How the Past is Still Present – Questions Church Leaders Need to Ask

Do you know the story of your church? Leaders need to pay attention to the past to make sense of the present. A friend told me that he went to a movie at the multiplex and walked into the wrong theater. He ended up in the middle of an earlier showing of the same movie. Nothing made sense, and 20 minutes later the film was over. As a therapist, he compared it to the way we are born into our families in the middle of the plot, which is sometimes confusing to us.

In the same way, when leaders walk into an organization for the first time, they are entering an ongoing story. Our particular movie may have been running for two years or two hundred. But no matter the age of the organization, there are some plot elements we need to learn.

The more we can find out about the history of the organizations we lead, the better off we will be. Patterns that seem confusing to us may begin to make sense. And the more we know the story, the less likely we are to be ambushed or controlled by it. Some questions to ask include the following:

When, how and why was this organization founded?
What is the history of leadership transitions?
How long did previous pastors last?
What pastors do people still talk about? And which ones do they never talk about?
We can learn more about what to expect from what we learn from these questions. The more intense the circumstances at the beginning, such as a split from another group, the more likely is there to be intensity carried over into the present. Church leaders may face more challenges with a history like this.
We do not ask these questions all at once, but here and there as we go, over time. Notice how much people do and do not know, and how willing they are to talk about it. The more curious we can be about the situation, the more we can stay in a “research” frame of mind, the better. Willfully trying to fix past problems or to make up for past deficiencies can be the path to frustration. Being a learner can actually make our role in the church more transformative.

We cannot rewind the tape to watch the whole story ourselves. But we can, little by little, get a more complete sense of the ongoing story whose cast we have joined. And we will be better able to play the role of leader with our own unique twist.

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