Worship in Difficult Times: Thoughtful leadership during crisis, conflict, or transition
One church is dealing with a major conflict between the pastor and the elders. Another is struggling to keep together factions that have polarized over changes in worship. A third is reeling from the sudden suspension of its pastor. A fourth is grieving over the tragic death of a child. A fifth is facing the loss of a large portion of its membership; yet another is adjusting to the consolidation of a smaller congregation into its midst.
These are just a few of the difficult times congregations can face—circumstances that affect all of a congregation’s life, especially its worship life. Such situations raise questions like these:
- How do congregations worship in a difficult time of crisis, transition, or conflict?
- How can congregations plan worship thoughtfully and meaningfully through a difficult time?
- How can worship help the congregation in the process of healing from a difficult time?
For most congregations, worship is the main event of the week. Even though Christians worship individually and often do so outside of the sanctuary, the weekly worship service is the occasion when, more than any other time, the congregation gathers and expresses its identity. So when a congregation experiences a difficult situation, symptoms are bound to appear in worship. The leaders of the congregation must carefully discern how to plan worship appropriately during these times. Ultimately, worship may be the element of congregational life that has the most potential to help the congregation through the process of healing.
Difficult Times: Crisis, Transition, Conflict
Worship services can become a calm island in the storm of conflict or a guiding force through a turbulent period, but different situations will require varying approaches to worship planning. Situations of crisis, transition, or conflict each raise a different set of issues to deal with.
A crisis is a sudden change that creates a great amount of tension and upheaval for those affected by it. Examples of congregational crises include the sudden death of a leader or church member, the unexpected resignation of a pastor or staff member, a natural disaster that damages the church facilities, or a regional or national calamity. In a crisis, announcements and methods of communication are of urgent importance. In these situations, leaders will need to ask questions like the following:
- What will we say to the people on Sunday morning, and who will say it?
- How will we tell the news and still be able to worship?
- Who will lead our service and preach the sermon (if the crisis involves the pastor’s absence)?
- Should we scrap the planned liturgy completely and simply start over?
- What songs will we sing instead of the ones previously chosen?
- Who will make these decisions?
A crisis requires thoughtful planning and decision-making without much time for processing. It calls for wisdom from church leaders—wisdom that can be developed by setting good patterns long before any crisis occurs.
Though a crisis is a sudden change, it often is followed by an extended period of grieving—for a person, a group, a building, or even a congregational identity. The situation then leads to a time of transition, or, in some cases, a time of conflict. The issues caused by a crisis do not go away quickly when the immediate crisis is over. Careful responses from leaders will have long-term results for the health and well-being of the congregation.
A transition is the process of changing from one form, state, activity, or place to another. Unlike a crisis situation, transitions allow more time for careful planning. The most common transitions for congregations are changes in pastoral or staff leadership. Other examples of transitions include building additions and relocations, development of a new vision or new programs, mergers of two or more congregations, and consolidations of one congregation into another.
As in a time of crisis, leaders need to ask important questions. For example, in the case of a consolidation, church leaders will want to ask questions like these:
- How will we publicly welcome these people into our family?
- How will we acknowledge that together we become a new worshiping community?
- How will we acknowledge the grief that some will feel in losing their identity (and even their building and many of their ways)?
- How can we ritualize the transition?
A conflict is a prolonged controversy or disagreement between opposing forces. Church conflicts can arise from a variety of issues—from worship style to leadership style to interior decorating style. They may develop out of an unresolved or poorly handled crisis. They may begin with a sharp disagreement or with a quiet dispute that grows into a heated discussion. Leaders have to think carefully about whether their actions will fan or douse embers of conflict.
Conflicts often serve as evidence of deeper disagreements or hurts within the congregation. Sometimes healing has been needed for a long time, but no one has facilitated that process. Leaders need wisdom to discern how best to acknowledge the conflict and how to work toward resolution. They will have to address questions like the following:
- Should we “name” the conflict in worship?
- Should we speak words of confession to one another?
- Can we do this without making hypocrites out of people by attempting to force contrition?
- How (and how often) should we address themes of unity and reconciliation?
- Should we take care to involve members who are on different “sides” of the conflict?
- How can we use worship and Scripture to build hope in the congregation, knowing that our Lord will carry us through this difficult time?
Congregations need to recognize that things don’t always go well, and difficult times are a normal part of congregational life.
Planning Worship in Difficult Times
Worship services can help a congregation through a difficult time by reminding members of the major themes of Scripture and the promises God has made. In worship, congregations gather as God’s chosen people, recalling who they are by baptism and finding themselves again in the gospel narrative. During difficult times, careful worship planning becomes more crucial than ever. Services must be designed carefully, with thoughtful awareness of the difficult situation and the many opinions and questions swirling around.
Church leaders who are dealing with the conflict, crisis, or transitional situation should be in close contact with those who plan worship. They should not naively assume that they can simply take care of the difficulty behind the scenes so that the problem won’t affect the worship services. It will affect them—one way or another. The challenge is to manage that effect and guide the process with discernment.
