Don't Stuff the Dog: The perils of spiritual taxidermy.
Recently, I read that actor Alan Alda, most famously of the TV shows M*A*S*H* and The West Wing, wrote a book entitled, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I've Learned. In it, Alda talks about how he had a beloved pet dog when he was eight years old. When the dog died, Alda was so sad about burying it that his father decided to have the dog stuffed instead. ''We kept it on the porch and deliverymen were afraid to make deliveries,'' Alda recalled in an interview with Newsweek. He then continued, ''There are a lot of ways we stuff the dog, trying to avoid change, hanging on to a moment that's passed.''
Strangely enough, churches seem to have a special proclivity toward ''stuffing the dog,'' main-taining programs, buildings, and even members in an attempt to forestall necessary change. In the short term, it's sometimes much easier to stuff a church's pets than to acknowledge their death, grieve their loss, and give them an appropriate burial. These pets may take the form of programs that are tied more to history than to current effectiveness; they may be personal favorites, the ''pet projects'' and ministries of influential leaders who don't want to let go of them; or they may just be familiar mutts that everyone agrees have passed their prime, but are more familiar (or maybe just cheaper) than a new animal. But, like Alda's dog, stuffed ani-mals might bring temporary comfort to those inside the organization, but they may actually turn off or even frighten newcomers who aren't familiar with the history and meaning behind them. Whether it's a particular worship style, a ritual, an outdated program, or even a power-ful clique within the church, visitors will usually be quick to notice that something's not quite right. They may not stick around to find out what, or why.
Who will identify the body?
One of the key tasks of a good leader is to acknowledge reality within the organization. In churches, this responsibility falls to the pastor and the lay leadership. Sometimes, that means burying a beloved pet, rather than propping it up in denial of its passing… even if it's your pet. I know a pastor who was so attached to a Sunday-evening service, he kept it propped up for years, even when flagging attendance indicated it was clearly a dying breed in their com-munity. This pastor eventually left for another church, where one of his first actions was to resurrect (you guessed it!) a Sunday-night service. But although it is never easy to bury a dead pet, identifying a dog that won't hunt can actually help build trust between the congregation and church leadership, as it demonstrates that we are willing to take risks in the pursuit of greater Kingdom effectiveness.
Gone, but not forgotten…
I knew a college student whose parents told her over the phone that her beloved dog was alive and well, when it reality it had died months earlier, shortly after she first left home for school 2,000 miles away. Those parents thought they were helping their daughter avoid pain, but the next time she came home, they had to work through her grief and her loss of trust. For the ministry leader, a potential danger is to bury the ministerial dog without telling any-one that it died, or worse, without even acknowledging that it existed. Burying a dead dog does not diminish its significance to the church family. On the contrary, a proper burial should include celebration of the metaphorical pet's impact, as well as acknowledgement that some people will need to grieve the loss over a period of time. Even when everyone agrees that an animal (ministry or program) is dead, a wise leader will allow time to process the loss, in-stead of just bringing home a new pet. This is especially true for leaders like me, who can be quick to implement change without taking time to unpack the history of an organization or acknowledging the emotional and spiritual impact—both positive and negative—of past pets. May God help me to be wise! Whether a church's ''pet'' is significant to you personally, we need to realize that there may be a lot of emotion stirred up by its passing. Recognize the loss, but celebrate the life, as well. Remember: Keeping your dog's picture on your desk is much different than keeping the actual dead dog on your desk, at your feet, or propped up in your leadership meetings or even the church foyer. In a healthy church, only the nursery will have stuffed animals.
May God help all of us to have His eyes… let your Board of Directors know if you perceive that we have a 'stuffed dog' at New Leaf. We, as the Body of Christ, want NOTHING that will encumber us or impede our efforts to Love the Lord, Love One Another, and Make Disciples for Jesus Christ!
Rev. Scott T. Walsh
110 Gateway Ave Conneaut, OH. 44030 440.593.2525