I came across an article I submitted to Leadership Journal twenty years ago. Leadership Journal, now defunct, was legendary back then, and not just for the comics (the first thing I’d read). Unlike other periodicals, I kept them. I had a row of them in my library.
I submitted an article called “The Youngest Member.” It was about me, a young pastor then, leading an older church.
They turned me down.
I opened the document again recently out of curiosity, and was pleasantly surprised. It’s not bad. It certainly feels like something one might have read in that publication back then.
To be honest, I can’t remember why they rejected my article, and I can’t find the email from twenty years ago. But one thing struck me as I read the article: I declared victory too soon.
The last two paragraphs of the article said:
Howard Hendricks says, “When you’ve seen a church transition, you’ve just seen a miracle.” I feel like I’m witnessing a miracle.
Successful transitions are possible – even when the pastor is one of the youngest members.
I was three years into pastoring that church at that point. It was much too soon to declare anything like a miracle.
I spotted the same mistake in another pastor long after. He had been in a church the same amount of time, and led a seminar on how to lead a successful church turnaround. I was baffled but humbled: I had made the same mistake.
Don’t declare victory in a marathon when you’re still in the early miles.
The Case of the Corinthians
I’m studying 1 Corinthians these days, and it’s humbling. The church had been planted by Paul himself. Paul had spent 18 months with them. The church was only a few years old. Paul had already written one letter to correct them, and yet the church was still full of problems. If Corinth could go wonky with so much attention from Paul, who are we to think we can do any better?
I’m not sure we should allow the Corinthian church to set the pace, but we should expect some of the same problems.
I used to think that turning a church around was like turning a business around: set a new vision, clean up the mess the old guy left, and get the charts pointing in the right direction.
I know think that turning a church around is more like parenting: establish a culture of health, love, change diapers, lovingly correct wrongdoing, change more diapers, and repeat over a long period of time. You don’t turn a family around like you turn a business around. It’s long and messy work.
And it’s glorious work too.
In all of this, I don’t want to deny that legitimate turnarounds exist. I am arguing that we set our expectations correctly and avoid declaring victory too soon.
Leadership Journal was right to turn my article down. I was wrong to think I’d achieved in three years what my predecessor failed to do in 23. The story is messier than that. If Paul could face the challenges he did in Corinth, perhaps we should expect some of the same. By God’s grace, the church will get healthier over time, but even then we’ll face some of the same issues.
Don’t declare victory too soon. Let others do that. Actually, let God do that. Just keep at the slow, patient work of caring for your people, and don’t be surprised when it’s messier than you thought.