The Unproductive Church



I am a pastor, which means I am often in the company of weary, disillusioned people. On any given Sunday, fatigue, loneliness and a restless disappointment are easy to spot if we care to pause from our shimmering sermons, our missional initiatives or our attempts to “love the city” long enough to love that one person and ask a basic human question: Say, where’s your heart these days?

Rarely do we ask such questions, however. These queries require a gentle posture and a slow curiosity, two practices which have fallen out of favor. These simple, genuine conversations work to see, not manage, the person before us. No agendas, no angling for how we might hoist the run amok coaster back on track. No prodding that poor, lackluster soul. Oh-so-important church work be damned, we want to know where you’re finding joy, where you’re worn thin, when’s the last time you got misty-eyed.

If we ask such things, though, the machine will likely have to idle for a bit, perhaps even lurch to a full stop. Of course, machines cannot flex with the varying seasons of the soul. But a family can. So can a friendship. The church, if it is true to its name, will refuse the allure of mechanized production (even when it promises some strained version of “success”). Rather, we will seek to be neighbors and friends. We will give as much space to leisure as we do to leadership.

Years ago, I pastored a struggling church in Denver. We had moved west for my wife Miska to attend grad school, and I’d only been on the job a couple months before coffee meetings with parishioners began to repeat the same themes. Dear people would sit across from me, speaking with tenderness so as not to wound. I’m really sorry, Winn. I like what you’re doing with the church and I appreciate the sermons, but something’s just not right here. Our family’s withering. I think we need to leave.

Each time, I found myself having the same response. You know, I think you’re right, You and your family need to find another community. It sounds like we’re weighing you down. A rouse-the-troops speech if ever there was one. A pastor of a small church only has to have this conversation a few times before the handwriting glows on the wall. Nine months later, the leadership council spoke a blessing over the church’s many years and many good stories and laid the exhaustion to rest.

I hope I never again need to preside over a community’s farewell, but that time with those good people confirmed one thing: crushing a person’s soul to save the cause is always too high a price to pay.


Photo courtesy Lars Plougmann

8 Replies to “The Unproductive Church”

  1. Thanks for these words, Winn. Once again you offer an insightful observation that will be of great help to me. Blessings.

  2. Great article, Winn!
    Unfortunately, many if not most churches are moving too fast, leaders having stoked the fires to run the race, members being prodded to serve, serve, serve by being sure they have perfect attendance when the doors are open. Add to all of that the staff who have top lay leaders prodding them to turn out a “successful” church. The result leads to everyone being worn out, and simply tired of church and the multitude of activities. It’s a disease that’s attacked American churches, but of course only my opinion. These statements have no basis from my present church, which oozes grace at every point, which is refreshing. It’s a church that isn’t denominationslly striving for “success”, thus a tremendous positive trait.

  3. Of all the injuries a human is capable of sustaining, the one that is by-far the most painful––and the one that takes the longest to heal––is an injury made with satined-glass.

  4. Precious insight Winn. On our first visit to our young church a woman said to me, “Oh, you’re going to love this church – it’s so messy!” I knew right then that we had found a home – and we tread very quietly so as not to do any harm. Six years later we still encounter the same gentle pace with a bright, committed, yet humble pastor and room to be who we are.

    1. well, it sounds like you’ve happened upon a pretty special place, and pastor. I’d hold on to those two. I like the idea of treading quietly so as not to harm. Much wisdom and grace there.

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