Churches are always going to be filled with selfish people. If we managed to preach all our members into selflessness, we’d be so attractive that we’d soon have hundreds of converts — who’d be immature Christians and therefore selfish. Unhealthy churches have longtime members who are selfish. Healthy churches have new members who are selfish. And so all have selfish members.
To understand how to deal with selfishness, we have to start with root causes. I copied this bit of wisdom from Yahoo Answers —
Narcissism is a manifestation of low self-esteem and arrested development. People who suffer from pathological narcissism were not given the message as children that they were lovable, valuable human beings and special to their parents, just because they are who they are, not because of what they do. These children instead are given the message, either directly or implicitly, that they are somehow defective or unlovable or that love wasn’t deserved and had to be earned, and they grow to adulthood with this belief of being unlovable and the unfulfilled need to be special, along with some other traits normally associated with infants like not being able to see separation between themselves and others and the outside world. They spend their adult lives trying to find ways to be special and valuable. They create a false self image to cover these deep painful feelings. This false self image requires constant maintenance (narcissistic supply) so as to keep them from feeling seeing their real self image. They’re always searching for recognition and special status, trying to be right where others are wrong, always comparing themselves to others, trying to be smarter, stronger, nicer, more deserving, more beautiful than others, which can appear to be more selfish than others. In reality, they’re just trying to get that which others were given in their childhoods, but they were denied.
This feeling, of being special, valuable and lovable is difficult to get filled in adulthood. The adult world is typically results oriented and can reinforce the narcissists belief that it’s what he/she does that makes him/her worthy. Friends just don’t hang around no matter what you do, the way your parents should have. Lovers leave if you become too demanding. It’s hard to find the unconditional love you needed when you were young.
Now, our members may be selfish (I use “selfish” in much the same sense that the author of the quotation uses “narcissism.”) because of problems with their actual childhoods or because of problems from their earlier Christian walk. If they came up in a church that taught a works salvation (as many Churches of Christ do), they could easily feel that God sees them as “somehow defective or unlovable or that love wasn’t deserved and had to be earned.” Such a person may well compensate by becoming very demanding in church as a way to demonstrate to himself that he’s important.
Indeed, when the older members get upset over the musical choice, they are often more upset with not mattering than any doctrinal concern. You see, it’s often the case that when they were younger they held positions of influence that allowed them to veto any church decision. Maybe they were elders or elders’ wives. Maybe they were major givers. Maybe the church was smaller and every member had a veto.
Now that they’re older, they’ve lost influence, and therefore they’ve lost control over the congregation. Sometimes they vent their frustrations by seeking to regain control — just to feel important and appreciated.
And so, here are some suggestions —
* Preach grace over and over. Members who grew up in a legalistic church need to be reminded that they are loved despite their imperfections and failings. They need to be reminded over and over that God loves them even though he is fully aware of their failings. Help them grow in God by being comfortable in his arms — with no need to put up a false front.
Younger members may find such preaching tedious and redundant, but the older members won’t. Perhaps you make a point to cover grace more often in their Bible classes or small groups. Remember: many of these good people were severely wounded in their youths by legalistic preachers — and those wounds may never heal. They have thought and emotional patterns that are deeply rooted and that will require decades to overcome.
Cover it over and over and over — until they tell you to stop.
* Make the older members feel appreciated. Sometimes you might review the history of the church and thank them for their hard work — in founding the church, in building the building, in building the spiritual foundation on which today’s church is built.
Ritual and ceremony matter. Look for a time to express thanks. It’s deserved and needs to be said.
* When a big decision is going to be made, solicit their input. You may not follow their advice, but be sure to hear it. You may be surprised at the wisdom you hear!
* Consider carefully the identity you build. Most in the Churches of Christ have an identity that “we are the church that follows the correct pattern.” You can teach grace for 30 years, and this thinking will still be present. It’s not enough to confront the error of patternistic thought — you have to replace the old identity with a better identity: “We are striving to be transformed into the image of Jesus” — something like that.
And then preach it over and over. Create a new sense of identity so that a change in worship style does not threaten the church’s sense of who they are.
* Teach mission. Replace the old “our mission is to preserve the pattern” with “we are here to be Jesus to the world” or the like. Help the church take a healthy pride in works of service, in relationships built, in the formation of Christian community, in souls saved, in seeing God’s Spirit at work within the congregation.
