Remembering Bob Dale, who helped us learn to dream again

With the news of Bob Dale’s passing late last week, a torrent of stories, testimonials and heart-felt grief has been flowing on social media and in conversations across the nation. The number of people who have stories to tell about Bob’s impact upon them as a professor, denominational leader, coach, consultant or friend is staggering.

Bob’s interactions with people across 60 years of ministry left us all feeling like we had been blessed by someone who became a lifelong friend. Those who have learned from his three dozen books, his too-numerous-to-count articles and untold presentations, retreats and conversations represent nearly every denomination, tradition and geographical corner of our nation.

Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson

For all of his fame and extensive network of friends, Bob remained a humble, gracious and grateful human being. He made time for people from all stations and ages with a patient and genuine interest that made us all feel heard and appreciated. Whether you were a denominational heavyweight or a rookie student, Bob listened to you and enjoyed you. What a gift.

Every time I talked with Bob in recent months, he minimized his growing physical concerns and always wanted to talk about new acquaintances, projects, ideas or helpful insights for some thorny congregational issue I was dealing with. I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever known who had a more insatiable appetite for learning and new ideas. As much as anyone in my life, Bob connected his past with today and pushed both forward into the future with relentless passion and energy.

He told stories about Missouri until we thought we had grown up there. He knew people in every city and denomination and could talk with authority about what was happening in church and culture with accuracy and insight. He constantly thought about what is ahead for us. Last fall he urged me to join him and attend a webinar on the future that a corporate friend had told him about. Bob knew his past, he understood today and he was fascinated by tomorrow.

Bob’s influence will continue because he invested so heavily in others. As a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and then Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond, he shared his insights into leadership with thousands of seminarians who emerged from those classes with a solid education but also a long-term relationship with a professor who genuinely cared about them. Those insights grew into a library of books he authored that multiplied his influence exponentially. All that writing garnered him invitations to speak and share his knowledge in multitudes of settings. As a result, his lineage in Baptist life and beyond is profound.

“Bob’s influence will continue because he invested so heavily in others.”

In many vocations, there are individuals who spawn other leaders out of their unique approach to their field and out of a personal commitment to invest heavily in the next generation of leaders. Bob leaves a clear “lineage tree” of leaders who looked to him for wisdom and guidance.

In my own life, I have been impacted by such men and women across the decades. I have been the undeserved recipient of grace-filled gifts from names like Buddy Shurden, Molly Marshall, Reggie McDonough, George Bullard, Julian Pentecost, Linda Bridges, Larry McSwain, Don Mattingly, Lloyd Cornell, Daniel Vestal, Bill Leonard, Ira Peak and a host of others. At the head of that list is Bob Dale.

I knew of Bob when I was growing up in Nashville. My dad was pastor of a growing church in the city and was pretty savvy about denominational employees who could and couldn’t contribute to the complex task of leading a burgeoning congregation. I remember Bob and my dad talking regularly and my dad’s admiration for the young man at the Sunday School Board who seemed to know what he was talking about.

About 35 years ago, when I became a pastor for the first time, I quickly learned how much I didn’t know. It was humbling and disturbing all at once. There was a day when dad sent me Bob’s new book To Dream Again and told me to put down whatever I was reading and read this book. I was floundering, so I did as I was told. I was amazed. It was as if Bob had been reading my mail. I soaked up that book like a sponge and began to think differently about nearly everything I was doing.

“It was as if Bob had been reading my mail. I soaked up that book like a sponge and began to think differently about nearly everything I was doing.”

Fortunately, I was serving in Virginia and Bob had just come to our state as part of the leadership group for the Baptist General Association of Virginia. He began to teach, mentor and lead in his gentle, humble, yet brilliant way, and we began a friendship that grew and grew through the years. What I found was that I was joining hundreds of others on the ministerial journey as Bob Dale fans and grateful recipients of his wisdom.

Those women and men are a huge part of Bob’s legacy. Over the last several days, I have read hundreds of individual tributes from leaders of all ages, stripes and types who claim Bob as part of their ministerial lineage. All of them say something similar: “Bob was brilliant, insightful, caring, humble, and believed in me.”

When we formed The Center for Healthy Churches, one of my first calls was to Bob to ask if he would join our team. I was beyond grateful that he immediately said yes and was willing to help us in our formation of the group.

One of our first efforts together was a book Bob had in mind about how leaders are formed. We were about to launch a Healthy Church book series and he agreed to make the book a collaborative effort with me. What emerged was Weaving Together: How Leaders Grow Down, Grow Up and Grow Together. My small contribution was to react to his insights and ideas and generally stay out of Bob’s way as he spun his tales and reflected on a lifetime of growing leaders.

“More than 300 dissertations had utilized the ideas in the book.”

We urged him to update and revise To Dream Again, in the hopes that a new generation of leaders would benefit from the timeless wisdom in that book. He did so, and three years ago To Dream Again, Again! emerged. Bob told me the original book had been the best-selling book by Broadman in the 1980s but had been pulled when the denominational wars broke out. More than 300 dissertations had utilized the ideas in the book. I continue to believe it is one of the finest books on how to understand the life of congregations and their needs that we have at our disposal. I am beyond grateful for his willingness to make it newly available to us all.

