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Hearing God's Voice through Change: The preacher's role

As Jesus told the disciples at the Last Supper, in this world we will have trouble. Here's how preaching can encourage believers to take heart. A feature story exploring how congregations can hear God's voice despite change and trials.

Three years ago, Rev. Sandy Chrostowski's church was still operating on a 1950s-era organizational model. There were too many meetings for leaders and not enough opportunities for member involvement. Leaders were burning out, church life was stagnating-it was time for Galilee Lutheran Church in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, to articulate a new vision.

In January 1999, members of Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church (CRC) discovered that the cracks spidering across their sanctuary's ceiling after a heavy snowfall signaled fatal roof damage. Their sanctuary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, would have to be demolished.

More recently, members of New Hope Lutheran Church faced the sudden resignation of a pastor for the fourth time in their 15-year history. Yet again this church in Columbia, Maryland would have to adjust to losing a leader.

And as students were returning for the fall 2005 semester, Hurricane Katrina blasted across the Gulf Coast, leaving the members of thousands of Southern churches homeless and unemployed.

At one point or another, such changes force themselves on the life of every church, threatening the status quo but also offering opportunities for growth. The way a pastor approaches such changes in his or her sermons is vital to the congregation's response.

Listen: God is calling

Silence on the issue may lead worshipers to think God doesn't care about changes their church is experiencing. But sermons heavily favoring one response may make worshipers feel their pastor is mistaking the pulpit for a soapbox.

What's a pastor to do?

For a start, read Craig A. Satterlee's new book When God Speaks through Change: Preaching in Times of Congregational Transition.  

Change, says Satterlee, is going to happen. Neighborhood populations will shift, factories will close, pastors will retire-it can't be stopped.

What churches can do, and should, is react to these changes in a way that acknowledges that rather than being a threat to the church's "normal" way of being, a change may be God's way of calling the church to something new.

Oakdale Park CRC, for example, could have taken the destruction of their building to mean they were finished. Instead members say it was a blessing in disguise.

Before the crisis, it was almost like Oakdale was two congregations: one attended the "traditional" service and the other attended the "gospel" service.

Simple logistics dictated that when worship was moved to temporary quarters in a school gym the services were combined. As a result, attendees of both services got to know one another, and Oakdale became a more unified church. (In fact, during its time in the gym, membership grew!)

Today, in its new building, all of Oakdale's members still worship together at one service.

"There are lessons you learn in the 'wilderness' that you don't learn anywhere else," says Rev. William Vanden Bosch, Oakdale's pastor.

Preach faithfully

It's unlikely that an entire congregation will react to change the same way. At Oakdale, for example, some thought the combined service should more resemble the traditional service while others thought the gospel style should be preserved.

One voice needs to be heard above all: the gospel. That's where preaching comes in.

"During a congregational transition, faithful preaching ensures that the gospel-and not a program or agenda-is proclaimed and heard," Satterlee writes.

Satterlee, a professor of homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and former pastor, describes five foundational commitments necessary for shepherding congregations through important transitions from the pulpit:

  • Understanding change. Change can be viewed either as threat or opportunity; healthy churches and their pastors will see an opportunity.
  • Trusting in the power, purpose, and place of preaching in transition. Pastors must recognize that their sermons will make a difference as their congregations work through transitions.
  • Welcoming the transition into sermon making. Pastors should put forth their best effort to compose sermons that "proclaim God's grace amid change."
  • Practicing holy and active listening. To preach messages that will truly help their congregations through transition, pastors must listen to their congregations, the gospel, and the Holy Spirit, not just their own feelings.  
  • Staying anchored in God's presence, grace, and power. Transitions are bound to be stressful. To lead congregations through them with grace, pastors must be grounded in the support of God and of faithful friends.

Give space and take time

Every transition consists of three main periods, says Satterlee: First, there is an ending. Perhaps a pastor retires or a congregation grows and leaves behind its identity as a small family church. Second, there is a neutral zone, or as Satterlee calls it, a "liminal strand" (from Latin limen, for threshhold). The congregation processes what has happened and discovers God's will for the next step. Finally, there is a new beginning.

Each step takes time.

Norm Thomasma, education specialist for the Christian Reformed Church's office of pastor-church relations, tells about a church that had been experiencing devastating internal conflicts for years. Finally, a single Sunday was scheduled as a service of reconciliation and forgiveness. The service went well-but a week later, rumors were circulating again and church members were as bitter as ever.

One Sunday, or one sermon, cannot sort out a congregation's reaction to a problem or change cutting to the heart of its identity.

But going too far the other way can be bad, too. Duane Visser, director of pastor-church relations for the Christian Reformed Church, tells about a church whose pastor died suddenly of a fast-acting cancer. Sunday after Sunday, every visiting pastor felt obliged to address his passing. "If I hear one more sermon on death, I'm going to scream!" one congregant told Visser.

Congregational change needs to be addressed more than once in worship and from the pulpit, but congregations also need room to breathe and be refreshed.

Name the problem

In its short history, every one of New Hope Lutheran's lead pastors' calls have ended unexpectedly, and some tragically. Pastors have left for sexual misconduct, to take prestigious denominational positions, and for personal reasons.  

All left with less than a month's notice, says pastor Katrina Holland, who was called to be second pastor but is serving alone in the wake of the latest pastoral departure.  

Many in the congregation say their grief at so many departures has never been addressed. Holland says that in recent sermons she has finally begun the healing process. To react to changes in a healthy way, she says, the congregation needs to hear about those changes. People need to openly name their grief and hurt.

