Holy Discontent

December 4, 2012

At a gathering of pastors the other day, we had a deep discussion on what we termed “holy discontent.” As pastors around the table struggle with the reality that their small churches could close if they lost only a couple more people, the question came up: What do we do to turn these churches around? These inward, hurting, hurtful, congregations that these pastors deeply love.

Of course my coaching kicked in, but a dear friend and pastor also rose to the challenging question, because he has actually taken a church that had burned through multiple pastors and lived on fighting and made it into one of the most dynamic and compassionate churches I have ever gotten to meet. He was unable to pinpoint or lay out the exact strategy he used to turn this church around, but he mentioned this phrase “holy discontent.” Because he tried to create it when he first arrived. And he succeeded.

And he’s right. Until a congregation reaches a place of “holy discontent” it does not fully or internally change. As long as it believes it is actually fine the way it is, or at least that its misery is safer than the mystery of the future, there is little incentive to change. Sure, there are usually pockets of individuals who see the problems and are bothered by them, but they often have no idea what to do and have no idea that they may not be the only one. And then of course there are those who are oblivious… as long as their needs are met. And then there are also those who think something is wrong, but it’s not them and certainly not “their pet ministry/belief/attitude” that needs to change. And of course, add in the folks who believe that “back then” was the time the church was most healthy and successful and if we could only go “back there” to that time, all would be well.

No wonder pastors are confused. And those pastors often bring in their own ideas about what the church should and could be, all mixed and mingled together. Sorting that out is not just difficult. Sometimes it seems impossible.

There are many methods to try to start the process of moving a church that has grown inward, but this concept of “holy discontent” accompanies all of them. Until there is incentive to change- either because of discomfort with the present or a new vision of the future that is more compelling- no one changes. It’s not in our nature. We don’t change unless something pressures us to change.

And I wonder if that’s maybe the key- that first and foremost, the one leading the change needs to experience personal change and renewal first. What I’m saying is: Maybe until I have a “come to Jesus” moment for my own life, exposing my discomforts and my desires to stay put, I are ill-equipped to lead others. I’m pretty sure Jesus had something to say about that. Specifically something about a speck of dust in one person’s eye and a plank in another’s.

The truth is: I am just as human as anyone else. And as much as I like change, the reality is, I only like some change. Other changes are hard. I’ll resist them as much as possible. And until I am in a place where I feel the pressure on me to move toward something new, I won’t. Because there’s no need, right?

Maybe if we could see this in our own lives, and ask God to create this “holy discontent” for us, then the hard work of congregational turn-around would become less a mystery and more of an adventure.

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