For the entire story of why we left Harvest Bible Baby Church, please see the following posts: A Letter to My Friends at Our Former Church The Molehill that Became a Mountain The Feedback My Pastor Labelled "Possibly Aggressive" (or How NOT to Respond to Solicited Feedback) [this post] Our Resignation Letter to a Former Church... ... And Their Manipulative Response
In early 2019, our church (which we call Harvest Bible Baby Church, or HBBC) announced that they had found a possible permanent home. The church was only a few years old, and had been meeting in a high school gymnasium.
A “Prayer and Vision Night” was held at the potential location, where a panel consisting of the elders and the senior and associate pastors described why they thought the building was a great fit, where the church stood financially, what a purchase process could look like, etc. Panel members answered questions from attendees that were texted in, pledging to answer every single question. When time ran out, the senior and associate pastors answered the remaining questions in a video, which was emailed to the entire congregation. David and I attended the meeting and watched the follow-up video.
Not too long afterwards, leadership emailed a feedback form to the congregation, asking everyone to give feedback on the new building. To my recollection, it was rather brief. It asked whether or not you would attend at the new location (with “yes” or “no” being the only option) and required you to include your name. It also asked two open-ended-response questions, which I’ve included with my answers, below.
It will be helpful to know that, when the church began their search in 2017, the congregation was told (multiple times) that the search would be limited to a three-mile radius of the then-current meeting location. The new proposed location was seven miles away, more than twice the original goal. During the pastoral video mentioned, I noted that the search radius was suddenly described by leadership as “three to five-ish miles.”
Of further interest, note that David and I happened to be in a small group with the elder who was spearheading the building search. David happens to be interested in real estate, and would periodically ask how the search was going over the course of those two years. The elder was always happy to oblige. At one point previous, they’d been considering a different location that was outside the stated search radius. The elder had asked David, point-blank, what he thought of the location being so far away. “You know people are going to leave,” was David’s response at the time. The elder took the feedback with equanimity.
The Feedback I Submitted on Leadership’s Form
Do you have any feedback or initial thoughts regarding this building?
The building itself looks great. It already has the look and feel of a church, and the reasons HBBC leadership is excited about the building are readily apparent.
But… having been part of church moves twice, I think leadership is underestimating the emotional/spiritual/psychological (fill in the blank) hurdles that a number of people in the congregation will need to overcome in order to commit to the move. There seemed to be several tersely-worded texts about why the change from a [Location A] radius. And those were only from (a) the people who attended the Prayer & Vision Night and (b) those with enough audacity to actually voice disagreement to leadership.
I understand why leadership is looking seriously at the building. Nearly two years of closed doors in the original target area sounds like an exhausting, emotional roller coaster. But for those who were not in-the-know about all the closed doors, having [Location B] suddenly sprung on them when the original target area was a 3-5 mile radius from the current location, was a breach of the implied agreement that the church was committed to to the immediate surrounds of [Location A]. The reason for the breach (all the closed doors at other locations) was briefly mentioned, but I think an acknowledgement of and more itemized explanation of and perhaps even apology for that breach would go a long way toward soothing strained relationships.
None of those tersely-worded texts came from my family. But if they had, the responses from the pastor chat [the follow-up video sent by the senior and associate pastors] would have honestly left me even more unsettled. For example, the plethora of churches already near the potential future building is not seen as a deterrent to relocating there; but the plethora of churches already near the current building is seen as an excuse for widening the search radius (with the implication that people can still be adequately fed in the current community by those other churches). And I agree that “a church alive is worth the drive” [a much-lauded statement from an elder at the Prayer and Vision Night] – to a point. But it implies that there are no other “alive” churches closer to wherever people may call home, and that is certainly up for debate. Pastor Senior mentioned in the pastor chat that leadership didn’t always want to be talking about the building [when responding to a question about why there hadn’t been more updates over the course of the two-year search] because they didn’t want it to turn into everything focused on the building, and I support that. Pastor Senior also mentioned the autumn fasting [a period when leadership asked the entire congregation to fast together], and that he struggled (I’m paraphrasing from what may be a faulty memory) with not wanting to turn the fasting into being all about the building. Hearing Pastor Senior open up about his struggles is reassuring, because to be honest, from where I was sitting, the push for prayer and fasting seemed to be made in the context of finding a building. And to be even more honest, that is why I personally was really resistant to the idea of participating in the fast. (Confession. While I was resistant to the idea of fasting, and did not participate by fasting from food per se, God did use the opportunity to convict me of not making scripture reading a priority in my daily life, so I do thank you for that prompting toward growth in my personal walk.) And I may be mis-remembering, but I seem to recall that even the Prayer & Worship Nights [which had recently been added to the church calendar of events as a monthly thing] were introduced in the context of finding a building. And at the conclusion of that season of congregational fasting, was there any follow-up provided to the congregation as a closure to that season? I’ve missed Sundays here-and-there (illness, travel, kids ministry), but don’t recall anything being communicated via Harvest Weekly [the weekly email newsletter], for example.