Holland says "opening up old wounds so that they can heal properly" has helped the congregation move forward. So has her continual reassurance that "death is not the final answer, pain is not, grief is not. Life is the final answer."

Keep it Bible-based

The fruits of naming problems from the pulpit can turn sour if a pastor also names too explicitly his or her favorite answer, looking to "proof texts" instead of Scripture's overall message and denying the validity of worshipers' opinions.

Starting with Scripture and sticking to it keeps this from happening.

When Satterlee presided over a small Lutheran church nearing the end of its ministry, he found the texts specified by the lectionary calmed the shrinking congregations' fears. The cycle of readings reminded them of the gospel message that God brings new life out of death.

Eventually the congregation accepted that it was time to end their ministry. New life certainly did arise from this "death." Proceeds from selling the church building helped start two brand new ELCA churches in the area.

Moreover, Satterlee's congregation learned that leaving their building didn't have to mean leaving each other. Many members found a new home at the same church, and all of them still get together for annual potlucks.

The lectionary helps preachers and congregations to "expand their biblical perspectives on the transition as they hear a greater breadth of Scripture over time," and at the same time, "the congregation's transition brings a fresh perspective and new life to the lectionary," Satterlee writes.

Holland agrees: "Having the lectionary cycle deal with community in Christ in Matthew 18 was a real bonus this past month! I've used covenant stories-Moses, Ruth and Naomi, Jonah, Peter-to talk about God's promises. I've used Israel 's wanderings and the callings of David, Samuel, Peter, and Nathaniel to talk about discernment of the Spirit."

Occasionally lectionary readings may not be sufficiently related to the congregational transition. When pastors choose alternative texts, they "need to be clear with themselves that the purpose of the sermon is to proclaim the gospel and to call the congregation to respond in faith to the challenges and opportunities of the transition," Satterlee writes.

Rev. Sandy Chrostowski preached on Mark 6:7, about Jesus sending out disciples two by two, to help her congregation think about how to re-envision themselves not just as "members" but as disciples. She also used the image of an oasis to help them envision what their church could become: a place people come to be fed, nourished, and refreshed.

To reinforce this biblical call to discipleship, Galilee Lutheran holds special commissioning ceremonies for all sorts of church groups, from Sunday school teachers to youth groups setting off on mission trips, during worship services.

During Oakdale Park's three-year sojourn worshiping in a gym and in a parking lot, Rev. William Vanden Bosch continually reminded them of the Israelites' wanderings in the desert.

Satterlee also used Christian history to help his congregation accept their imminent dissolution. While in Italy doing academic research, he "went all over Italy looking for the church that Paul started-and it ain't there!" he says.

"If there's no building left from the church started by Paul," he told his church, "maybe it's okay for us to move on, too." 

Learn More

Read this blog by Richard Bott, a minister at a United Church of Canada congregation trying to renew its vision.

Take a course from the Interim Ministry Network. Craig A. Satterlee will be a keynote speaker at the Network's annual conference in St. Louis, Mo., May 22-25, 2006.

Reformed Worship 72 suggests singing these songs to help congregations deal with hard times, shows how to put together a congregational lament, and provides a pattern for a banner depicting Jesus' reminder that God cares for the ravens and the lilies-and how much more so for his children. View the issue for more liturgies and tips on worship in difficult times.

Feeling bitter or threatened by change? Learn to forgive. Read this article based on Jesus' assurance "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you" (John 14:27).

Many denominations have specially trained interim pastors who can help congregations deal with pastoral transitions. Find out more about interim pastors who work for the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the Episcopal Church, and the Christian Reformed Church.

Many denominations also have structures in place to help pastors stay "anchored in God's presence, grace, and power." In the Christian Reformed Church, volunteer regional pastors serve as pastors to other ministers in their geographical area.

Check out these worship response to natural disasters and this blog that tells about places of worship destroyed by the hurricane. C.H. Spurgeon's August 31 morning devotion from Morning and Evening reflects on how God draws us closer to him through crises. Order sheet music for "In a Time of Pain," a song of healing and hope for churches in times of crisis, available from GIA Publications.

Galilee Lutheran Church reflected on six Christian practices to help them articulate a new vision for mission.

Helpful books on specific types of congregational transition include:

Start a Discussion

  • What changes is your church facing, or what changes might it likely face? Is your church looking at these changes as opportunities or as threats to the status quo? In what new directions might God be calling your church through these changes?
  • Has your church addressed past changes in worship? Why or why not? How might addressing changes through sermon, song, and liturgy be helpful? When might addressing change in worship services be inappropriate?
  • Satterlee's book is addressed specifically to preachers, but other church members could take some cues from it, too. How might elders, deacons, and lay members participate in "holy and active listening"? How might your congregation focus on listening to the gospel's message rather than to personal hopes and fears? How can you tell the difference between the two?
  • Satterlee says that during times of painful transition, some church members may simply need to stay away from church for a time. What do you think? How might your church stay in contact with and show care for members for whom attending worship services during a transition is too painful?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to help congregations address difficult changes through worship services?

  • What is the best way you have found to practice "holy and active listening"? How have you made sure to listen to a variety of opinions in the congregations, and not only the most loudly voiced ones?
  • What other elements of worship has your church used to grieve a loss, celebrate a new beginning, or respond to worshipers' feelings towards some other types of change? What songs, Bible passages, visuals, dances, or liturgical readings have been especially helpful?