Bob’s devotion to his craft was only exceeded by one thing: his devotion to his family across the generations. One of his private projects in recent years was to write the story of his life by decades. He wanted to record the amazing stories and insights from a lifetime of living fully so that his family would be able to know all the seen and unseen influences on him and them. Perhaps one day a biography will emerge that will share even more light for the fellow pilgrims Bob inspired.

What a remarkable gift. What a remarkable man. Thanks be to God for the gift of his love and learning to so many of us.

Bill Wilson serves as director of The Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C., and is a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors. Bob Dale was part of the team from Virginia who led in the formation of Baptist News Global in 2013 through a merger of Associated Baptist Press and the Religious Herald.

‘We’re done educating you’

His words brought me up short. Gregg Neel is co-pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Ore. He was our guest on our weekly webinar, talking about how his church has decided to come out of the pandemic accelerating into opportunities outside the church rather than decelerating back into former patterns that called for a retreat into the church.

His message: “We simply told them that we’re done educating you; now we want you to put into practice what you’ve learned.”

“We’re done educating you.”

Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson

Wow. Let’s think about that for a moment. He’s not saying education isn’t important. He’s not discounting Bible study or Sunday school or vacation Bible school or all the other educational options churches offer. He isn’t against commentaries or study guides or the zillion books — read and unread — on our bookshelves. He isn’t anti-seminary or divinity school or Bible college. In fact, he goes on to say they will continue education and community opportunities.

He’s simply saying: “ENOUGH!” You know enough already to do something. So, do something.

Gregg’s contention is that the pandemic has torn an opening in the traditioned fabric of most churches, and now they must jump through that opening. The needs of your surrounding community are so pressing and so obvious that not to act now on what you know from years of study is to forfeit the best opportunity you may ever have to breathe life into lifeless studies and moribund faith.

Is he right?

I think so. I don’t really want it to be true, but I think it is. I am increasingly concerned that our churches will be sucked back into old patterns of acting and believing on the other side of the pandemic. Unless we act with relentless energy and passion, the magnetic pull of the familiar and the routine soon will douse the small flames of renewal that have emerged over the last 13 months.

In effect, our members have been out on a mission trip for 13 months. What they have seen and started and done will be lost if we call them back “in” and fail to see that this represents a crucial shift that has been needed for a long time in most churches.

“What if we agreed that we all know enough to act?”

What if we agreed that we all know enough to act? Isn’t it time to graduate from Sunday school? Now, we need to invite the Holy Spirit to help us navigate the world as agents of salt and light. Let’s ask the Spirit to show us how to bring a needed word of hope, justice, love and reconciliation to our world.

You probably won’t have to search hard or wait long. I’m convinced God has a long list of projects that are just waiting for God’s people to join. The problem? We’re holed up in the church studying about outreach or declining churches or aging congregations or secularism or hunger or poverty or racism or any of a thousand concerns that have immobilized us. Enough already. This is a time to put our knowledge into action.

Exercise those unused spiritual muscles and step out in faith. Join your brothers and sisters who seek to become ambassadors for Christ. He is calling you to move, to go, to follow him into the world and be the blessing promised since Abraham that God desires to share with all of humanity.

You know enough: Do something. For God’s sake, do something. We’re done educating you.

Bill Wilson serves as director of The Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C., and is a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors.

Moving churches from risk management to risk-taking

On this one-year anniversary of the start of the COVID pandemic, it seems appropriate to take stock and assess the American church.

For many of us, the year has been the challenge of a lifetime in ministry leadership. The obstacles and demands of dealing with the pandemic have stretched us in ways we never thought possible.

Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson

We have done things we thought were at best optional (technology), and we have done without things we thought were indispensible (hospital visits).

We have realized how much of what we did was meaningless repetition (endless meetings), and we’ve come to appreciate how much we took for granted the most basic parts of congregational life (human touch).

We’ve seen people step up and flourish in hard times, and we’ve seen hard times wipe out people we thought were redwoods.

One phrase continues to hang over many of the churches and ministers I engage with: Risk management. Opening and closing buildings, limiting or eliminating in-person events, monitoring our health and our interactions — all have led us to become keenly aware of our risk management obligations.

Early in the pandemic, we wondered about legal liability if someone were to become infected while participating in events at our church, and so we severely cut back on those events. We sterilize. We wash our hands. We’ve become adamant and diligent about infecting others and so we wear masks and keep our distance from one another.

Risk management has become a prioritized way of life for us. That’s what a pandemic does to us; it heightens our awareness of our vulnerability and forces us to grow more risk-averse in the process.

“We are about to enter a season of life in the American church that cries out for churches to embrace risk-taking.”

All that is fine with regard to the virus and its transmission, but there is another reality at play for many churches. Our risk management awareness and wariness may well bleed over into our corporate spiritual life and cause us to become so risk-averse that we miss the opportunity before us.

I believe we are about to enter a season of life in the American church that cries out for churches to embrace risk-taking. The pandemic has launched a potentially creative disruption of the norm that we desperately need if we are to enter the future with a creative and innovative mindset.

