When negative perceptions shroud a local church, the result will be an uphill climb to regain the community’s trust and support.
Stories about financial mismanagement, moral failings of leadership, racial tensions or other issues can seriously erode a local church’s credibility and even its ability to survive. It’s much more sensitive and perhaps costly than the situation some businesses face when a defective product adversely affects profits.
Churches are assumed to be safe and trustworthy. When that relationship is damaged, church leaders must think not only about the actions needed to restore credibility but also the “whys” behind those steps. The “whys” reinforce transparency and provide a spiritual basis to the reasons for the action steps.
- Ask “Why did it happen?” If your church is to recover, key leaders need to know what happened, in detail. It is quite possible that an uncomfortable conversation will have to occur to hear all sides and learn the history behind the issue. By learning the facts, pastors and church leaders can take greater ownership of their roles. What if the conflict is internal? Sometimes disagreements among staff members threaten to become larger concerns. Seek methods to resolve conflicts in such a way that the feelings of the parties involved and the objectives of the church are respected.
- Acknowledge the issue. Whether the problem is recent or has festered for years, it is critical that your church’s leadership address it. Avoiding the concern can create two undesirable impressions: either that the church is unaware of the issue or that it simply chooses not to face and resolve the dilemma.
Your church is a unique place within the community, full of spirituality and emotion. Recognizing the issue can give a sense of emotional honesty.
- Listen to your members. This may be the most trying step because of its complexity. Even though this may lead to challenging conversations, people want to be heard. This is an important part of transparency.
- Get advice. If your church is facing a crisis, your conference communications director can provide a plan for navigating this difficult time. Taking this step addresses two needs. First, you will gain valuable guidance from a professional communicator, which helps should online discussions or social media become an issue.
Second, accessing your conference resources gives you legal assistance, if the situation requires. Third, if the situation involves ordained staff, you may need the guidance of your district superintendent as to the process for sharing information.
- Learn to bend over backward. When you want to undo any kind of damage and begin the process of healing, you must overcompensate. Church members have a built-in expectation that leadership will behave graciously with the goal of achieving a fair and faithful outcome. Living out that expectation is key. In doing so, you can earn your members’ appreciation and grace.
- Walk in your members’ shoes. This is about both empathy and preparedness. When you speak with members, expect probing questions. In preparing for those, you have the opportunity to show that your church has developed a forward-thinking plan.
Some tough situations may be unavoidable, such as pastoral transitions. Rather than being framed as turmoil in the church, it is important to recognize that these changes are simply part of being United Methodist.
- Invite the congregation to move forward in unity. As you look toward the future of your church, enlist your members’ help in designing a church that learns from its past. Negative situations can be recast as decisive turning points in the history of a congregation. Put another way, you can invite your church to join in the authorship of its future by learning from its past.
Eric Seiberling is part of a husband-wife duo working to help the church embody "1 > 99" at brokensheep.com. He leverages his 20+ years of marketing and consulting experience to help churches "baptize" and use secular techniques to be more effective at reaching the lost, the least and the last for Jesus Christ.