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December, 2011
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The Elephant in the Sanctuary

by, Dr. Chris Gambill

The “elephant in the room” is a common metaphor that’s used to describe an issue or problem that we know is real, but no one wants to talk about. Forget the room. For those of us engaged in the common life of a congregation, the more important metaphor and question is, “Is there an elephant in your sanctuary?”

From my point of view as a church consultant and clergy coach, it appears there’s been an elephant invasion as of late. As a result, there is a high likelihood that there is one in your sanctuary. I have encountered several elephants lately in my work with congregations. Perhaps one of the following is similar to the one in your sanctuary. 

  • The “We’re stuck and don’t know what to do next” elephant
  • The “We are in conflict, but everyone’s afraid to admit it” elephant
  • The “attendance at worship and programs is steadily declining but may not fix itself” elephant
  • The “It feels like we are just drifting along without any real sense of direction or purpose” elephant
  • The “Our buildings have become our biggest burden but we don’t want to give them up” elephant
  • The “Our leadership and governance structures aren’t working anymore but we’re afraid to change them for fear of upsetting someone” elephant
  • The “Almost everyone here is over 50 and we may not have a long-term future” elephant
  • The “Money is getting tighter with every passing year but we don’t want to make hard choices about how we spend it” elephant
  • The “We want to be faithful and missional but there aren’t enough volunteers to make things work” elephant
  • The “We want to be faithful and effective as a congregation but don’t want to make any changes that would be uncomfortable” elephant
  • The “we need to have an honest conversation about our situation but are afraid we can’t talk without fighting” elephant.

These elephants are pretty common, but you may have a somewhat different one inhabiting your sanctuary. Regardless of what kind of elephant you have, it is an unwelcome guest. Congregations often find themselves stuck in trying to figure out how to address their elephant problem. The first step in getting rid of it is to honestly admit as a congregation that you have been allowing one to live in your sanctuary. This seemingly simple step can be surprisingly difficult to take. Most congregations are loath to turn a critical eye towards themselves. It’s one thing to recognize the elephant in someone else’s sanctuary but quite a challenge sometimes to recognize the one in yours. In general, we had rather play the role of the prophet Nathan (“Thou art the man!”) than David, the recipient of the prophet’s hard words.

There is a common myth in congregations that keeps elephants alive and well. That myth is that talking about a difficult subject will make it worse. In our experience at the Center, talking about an elephant—a difficult issue—doesn’t make it worse. It just makes people feel worse when they begin the conversation. If you really want to evict the elephant in your sanctuary, the only effective strategy is to make the choice to name it and begin a constructive conversation about solving the problem.

The modifier I just used—constructive conversation—is a critical one. A constructive conversation begins by naming the problem—not by placing blame on a scapegoat for allegedly causing it or not fixing it. Blaming and scapegoating is an unfortunate but common tendency when congregations finally get tired of living with their elephant. This approach does nothing to solve the problem and can easily polarize a congregation around the “blamed” and the “blamers.” Problem solving can only occur by focusing on the problem and seeking to create solutions under the leadership of the Spirit.

Constructive conversations about elephants need a thoughtful structure if they are to be productive and redemptive. Unfortunately, this also seems to run counter to the first impulses of many congregations. I wince when I hear of yet another congregation that is about to have a “town hall meeting” to talk about a difficult issue. More times than not, such meetings end up in a shouting match that appears to reinforce the myth that talking about a difficult things makes it worse. Inviting a large group of people into a room and saying, “Let’s talk about our issue” usually means you will hear from the following people: The extraverts who enjoy talking in a group, the most angry or upset people in the room, and those who want desperately for everyone to get along and the problem to go away. Tackling a real elephant—an emotionally charged or complex issue for which there is no easy solution—requires structure that allows even those who are not usually inclined to speak out to have a voice in the conversation. Often, these may be the very people you most need to hear from.

Finally, congregations need mature leaders who can keep an elephant conversation “in bounds.” These leaders need courage to stand up in the midst of a tension-filled room and not panic or give up when the conversation gets uncomfortable. They also need genuine faith—both in themselves and in God—to be able to say to the group, “I believe through the gift of God’s Spirit we can work together to solve our problem.” And they need the ability to remain calm, objective and aware of what’s happening in the group in order to facilitate a productive conversation. Admittedly, there are some cases were the elephant might be so big and scary that a congregation needs an objective outsider (such as a consultant/facilitator) to help them have the conversation they need to have. In either case though, the elephant won’t leave until the congregation can begin the conversation about how to evict it. The good news is that no matter how long you have had one in your sanctuary, its never to late to start the eviction process. A sanctuary should be an elephant-free zone.

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