This is a moment we may not see again for many years. The rupture of our former model of doing church has opened doors for risk-taking that wise leaders will recognize. Rather than revert back to “normal” when restrictions are lifted, thoughtful leaders will recognize this is our chance to reverse the ominous trends of the last 20 years.

The data is overwhelming. Nearly every denominational body in America shares a trend line that predicts imminent threat to the long-term viability of many local congregations.

If you’re brave, pull together the data for your own church over the last 20 years and you will probably find a similar reality. We are entering a decade that many predict will see a significant percentage of local churches go out of existence. If there ever was a time to be open to risk-taking, this is it.

What, then, does risk-taking look like for a church? I think it means at least these five things:

  1. We acknowledge that we are in the midst of a crisis that is larger than we have realized. For many of us, a sense of urgency that has been lacking needs to be fed and funneled into some hard conversations.
  2. We spend time reconnecting with our reason for being and reconnecting with those priorities. We go back to Acts and devour those stories and lessons.
  3. We confess that much of what we do and how we do it is simply preference and not gospel priority. We humble ourselves and acknowledge we’ve drifted far from the focused church Jesus envisioned.
  4. We put aside personal comfort and preference and embrace the idea of being part of a gospel movement rather than a member of a church club.
  5. We personally pledge to engage in and participate in some form of risk-taking that makes us uncomfortable, so that our church may not only survive but also thrive. We commit to criticize less and pitch in more.

What all this will look like will vary greatly from church to church. However, it inevitably will involve something that challenges you and makes you uncomfortable and pushes you out of your comfort zone.

It will mean you don’t simply insist that your church “go back to the way it was,” because that way is a shortcut to irrelevance for many of us. Instead, we will discern our way forward by clinging to our valued principles while embracing sanctified imaginations that cause us to be risk-takers, even while everything screams to be risk managers.

Like the early church, we may find that our crisis moment actually becomes the catalyst for more profound meaning and purpose than we knew possible.

Bill Wilson serves as director of The Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C., and is a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors.


Related articles:

What will we see less of and more of in America’s churches in the 2020s? | Opinion by Bill Wilson

Church leaders, please don’t waste your transition crisis | Opinion by Bill Wilson

Finding resilience in the midst of COVID fatigue

I hear it in breathless conversations with ministers in multiple settings:

  • “I’m exhausted. How can I be this tired when most of what I do is talk on the phone or to a screen?”
  • “I’m running out of ideas about what to do next. Can you help me?”
  • “Where did my motivation go? Am I still cut out to be a minister?”
  • “Our team is at low ebb; we’ve lost our connection to each other and to our congregation.”

COVID fatigue is real. In addition to the lingering symptoms many victims of the virus report, there is a more pervasive fatigue that seems to be impacting nearly every profession in our culture. My friend and colleague Steve Scoggin of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center has created a 20-minute presentation on the phenomena of COVID fatigue in the workplace.

Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson

He has presented his thoughts to dozens of audiences and now is being inundated by requests from others across the country to share his thoughts. The response in the medical community, and beyond, indicates the widespread and debilitating impact that fatigue and exhaustion are having on us.

Congregational life, especially, seems to be impacted by multiple forces as we enter 2021. The fatigue factor is exacerbated by the partisan political culture that infects our shared life with divisiveness, hostility, low trust and broken relationships. The disruption to our social gatherings, education opportunities, family visitation and normal patterns of personal engagement leave us unmoored, unmotivated and too often depressed.

This reality is hard for most ministers. We are wired to rush in when things are hard and to provide leadership and a strategy for resolution. COVID has changed the rules of engagement for us, and some of our best tools for managing a crisis are no longer available.

One pastor friend put it this way: “Much of my frustration comes from the fact that the things I love most about the ministry, such as visiting and engaging with people in times of need and celebration, I can no longer do. Instead, the things I enjoy least about ministry: the technical, operational and minutia of institutional life, are what I am doing twice as much of. Doing a funeral for a significant member of the church for a small gathering of 10 family members who are masked and distant, and not being able to hug the widow of 60 years of marriage is heartbreaking.”

Thankfully, there is hope on the horizon with the arrival of vaccines and the possibility of some sense of normalcy returning to our collective life later this year. And yet, I am concerned that our ministers and churches will find that the fantasy of a “return to normal” is just that. My fear is that something fundamental about our faith life has shifted and changed and will require an ongoing resilience to manage and adapt it.

That’s the word that keeps coming to me: resilience.

It’s a biblical word and idea. Often expressed as endurance or steadfastness, especially in times of persecution, it is the counsel of Paul to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:10), the essence of love (1 Corinthians 13), and at the heart of authentic faith (2 Corinthians 4:9).

“Resilience, perseverance and steadfastness defined the early church in the midst of hardship and cultural rejection.”

Resilience, perseverance and steadfastness defined the early church in the midst of hardship and cultural rejection. Martyrs and saints across the centuries have lived out this idea at great cost and with no small amount of suffering. Our Christian brothers and sisters who live in nations that criminalize the faith are our heroes and inspiration when we consider their tenacity and resilience in the face of genuine persecution.

Now we find ourselves facing a worldwide calamity and must exercise resilience muscles that have atrophied from being underdeveloped and underused.

