I am neither a sociologist nor a researcher into congregational trends or statistics. What I do know, however, is that over the past few decades, many congregations in the United States have been facing a slow and steady decline in membership. Once honored in society as pillars of community virtue, our congregations are now seen as organizations of hypocrisy and irrelevance. I believe congregations are in decline because they have become shame-bound. Shame is so debilitating that many of our congregations are now critically ill. Shame blocks our ability to evangelize effectively, embrace diversity, and heal individual members. Pervasive shame limits congregational healing after experiences of ineffective and abusive leadership.
At the university where I teach, I once sat listening to a twenty-two-year-old psychology student I’ll call Amanda. Amanda was telling me about her search for a church. “I never felt welcomed in the congregations I visited,” she said. She went on to describe her first impressions, which included aging congregants, somber moods, and squinty-eyed stares as she walked in the door. “It’s like they were suspicious of me!”
Hoping to still hear something positive in her story, I asked her, “What was it like once you took a seat?” She told me that once the prelude began, she had an increasing sense of being out of place. She opened the order of service, and as she read the announcements, she found that they were in code language. They said, “A luncheon will be hosted by the UMW in the FSH. An adult study class on EPH takes place at the usual time in the FSR. Sign up for an upcoming retreat for the UMYF. On Tuesday the trustees will be meeting in the FSH.” The only thing on the list that she understood was a note about the work party on Saturday, because it said, “Bring work gloves, pruning shears, and rakes.”
Amanda said that the hymns reminded her of her grandmother’s funeral. The preacher invited everyone to stay after the service to chat and drink coffee but never said where to find the room. At sermon time the preacher said, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable, O Lord,” and she wondered if he sometimes made unacceptable comments. Just before communion the preacher said that they were all unworthy to come to the table, but some of the people went forward anyway. Amanda sometimes stood up when she should have been sitting down and vice versa. She didn’t know the rules, but she was sure she’d broken some of them.
As Amanda became frustrated, she disconnected from what was going on in worship and sent a text message to a friend. “Where are you?” the friend texted back, and Amanda replied with the embarrassed emoticon, a frowning face with red cheeks that is also the emoticon for shame. The experience was entirely uncomfortable.
Amanda’s story and her words “They were suspicious of me” have stayed with me. Without knowing it, this congregation was sending out messages of shame. They were suspicious of Amanda because the possibility of taking a fresh look at their worship and fellowship evoked uncomfortable feelings inside them too. Perhaps their worship had become rote and boring. Amanda might come along and ask too many questions, learn of a conflict they had not resolved or an incident of sexual misconduct that they were keeping secret. Seeing her painfully reminded older members that their own children and grandchildren had long ago abandoned the institutional church. They felt shame about this and about not being able to meet Amanda’s needs by providing her with a group of peers within the congregation. And the shame passed to her and back again to them. This shame tossing is all too often the present-day congregational landscape.
No matter how wonderful our programs are, no matter how many people we have in worship, no matter how far our outreach stretches into the community, shame blocks our ability to grow and thrive. I recall a painting I noticed on the wall of a cathedral in Italy. It shows two robed priests, one who faded into the background and one in the foreground who drew my attention. He had his back to me, but he was looking over his shoulder at me too. He was holding a Bible in the crook of his left arm, and his right hand was raised with his index finger pointing over his shoulder right at me as I looked into the scene. I could almost hear him making that clicking sound, “Tut, tut, tut.” Or perhaps he was saying, “Shame on you!” Do you know someone who doesn’t come to church because this is what they expect to experience?
As our congregations age and we watch our beloved institutions lose their influence in society around us, the more we experience the shame of failure. Only with a transparent review of our mistakes and secrets, an acceptance of our own congregational climates, and clearly defined goals can we create something new and lively again. Good people make bad decisions. It is perilous to bolster congregational esteem by self-righteous condemnation of others. We need to be open to change and to being challenged to change when “the other” arrives in our midst.
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This article is adapted from Shame-Less Lives, Grace-full Congregations by Karen A. McClintock, copyright © 2012 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Shame-Less Lives, Grace-Full Congregations
by Karen A. McClintock
In Shame-less Lives, Grace-full Congregations, author Karen McClintock invites readers to become shame-less, so they can assist others in a congregational system to find a life of joy and grace. With skilled storytelling and gentle humor, McClintock takes readers on a journey in which we learn to recognize the many forms shame takes and explore and heal the shame of our own upbringing, particularly the shame-laden messages within our own religious teachings and practices.
Healthy Disclosure: Solving Communication Quandaries in Congregations
by Kibbie Simmons Ruth and Karen A. McClintock
Knowledge is power, and the way knowledge is shared in a congregation can build up or break down community. When congregational leaders are sensitive to the ways that information should be shared, the congregation can become safe and strong. Congregational consultants Kibbie Ruth and Karen McClintock show clergy and laity how to appropriately handle information. From proper ways to respond to rumors to relating information about a staff firing to the congregation, Healthy Disclosure is filled with step-by-step ideas for handling different types of sensitive material.
Preventing Sexual Abuse in Congregations: A Resource for Leaders
by Karen A. McClintock
In this comprehensive resource, Karen McClintock gives clergy and lay leaders the tools they need to prevent sexual abuse in congregations. This book shows congregations how to protect children and vulnerable adults, prevent sexual harassment either by clergy or of clergy, and strengthen clergy families by raising awareness of the occupational and emotional risks inherent in pastoral ministry.
Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation
by Carol Howard Merritt
Outlining the financial, social, and familial situations that affect many young adults today, Carol Howard Merritt describes how churches can provide a safe, supportive place for young adults that both nurtures relationships and fosters spiritual growth. There are few places left in society that allow for real intergenerational connections to be made, yet these connections are vital for any church that seeks to reflect the fullness of the body of Christ.
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