Collateral Damage

By Becky Ahlberg

For 35 years now, I’ve watched the worship wars being waged, and if it were not for the tragic “loss of life” and the permanently wounded, it would actually be humorous.

We are so fickle. When I started out, if you showed up at the doors of a church with guitars and drums, they wouldn’t let you in—those were the devil’s tools. Then came a time when if you didn’t use guitars and drums and rearview projection, you were old-fashioned, out-of-step, and irrelevant. Now we’ve got to get out the incense and find the mystery, embrace symbolism, and return to our ancient roots. Whatever.

That sounded a little bitter, didn’t it? My apologies. I’ve just watched (and earned a Purple Heart myself) the wounding in the name of “real worship” for so long, I have come to the conclusion that we’ve lost sight of the real enemy. We’re shooting each other, and the enemy is getting the last laugh.

And it is nothing new. All the way back to Michal’s disgusted dismissal of David’s celebration around the ark of the covenant, the “wars” have raged. For more recent history, throw in Martin Luther and John Calvin splitting over the use of instruments and appropriate texts, Isaac Watts’s excommunication for writing that scandalously personal hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Ira Sankey for trivializing the gospel with the barroom “ditties” he used at Moody’s revivals, John W. Peterson for adding a rhythm section to his cantata orchestrations, Ralph Carmichael and Kurt Kaiser for kick-starting the whole “contemporary” revolution in the 1970s and well . . . we won’t even get into the wide range of unspiritual things being thrown at us today.

Recently I read an article about the number of soldiers in Iraq that had been wounded or killed by “friendly fire” (a nice little euphemism for the fact that we wounded our own). As I read, I found myself substituting the names of people I know who have been wounded—or left the ministry—because of things said and done by leaders in the churches where they were serving. The list is staggering.

I will be the first to say there are some “soldiers” who just aren’t cut out for ministry. We must help such servants, “speaking the truth in love,” to find a different way to serve. However, having said that, the “collateral damage” (another interesting euphemism for destruction of life in war) occurring in the name of progress and relevant ministry has left quite a pile of bodies.

As executive director of the National Church Music Conference, I have watched the number of walking wounded grow steadily over the years. Five years ago we found it necessary to provide an onsite conference pastor each year. That person stays very busy throughout the week trying to bind up the wounded and offer counsel and encouragement.

I know it is important for us to be good stewards of our resources in the church. I understand that things change and so must staff. I am aware of people who are unwilling to be flexible and learn new things. I realize that leadership often means difficult choices. But before you fire that worship leader, before you decide that new direction, before you launch that next phase, would you consider a few things?

Try a little staff development. Are you including your worship leader in the planning and dreaming? Have you asked him to go back to school? Will you pay for it? Do you encourage her to read and discuss new books and ideas with you? Can you see a way to make an investment in a life that will pay rich dividends—though it may not be a quick fix?

Are you regularly communicating and evaluating what is presently happening? Are you looking for ways to maximize the gifts of your present staff? Have you given them the chance to meet your expectations? Do they believe you have their best interest at heart?

Check your motivation. What is driving the need for change? Can you identify and communicate clear biblical principles? Is it a personality conflict? Is it a knee-jerk reaction? Is it part of a larger plan with a clear and definable process? Has it been arrived at by consensus and process?

Admit your mistakes. Did you just hire the wrong person? Have you been a clear communicator and an empowering manager? Have you invested your own time to build a relationship of trust and candor? Have you addressed concerns early and often? Have you provided a process for continuing education and evaluation? Will you learn from your mistakes?
Consider a healthy and helpful transition plan. If your staff needs have changed, have you openly discussed that? Will anyone be surprised by the conclusions you draw? Is there another place on staff that would suit his skills set? Have you created a process and given the person time to reach his own conclusion that he no longer meets the requirements of the position? Are you willing to help the affected staff person gain new skills or help her find other employment? Have you considered a fair and encouraging severance process? Have you looked for ways to offer support in a difficult time?
It doesn’t help when you tell someone, “It isn’t personal.” If you’re letting someone go, it doesn’t get more personal than that.

Leadership does require difficult choices. But servant-leadership includes a process that builds up rather than tears down. The challenges required for worship leading will not go away. New trends and new technology are challenges that are here to stay. The church must take seriously the need to be relevant and winsome. There will inevitably be casualties. But, what are you doing in your church to ensure that “friendly fire” and “collateral damage” are minimized? Will you take it upon yourself to work at the peace process rather than fan the flames of the conflict?

I’m anticipating another 35 years to watch the process. My prayer is not only that we can find a way to negotiate a “cease fire,” but that we will actually work toward a healthy alliance that embraces a variety of styles and generations.

I’m praying for peace—real peace that brings healing. I’m praying that we offer compassion to the wounded, look for ways to redeploy those who want to serve, and find a way minimize the damage.

I’m asking God for a church that truly worships “in spirit and in truth”; so the world will know whom we worship more than noticing how we worship.

Becky Ahlberg is worship and family life minister at Anaheim (California) First Christian Church and executive director of the National Church Music Conference.

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