I recently came across an article that offered some helpful thoughts and guidance to me in my effort to become more resilient. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Danish business psychologist Meretle Wedell-Wedellsborg titled the piece “How to lead when your team is exhausted — and you are too.”

While written for the corporate world, her insights speak to the challenges many ministers face. She notes that the pandemic’s first wave (early 2020) was met with urgency and a rapid response to the shared threat. That level of response was short-lived, of course, and the energy and emotion behind it soon gave way as the virus proved to be more tenacious and long-term than we anticipated. Remember the notion that was floated that we would be “back in church by Easter”?

As the pandemic wore on, she suggests we entered the second wave of long-term endurance, in mid-2020, requiring “psychological stamina.” The novelty of the first wave gave way to the boredom and disconnectedness of the long-term implications for our churches and ministries. What became important were qualities of “perseverance, endurance and even defiance against the randomness, gloom and burden of the pandemic.”

“’The last mile’ phase we are currently in will especially require the essential quality of resilience.”

She then suggests that “the last mile” phase we are currently in will especially require the essential quality of resilience.

One opportunity buried in the midst of the pandemic for many churches and ministers is to shift from reacting out of urgency toward engaging in conversations about importance. The ability to leverage this crisis toward a new understanding of the purpose and place of the church is what may provide the endurance and resilience we will need to navigate the remaining chaos before us.

Also, bear in mind that “the aftermath of the pandemic will be just as intense as the crisis.” Resilience and endurance are going to be required for years to come as we emerge to a new landscape for the church and its place in the American culture.

Thankfully, we are a people whose forefathers and mothers in the faith have shown us the way to endure, survive and even thrive through the challenges of the day. There are numerous sources of encouragement and guidance that suggest ways to build and maintain deep pockets of endurance and resilience in yourself and your congregation. Not only do you need to Google that topic, remember that the Bible is full of such stories and messages of hope.

My best contribution is to urge us all to go back to our reason for being and invest our energy and attention there. Victor Frankl taught us that “when we have a ‘why’ to live, we can bear with almost any ‘how.’”

This last mile and ensuing opportunities and challenges before us can become the moment of rebirth for our faith and our church, if we can endure and persevere the chaos before us. Focusing first on why we are here and then how we will act and what we will do is the formula for hope. God bless you in that endeavor.

Bill Wilson is director of the Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors.

Let’s be honest about spiritual discernment in churches

For many years, I have been a fierce proponent of churches using spiritual discernment as they navigate their futures. In hundreds of settings, across multiple denominations (and no denominations), in city/urban/suburban/rural locations, across all aspects of the theological spectrum, I have earnestly pleaded for churches to move from reactive decision making to a proactive, thoughtful, selfless, servant-first approach toward seeking and finding God’s dream for their churches.

I’ve recounted the ideas of Ignatius of Loyola, who in the 16th century coined the concept of “holy indifference”to describe the discipline of turning our eyes from our own agendas to the divine agenda. I’ve urged countless team leaders and church leaders to ask, “What do we need to put down or put to death so that what God intends for us to be about can come to life?” I’ve seen men and women genuinely wrestle with the thorny choices that emerge when we ask that question and open ourselves to the idea that we may be more married to our methods than to our mission.

Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson

On some rare occasions, I have seen churches step out in faith to embrace a future that is neither guaranteed nor of their own choosing. Instead, they consciously abandon their own agendas to take up God’s plan for their life together. When it happens, it is a sight to behold, for these are the groups and churches that actually thrive regardless of their setting or the headwinds they face.

Sadly, these churches are a distinct minority. For all our God-talk and all our pious posturing, far too often we only give lip service to emulating Jesus’ Garden Prayer: “Not my will but yours be done.” I’ve sensed eyes glazing over, slight eye rolls and general disdain as we propose this slower, more spiritual approach to envisioning our future. Instead, we are too busy conforming to the worlds of political pressure, economic anxiety or personal agendas to take seriously the idea of humble transformation.

If I’m honest, I have to admit that I am as guilty of a half-hearted embrace of this idea as anyone. Too often I only skim the surface of what it would look like to pursue God’s dream and lay aside my own dreams. Many of us know just enough about spiritual discernment to inoculate us from actually embracing it and being transformed by it. We dabble with it, rather than dive into it.

The current pandemic has caused thinking churches and ministers to ask some hard questions about who we are, why we are here and where we are going.

During a recent CHC webinar featuring Ruth Haley Barton, I was convicted about the necessity of taking a deeper dive into the world of spiritual discernment. If we want to not only survive the challenges of the day but actually thrive in the midst of them, I’m convinced such a move is essential.

“I’m tired of watching teams, clergy and churches walk up to the edge of the great hinge moment in their lives and back away or veer off that path out of fear of losing control of the future.”

