Behind the Curtain: Why have committees changed?

Posted: 2/10/2021

Church Family,

Those who watched the service last week noticed I made a pretty embarrassing blunder. I stopped halfway through Communion, said, “What is this? This is not how you do Communion at all,” stopped for ten seconds and started again. It looked (and felt) ridiculous! But here’s what happened: when I’m recording the service and make a mistake like that, I usually just pause and start again and edit out the part where I messed up. It’s easier than starting a whole new recording. But as I was editing the service together last week, I completely forgot to cut that part out. Whoops!

Someone (looking at you, Janice) commented, though, that it was a good “look behind the curtain.” It showed a bit of the goofiness that goes into preparing worship - a behind the scenes look at a finished production sometimes is a bit refreshing and humanizing. It got me thinking. As I reflect on the past months, there are an awful lot of curtains. Many have identified feeling disconnected from the church, lonely, or wondering what is going on. Quite a few changes have happened and decisions have been made, and we haven’t had the normal space to connect on them. Especially when we can’t gather in-person, those curtains are even more obvious. So, I decided to put together a little “Behind the Curtain” blog post - to update you on a few of the behind-the-scenes things going on, and explain a bit more in detail what’s been happening and what’s been motivating me/us in the decisions being made. Today, I’ll dive a bit into some of the leadership structuring and restructuring that’s taking place.

What’s happening to all the committees!?!

Something sneaky is happening that some of you are noticing. The session has dwindled from nine people to five people. The deacon board has shrunk from twelve deacons to five deacons. The committees have shrunk from ten committees to six; Church Family Life was combined with Christian Ed, the hospitality committee is gone, and most recently the preschool committee was put on the chopping block. What exactly is happening here? Is no one willing or able to volunteer? Is the new young pastor trying to usurp everyone’s leadership? On the contrary - my hope is that this actually enables more leadership. 

Where did this idea come from?

At the first presbytery meeting I attended as your pastor, a presentation spoke of transforming session meetings from the “Board Room” to the “Upper Room”; instead of decisions being made on what color the carpet should be, the time would be spent on prayer, worship, goal-setting, and leadership development. I was captivated by the vision and brought the idea along to session, and we accordingly re-structured our meetings: now, we spend our first half hour in prayer and Bible study, our next half hour in leadership development and mission conversations, and our final hour in business discussions. Now, the spiritual leaders of our church are doing just that...exploring what it means to be spiritual leaders of our church, with the business discussions streamlined. This started to get me thinking - are there other structures in our church that could use re-vamping?

Here’s a working theory I’ve found helpful from Paul Borden, who ran ECO’s Transformation Cohort: early on, structure was created to serve the church’s mission. “We have kids; we need a Sunday school!” “Our community needs to know Jesus; let’s create an outreach committee!” But, over time, as the church’s demographics and needs change, the old structure still exists. Thus, the problem becomes that instead of the structure serving the church, the church has begun to serve the structure. “We need to have twelve elders; it’s always been that way.” “We should have a committee meeting every quarter; that sounds about right.” The structure went from, “We have kids and we need a Sunday School,” to, “We have a Sunday School and we need kids.”

Some churches are trying to re-think their structures to better serve their churches. Twelve elders had worked well when the church was larger, but maybe six elders works better now. Sunday School had worked well decades ago, but maybe it’s time for something different. I started to notice this was a theme in several of the flourishing churches in our denomination. When attending presbytery meetings and telling other churches how many elders we had for our size, often they would shake their heads in surprise and tell me three to five would be sufficient. Late last year I interviewed a fellow ECO pastor, Kaitlyn Wood at Cohoes, whose church underwent a significant restructuring - which she said was the single most key piece to her church becoming what it is today. As part of the re-structuring, every single committee was removed, the session was dramatically reduced and their job descriptions dramatically changed, and an unpaid staff was hired to assist the pastor. It was the best thing she’d done, she said: now, people in the church were unleashed to their full potential, able to do what they loved to do, instead of merely filling a position.

On session, we’ve read the book “Canoeing the Mountains,” which talks about adapting to changing times. Our mission is still the same, just like Lewis and Clark’s: they still were seeking to explore the western frontier, and we are still seeking to transform ourselves, our community and the world for Jesus Christ. But once they hit the Rocky Mountains, they realized canoes just weren’t going to cut it. They kept exploring on foot. We’ve hit our own Rocky Mountains in the 21st century; there just aren’t as many people attending church, there’s unusual amounts of competition from other extracurriculars, the culture has changed significantly, and now there’s a pandemic. Our canoes aren’t working anymore. How do we keep going on foot?

One of my seminary professors told the story of a church that had been “committee’d to death.” He canceled all committee meetings for three months, and said it was the best decision he made at that church. When I arrived in July 2019, I counted up our average attendance, and the spots on our committees. There were more spots on committees than there were church members! No wonder so many people have felt like they’ve been on every committee four times - many have! I couldn’t help but wonder if our church had fallen into that trap - beginning to serve our structure instead of using the structure to serve us. 

Many of you have sat on a lot of meetings. Some that you wanted to be at...and many that you perhaps didn’t want to be at. Sometimes our involvement at a church does come with taking on unpleasant or unwelcome tasks...but, if we were to dream a little bit, what would it look like if that wasn’t the case? What if we didn’t have more positions to fill than people to fill them, and people could do what they loved to do? That led to some creative re-thinking on how many committees, sessions members, and deacons we really need - and what we could do if we re-organized the structure to serve our church, instead of the other way ‘round.

Revamping session, deacons, and committees has been done to free up more people for the roles for which they are gifted. We’ve discussed creative possibilities, like whether former elders could chair committees instead of active elders, or whether people could have temporary positions of leadership instead of having a whole committee make decisions. When church is a laundry list of positions to fill, it’s easy to get in a rut. But if half our people have no committee roles - what possibilities could that open up? If someone has the free time to plan a community event, why not? If someone has the chance to start up a Bible study or prayer group, why not? Could we have someone whose heart is for the community in charge of “Community Outreach” for a year, instead of tacking it on as yet another committee responsibility? Could we have non-deacons who still love visiting people create a team of lay-pastoral-care people who organize visits? 

Changing structure is changing the way things are done - which is a dangerous matter for Presbyterians. My dad always liked to say the 7 most dangerous words for a church were, “We’ve never done it that way before.” We love our things done decently and in order - and certainly, there is merit to having a structure. But if people aren’t bogged down by meetings, and if only the people who really want to be in roles are in those roles...what possibilities could it open up? The fewer roles we have to fill, the more time people have; the more time they have, the more opportunities we have. Maybe the sign-up door won’t be where volunteer hopes go to die anymore. Maybe committee meetings won’t cause us to want to run the other way. Maybe new ideas and opportunities will spring up as we have the energy and the people to fill them. We’ll give it a try and see what happens. If it goes well, we might keep exploring it. If the church burns down, I promise we’ll add more committees...including one to find more fire-resistant materials.

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