helpful lens to remind me to be gracious and grace-full and not to take responsibility for things I cannot change. God’s grace helps us to participate with love (I could change all the “we” to “I” in this post, but I imagine I am not alone in this experience). Peace and blessings, and thanks.

  7. Judith Gotwald / Sep 24 2012 8:54 am

    A good bit of the shame of church involvement is self-imposed. It is foundational to the message blasted at the laity — “You must change or transform.”

    Transformation is required of people who are not good enough. The message heard by many congregants for the last couple of decades is the constant refrain “You’re not good enough.” “You aren’t doing this right.” “You aren’t giving enough.”

    Solutions offered are nebulous, for the most part untested, and have gone so far in our region as to lock the people out and wait for their memory to be fade before reopening the doors with new and better, church-approved people.

    Our congregation has been locked out of our church for three years this week. All we remember is exclusion. We weren’t and never will be good enough.

    Our regional body issued a report on our congregation. They had very little interaction with us prior to its release which was read publicly before it was shared with us. It was a laundry list of “not good enough.” The last comment on the report was that we had a good outreach resulting in spirited worship with a good number of people BUT the work hadn’t been done in cooperation with THEM.

    Even our successful transformation was not good enough.

    Forget the obvious sources of shame — the sex scandals, etc. The message we are receiving is that we will NEVER be good enough. And so only the most dedicated, aging as we all are, show up on Sunday morning, with plenty of reason to look squinty eyed at strangers who walk through the door with the power to judge us.

    The Church needs to rebuild the confidence of the laity from the ground up. When people feel accepted, just as they are, they are more able to accept others as they are. Just as I am without one plea . . . .

    We need to temper the call to change with an appreciation of steadfastness.

    Steadfast love endures forever.

  8. Robert Murphy / Sep 24 2012 7:15 am

    Perhaps I should be more sympathetic to Amanda. Well, perhaps. Still, in the story presented, she’s a rather passive consumer who makes little effort to understand the life of the church. The hymns remind her of the music that she heard at a grandparent’s funeral? (That’s a problem?) Some of the religious language is unusual. And – horrors – there’s even a suggestion that churches may have some appreciation of right and wrong behavior in the world….. So what does Amanda want? Some form of easy-to-access entertainment, instant gratification, and assurances that everything is great in the USA? There’s lots of that stuff in the marketplace and it’s popular and it’s easy to find.
    Marketing agencies will provide instructions on how to how to develop this kind of “church.”

  9. Bruce Hyde / Sep 24 2012 4:20 am

    When I read articles about the problems faced by dwindling Christian communities, I always wonder if anyone has done some serious research into the cause of this problem. In my limited experience, I have found people in these dwindling communities have almost no idea how they got there or if there is really a problem at all!
    I also do not remember hearing many clergy examining what role the past clergy and structures in the system may have played to help create the problem that we now find.
    It occurs to me that if we can’t identify what were the issues that allowed the church to decline to its present sad state, then we are unlikely to be able to create positive healthy communities.
    Any thoughts?

    • Judith Gotwald / Sep 24 2012 9:44 am

      Don’t hold your breath for clergy and hierarchy to examine their roles in the decline of the church.

  10. bowmanwalton / Sep 24 2012 3:03 am

    As a psychologist, Karen McClintock may recognize a rough but useful distinction between those anaclitic souls who mainly seek love and support and those introjective ones who mainly seek to be better selves. On their two banks of the river, they want different things. They live by different strengths, and are blind to different weaknesses. Different sorts of help benefit them. They may well want different sorts of religion altogether.

    Since ashamed individuals who work through their shame, repenting as needed, will usually be more energetic, it makes perfect sense that a congregation of persons with decades of opportunity to acquire shame will feel and act much better if they work through it, individually and collectively. So Professor McClintock’s book on this– her third?– is likely to have nice surprises for any groups of people who use it. They needn’t be churches. Buy and try!

    However, this anecdote about “Amanda” (Latin, “to be loved”) exemplifies a different sort of problem that some actually do tie to the decline of churches and denominations– the idea that the only good church is a sort of hottub for people who define themselves around other people, or, cutting to the chase, that removing even minor barriers of style is more urgent than giving inquirers a clear motivation to ignore them and focus on something truly life-enhancing. To be clear, the problem is balance.

    Church as much of mainstream America knows it has an extreme anaclitic bias that does not acknowledge or support the natural bent of, say, “Theodora” (Latin, “gift of God”), even though she lives in a culture that demands and honors personal excellence, and organizes her life around meeting those demands. She can handle organic chemistry in school, and weights in the gym, so of course she can figure out a few abbreviations in a bulletin. (Or she can ask.) She expects that people who know something distinctive about being excellent human beings will have their methods and can explain and coach them. Everyone else can– teachers, coaches, meditation centers, etc! To Theodora, an educated woman, it would indeed be strange if nothing, absolutely nothing, about church was unusual or difficult. Nothing worthwhile has ever been like that. And she has no patience with vaguely stuckist comfort zones for people who live without mission. The Amandas need help; the Theodoras want challenge with ultimate meaning. For churches that have been oriented to the Amandas of half a century, the struggle today is less to find still more ways to conform to her sensibility than to win the respect of Theodoras who see a cross on building and think “mediocrity.”

  11. Thomas Bentz / Sep 24 2012 2:26 am

    As a former area church executive who had two positive Alban seminar experiences, I must say that this may be your worst post. The point is moving to “shameless,” but this post is only the damning testimony of texting “Amanda” from a professor who may or may not be a confessor or practicing Christian, with not a sentence, not a hint, of what I hope is (but would not pay to but the chance to read and see) the see anything in and from a “grace-filled congregation.” Give me and start with something positive. I know what is wrong with and in the church. You need a positive and pointed editor like me.

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