MORALE IN THE RURAL CHURCH (PART ONE)
By Glenn C. Daman
The annual meeting was more like a meeting of morticians than it was a meeting of the redeemed people of God. The past year had seen no new faces in the church and the year had seemed like an endless struggle to pay the pastor. For several months the church, in fact, had not been able to pay the pastor and had to have assistance from its denominational headquarters. The rural talk at the potluck proceeding the meeting had centered more upon whether or not the church should close its doors, than it did upon the direction for the church. The sentiment of many was that the church was slowly dying, and maybe it was time for the church to close its doors after a century of ministry in the rural church.
For many ministering in the rural church, the struggle to maintain the morale of the people is constant. In one survey of rural church leaders, the number one problem they confronted was low morale in their churches. This could not only be said of the churches, but of the leaders and pastors as well. Instead of the church triumphantly singing "Throw Out the Life Lines," the hymn becomes "Throw Out the Life Boats" because the ship is sinking.
10 CAUSES OF LOW MORALE
There are a number of causes of low morale within the rural church.
1. Being rSmall in a large society. The American culture measures everything by size; the bigger the better. This is true from houses to muscles, from candy bars to corporations. This is even true of perception of churches. The larger the church the more recognition it receives and the more it is upheld as the model of a successful church. Rural churches can develop a sense of inferiority that results in low morale, especially if the church has had little or no growth.
2. Past problems within the church. If the church has had significant problems within the congregation which has resulted in a sense of loss, the excitement of ministry can be diminished. Issues such as church discipline, conflicts, financial difficulties, a significant drop in membership, or the discontinuation of a significant ministry can sap the spiritual and emotional vitality of the congregation.
3. Lack of clear direction for the church. Morale is directly related to the sense of significance and purpose in the activities and ministries the church performs. Morale for an army is at its lowest when there are no battles being fought. If there is no direction or purpose, activity can be reduced to an attitude of "being busy doing nothing."
4. Succession of rural disappointments. While minor disappointments will normally not affect the morale of a congregation, when there are a succession of rural disappointments the cumulative effect undermines morale. Continually having new ideas and ministries fail or not meet the expectations will develop a sense of defeatism and frustration. The people who return from the exile become discouraged because the new temple did not meet their expectations and their definition of a successful building project (Ezra 3:12,13). Every church needs some success to develop a sense of accomplishment for their efforts.
5. Conflicts and personality tensions. While all churches will have occasional conflicts and personality clashes, in the rural church it is especially potent since the tensions will be felt by the whole congregation. Furthermore, since the rural church places a premium upon relationships, the disagreements threaten the perceived strength of the church.
6. Lack of clear definition of success. For many today the definition of success for church ministry is the ability to generate numerical growth. Since many rural churches are not in a position to grow, the lack of growth results in low morale. Because the rural church often does not define what marks the success of a particular ministry, they are never able to determine when they have in fact accomplished their purpose.
7. Lack of communication. When communications is absent, people become frustrated by a sense of powerlessness. They are not only unsure of what is going on, but they feel that they no longer have any input in the direction and decisions of the church. When people no longer feel important to the church, their morale and excitement about the ministry will be undermined. Furthermore, a lack of communication results in misunderstandings which bring further personality tensions within the congregation.
8. Burn-out. Two major cause of burn-out are over-involvement and a sense of inadequacy. When people become over-committed in the ministry of the church, the emotional reserves necessary to adequately perform the tasks become depleted. Since only a handful of people are willing to do the work of the ministry, the tendency is for the church to give them too many responsibilities. The result is that they no longer sense that they are doing an adequate job so they become frustrated. This also happens when people are given tasks that they have not been trained to perform. When people feel inadequate for the responsibility, they become discouraged. The Jews rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem became discouraged when they perceived the rubble to be beyond their ability to move (Nehemiah 4:10). Training for ministry enables people to develop confidence that they are competent for the tasks.
9. External opposition. Battle fatigue is not only a danger for the army, it is a danger for the church as well. Elijah became discouraged when he realized that he was not having any victory over the external opposition that he faced (1 Kings 18-19). A church that ministers in an area that is unreceptive to the gospel can easily become disheartened. A church attempting to build a new building can become discouraged when they continually come up against zoning and building regulations. Churches can become depressed when they are confronted with outside resistance over which they have no control.
10. Succession of pastors. The rural church is often plagued with a succession of short-term pastors. While some pastors understand, cherish, and enjoy the unique cultural and ministry challenges in the rural church, many others find themselves unable to cope with the isolation of rural ministry and the financial pressures resulting from the low salary package which the rural church offers. The result is that they become discouraged and quit the ministry or move on to greener pastures. The church then begins to develop an attitude that "nobody wants us." They become discouraged thinking that they are inferior and unimportant to the kingdom of God.
10 CHARACTERISTICS OF LOW MORALE
1. Inward focus of ministry. Churches that are suffering from low morale become inward focused in ministry. Rather than seeing themselves as the means by which God communicates his grace to the community at large, the church focuses all its ministries upon meeting internal needs. The church becomes more focused upon running programs that maintain the church rather than ministering to those outside the church.
2. Loss of vision for ministry. Low morale brings about a loss of vision and passion for ministry. When people become discouraged, they lose sight of what they can and are called to accomplish for Christ. Instead of a sense of purpose and direction in ministry they question the legitimacy of the ministry. Organizational paralysis results when the church no longer has the emotional and spiritual energies to make necessary changes for effective ministry.
3. Sense of futility. The mood of the church becomes bleak when people have a sense of futility in their efforts. They wonder if the ministry is significantly accomplishing God's purpose or merely maintaining an organization. No longer is there any expectations for effectiveness in the programs. Results are not achieved, nor look for.
4. Preoccupation with what is wrong. Instead of celebrating successes and accomplishments, the focus shifts to what is being done wrong and the faults in the programs. Discussion at meetings tend to be upon what is wrong rather than what needs to be done and the results achieved.
5. Increase in conflicts and personality tensions. While conflicts and personality tensions may result in low morale, in many cases low moral may be the cause of conflict rather than the result of the conflict. Tensions arise when people begin to address and identify what they perceive to be the factors undermining the enthusiasm of the church.
6. Loss of enthusiasm in the leadership. Those in leadership greatly influence the attitudes of the people in general. When they become discouraged concerning the ministry of the church, so will the people. When the leadership manifests a lack of enthusiasm and excitement for the ministry the downward cycle begins. When speaking with colleagues, they talk only about what the problems are rather than what God is accomplishing.
7. Loss of membership. If the morale continues to decline so will the membership. New people arriving will not stay, and those who have the least amount of interest will quickly leave. This begins a downward cycle in which the membership decreases because of the low morale which in turn further discourages those who remain, causing more to leave. On the other hand, churches with high morale attract new people, which in turn raises morale, which attracts even more people.
8. Ministry becomes a duty rather than a joy. Instead of love for others and for God being the motivational factor in ministry, people perform tasks and responsibilities only out of a sense of obligation and duty. No longer do people feel a sense of excitement, joy, and purpose in service.
9. Fixation with the past. Whether it be a fixation upon the glory years or the problems of the past, the discussion always reverts to the former state of the church. No longer is there a sense of optimism about the future. Instead of thinking about where the church is going, the church becomes bogged down in the quagmire of where the church has been.
10. Loss of spiritual perspective. Instead of being confident in God's ability to work through the church, the church becomes overwhelmed by its own inabilities. Problems become insurmountable barriers as people focus on their lack of resources, lack of proficiency, and lack of training. No longer does the church see what God can accomplish through the church. Instead, they develop a short- sighted vision for ministry.