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Slaying the “It Won’t Work Here” Mindset

This summer we’ve invited ourselves to return to a season of adventure and discovery…to admit that all things in leadership and ministry are different. They aren’t what they used to be. We’ve packed a decade (or more?) of change into a handful of months. (It hasn’t really caught up with us or the people we lead that the world really has changed, or that the results of that experience will suddenly accelerate, whether we’re ready or not.)

To aid our discovery, and give us something to smile about, I’ve shared some of my early leadership experiences (or mistakes) fresh out of seminary. And hopefully there’s been a seed, a truth, that informs your own adventure of discovery today. If you’ve missed the previous posts, you can find them here:

I smile today when I remember my idealism and naivete as a new leader, the vast leadership landscapes of “not knowing that I didn’t know.” Unfortunately (and sometimes fortunately), my idealism and naivete were met with a diminished congregation’s resolute posture of “It Won’t Work Here!”

I was a youthful fountain of optimism and “all about the future,” because I wasn’t anchored to the past and its stream of negative experiences.

The congregation, on the other hand, had coupled two decades of disappointment upon disappointment. Decline followed by the sudden turn of rapid decline. A compelling vision for where God was calling them no longer drove the bus. Finances drove the bus, or the perpetual anxiety over the lack of finances drove the bus. Disunity abounded. Conflict was common. All in an urban neighborhood where everyone had grown up that was starting to change, and unbeknownst to anyone, would abruptly and suddenly very rapidly change!

Get the picture? Optimism buttressed by large doses of naive “didn’t know that I didn’t know” meets discouraged, disappointed, “failing” congregation. 

(I could have benefitted so much from PLI had there been a PLI back then to simply gain some clarity of who I was as a leader and some better tools with which to lead!)

So, if you were to get a quick picture of a hundred conversations—or a thousand conversations—they went something like this:

Me: “I have a bright idea to share!”

Member: “It Won’t Work Here.” 

((repeat 1000 times!))

Keep in mind: these were good people, godly people (and yes, still poor, miserable sinners just like their naive leader). But experience upon experience reinforced “It Won’t Work Here.”

It’s not like they just chose to take a negative posture. They had learned over and over again. There had been a few heroic attempts that crashed in flames. But, for the most part, ever since Reverend Stallman’s tenure 20 years earlier, we just all knew “It Won’t Work Here.”

So, tell me. Is the “It Won’t Work Here” mentality a wistful story of years past OR is it the same conversation you’re having over and over again? Or, more personally, the same conversation you’re having inside your own soul?

(If you’re reading this series with a leadership group in your congregation, this would be a great place to pause and talk and encourage!)

We’re in a season where your church and all 350,000 churches in the United States need to innovate, to pioneer. Staying coupled to the paradigm of the past will be fatal! As will failing to live into the mission of God!

As I reflect backwards, we partially slayed the “It Won’t Work Here” mindset in a combination of ways:

  1. WORD OF GOD – We consistently allowed the Word of God to challenge attitudes and “It Won’t Work Here” postures. We allowed ourselves to dream, just a little bit, about what God’s vision might be for our future.
  2. HOPE – People were already discontent with where we were as a church (and where we were going) and didn’t want to continue on that path, but they gained HOPE. Slowly. Steadily. Incrementally. We celebrated little victories. (We certainly didn’t have big victories to celebrate!) We thanked God as the source of all that we did and had. 
  3. RELATIONSHIPS – We started valuing relationships with each other again. We’d been a German immigrant congregation where the church had been the center of everything AND the center of the neighborhood; but a couple of decades of disappointments had created divisions, and we’d lost the art of sharing life together. (Allow me a quick commendation of “The Art of Invitation.”)
  4. VISITING THE HOSPITALIZED AND SHUT INS – For whatever the reason—maybe previous bad pastoral experiences—this was the litmus test of “Does Our Pastor Care”? And, in a multi generational congregation like ours, almost everyone had a relative that fit in this group. When people understood that I cared, it led to greater trust and openness to change.
  5. PREACHING – Over time, I became a better preacher. And folks appreciated that a lot! (Gail appreciated it even more!) That, to them, was a big leadership credential.
  6. LEADERSHIP TEAM – I’m not sure how this worked, to be honest with you. I knew we wouldn’t get far if I tried to lead by myself. Somehow, someway, our formal and informal leaders banded together to powerfully team with me in leading. They obviously knew that I didn’t have much of a chance by myself, and our church didn’t have much of a chance then either!

Your leadership challenges are much greater than mine were when I started to learn many years ago! I’m not sure most leaders have begun to appreciate how profoundly difficult the leadership challenge today really is! The need to pioneer and discover is enormous, not just for you but for other leaders/churches around you that are looking for hope of their own.

We eventually did all kinds of things that changed lives for Jesus and gave our “It Won’t Work here” congregation a future! But not without multiple failed attempts and adjustments along the way. 

So! You’ve made some attempts. At least some of them didn’t work. Let me propose that you and your leaders adjust the refrain. Rather than “It Won’t Work Here,” adjust to “It Hasn’t Worked Here Yet!”

We’re all attracted to the “instant success” stories. Leaders are no exception. What most of us don’t know, or choose not to remember, is that behind every “instant success” is a leadership team that’s toiled faithfully for a decade or more.

This would be a great time to respond and share with the PLI family what you’re learning around this topic!

Thanks for leading!

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