Leading a church is often a lesson in managing and overcoming frustration. Hopefully not all the time. But there are those seasons...
This week I’ve learned a great lesson about triumphing over extreme difficulty and frustration from a very unlikely source – a hotel my wife and I are staying at that’s known as “The Most Bombed Hotel In The World.”
If you Google that phrase (or click here where I’ve done it for you), you’ll read about the Hotel Europa. We’re staying here courtesy of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland who we’ve come to encourage this week.
Thankfully, the hotel hasn’t been bombed since 1994, so we’re very safe here. It’s a beautiful building in the heart of downtown Belfast, and it’s an unexpected blessing to stay in such a nice hotel. Plus, I got to learn something new.
First, let me give you a little history of this hotel, then I’ll share what it can teach us about managing difficulties as church leaders.
Europa: A Short History
The Europa Hotel was built in 1970 and opened in 1971. It suffered its first bombing while under construction.
Over the next 24 years, during what the Irish call the Troubles, it was bombed 32 more times, mostly in the 1970s and early ‘80s.
The reason they bombed this hotel so much? Because it was where journalists who covered The Troubles stayed, so they knew it would make the news.
In researching the history of this hotel (where I sit as a write this article) I learned there are three possible ways to deal with chronic attacks. And I believe they apply as much to emotional and spiritual attacks as they do to actual physical bombings.
(This is in no way meant to diminish the horror of dealing with actual bombs, of course. However, it is important to note than in all those attacks not one person was killed or seriously injured, which makes me feel better about using this story as an example.)
Option 1: Close it down
A recent article in The Irish Times about the Europa begins with this sentence. “It’s nothing short of a miracle that the Europa Hotel in Belfast is still standing.”
The same could be said for the church. After almost 2,000 years of attacks from without and within, the fact that the church continues to not just survive, but thrive is nothing short of a miracle.
Jesus said he’d build his church. And despite everything that has been done to stop it, the church will never die.
However, while Jesus’ church will never die, no such promise exists for individual congregations (as I described recently in what turned out to be a somewhat controversial article, Going, But Not Forgotten: A Tribute To Those Who Help Local Churches Die With Dignity).
Option 2: Board it up
As hard as it is to close a church’s doors, it’s always a better option than giving up, but going through the motions.
That’s what many hotels would have done if they’d been in the Europa’s shoes – board up the windows, but try to keep the hotel running.
The Europa didn’t do that because they knew you can’t run a hotel that way. And their example is an important one for local churches to follow.
Closing a church’s doors may be hard, but giving in to a siege mentality is unthinkable. And cowardly.
I know that’s harsh, but if you’re going to be a church, be the church. Otherwise, close it down, let its assets be used by another church, and move on to something else.
After all, the church has always been at its best, not when things are going smoothly, but when our backs are against the wall.
Option 3: Keep a standing order for new windows
According to the Irish Times, during the years when bombings were a regular occurrence at the Europa, “There was a standing order with a warehouse that had every pane of glass duplicated or triplicated, so they could be immediately replaced. ... Each time, the staff swept up the debris and carried on.”
What a lesson for the church.
No matter what attacks may come at us, no matter how frustrating it may be to feel like we’re always fighting an uphill battle, the church that Jesus promised he would build must always do more than just hang on and go through the motions. We must move forward in faith, strength and grace.
Keeping a standing order for new windows tells everyone on both sides of the conflict, “No, we don’t expect things to be easy, but we’re not giving up or giving in. We’re here to stay.”
While individual congregations may close, the church and our role in it must continue. We’re called to out-love the agents of destructiveness and keep the mission moving forward.
Strength In Weakness
Today, the Europa Hotel stands as a landmark in downtown Belfast. Every year it becomes a more vibrant symbol of the strength and courage of good people standing against and triumphing over violence and evil.
What was its greatest weakness is today its greatest accomplishment.
The church is called to do no less.
If a hotel in downtown Belfast can keep a standing order for windows so that their customer service never lags, despite actual bombs being lobbed at them, we in the church can do no less.
We can’t let the constant frustration of spiritual, emotional, personal or financial attacks cause us to take our eyes off the prize.
Our mandate is clear. Our calling is irrevocable. Our mission is the greatest that has ever been given.
Sweep up the debris and carry on.
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