I came away from listening to her filled with hope for the future of the church. In the ensuing days, I’ve given much thought to what I see and hope to see as churches plow through the challenges of the pandemic and eventually emerge to face their future. Here are some random thoughts about what I see, hope to see and believe about this crucial time in the life of our faith communities:

  • I’m tired of watching teams, clergy and churches walk up to the edge of the great hinge moment in their lives and back away or veer off that path out of fear of losing control of the future.
  • I’m ready for some heroes to emerge who will say, and mean, “Not our will, but yours be done” as they lean into their future.
  • I dream of seeing churches come to life when everyone thought they were dead.
  • I pray that more and more of us will admit our divided hearts and return to our first love: God’s dream — nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.
  • I believe there is much more God has in mind for us than we can imagine if we can throw off our allegiance to politicians, economic success and personal ambition.
  • I am hopeful the pandemic will bring us to our knees and force us to admit that we do not have the intelligence, wisdom or insight to be the church apart from God’s guidance.
  • I expect that many churches will not survive the 2020-2029 decade, but that those that do will make it because they rediscover the power of spiritual discernment rather than human wisdom and decision-making.
  • I look forward to the day when we revere leaders, both clergy and laity, who adopt humility, rather than pride, as their primary spiritual posture.
  • I get excited when I see churches becoming more Christ-centric as they realize the folly of having become building-centric, pastor-centric, doctrine-centric or denomination-centric.
  • I am encouraged that many churches will soon realize that their thriving future is going to be discerned as they regularly practice silent listening for the Spirit’s leadership rather than continuing to be confused by too many voices hoping to recreate the past.

In the end, despite all the ways we have failed to stop and listen for the Spirit’s guidance, it remains our only hope for a vibrant future. Putting aside the distractions and entanglements of our own agendas, our hope is to look above and beyond those toward the dream God has for us.

When we do, we will begin the journey toward a future marked by thriving in and not simply surviving our current challenges.

Bill Wilson is director of the Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors.

Seek to become a ‘trauma-informed congregation’ in November forward

In recent years, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has become a highly visible part of our culture, and generalized trauma has emerged as a consistent issue for clergy and churches. The majority of Americans have experienced a significant trauma in their lives and are  dealing with the impact of that trauma in various ways.

The effects of trauma, whether resulting from combat, abuse, disasters, violence or accidents, have significantly influenced the pastoral care and ministry of every congregation.

Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson

The sad truth is that our culture and our world are constantly wounding men and women, boys and girls in a wide variety of ways. Some have suggested that trauma, and its effects, are the new normal for 21st century American culture. Traumatic events that shock us, endanger us, frighten us, wound us or disorient us are becoming normative. Sometimes they are events that happen to us as an individual, but many times they are events that happen to large groups of people.

A divorce can impact an extended family, a hurricane can traumatize an entire region, a church’s conflict can traumatize dozens and even hundreds of people. Can an entire nation be traumatized?

PTSD in our political climate

Without in any way diminishing the profound impact PTSD has made upon many people (many are friends and/or church members), I believe the current political climate in American is becoming a traumatic event for many Americans.

The impact of this season of vindictiveness, divisiveness and cultural fragmentation will be felt by us for weeks, months and even years to come. Add to the political toxicity the ongoing trauma of COVID-19, the economic hardships for so many individuals and families, the implications of our racial crisis, and you have all the ingredients of a traumatic season for the majority of Americans.

Those effects will not be limited to the broad culture, but will surely impact regions, states, cities, neighborhoods, clubs, nonprofits, families, and are certain to find their way into congregations and parishes.

“There will be no quick healing or resolution to our divisions and wounds as a result of the presidential election.”

You certainly know there will be no quick healing or resolution to our divisions and wounds as a result of the presidential election, regardless the outcome. We will not wake up on Nov. 4 to a unified national spirit. Instead, the chaos, division and discord of 2020 may well accelerate and deepen in the days and weeks of November and beyond.

Now, get ready for PTED

Here’s a suggestion: Prepare now for a season of Post Traumatic Election Disorder beginning the first week of November and continuing for weeks and months in your congregation. “PTED” will be a real and consequential factor in everything from how you plan worship, what you preach about, how small groups are organized and function, any church business meetings, when and where you gather, and how you strategically plan for the near and mid future.

Traumatized individuals and groups require special and focused care. Please bear this in mind as you plan your congregational life from November forward.

In recent years, a new phrase has been introduced to medical and mental health care providers. Trauma-informed care invites those working with the public not to simply ask, “What is wrong with you?” but to ask, “What has happened to you?” I believe a similar shift in thinking will be essential to churches that want to be relevant and helpful to their congregant in the days ahead.

The literature on treatment for PTSD is robust and extremely helpful as we think about PTED and our congregations. Some of the symptoms of PTSD resonate with how our churches are experiencing this season of social trauma: Isolation, withdrawal, disruption in relationships, persistent distrust, preoccupation with perpetrator(s), outbursts of anger.

Trauma-informed care

Similarly, some of the traits of trauma-informed care could be helpful as we seek to be trauma-informed ministers and Trauma-informed congregations.

See if you don’t agree that these six principles of trauma-informed care are appropriate for churches to adopt in this season of ministry:

  1. Safety: People feel physically and psychologically safe.
  2. Trustworthiness and transparency mark decision-making and leadership.
  3. Peer support: Individuals are connected with others in supportive ways.
  4. Collaboration: Shared decision-making becomes the norm.
  5. Empowerment: Healing, recovery and resilience are validated and valued.
  6. Humility and responsiveness: Biases are recognized and addressed.

