For the past few years there have been more and more requests at Synod Convention for advice on how to deal with the problems facing small rural congregations. This article has been assembled to answer many of those problems and is based on many years of practical research.
We start with the family because the family is the basic unit of congregational life. Anything that can be done to keep families busy is a benefit to destroying a congregation.
One of the most basic things you can do is encourage both husband and wife to work jobs away from home. The practical benefits of this are manifold. First, instead of just one worker who needs to work out a vacation schedule, both spouses need to coordinate their work schedules. In most cases this reduces the total time available for family and church to Saturday, Sunday, and 5-9pm weekdays, plus a 10 day vacation. The vacations can only count as family time if they are taken together. Fortunately, there are events-like funerals- to which the lady of the house may be obliged to serve at church, thus eliminating a vacation day or two.
Collateral damage can be multiplied if the couple have children. This next suggestion is especially valuable for single parents or families where both parents work. Get your kid(s) involved in every extracurricular school sport or activity that you can. This can easily eat up the 5-9pm weekday hours. It very often takes care of most of Saturday and part of Sunday. Under this plan, not only do families have the complexity of two work schedules and vacations, they add to it the complexity of a school event schedule. This brings the family’s total contact with each other down to a manageable 4 to 8 hours a week. Much of that time will be occupied by shuttling kids back and forth from events. And there is always the radio to supply relief from uncomfortable conversation which might distract you from driving.
This brings up another fantastic suggestion. Occupy your family time with great activities like shopping. Make there are as many TVs and video players and video games as members of your family. That way there won’t be any fighting over viewing choices.
Now, it is also important to fortify the family members with good defense and justification for these lifestyle choices. After all, they’ve earned it. So, if someone should point out that both parents working might not be in the best interest of the children, encourage the parents, especially the female, to become indignant and offended. Anyway, who do these busybodies think they are judging dual-income families? If those know-it-alls have one parent staying at home, it obviously means they don’t know what it means to sacrifice.
Now we turn to training all the members of the congregation.
Grudges are essential. Nourish them. Feed them. Every time someone apologizes, realize that they are only bringing the issue up to hurt you and to soothe their consciences at your expense-especially if the apology is public! The more you can encourage each other to act like selfish ten-year-old girls the better. Almost no one would want to join a congregation where years of bad blood have been spilled on the doorposts and lintel of the church. The more irrational the grudge the better. Why? Because you don’t have to think so hard about it. It is easier to hold in the heart and much, much harder to let go.
Along with grudges you need to nourish the feeling of under appreciation. The Bible tells us that when we are giving we should not “Let our right hand know what the left hand is doing.” Encourage the feeling of martyrdom and apathy towards those who do things for the congregation. And encourage those people to grumble softly to others about lack of appreciation.
If there are troubles, the pastor should not be informed directly. Instead, encourage the members to speak discretely to relatives outside the congregation so they can pass the message to others inside the congregation. Eventually the information should get to the pastor through his wife. And if the pastor hasn’t done anything about it in the next week, then use the same channels to pass the concern and complaint to the pastor.
If at all possible, when there are troubles, a member should take it upon himself to call other pastors or synod officials before going to his pastor. The member should then talk with a few members he can trust to make use of the advice he’s received. That way the strongest possible case can be made to the pastor through the synodical officials and the official will have the support of a significant part of the congregation.
Nostalgia is an important tool. It is the basis for good complaints like: “The old hymnal had good hymns, not these hard hymns.” Or, “Pastor Sø Åndso never did it that way.” It doesn’t matter if he did. What matters is the authority with which the older members can use nostalgia. Former pastors and old hymnals or Bible translations are great sources of controversy. The former pastors are especially good resources if they are deceased and therefore unable to be asked about what actually took place.
This should make it apparent that the best ally to nostalgia is selective memory. The dining hall may have been built originally to benefit the Sunday-school as a teaching space for the young. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the kids keep messing it up, and the teachers don’t do a good enough job cleaning. So it all falls on the ladies’ group to clean up the mess when they are trying to host a baby shower for a former member’s unmarried cousin.
That brings us to scheduling. Keep the schedule changing. That way your neighbors won’t be able to visit the service easily. This keeps you from having to constantly explain why we have closed Communion. And it’s a handy excuse when the relatives show up and you want to avoid the embarrassment of closed Communion. After all, many of us have relatives in the ELCA and their lady pastors tell them that they’re Lutheran just like us.
An added plus to a changing schedule is that it amplifies the use of nostalgia and selective memory. Great complaints can help build grudges. For example, “We used to have more visitors.” And, “How come we can’t have church the same time every Sunday?”
Scheduling is a very effective tool in parishes with more than one congregation. There are no ends to the arguments that can be generated over who gets to have early or who gets to have late services. Just the addition of hosting dinner at one church can throw the whole schedule for the rest of the churches. Sunday school has to be rearranged, all the families made aware of the schedule changes through the bother of a telephone call-out list. Placing the burden of responsibility to call out these changes on one or two people at each congregation can quickly generate a feeling of under appreciation and help feed grudges.
If the pastor asks for all events for the upcoming year, don’t give them to him. Hold out on two or three at each congregation so that he is left in the dark until the calendar for the month has already been printed. He makes enough mistakes already for it to look like his fault anyway.
And if the pastor tries to lay down the line for consistent scheduling remind him that his authority is limited to the proper administration of the Means of Grace. He shouldn’t meddle in the civil affairs of the congregation. Again, nostalgia and selective memory are very handy tools in such a confrontation. “Pastor Sø Åndso never complained about the service times!”
This guide is meant to be an introductory help. It is by no means exhaustive. But these techniques work. They are well tested.
Before this article ends there is a very important point that needs to be made about destroying a small congregation. Several of the techniques listed above are examples of this basic way to destroy a small congregation. The basic technique behind all others is to allow people to be members no matter what they believe. Learn from the huge mega-churches “Doctrine divides, deeds unite!” Always emphasize what is socially appealing and your church will grow. Thus, it will not be a small congregation anymore, but a bustling, gossiping, socially engaged and theologically ignorant group of busybodies.
Wherever Scripture is uncomfortable dismiss those passages as “culturally conditioned,” or mere “historical information” valuable in that it shows us today what kinds of different struggles the early Church had to endure. Use the term “relevance” with respect to what kinds of deeds and experiences the assembly will accept, emphasize what they can do: boycotts, protests, packing shoe-boxes full of human relief for children, anything that can keep the congregation filled with the idea that they are really doing something “relevant” to help someone somewhere in their very “real” life experience. Do not let theology or the Doctrine of Scripture interfere. By all means, cause doubt in the minds of those who would want to emphasize Doctrine. Show them a tolerant God and their own intolerance. Hold before them the woman caught in adultery and Jesus’ rescue of her. Emphasize the ignorance of the Apostles, after all, weren’t they just some dumb fishermen? (of course, no one can prove how well educated they were, so this becomes a strong argument—remember argument from ignorance is the strong position)
And finally, if someone emphasizes the Lutheran Confessions, ask them why they don’t trust the Bible more than the Confessions. Remember the slogan “Deeds, not Creeds.” Point to humanitarian relief efforts and how well they work with inter-faith groups. It doesn’t matter that you’ve already decided that most of the Bible isn’t relevant to the current social situation. What matters is that you can put the person off guard. If the person appeals to the Lutheran Confessions as an authority on what the Bible means, reply simply “All I know is that I’m supposed to love my neighbor. How can I love my neighbor if you insist on all these divisive doctrinal lines? Aren’t you a sinner too? Don’t you love your neighbor and want to help him in his time of trouble?”