Public acknowledgement of the difficult time may be helpful for a congregation, but it requires sensitivity and careful planning by the leaders. They must be sure to preserve the dignity and purpose of worship, as well as be sensitive to the presence of visitors in the worship service. One church-shopping couple visited a church on the very day the suspension of its pastor was announced. They kept coming to see how the church would handle the crisis, and are still members ten years later.
Church leaders may find that simply naming the difficulty facing the congregation will go a long way toward reducing the anxiety that members are feeling. Instead of avoiding the obvious, leaders can help the congregation admit that things are not quite the way they’re supposed to be. This may also give the congregation permission to admit failure and begin moving toward health. In the midst of pressure to be the best church, draw the most people, and have the most inspiring worship services, congregations need to recognize that things don’t always go well, and difficult times are a normal part of congregational life. This attitude, when modeled by church leaders, may help members work through the difficulty. In fact, the congregation may learn that difficult times can be times of great spiritual growth.
Leaders can facilitate that growth through careful collaboration with worship planners. Congregations experiencing challenges are often characterized by a variety of intense emotions, including an increase in anxiety and a concurrent decrease in the creative energy needed for planning and implementing corporate worship. Sometimes the crisis or conflict results in a loss of leadership—even a loss of the pastor or other central worship planner or leader. Congregations in these situations need guidance in knowing what questions to ask and what matters to consider regarding worship. (See Q&A, p. 30, for some examples of such questions.)
Understanding Congregational Dynamics
In difficult times church leaders need to pay careful attention to congregational dynamics. On one level, a congregation is a complex emotional system, and changes to one part of the congregation also affect the rest of the system.
Difficult situations create stress on the congregation, and stress shows up in a variety of ways. Church leaders must learn to expect and recognize the symptoms of stress and understand that different people will react in different ways. Some may withdraw, unable to face the pain of the difficulty. Others may overreact and try to solve the problem too soon. Still others may complain about seemingly unrelated matters in an unconscious attempt to avoid the issue and divert the attention of the leaders.
Congregations in difficulty will find that their members are grieving. Grieving people tend to resist change because change always involves some loss. Therefore, they may want to hang onto familiar things even more than usual. So, for example, while introducing a new song at any other time might not be a major issue, during a difficult time it may be a volatile move. Leaders should be prepared for the resentment and even hostility that may come from frustrated parishioners. They need to remind themselves to remain as calm as possible, absorbing some of the anxiety of the system and thereby providing some immunity to the congregational body.
Often the troubling symptoms of the difficult time will become focused on worship, the major corporate activity of the church. Worship can become the congregational lightning rod, since it involves the greatest portion of the congregation all at once, and since it is so closely tied to people’s faith. Moreover, the term “worship war” has become so common that church members almost expect it to happen. It could even become the smokescreen that overshadows the real underlying problems of the congregation. So paying careful attention to worship is all the more important in difficult times.
Worshiping as the Body of Christ
That careful consideration should include a basic understanding of what the church is called to be and how it is called to worship. These matters are central to all congregations at all times, no matter what their situation, but are especially important in difficult times.
A helpful way to think of the church as it faces trying situations is to reflect on Scripture’s metaphors for the church. One that is often cited both in regard to the church and in teaching on emotional systems is that of a human body. The body is made up of cells and tissues and organs that all contribute to and sustain the body’s life. It has many different parts that are all necessary and that together make up something even greater than the whole. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul notes the importance of all parts of the body and their unique contributions. The emphasis in this passage is on the spiritual gifts of church members—some more obvious, others less so, but all necessary and important.
Another metaphor both for the gifts of the church and its web of relationships is a horticultural one. In John 15 Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” The fruit-bearing image appears also in Matthew 7 (“You will know them by their fruits”) and in Galatians 5 with the list of the “fruit of the Spirit.”
Both metaphors are fitting because the church is the body of Christ—a living organism. These images are helpful for understanding what happens to a congregation in a difficult time. When a person has a toothache her whole body hurts. If she loses her sight or her hearing, the activity of her entire body is affected. When a branch is pruned or shocked by frost the plant will react by working harder to heal the broken parts. Or it may shed them.
Similar reactions can be found in the living body that is the church. And worship may be the greenhouse or the nursery in which suffering plants can be brought back to health. The rituals of the liturgy may become “the leaves of the tree that bring healing to the nations” (Rev. 22:2). In worship we learn again to abide in the true vine—both by hearing the Word of God and reenacting its stories in worship. In worship we remember who we are as a community of baptized persons and we celebrate our redemption at our Lord’s Supper. In worship we receive the nutrients that feed our souls and give us life. And we recall God’s faithfulness as we seek to bear the Spirit’s fruit. Like plants that take in oxygen and put out carbon dioxide in the process of photosynthesis, so in worship we are in dialogue, in a reciprocal relationship between the creatures and the Creator.
Worship is so essential to the church that it rarely stops. When a church building is struck by fire, an alternative location to meet for worship is found quickly. The members of the worshiping body want to be together in times of crisis to comfort one another. Even congregations experiencing severe conflict still meet for worship, so it is the most appropriate venue for healing and reconciliation. And this is possible because in worship we recognize that we need to abide together and abide in Christ. As we pray and sing, offer lament and give thanks, hear God’s promises and dedicate ourselves to live for him, we remember who we are in Christ and are able to become one in him.