However you choose to live out your faith and congregational life this fall and winter, rest assured that you will be dealing with some form of recovery from a traumatic season of life for many of your congregants. Some will be celebrating the results of the election, the economic realities and the medical challenges, while others will be in deep despair about some or all of these.

“Being a trauma-informed church will mean shifting your thinking about people from ‘What is wrong with you?’ to ‘What has happened to you?’”

Being a trauma-informed church will mean shifting your thinking about people from “What is wrong with you?” to “What has happened to you?” It will mean providing a safe place for conversation, introducing stories of healing and recovery from Scripture and history, creating a non-judgmental culture that rises above political divides, and insisting that vindictive, malicious and condescending language not be tolerated.

Expect to spend more time than normal establishing, cultivating and shoring up a culture of trust, transparency and acceptance among those you lead. Being an authentic Christian community that practices unity amidst diversity will be essential to your survival.

Be careful about pushing major projects forward without first addressing these underlying stressors. If you fail to acknowledge this PTED, you may find people withdrawing, or you may see over-reaction and hostility bubbling up in response to issues that normally would be easily embraced.

We are entering a season that finds us far off the familiar maps we have grown to trust. Thankfully, we know that salvation history is filled with stories of God’s people navigating such traumatic challenges with courage, insight and compassion. I hope and pray that will be your experience as well.

Bill Wilson serves as director of The Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C., and is a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors.

Church leaders, please don’t waste your transition crisis

What would you say is the best gift a transitional pastor can give a congregation?

Most traditional interim training programs land heavily on the idea that the primary task of a church in transition is dealing with grief. Thus, much of the work of a traditional intentional interim pastor focuses on unearthing, exploring and analyzing the pain and unresolved conflict that exists in the congregation.

While recovery from grief can be a valuable process in some congregations, in many congregations it results in unnecessary conflict, busy work and opportunity lost.

Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson

This is the conclusion of Russ Crabtree’s book, Transition Apparitions: Why Much of What We Know About Pastoral Transitions Is Wrong. Crabtree makes a compelling case that rather than grief recovery being the primary challenge a church faces, most congregations in transition are hungering for an appreciative approach that engages a wide number of people, clarifies purpose and prompts action in a coherent direction. Providing guidance on these tasks is the very best gift a transitional pastor can offer a church in the midst of a crisis brought on by a transition.

The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to create a tsunami of clergy retirements and departures. I expect the challenges associated with recovery from the blows the virus has inflicted upon local churches will be the stimulus that causes a substantial number of late-career ministers to step away from their posts. As more than one pastor has said to me over the last few weeks: “I’m just not equipped or motivated to lead us into this new era of church. It’s time for the next generation to take over.”

As a result, many more churches than normal will soon be in a season of obvious and overt transition. They will be seeking transitional leadership and will be wrestling with the issues associated with the changing of their pastoral guard. What will be needed is transitional leaders who understand family systems theory, who have some diagnostic tools for discerning local church needs, and who are committed to an appreciative, purpose-focused approach to the future.

Actually, I suspect that all churches will find themselves in a decade of less obvious and more covert transition for the duration of the 2020s. Things have changed, and there will be no going back to church life as it was in the 2010 decade. Instead, every minister will become more and more aware that he or she is, in reality, a transitional minister. Managing a season of major transition will become the norm for all ministers. The same skill set we teach transitional pastors will be required of all pastors and ministerial staff members.

“Every minister will become more and more aware that he or she is, in reality, a transitional minister.”

The temptation will be to fall back into a grief model that laments the past and becomes stuck in unhelpful analysis of “what went wrong.” Instead, we will need the ability to engage our congregations in a collective effort to, as Bob Dale taught us, “clarify purpose long before we fret about programs, people or policy.”

Forty years ago, William Bridges introduced us to the idea that between every ending and eventual beginning is a season of transition he described as “the neutral zone.” This is a place created when something that has existed ends, but the new thing that is coming is not yet clear. This liminal time of uncertainty between an ending and a beginning is filled with anxiety and stress, grief and lament.

It also offers a time of great potential, for the illusion of perpetuity has been destroyed, and we are fully sensitized to the inevitability of the coming change. We are open to change and new things in a way not known previously.

If we choose to simply grieve over what was, we will lose the opportunity to imagine what could be. This is where many churches are going to find themselves in the coming months and years.

As unsettling as this season of transition is, we would do well to remember that transitional seasons have the potential to open our eyes to possibilities previously hidden from us. Too much focus on what we have lost will blind us to what we might be gaining.

“Finding healthy leadership to navigate this season of transition will be paramount.”

Finding healthy leadership to navigate this season of transition will be paramount. Done well, a season of transition can lead a person or a congregation to a refreshed vision of who we are, why we are here and what the future can be. It can provide permission to stop doing some things that are no longer effective and to embrace possibilities long thought to be beyond us.

It may be that this season of pandemic-induced transition will turn out to be the onset of a renewed sense of purpose for churches willing to grapple with the complexities of the day. That will only happen if we recognize the value of the uncertainty of the day.

To be “in it, but not of it” when it comes to anxiety and stress is no easy task, but it is that place rich with possibility as we rethink nearly everything.

