It’s hunting season, and the woods and fields are filled with dedicated hunters intent on bagging a trophy or simply putting food on the table. Not a good time to be a deer.

It’s approaching the end of the year and most churches continue to feel the negative impact of the Great Recession. The halls are filled with anxious deacons and worried finance committee members. Not a good time to be a pastor.

During these rocky economic times, a consistent scenario seems to be playing out in many churches. Offering plate receipts are sliding. Gifts to the capital campaign are down. Budget adjustments have to be made, and since the vast majority of a typical congregation’s budget is fixed (facilities and personnel), mission and ministry dollars are the ones that bear the heaviest cuts. Despite belt-tightening in increasingly creative ways, the bottom line remains troubling.

Into this highly anxious mix a voice begins to be heard. The Bible calls it “murmuring.” It is a voice that seeks someone to blame for the economic ills that plague the congregation.

Leviticus 16 describes a community blaming practice known as “scapegoating.” On the Day of Atonement, an innocent goat was burdened with the sins of the people and sent out into the wilderness to perish. The goat’s death was an attempt to distract judgment from the actual sinners, of course. Thankfully, Jesus brought us a much more appropriate way to deal with our sin when he taught us about grace, repentance, forgiveness and redemption.

Sadly, over the centuries scapegoating has become far too common among people as a means of diverting attention from actual causes to projected ones. When we find someone to blame for some event or reality that seems out of our control, we absolve ourselves of the need to self-reflect. We never consider the possibility that we may be part of the problem, or that the problem is much more complex than we would want to believe.

As hazardous as it is for a big buck to wander into a clearing in a rural area in mid-December, it is nearly as risky to be a Baptist minister in front of the people explaining that 2011 will be another tough year financially. Never mind that the average Protestant congregation has experienced significant declines in attendance and financial support in recent years. If it happens in our church, there are those who believe it is their calling to find someone to blame and to do so loudly and regularly.

Many clergy are living in fear that the blame for such declines will be laid at their feet alone. Granted, clergy need to take the lead in being responsible, proactive and innovative with regard to declines, but there are seasons when only measuring success by counting “nickels and noses” will result in negative results for nearly everyone.

When that happens, the temptation to scapegoat will often rear its ugly head in some fashion or another. Unfortunately, the opportunity to go deep beneath the symptoms and ask important and challenging questions about how we do church, why we do what we do, how we have cheapened discipleship, and a host of others is lost. Scapegoating is always ugly, usually very expensive, and blatantly unchristian.

What if, instead of scapegoating, we use our time of crisis to re-evaluate how we live out the Great Commandments and Great Commission in our particular time and place? What if, instead of resorting to blaming, we drop to our knees and collectively began to open our hearts to the possibility that God is about a new thing among us?

What if, rather than buy into the notion that replacing a pastor or minister will solve our problem, we dig deeper and discover how to be the church in a culture, time and place that no longer passively supports our efforts to do so? What if we take our fingers off the trigger and instead grasp each other’s hands and support one another during this rough stretch?

It’s a tough life to be a deer during hunting season. Are these dangerous days to be a minister, or are these days filled with possibilities? Your church will have to choose. One way leads to an unfortunate cascade of conflict. The other can lead to the rich opportunities God has set before us. I hope you will choose wisely.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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