The hard truth of the matter is, people will leave when HBBC relocates, whether it is this building or another building. They will leave for reasons that seem valid to them (for example, feeling genuinely called by God to serve in a church that is within a certain radius from their home), even if those reasons don’t seem “valid” to HBBC leadership. HBBC leadership has a real opportunity here that, frankly, was missed by leaders during the last two church relocations I’ve been a part of. (By the way, that church was also a “regional” church, with members all the way from XXX to XXX. The “these people used to have to drive, and now it’s just a different population of the church that will have to drive” argument only went so far there, too.) Instead of alienating and guilt-tripping those who are leaving by characterizing them as “unwilling” to make the commute as opposed to “unable,” where is the harm in giving heartfelt thanks for the time, service, and finances they have contributed to HBBC during their time there, and gracefully sending them on their way with your blessing? To paraphrase Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant [one’s self in a church] and a time to uproot [one’s self from a church]…” Instead of sowing bitterness and discord against HBBC in particular and church leaders in general, you have an opportunity to sow feelings of gratefulness and thanks among those who are going to depart. You are going to lose them, either way. Which way paints you to be the more Spirit-filled men?
On a side note, I sincerely appreciate the frank handling of questions regarding finances. Our previous church kept finances very close to the vest (the church’s bookkeeper didn’t even know what the budget was), and it took to coming within a hair’s breadth of financial insolvency for leaders there to be open about even the barest outline of a budget. Pastor Associate’s responses to questions about finances stood in sharp contrast to that previous experience, in a very positive and reassuring way.
Do you have any areas of gifting or skill that you would be willing to contribute during this process? If so, what are those areas?
With all due respect, and I honestly don’t mean to come across as facetious, I can write feedback forms that generate more actionable information than this one (see nota bene below). For example, it would be helpful to know what “this process” includes. Does it include the inspection process, the fundraising process, the decision-making process, the setting-up-furniture process, the demolition process, the looking-for-a-different-building-if-this-one-doesn’t-work-out process, or all of the above?
Also, the “Would you drive to this location to attend HBBC” question is going to get you a lot of false positives and false negatives, because you’re not including “prayerfully undecided” as an answer. But since it is a required question, people (like myself) who are undecided but want to leave additional feedback are just going to pick a random response in order to provide their feedback. And you’re probably going to get a lot of people who are undecided simply not filling out the survey because they don’t really have anything else to say, but aren’t yet willing to land in either camp of driving or not. Or, as another family expressed to me this weekend, they may not mind the location, but they are nervous about the finances. (They hadn’t seen either video [the recording of the Prayer and Vision Night or the follow-up from the pastors], yet, so we pointed them in that direction.)
Also, I understand logistical reasons of requiring people to attach a name to any feedback they provide. But I think you are intelligent enough and even-tempered enough to be able to weed out anonymous responses of people who simply have a chip on their shoulder from those of people who may have valid concerns but are intimidated by the thought of seven “spiritual giants” putting them under the microscope for voicing a dissenting opinion. If you humbly and sincerely want an honest assessment of what the congregation thinks about this new building possibility and the entire process of how we as a church got from a pumpkin farm on XXX Avenue [a former possible location that had fallen through] to an industrial park in [Location B], I can help with that. But if you want someone to wield a sledgehammer to that wall dividing the sanctuary, I am more likely to drop it on my foot and break a toe.
NB – Just as evidence that I’m not simply full of myself, see “Student Perception of Progress (POP) – Fall 2014” at the following link. I came up with the idea for this while volunteering with my workplace’s Planning, Research, and Institutional Effectiveness Committee and was one of a small team of people who developed and administered the pilot and final surveys. Note that it was deemed helpful enough to do a second round in Spring 2018, several years after I left the college.
Leadership’s Response to Above Feedback
Shortly afterward, my response to the feedback form leadership asked for was used as an excuse to discipline me.
During that meeting, which is described in more detail here, when the topic of my feedback came up, I genuinely didn’t understand what I’d said that could be so controversial. The associate pastor replied that my feedback could be perceived as “possibly aggressive.”
At that point, I realized they weren’t living in the real world and just mentally checked out. I’d spent seven years working in academia as support staff. Nobody does aggressive quite like an entitled (and tenured) professor or an overly-involved parent. I’d seen aggressive. I’d been on the receiving end of aggressive. What I wrote, while clearly a critique, was not aggressive. That they couldn’t handle it says more about their own insecurity than anything else.
The day after the infamous meeting, David and I were debriefing with each other. At one point, he commented, genuinely puzzled, “I don’t understand why Mr. Elder had such a problem with you saying people were going to leave. I said the same thing to him a lot more directly, and he was ok with it.” I whirled around (we were walking back to my car after getting lunch), pointed my finger at him, and said furiously, “I know you’re a complementarian, and I still love and respect you, but it’s [explicative] like this that makes it really hard for me to be in a complementarian church.” (I am not normally prone to swearing.) David had no response. He has since then commented to more than one person that he thinks Mr. Elder’s response was “a gender thing.”
The Irony of It All
I am left with two ironies in this story. First, that I advised against leadership requiring people to submit their names if leadership wanted actually honest responses, since individuals might be afraid of retaliation if they said something negative (but honest).
And then I was retaliated against. Point proven.
Second, I’d shown David my responses to the feedback form before I submitted it. I wanted to know we were on the same page. David told me to submit as was, then seemed out-of-sorts afterwards. When I asked why, he commented, “I wanted to help out, too, with a project to get better feedback from the congregation. I was miffed that you didn’t include my name.” I smilingly replied that I’d assumed all along that he’d be involved.
Then, at the meeting where I was taken to task by Mr. Elder, he was genuinely surprised when David said that he agreed with me. It makes me wonder what Mr. Elder had hoped to accomplish by questioning my character in front of my husband (like he’d assumed David would take his side?). It also makes me wonder what his own marriage is like, but I suppose that’s none of my business.
So, my advice to any member of church leadership out there, from children’s ministry director on up… If you can’t handle negative feedback, you have no business asking for feedback. And you probably have no business being in a leadership position.