Bottom line: Please don’t waste your crisis. In the midst of all the anxiety and stress in your transitional neutral zone is the seedbed of a vibrant and thriving future.

Bill Wilson is director of The Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors.


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Too many pastors are falling on their own swords

‘Yes, and’: A response to stories of pastoral angst in the present moment



The train of conflict is coming to a church near you

As a child, my neighborhood friends and I loved to play on a train track near our house. Foolish, I know, but quite fun and exhilarating. We learned to tell when a train was coming long before it actually appeared. We would put our ears to the rail and hear the heavy engine rolling toward us while it was still far away. We knew to get out of the way, and would stand in awe as the earth shook while the massive engine and railroad cars lumbered by.

For several years now, we have been hearing the distant rumble of conflict as it spreads through American congregations. Despite repeated warnings and predictions, the rumble is growing louder and seemingly becoming more intense. Since 2000, several surveys have been undertaken that suggest major conflict had occurred in 25% to 35% of congregations over the previous four years.

Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson

My concern is that our current congregational climate is primed for a sharp rise in church conflict, unless we find ways to avert this destructive train.

There seem to be multiple factors coalescing to make this fear legitimate.

COVID-19. First, the COVID-19 virus has caused a major disruption to individual and congregational life that continues to unfold. The impact upon every aspect of life is hard to describe, and the future disruption is even harder to imagine. Attendance patterns are disrupted in an unprecedented fashion. Fear about if and when we will return to any sense of normalcy is palatable. All of this anxiety results in increased reactivity and lowered trust, both of which are a breeding ground for overt conflict. Throw in the fatigue and depression that long-term uncertainty produces, and the virus has created a wave of misunderstandings and conflict.

Economics. Second, the harsh economic realities that are emerging as the impact of high unemployment and a sluggish economy will continue to affect congregants and ministers. While the stock market is surging, many Americans are struggling to pay rent, buy groceries and care for their families. This puts additional stress on congregations that care for their city and seek to provide relief to a rising tide of need around them.

Racial tensions. Third, the racial tensions and conflict sweeping our nation feed into a heightened anxiety and distrust that seeps into congregational life. Long-simmering frustrations are boiling over as the events and images of the day disturb and shock us. Clergy are trying to speak for a middle way of respectful dialogue and understanding, and being criticized for stepping into the debate with the words and actions of Jesus.

Political climate. Finally, the political climate of our nation is as toxic as most of us have ever experienced. What our political leaders model as conflict resolution is very nearly the opposite of what Jesus taught his followers. Character assassination, assigning motives, hidden agendas, belittling, demeaning, half-truths and untruths are standard fare that our congregants are exposed to daily. Far too often, church members take their cues and instructions from media sources and politicians rather than the one they claim as Lord of their life. The result is that congregational life is conformed to the dark standards of culture rather than serving as a transformative gospel force for good.

All of these factors feed into my concern that we have a “conflict train” bearing down upon us. We hear it coming and wonder what we can do to slow it down or divert it from our community of faith.

Perhaps it is time to reconnect with our founder’s lifestyle and leadership model.

Here are some simple suggestions for all of us as we seek to go against the flow of our culture and our own fears in this season.

First, let’s remember who we are and why we are here. When we said yes to Christ, we committed ourselves to live by a different and higher standard than the world. It is time to revisit that pledge and renew that promise. For a start, read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) as your field guide for life in the 2020 decade.

Second, we need to pledge to listen more than we talk. Far too often we close ourselves off to others by our unwillingness to listen and hear the pain and discomfort that is behind the words they speak. The gift of listening can be the start of a new and Christ-like relationship with those who are different than you.

Third, we are called to confess our own sins before engaging in the popular sport of confessing the sins of others. Our lack of personal reflection and repentance breaks the heart of God as we pass judgment upon others. Such behavior is diametrically opposed to what God intends his people to show the world.

Finally, the way through conflict for God’s people is always the path of humility. Healthy churches, ministers and laity are always marked by a profound sense of humility. Paul taught us that it is in our weakness that we discover our strength. While this is the opposite of what is held up as normative in culture for us, it is unquestionably the way Jesus taught and what he expects from those who carry his name (see Mark 10:42-45 and John 13:12-15). Pride and arrogance are the traits that Jesus and Paul taught us inevitably lead to conflict and division.

I genuinely fear for the health and viability of our churches that mimic and embody the tragic examples of conflict management that rule our culture today. At the same time, I also believe it is not too late to reclaim our allegiance to the one who was described as the Prince of Peace and the giver of Abundant Life.

I hope and pray that we can hear and avoid the train of conflict bearing down upon us.


Bill Wilson is director of The Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors.

More by Bill Wilson:

Confronted by crises, we and our churches need to cultivate a holy curiosity

When all seems lost, apply the 20-year test

Your church after COVID: Restart, refresh or relaunch?

Our current virus pandemic has forced all of us to face some harsh realities. One of the benefits of experiencing a seismic shift in our world is the ensuing time of introspection and the questioning of our assumptions.

Most churches are realizing that the landscape of congregational life has dramatically changed, and we must prepare for a very different world over the course of the coming decade.

