This is taken from a letter to some Elders, written 7 April 1995.
As individuals, I think you are all wonderful people. I know you all love Jesus, and have a high degree of personal integrity and responsibility. I know you all, like I do, want the very best for God's people at Westborough.
Unfortunately, I have to say you are not coming across that way. I have tried to say these things gently, making full allowance for the difficulties and pressures you have been under, but so far that seems to have produced no results. I say 'seems' because nothing has come back to me as yet. Not even a 'thank you for your contribution, we will keep it in mind.' So, because I love you, I am going to try a different approach. I am going to say some very unfair things. I may possibly say them with feeling, because I do care very deeply. I know you all do too, otherwise I wouldn't bother trying again.
Fundamentally, what I am going to try and do is to help you understand how things look and feel 'from the pew.' I am going to say things which are very unfair, because it is unfair to be criticised when you have been working so hard, and they are unfair because not all the points are entirely true. But I think there is enough truth in these points to make them worth hearing. And, you will appreciate by now, most of us in the pews are not entirely fair or rational.
Of course, there are many different views from the pews. I can only give you one, but I am trying to give a fairly general view. I am not pretending to speak for every member of the congregation, but I am in this letter only telling you about points, reactions and feelings which I have picked up from others in the congregation and which seem to be fairly widely shared. I include some personal details and experiences only when they are shared by or relevant to the other people around me. I have my own personal views - my 'hobby horses' - but this letter is not about them. You may well get another, so be warned.
The one thing which comes across more than anything is this: you are all so busy you don't have time to do anything. You have lots of meetings, you talk and pray a great deal, but nothing seems to happen as a result. I am sure things are happening, but we do not get to hear about them. I have heard it suggested that the Elders could not, on current form, organise the proverbial p*-u* in a brewery, not unless it was a special outing for the Elders. The only things you tell us you do is to organise lots of meetings for yourselves. Please don't blame us if we therefore get the impression that is the only thing you are capable of doing.
When you talk to us, you share about a vision for the future and about us all working together. You say you are 'encouraged'. We, on the other hand, are not meeting together, we are not sharing about what God is doing and wanting to do, and as a consequence we are not encouraged. We only see all the problems and seemingly nothing being done about them.
We are glad to hear you are encouraged, but just telling us what a wonderful time you all have when you get together does not do much to encourage us. It does make us feel a little jealous, but only a little because we would not like to go to all those meetings ourselves. What we would like is some sort of recognition from you of the problems we face, and some idea of what you propose to do about them. That would certainly go a fair way to encouraging us.
A major point, therefore, is Communication. You may be achieving great things, but if you don't tell us, we don't know about them. And, if you are not achieving anything, you can hardly expect a lot of respect as a leadership, however much we may like and respect you as individuals.
A number of us have shared various thoughts, ideas and insights. You may be spending hours in thought and prayer considering questions and issues we raise with you, but, to be blunt, if you don't communicate the results with us, you may just as well not bother. Either way, we are left with the impression that we have been completely ignored.
You gave us another acted out parable in the Talking Together evenings. The Elders each had a piece of paper which you referred to as the 'agenda', but we were not allowed to see it. The Elders literally had a 'hidden agenda'. On the evening I attended, we were told at one point that we were halfway through our time, but only on point two (I think it was) of the agenda. What did you expect?
We had no way of telling how many of the varied points we had been discussing were on your agenda. We did not know how many points you wanted to cover, or how much time you wanted to devote to each area. In the absence of any information to the contrary, those of us attending the evening had to assume that you had been keeping the discussion moving within the boundaries you had laid out beforehand.
If you want to encourage open and honest communication, hiding the list of subjects you want to talk about is not a recommended technique. I leave it to you to work out what a hidden agenda says to the people it is hidden from, and the message it gives us about the Elders.
Still on the theme of Communication, it was prominently absent at the AGM. In particular, the Elders said nothing at the AGM, except for answering a few questions. Was this really deliberate 'because everything was being covered in the Talking Together evenings', or am I dreaming this justification? If there is another reason, can I gently suggest you tell us?
On the other hand, if that really was the reason, a number of other points follow.
There is a place for saying things even if everyone present already knows them. We affirm God's goodness and love (I hope) in every service because it is right to say such things publicly, corporately and repeatedly. If the Elders have plans for enabling the Church to move forward, those plans are important enough to be restated even if everybody present has already heard them. Saying nothing says these plans are not important enough to be presented again.
Most people do not really hear things and take them on board the first occasion when they are presented. We need to hear things more than once: we need to hear them presented several times before we come to appreciate what they mean to us. Saying nothing says you don't really want us to understand what you are planning to do.
In any case, you could not assume everyone present had been or was going to be present at a Talking Together evening. Saying nothing says these people are unimportant to you as an Eldership.
The AGM is a time for formally presenting things to the Church, even if they have been talked about privately and in small groups. It is the most important occasion in the year when we come together to consider what we are doing as a Church family. Saying nothing says the Church Meeting is unimportant to the Elders.
Inevitably, if different combinations of Elders talk with different groups of pew-sitters, what is said will be selected by the people talking, and modified (I hope) to be relevant to the people present. What is said and what is heard will vary, sometimes significantly, from evening to evening. With the exception of the bit on finance, because that was given to us in writing, we will each tend to go away with the message that the Elders' priorities, plans and progress are very much in line with what we had hoped and expected. Saying nothing at the AGM says you are more interested in giving us a warm feeling than in communicating any real information.
In short, saying nothing says the Elders can't be bothered. I KNOW IT'S NOT TRUE, but that is what you are saying to us.
The image you present so often is one of incompetence masquerading as spirituality. When asked 'have you done?' the answer given is almost always 'It would be very easy to do this, but we feel the need to pray about it some more to hear from God what we ought to be doing.' I know it is not the done thing to criticise a Christian for praying or listening to God, but sometimes it is necessary. To state the obvious, what have you been doing for the last six years if you have to start asking now what God wants for the Church?
You say God is revealing things one step at a time. Possibly, but we know already there are various things that require practical organisation. The Church needs decisions, it needs organisation and structures just to keep the ordinary life and activity ticking over. In the Talking Together session you said there was no intention to change everything at once. Fine - then you have no reason not to do the practical things needed to keep things going come June.
The parable of the rubber plant is a good example. What you are saying to us is that if we as a congregation were perfect then you as an Eldership would have less work to do. We already know that. If we as a congregation were perfect, we wouldn't need you as an Eldership at all! We know we are less than perfect, which is why we need structures and organisation.
You don't hit a baby because it can't eat real food. You provide the environment it needs, and then teach it to use a spoon for itself. Please don't hit us for not feeding properly: give us the structure in which we need to live today, and the teaching and example we need to grow as we should.
We already know we should be caring for each other more effectively, taking more responsibility for the things around us. What we need is encouragement and example - and we need that from you.
Since before I first came, the Church has always has a Pastoral Worker to visit and encourage others to visit the elderly and shut-ins. I know that Lynda got promoted, but understood that this was a broadening or extending of her responsibilities. I certainly do not recall ever being told that we no longer have someone whose primary responsibility was to ensure that the elderly and shut ins are cared for pastorally.
Perhaps the Called to Care people have been groomed for this very purpose? But then, as requested in the Church Meeting, it would be helpful to be told who they are so we know who to approach.
I personally believe that the pastoral care of these people is one of our prime responsibilities as a Church. As I recall, always before when the Pastoral Worker indicated she wanted to leave, we talked and prayed about it as a Church. We decided we wanted someone else, and God provided someone. Maybe you are not sure whether this pattern of ministry should be continued. If so, please tell us so we can be praying with you. Or maybe you are looking for someone. We do not know as nothing has been said.
You have to recognise that saying nothing actually says a great deal. It says: we do not care about the elderly and the shut ins. I know that is not true but that is what is being screamed in the silence: if you want us to hear something different, you have to say it.
I have repeatedly asked several Elders what your priorities are. I am no clearer as a result. I have heard a lot of spiritual phrases, but they have communicated nothing to me about your priorities. For example, you say 'our top priority is learning to function together as a Church family.' Great! I can't argue with that. But what does it mean? What should be regarded as secondary importance at present? What, even, should be completely stopped or forgotten for the time being? The language you use speaks to me not of priorities but of trying to do everything at once. Very much like the example you seem to have been setting us.
You cannot do everything at once, and God does not expect you to. In fact, very few of us pew-sitters expect you to do everything at once. No, we each have our own priorities, and simply expect you to agree with them. That is why, as soon as you actually tell us something about your priorities, you will upset some of us. That's sad, but not as sad in the long run as misleading us or saying nothing.
To illustrate how you will upset us, the one priority that I have heard you say time and time again is that God wants you to be concentrating on listening to Him. I have probably made it fairly clear by now that I do not believe this. At this stage, two months from the start of the vacancy, you should have all the major structures and bits of organisation in place and ready to roll. At the AGM you said you are just beginning to appreciate how much Ray and Lynda have been doing. The more they have been doing, the more you need to put something in place to keep it going once they have gone - or warn us that it will stop when they go. You almost said in as many words that you are nowhere near prepared for an event whose date you have known for three years. What do you think that does to your credibility?
Yes, you need to listen to Him. But what you need to hear are the things He wants you to be doing and organising and delegating NOW. Listening and doing are not alternatives, but two sides of the same coin - obedience.
Yes, you have a long list of twenty major items you need to do something about - probably many more by now. But twenty top priorities mean that nothing gets done. Even if you make the wrong decisions, deciding on a set of priorities means that you achieve something rather than nothing - and it also means that you are less likely to run yourselves into the ground before the hard bit starts.
One final thought. This bit, I admit, is mostly from me. You can't do everything at once. And you can't do everything. There is no point in saying that a job should be everybody's responsibility. You know the old story of three people: Everybody, Somebody and Nobody. So you have to delegate. You retain the responsibility, but allow someone else or another group of people to do it. You give them feedback on how well they are doing it. I know it is more work in the short run, but believe me, in the words of a certain Prime Minister, there is no alternative.
Wishing you every blessing,