The 12 Steps of Church Change: Step 1 — Powerlessness

We admitted we were powerless…that our lives had become unmanageable.
–12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

I don’t know about you, but as the pastor of a traditional, historic, aging, church that has been in numeric decline for some years now, it’s time for me to come to terms with the powerlessness I feel in regards to the trajectory of our ministry together. I know that I need to “let go, and let God.” I know that this is God’s church and that nothing can happen without God’s guidance and grace. As the spiritual and temporal leader of this place, I should recognize that trying to herd a flock of humans isn’t that different from herding cats, and that there is little hope of managing my way out of our situation.

And yet, more often than not, it sounds like the literature, the advice of the church growth experts, and the desires of those I serve come together with the expectation that somehow, if I just exercise my power a little more effectively or create the right structure for ministry, all of the struggles that plague us can be alleviated. Church vitality, we seem to believe, is all about creating better worship, developing programs that lead people to go deeper in their discipleship, and creating exciting opportunities for radical service. I find myself thinking that our failure to be more effective witnesses to the gospel lies in my inability to stay on top of things, set my priorities, and be an effective leader of the ministry of our church.

What part of “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first” don’t I seem to understand? Why can I not fully get my head around Paul’s teaching that Christ’s grace “…is sufficient for you for power is made perfect in weakness”? Why do I forget that Jesus’s triumph of resurrection first had him headed to the cross, abandoned and rejected by all?

The folks in AA certainly understand that transformation begins with honesty about who we are — and we are a broken people who don’t have a clue how to overcome the unmanageable places we find ourselves in. We think we can figure it all out, that we can control our destinies, but the more we try, the more we spiral out of control as our failures pile up and sap us of passion, energy, and purpose. The great paradox of Jesus’ example and teaching is that we can only truly find peace, happiness, and life abundant when we relinquish control and admit how powerless we are to fix the mess that surrounds us.

Certainly, the situation we United Methodists face should have us falling on our faces and recognizing that we really can’t fix the problems that face our church. We’ve been trying for decades now to stem the tide of decline, to restructure our way into effectiveness, to better control our denominational leaders and agencies in the belief that we can manage our way back to healthiness. We are addicted to our structures, our traditions, our power bases, our language, and a host of other things that get in the way of doing what we truly need to do — recognize that we really CAN’T fix his, and that things are completely unmanageable. Certainly the 2012 General Conference should have been a clue that our ability to control our way to success is doomed to fail. We are a people desperately needing to stop trying the latest management fad or listening to the latest guru offering another organizational structure, and instead come together to acknowledge our desperate need of God’s grace and guidance. We may have the most brilliant pastors and bishops in the history of the church, but the world we face is so totally different that even the most gifted among us can’t restore us to our former glory. We may be facing a death spiral, but there’s not really a damn thing we can do about it.

It’s true for our individual congregations as well. We try to make changes to worship, to add screens to the sanctuary, to be more relevant in our offerings, to reach out in new and exciting ways, but by and large for most of us we fail to see major increases in our worship attendance or professions of faith. Sometimes we can make changes that stem our losses for a season, or which even lead to increases in attendance, but if you talk to the pastor you find a resignation that these things don’t represent the deep structural changes that build better disciples for long-term health and growth. I may simply be incompetent (there is an least one retired bishop who thinks so), but I look at our demographics (both the congregation’s and the surrounding community), what we have tried in the past, and the lack of passion and energy among many for doing the hard work of change that might lead us to grow, and I find myself often at a loss. So I find myself doing what my colleagues have done for years — create another program, offer another bible study, make changes to the building — in the hopes that one of those things will be the secret sauce that will lead to transformation.

What my AA friends have taught me is that I really don’t have a clue, and that it’s only when I’m able to acknowledge that that I am prepared to move to the next step — the belief that there is indeed a God who wants to restore us to His original intentions for us.

What would it mean for our church council, or for that matter the General Conference, to spend time recognizing our powerlessness and our inability to manage our church? Would the embracing of the basic step of humility and vulnerability that the first step requires begin to minimize the politics that divide our denomination and congregations as we all acknowledge that we really don’t have all the answers and are dependent on something more to heal us? How could step 1 begin to lead us on a path to transformation that we heretofore have avoided?

2 thoughts on “The 12 Steps of Church Change: Step 1 — Powerlessness

  1. Christianity in developed Countries is in decline – the US is now following Western Europe, Canada, etc – because the Christian faith we received is just not that relevant to the collective issues mankind faces – unprecedented issues to be sure, so the church does not have much to say to them, so it says little, staying within its shrinking domain of knowledge, expertise. Churches are full of people who are there for a not so noble reason – they are afraid of death – not because they want to be equipped and deployed as “God’s creation-caring creatures on planet earth” – where ‘creation” includes humanity.

    So your wailing, “woe is us” really misses the bigger points. The world and its current collective issues have no historical precedent, so organized Christianity has little to say to them, because the bible and tradition just don’t deal with them (not surprisingly) and many Christians are Christians out of fear of death.

    But don’t blame yourself, except for not seeing bigger picture of reasons for Church decline. I am not sure anything can be done about it, the Darwin/naturalist/we are here by chance and necessity, the product of hundreds of years of evolution, keeps improving its explanation of our indivdual and collective natures, as much as I might wish otherwise.

  2. Jay, I am deeply touched by what you have written here. I have many nights of my “2 am devils” when I come face to face with my own powerlessness as pastor. I cannot compel people to come to church, to give, to serve, to offer the hope of Jesus to others.

    The kinds of pastors who can compel such actions are cult leaders. That is not for those who do take Jesus’s words seriously.

    We can only invite, and the world has every right to turn down the invitation. The culture around us no longer supports our invitations. The shaping of those who would be disciples of Jesus revolves around extensive lengths of time, willingness to engage in the spiritual disciplines and sacrificial living. None of these has much attraction in a world where instant ease has become the highest good and the god who is worshiped.

    I’ve also written before that the UMC is going to have to intentionally dismantle itself and start over or it is going to happen unintentionally in a heart-breaking implosion. (

    I also have a very strong AA ministry in the church I serve and spend a good bit of time with the facilitator, as I find his wisdom helpful to me. This self-described “beat up old drunk” has taught me much about the power of helplessness and the power of accountable community to bring healing and new hope.

    We in the UMC need a “beat up old drunk” to help us engage the necessary death and rebirth so the words of grace can again be heard.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.