Now, mission and vision statements help — but not much. Banners and logos in the church bulletin help — but not much. People’s deeply rooted sense of what the church is about and who they are in relationship to God is hard to change. It requires constant, repeated reinforcement. The staff and leadership will get tired of the reminders long, long before many hearts are changed. You have to be ready to be incessant, constant, and persistent in getting the message across. A sermon or even a sermon series won’t do it. It requires years of repetition, teaching the same lesson in many ways, from many angles.
* Celebrate those things that reinforce the new identity and new mission. Often.
* Never treat those more legalistic than us or those who resist change with contempt. This is perhaps the hardest piece of advice of all. It’s hard not to be angry with those who once made us miserable with false, legalistic doctrine. It’s hard not to get frustrated with those who insist that we change more slowly.
But love compels us to be patient and gentle, not letting zeal trump compassion. Just insist that we’re going to all change together — and figure out how to do it, do the hard work, and be patient. The older members will appreciate the gesture.
That doesn’t mean that the church has to agree 100% with every change and that you can’t lose any members. You may lose some along the way — but you should count those departures as defeats because you failed to heal a broken heart.
Those who struggle to change aren’t bad people. They are wounded people. Work hard to heal them — to let God heal them — and perhaps you’ll not lose them.
* Avoid reinforcing selfish behaviors. When members make selfish demands, treat their demands as a teaching moment. Don’t submit to ultimatums. Indeed, once an eldership relents due to an ultimatum from selfish members, the selfish members will have gained control of the church — and that just can’t be a good thing.
Sometimes the proper response is to rebuke the ultimatum as sin. Sometimes it’s to get both sides in the same room, put a human face on the issue, and insist that the two sides talk through the issue as brothers in Christ. It’s just too easy to demonize your opponents if you don’t have to do it their faces.
Sometimes you have to call the bluff of those making selfish demands: “We love you and pray that you don’t leave, but we’re not going to ban the use of PowerPoint or have a separate PowerPoint-free service. We just can’t do that. There’s no doctrinal reason to do that. We’re glad to meet, discuss, and pray with you further, but we’re not negotiating over PowerPoint.”
Sometimes you have to let them leave — but this is never anyone’s first or second choice. The fact is that no matter how well you teach, counsel, and love your members, some are going to leave. Indeed, if your church is torn up over applause, don’t be surprised if a member leaves in a huff only to join another church that applauds! You see, the leaving is often not really about conscience as much as power — and some members can’t bear the thought of staying after they learn they’ve lost their influence — especially if they lose their influence by making unfair demands and not getting their way. They may feel shamed and feel forced to leave just to save face.
Therefore, leaders should look for ways to keep the fight from becoming about winning and losing or who has say so or power in the church. Sometimes just showing enough concern to listen to the complainers is enough to help them feel influential enough to stay, even though they know they won’t get their way this time.
The worst mistake to make is to fold in the face of pressure. You see, this not only empowers the selfish, it tells the rest of the church that their humility and submission will result in the church being run by the self-centered — and many of your most humble, servant-hearted members will leave rather than suffer under the authority of spiritual midgets. You see, sometimes an eldership tries to avoid a split by letting the self-centered members have their way, only to so alienate the spiritually mature that they leave instead.
Therefore, there is no tactically safe ground. Therefore, don’t bargain for safety. Make decisions that are faithful. Do the right thing, and then shepherd the weak through the difficulties of change. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that giving in to selfishness will hold the church together. In the longterm, it won’t. Not ever.
Now, the toughest case is a church that has routinely, year after year capitulated to the demands of the spiritually immature. The immature will have been empowered by these tactics and will have developed a sense of entitlement. Eventually, there will come a truly important decision where the elders just can’t give in to the selfish members — but because they feel so entitled and empowered, they’ll react to not getting their way in a spiritually immature, childish way. They’ll throw a tantrum. They’ll threaten to leave. They’ll withhold checks. They’ll engage in power plays. And the church will split.
Therefore, it’s critically important that the selfish lose some unimportant battles long before they have to lose the important one. While your instincts will be to put off the day of reckoning, the fact is that putting off the day makes the day far worse. The sooner you have the confrontation, the better. The smaller the issue, the better. Far better to overrule the selfish members over the choice of song books or who gets to pick the carpet color than over who the next preacher hire will be or whether the Holy Spirit will be preached from the pulpit.
But, of course, the need to take away the sense of entitlement of the selfish doesn’t justify acting resentfully or treating them as less than important, beloved members of the church. It just means that, like any other group of members, they won’t always get their way.