The Next Faithful Step
Anyang Korean Methodist Church
The Anyang Korean Methodist Church, near Seoul, had out-grown its building and its parking lots. So the pastor wanted to move the congregation a few miles to an area that the city government would open to them. But there was a problem.
When Rev. Moonhyun Baik broached the elders about the move, they opposed it. The building had enormous symbolic importance to the elders and to the people of the congregation. During the Japanese occupation, Koreans were not allowed to worship God. The Anyang church protested and built this building. And, when the soldiers came and boarded up the building, the congregation worshiped just outside its doors. Some people were killed for this. This building became the place where the community stood up against the Japanese invaders. One elder summarized the sentiment of the people when he said, “My fathers died here and my brothers built it block by block.” The church was not leaving its building.
This created something of an impasse. The pastor knew that the congregation needed to move, but he also knew that the people could not imagine how they could claim to honor their forebears if they did move. What was Rev. Baik to do?
Korean pastors carry enormous authority within a congregation and a community. So, at first glance, it seems that the pastor make adopt a structural approach to leading and make a decision for the congregation despite the opposition. There is, after all, a tradition of Korean pastors following their own counsel. But Korean elders also have great authority, especially those who are both advanced in years (i.e. aged elders) and duly designated for congregational leadership (i.e. elected elders). And there was the implicit authority of the martyrs who died for the right of the people to worship in that building.
Often in such situations, Korean pastors who subscribe to the structural model will choose to exert their authority even if some elders choose to leave the congregation. But Rev. Baik did not want to split the church so he did not take the structural approach. If he had acted purely as a relational pastor, then he would often shelve the idea of moving because it might open too many old wounds. Relational pastors don’t want to endanger relationships. But Rev. Baik knew that the congregation had in fact outgrown the facility. And he knew that the relational approach would require him to ignore the problem. Pretending the problem would go away did not seem much of a solution either.
So Rev. Baik acted like a gardener in that he built an environment for the congregational leaders to grow into a solution. He first decided to extend the process for discernment, giving the congregation time to live into the problem. He created for the elders what we have called a holding environment. He never forced them to act, but he never removed the problem from their sight either. He gave them a safe place to work on the problem and he kept the problem ever before them. So he announced that the church would not move unless the board of elders was unanimously in favor of moving.
But Rev. Baik did not want the elders to ignore the problem. He wanted to get them to feel what Ronald Heifetz calls the “pinch of reality.” They needed to understand that staying in the old building was creating deep and significant problems. So the pastor conducted a survey that gathered the complaints about classrooms and parking in writing for the elders to see. He documented that some people had to circle for fifteen minutes looking for a parking spot. And, by planting the complaints of the people in the minds of the elders, he made it difficult to deny that the problem existed. In other words, he made avoidance difficult.
But when the results of the survey came back, he did not push his agenda. He had turned up the heat with the complaints, so he turned down the heat by letting the elders discuss the survey at their own pace. He did not want them to feel trapped any more than he wanted them to deny that the problem existed. The pastor kept the elders focused on the question but he did not assert his own prerogatives. “I will wait,” he reminded them, “until everyone agrees with this project.” And then he gave his reason, “If it is God’s will, we all will agree with each other and do it happily.”
Over time, some of the elders began to understand the need. Those elders argued now in favor of the project. But Pastor Baik did not let them advance their cause too forcefully. No one had yet come up with a way to deal with the fact that the building itself carried deep symbolic meaning. He kept those who opposed the project from flying off by continuing to say that the church would wait for consensus. But he kept the elders focused on the problem out of a trust that eventually a new option would emerge from them.
After many months, an elder spoke who had not been particularly vocal. He was an architect who had used the months that the extended discussion created to research the church’s problem. “I can design the new church right now,” he began, “And we can use the blocks from the current church building to construct the new one. If we do this, we will need more money because will have to disassemble our old building carefully enough that we can rebuild with it in the new place. But it is possible.” It seemed that the new option the pastor hoped for had emerged.
Still, the pastor did not push the dissenters. “We respect you as aged elders and as elders of the faith,” the pastor said, “We need more time to think and pray.” He wanted to protect those who still did not agree with him so that there was time for the new ideas to take root. He wanted to let this solution that the elders had cultivated grow in the dissenters until it became their own.
The elders met many more times. But finally the elders all agreed. They would build a new church from the bricks of the old one. They raised the extra money and built a larger version of their church a few miles away.
Rev. Baik found a way to honor the elders in his church (and a way to honor the memories of the martyrs) and a way to meet the needs of the growing congregation. It was a solution that the pastor could never have imagined nor had the credibility to implement on his own. But by creating a holding environment where it was safe for the elders to struggle with the problem, he nurtured the people until a happy result sprouted in their midst.