Bill WilsonThis is not a new idea. Several years ago, I began to talk about resilience as a trait I believed was indispensable for a 21st century church. I found this quality in increasingly short supply among the churches I engaged. Many were, and are, fragile and vulnerable to any number of significant threats: economic, leadership, pandemic, theological, societal.

Most were plateaued or declining in terms of attendance metrics, many had very shallow financial reserves, the majority were heavily skewed toward an aging congregation and had lost significant groups of middle age and younger members to neighboring churches, especially larger and more focused churches.

Cultivating resilience became a standard stump speech and strategy focus for me. Nearly always, heads would quickly nod in agreement with that thesis, but most churches balked at engaging in the sorts of major changes that would be required to move from simply surviving to genuinely thriving.

Now, as we navigate the unknowns before us, I was struck by comments from my friend Seth Hix, who identified some general attitudes and expectation patterns he sees emerging among churches and clergy in this pandemic age. Perhaps identifying our expectations for the future could help us thoughtfully engage our options.

Some want to restart their congregational life as soon as possible. This approach to the future church seeks to resume life as we knew it, and to do so quickly. The underlying assumption is that when we restart what we were doing prior to March 2020, people will return and resume the same ministry model that was in place prior to the pandemic.

It’s understandable and appropriate to long for the security of the familiar patterns that guided our life for decades. Regular in-person worship events, the liturgy, a fine facility that became synonymous with “doing church,” dependable and predictable staff interactions, a warm and welcoming small group experience, regular events for our children, mission trips and fellowship meals — all these describe what we can’t wait to restart and resume.

“It is beginning to dawn on us that what was may never fully return and that we may have been overestimating its effectiveness all along.”

Unfortunately, it is beginning to dawn on us that what was may never fully return and that we may have been overestimating its effectiveness all along.

For example, even in our limited formats, people are not flocking back to worship together. Most churches I talk with have experienced only about a quarter to a third of their previous attenders coming back to worship this summer. While many of the others are justifiably wary of any public gathering, I sense there is a sizable group who are realizing that virtual worship can substitute in many ways for onsite worship. (Personally, I find it a very poor substitute, but many would not agree with me.)

They also are finding their congregants simply don’t miss the times together. As someone recently confided in me: “There was always too much drama, too many conflicts, too much self-absorption for me. I’m not sure I’ll be going back to that.”  Another key lay leader in a church confessed: “I now realize we were playing church, not really being church. I’m not interested in resuming that.”

This restart expectation is based more on wishful thinking than honest evaluation.

Some plan simply to refresh their approach to ministry. For these, the pandemic has been a painful but helpful opportunity to do some cleanup work and minor touchup work on church structures and programming. Online education, fellowship and worship offerings have revealed the potential for broadening the reach and impact of what we assumed had to be done in person or on site. The pandemic has given us permission to experiment, and we have done so, but primarily in renovating what already existed. Worship, age-group ministries, small group offerings have been retrofitted to fit a virtual environment.

Again, the underlying message seems to be that while churches will certainly continue to offer virtual options in the future, our primary structures will revert back to pre-pandemic patterns as the main focus as soon as feasible. Like a home renovation that paints over old wallpaper and perhaps replaces a few fixtures, we expect this season of renovation to allow us to emerge from the pandemic looking better, but very similar to how we appeared pre-virus.

This may be an effective short-term strategy and may make us feel better about our capacity for adaptive change, but I suspect it may fail us long-term. In fact, if history holds, most of our technical changes will wither rather quickly and need to be refreshed again as soon as the next crisis hits our churches.

The wise among us are talking about the need to relaunch congregational life for the 2020 decade. As I write these words, I have to confess that I do not actually know what I am saying. I just sense that a whole new thing is emerging and that we will need to consider a “start over” if we are to find the resilience we so desperately need.

Few would argue that the American church of the last 50 years has been compromised by the consumeristic, self-absorbed culture in which we exist. A watered-down faith, Americanized gospel and lip service to humility and service as a way of life have made us irrelevant and weak.

“Some are beginning to see the pandemic as an opportunity for major upheaval and a fresh start as God’s people.”

Some are beginning to see the pandemic as an opportunity for major upheaval and a fresh start as God’s people. This is a narrow and treacherous path, as it will threaten our foundational beliefs about how to do and be a church. It will find its inspiration in cultures where the gospel witness has been subject to persecution, rather than being privy to power, prestige and popular support. See the Christians in China, the former Soviet Union, much of Africa.

Those who choose to relaunch their church or ministry will certainly do so with a smaller, yet more focused group of congregants. Perhaps their biblical inspiration will be the pruning narratives of Jesus that promise more bountiful fruit on the other side of the pain of pruning away what does not produce fruit. Another might be the deeper soil in which the gospel can take root and find the resources to weather the harsh conditions above ground.

Most likely, every church will be a mix of all three of these possible futures. Ministers and lay leaders will find themselves managing intense conversations and painful deliberations among these factions. It will be slow, deliberate and uncomfortable work as we break up the hard ground on which we have built our church home for decades.

Hopefully, that broken ground will become the rich soil from which will spring a more relevant, viable and resilient church.

Bill Wilson is director of The Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors.