Your Turf Was Already In Trouble

Whether known or unknown to me, the phrase “turf and personalities” has been present in every setting where I have worked. Sometimes, success in the work place is measured by how a leader handles managing “turf and personalities.”

In my career working in schools, one of the most interesting battles was over floor space in an auxiliary gym. 

It was early spring, the weather was lousy outside. After school, the baseball coach intended to the use auxiliary gym for an instructional practice. The vocational school that was a part of our building needed the space for an early evening obedience class for dogs. 

Strong personalities clashed. Compromise and reason were missing in action.

During the last eight years, I’ve had the privilege of working in my church. Just so you know, churches are not immune from skirmishes related to “turf and personalities.” 

Even if in passing, a comment is made about repurposing a room or changing a location for a worship service—people get riled up. When church people get riled up, look out. 

Bill, you must be kidding church people get riled up?

 Yes, I’ve observed it —from the most meek, the most boisterous, and all points in between. Pluck the wrong nerve, and you have never seen such a storm.

Bill, in a church? 

Yes, I know you find that hard to believe, but church people can get riled up.

As a matter of fact, the United Methodist Church is riled up at this very moment.

For years, the church has been avoiding a collision. This collision is grounded in policies related to LGBT. Same-sex marriages and ordination of pastors who are LGBT are at the heart of this conflict. 

Some experts predict this dispute will lead to the breakup of the United Methodist Church, a breakup that could be as complicated as disassembling a Boeing 747.

I’m a lifelong Methodist. This predicted split is distressing to me. But, in truth, Methodist church turf was already in trouble. 

Other pressing challenges are on the immediate horizon too. 

These issues are just as formidable.

Like LGBT policies, Methodist congregations can’t opt to ignore— declining attendance, the “death tsunami,” financial shortfalls, tired facilities, attracting the “unchurched” and the overlooked, and what appears to be a diminishing voice for speaking out related to society’s needs.

Let me stop here, and say without any hesitation that I am not a church expert, nor am I a perfect Christian, and even though I love it, I have my moments of struggle with the Bible.

Any number of studies during the last several years have documented the decline in church attendance. Showing up on Sunday morning isn’t a priority anymore. Many factors impact those numbers. 

Some point to the dropping of blue laws. Church used to be the only game in town on Sunday mornings.  That isn’t the case anymore.

I also think people have become busier. Calendars, particularly for young families are packed. Carving out an hour or two for church isn’t a high priority. Church might not make the top five list for the weekend with a family.

When attendance drops so too can financial support. Churches have or are experiencing the “death tsunami.” 

This phrase marks the passing of the World War II generation. This generation of church members for the most part had been raised in an environment of attending church on a regular basis. That trend continued for them and their children through the 50s, 60s, and early 70s. 

Often, this generation was the real financial backbone of the church. The benefit of their labors sustained church growth. With their passing, in many instances that financial support has not been replaced with the same robustness from current church members. 

With the decline in financial support, churches are often faced with delaying or making difficult decisions related to basic maintenance needs. If strategic and financial plans are not in place, a church’s facilities can decline rapidly. A tired, worn down building is not going to attract younger members.

In the early 1950s, my church, Trinity Methodist, left its founding site in the city of Richmond.  Eventually, a new facility was built on Forest Avenue in Henrico County. I think its initial success in the new location was grounded in the surrounding neighborhoods.

At this very moment, I’m not so sure we, Trinity,  are at our best in reaching out to the “unchurched” or “overlooked” in our own backyard. If we can’t embrace these people and their needs, then I wonder if we have a future?

From September through May, I attempted to lead and teach a Disciple I Bible Study at Trinity. We carved out a meeting time on Sunday mornings after the traditional Sunday school hour and during the final worship service. Leading the class was a challenge, but one of the benefits was learning from my classmates.

One morning, a young lady asked about the voice of the church. She wondered where the leadership of the Methodist church was in regard to any number of challenges in our society? Her point was— I don’t tend to hear the church’s voice in the roar of today’s media. 

I didn’t have an answer for her. 

When we do hear the voice of the church in the media today it is often in regard to an internal scandal where people have been hurt by the church. Unfortunately, those scandals and decisions related to them don’t help how society perceives the church.

Clearly, the Methodist church has used its voice by telling its leaders and members how the LGBT issue will be handled on its turf. 

The personalities impacted by this ruling are assessing and evaluating their options. Some are delighted, some are devastated.

On Friday, May 3, I read an article in the sports section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch—“Less partying leads to more wins for UVA.” The article focused on the men’s lacrosse coach at the University of Virginia, Lars Tiffany.  Coach Tiffany came to realize that his team needed a cultural shift.

Fifth year senior Logan Greco was quoted in the article, “Something needed to change here.”

Aside from the basics of coaching, Coach Tiffany work diligently to pull from his players a heartfelt commitment to lacrosse and to each other as teammates. Coach Tiffany instituted cultural days that were grounded into the pairing of players into units like a small family. Readings were assigned, discussions held, plus there was an opportunity for players to whine about team issues. But, also embedded in this cultural shift was a means for affirming each other through the process.

I’m not suggesting that less partying will mean more wins for United Methodist churches. However, if a lacrosse coach can change the culture of his team with some new wrinkles that lead to success, why can’t United Methodists?

If we Methodist expect to find success in the future, something will need to change. Our turf has been in trouble for a long time. 

The LGBT decision is one large fragment of a troubling snapshot.

Maybe part of that trouble is within ourselves. 

Maybe we can’t see the need to change.

Doesn’t matter the angle you choose or the fragment of concern that catches your attention—our church turf is in trouble.

As I see it we can respond in two ways. 

We can follow a very predicable path of ignoring the challenges in our turf and let the church die. Or we can get riled up and chose to work collaboratively to identify how to change our path.

Maybe American author, Kathleen Norris, said it best:  

“Disconnecting from change does not recapture the past. It loses the future.”

I hope we don’t lose the future.

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