Dark Night of the Church

So what does it take for a congregation to get through the Dark Night of the Church?

In a previous post, we saw that Saint John of the Cross offered three responses that could help: don’t see it as evil, trust that the spirit is doing something, and know that the process will help us find out who we truly are.

Definitely easier said than done.

For Owens and Robinson, authors of The Christian Century article “Dark Night of the Church,” this raises the question: “What kind of leadership does the church need during a dark night of the church?”

Their two part response really speaks to me because I was trained to do the first part.

In his 1990 Harvard Business Review article “What Leaders Really Do,” John Kotter described leadership this way: First, leaders set direction. They look to the future and say, “Here’s where we are going.” Then they set strategies for getting there and prepare people and systems to communicate the new “vision of an alternative future.” Then leaders motivate the people.

© Delstudio | Dreamstime.com - Close Up On A Buddha Statue Hands Holding A Wooden Prayer Beads Rosary PhotoOne of the first meetings I attended with my Unitarian Universalist Association district staff colleagues was about exact that. We had read Kotter’s book and were looking forward to going back to our respective districts and lead.

But that was when our “dreams of fame and fortune” were still very much alive, if only in the form of a 1% rate of growth in membership.

That was over a decade ago. Now that our membership numbers are declining, leading congregations into the future is a murkier task.

“But in a dark night of the soul, other leadership traits are required,” say Owens and Robinson.

A church may not need a leader who casts a vision, sets a direction and rallies everyone around it. A church that’s in a dark night of the soul needs a spiritual director. A good one.

Just as Saint John advised a spiritual director for individuals going through the dark night, so do Owens and Robinson recommend a spiritual director for congregations going through the same thing.

How countercultural it would be for a church in a narrative of decline, with a need for visionary leaders to lead it out of confusion, pain and decline, to have a leader who would be a friend for its soul.

According to Owens and Robinson, “a good spiritual director—an anam cara—has three characteristics that are relevant for a church in the dark night of the soul.”

  • Someone who can help a congregation sit with its experience of the dark night
  • Someone who is willing to relinquish his or her own agenda
  • Someone who possesses the capacity to say, “I’m with you in this.”

This withness is crucial. Owens and Robinson put it this way:

The word withness…speaks to the heart of the soul-friend leader. “I am with you in this dark night; I will be with you when the dawn begins to break; with you in the obscurity; with you in the gratitude.”

Being an anam cara for an entire congregation isn’t necessarily what ministers have been taught to do. But it may be exactly what congregations need.


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