Principles for leaders to keep in mind from Brett Opalinski’s story of Rader United Methodist Church:
- Prepare yourself spiritually. The pastor in this story began with prayer for personal guidance and an attitude of openness to many possible outcomes. This preparation enabled him to explore the possibilities for revitalization, then offer firm and loving leadership for discernment about how and whether to continue.
- Gather and face the facts. While may it may be painful to see and state the realities, it can also be empowering. By acting promptly, this congregation was able to make a life-affirming choice and bring a generous legacy to the combined ministry.
- Consider multiple options. Congregations make better decisions when they weigh all the plausible paths—even those that seem less likely or attractive.
- Follow a clear and open process. The three-step process used by this congregation provided a supportive structure within which members could come to terms with painful choices. Without this thoughtful procedure, unfettered anger and grief might well have ruined the possibility for a constructive merger.
- Act on the decision. Once the process is complete and a path selected, implementation should begin. In this case, leaders did not allow the narrow margin to create an excuse for delay; as a result, members could experience the change as real and channel their energies into the productive task of evaluating merger partners. This congregation was wise enough to choose a strong partner; though it may have been more painful in the short-run to relinquish their name and location, members gained a precious sense of stability and hope for years to come.
- Mark endings. The dignified and moving service linked a real ending (deconsecration of the church) with a real beginning (procession of the cross, and much of the congregation, to a new home). Such rituals are important components of a healthy transition.
- Expect symptoms of bereavement. This pastor’s account helpfully describes a wide range of behavioral responses, including some hostile and selfish gestures. While they do not always occur, such responses are common enough that leaders should prepare themselves to “take some heat.”
- Don’t take it personally. Even in situations where there are no personal accusations, conscientious leaders often wonder whether they are doing the right thing. Ask for God’s guidance, do your best, then move on to life-giving activities.