Francesco Schettino, the captain of the luxury cruise liner, Costa Concordia, must have been absent the day this famous maxim was taught in captain’s school. (Perhaps he missed the day when they taught captains to avoid shallow water as well…) He allegedly left his sinking ship, still filled with passengers, so that he could find safety in a life raft. The ship captain was branded a coward for his actions. Al Mohler labeled him Chicken of the Sea.
What if we changed the nautical axiom for ministry purposes? What if it read, “A pastor goes down with his church?” While pastors bemoan the cowardice of Captain Schettino, they seem to have little aversion to fleeing their own sinking congregations. How many pastors have chosen a life raft over a wounded vessel?
The question takes me back to a conversation I had six years ago. I had to decide between a life raft and a wounded vessel. I remember the details clearly. I sat in a booth at a TGIF restaurant. The man across the table was a denominational leader. I respected him and valued his opinion. That was why I requested the lunch meeting. I explained my situation. I had served at a local church for three years. Since I would soon wrap up my doctoral degree, I had a sense that God was leading me to a new ministry opportunity, perhaps teaching or maybe another pastorate. I hadn’t requested the meeting for help in discerning God’s direction for my future. I had called the meeting because I was concerned about the future of my current congregation. I didn’t consider myself irreplaceable. However, I knew enough about the congregation’s history and current situation to be concerned.
They had fired two staff member in the five years prior to my pastorate. The church had split in half over the first firing. Those who remained were determined to stay afloat but the cultural and community changes around them seemed to thwart any efforts at staying above water. The congregation was aging and Anglo. The surrounding community was young and ethnically diverse. Few young families attended the church. (My son experienced an entire year of Sunday School in which he was the only student in his class unless a guest arrived!) Some of the young families in the church had expressed their frustration over the church’s stagnation. Those that remained stated or implied that they did not intend to stick around much longer. I wanted to know what I could do in my remaining tenure to help the church into the future.
After hearing my description and my inquiry, my dining companion replied, “Finish out your ministry there, move on to the things God has for you. The church will probably die within five years anyway.” The blunt response took my breath away. It wasn’t that I doubted the accuracy of his assessment. In fact, I agreed completely. My reaction centered on the flippancy of his comment. It provided no compassion or concern for the members of the congregation or spiritual influence of the congregation in the community.
I sought further input from other trusted advisors. I wish that I could report a different response. Unfortunately, all of the advice communicated the same message. “The ship is sinking, you should get off!”
Honestly, I strongly considered finding my own life raft and letting the passengers fend for themselves. However, when I looked at the faces of these saints, who had already been battered by the conflicts of congregational life, I felt that there had to be a better alternative. I realized that these people needed a life raft and as the current captain/pastor it was my responsibility to find it. So rather than biding my time, I started praying and searching.
I discovered that God already had plans for his people. Through answered prayers, our and theirs, we discovered a congregation in need of a home. They were a recent church start. They had a growing critical mass but they needed a facility. They had been leasing space at a church but that church needed the space and was on the verge of kicking them out. We had a shrinking critical mass and a large but aging facility. Our initial conversations focused on renting facility space to this new church. That option did not make much sense. The congregations were too similar to share the same space. The conversations cooled. Then, as the imminent homelessness of the startup church approached, God brought the two congregations to the table again.
This time, our congregation had discovered a different alternative. We had prayed about the possibility of merging the two churches but that presented many logistical issues. In order to bypass those issues, our church leadership team started talking about giving our facility to the new church. This would require that our church disband. At first the idea seemed radical but as we prayed over the options God provided a peace to our leadership team. When we brought the proposal to the congregation it was greeted with initial apprehension. However, over time our people began to see that this would be a great way to carry out the legacy of our congregation. After prayers and business meetings on both sides, the two churches came to an agreement. My church would dissolve and we would give the facilities to the new church.
This radical decision provided life rafts. Many from my congregation chose to stay with the new church, continuing to worship in the building that had brought them such joy for so many years. Others, who already had one foot out the door, were able to seek a fresh start without the emotional baggage of abandoning their fellow church members. In addition, the community welcomed a new congregation that possessed a fresh passion for ministry and service. Rather than allowing the church facility to slip gracelessly into disrepair, the facility continued to host a vibrant and God-honoring congregation.
Lest you see the happy ending and miss the point, let me be clear: guiding the church through the tumultuous decision to dissolve was the most difficult leadership process I have faced in my ministry. It was gut wrenching and painful. It required a great deal of effort and the final results did not pave a path of popularity. Think about it, when was the last time that you attended a conference to hear words of wisdom from the guy who closed his church?
Perhaps concern for personal prestige prohibits pastors from helping struggling churches end well. Pastors tend to abandon ship for a new location with little concern for their congregation because they have the greatest concern for their reputation. They would rather live to fight another day than oversee the rescue operation. Pastors, do not commit pastoral cowardice. Take care of the passengers God has placed in your fellowship, because ultimately it is His opinion and not the opinion of man that matters.