By Eddie Pipkin

I haven’t seen an ice cream truck in the neighborhood in a long time, but whenever I hear that inimitable high-pitched, tinny tune (usually ‘Turkey in the Straw”), I can’t help but grab some cash and run out into the street, and one of my all-time favorite ice cream truck treats: the Choco Taco!  Nothing beats that culinary juxtaposition of chocolatey crunch and soft serve vanilla.  So, I was among the sad to read that Unilever has made the decision to stop producing this one-of-a-kind frozen delicacy.  It happens though.  Times and tastes change.  Business models evolve.  And sometimes you have to cut something loose for the good of the organization (even if it has a small but devoted fan base).  Local churches deal with this quandary on a regular basis.  Every congregation has its sacred Choco Tacos!

First of all, if you are, like me, a fan of the Choco Taco, all may not be lost.  There is some speculation that this is all a clever marketing ploy, and the Coco Taco shall return.  Meanwhile, some deep-pocketed business and entrepreneurs have stepped up to volunteer to take on production if Unilever generally wants to retire that product line.  And there are lists of places popping up to make your own similar treats.  (By the way, if you don’t know what the fuss is about, you can read all about the Choco Taco here, and you can even enjoy some vintage ice cream truck tunes HERE!)

See how we’re panicking to keep that crunchy-creamy goodness alive!  Exactly like that small cadre of dedicated worshipers who lost it when you announced that the “Wednesday night candlelight acoustic hymns and prayers and handcrafted coffee worship service” was being cancelled!

Churches are forced to make changes in order to stay relevant (in style, approach, and emphasis).  The news reports indicated that the Unilever Corp. was looking to consolidate production lines to ensure that their most popular products were in ample supply, what with the current inflationary and supply chain restraints putting pressure on the company.  To simplify that report: the less popular ice cream is being sacrificed for the most popular (relevant) ice cream, because in today’s market, there’s just not enough resources to do it all well.

That sounds like a pretty familiar church leadership briefing: “Currently, we don’t have the resources to do everything we’ve been doing with excellence, so some fringe events, programs, and ministries need to go so that we can make space for the most relevant, most popular, highest impact, most aligned with our vision events, programs, and ministries.”  For the record, that’s exactly what we should be doing!  That’s the meaning of good stewardship.

And yet . . .

While it is sometimes the right move to discontinue a long-tenured and well-loved event, program, or ministry, the decision-making process should always be prayerful and transparent.  Take the time to do a careful analysis, involve all the interested parties, give an opportunity for feedback for those affected, and communicate clearly and often why you’re making the decision you’re making.  The communication aspect is critical.  Carefully explain (repeatedly, with patience, and on all your available platforms) the way that the decision you are making reinforces the vision for the organization and looks toward the future needs and hopes of the congregation.

And yet . . .

Don’t underplay the power of nostalgia and grief in this process.  No matter how solid a decision it is to let something go (or change it dramatically) for the good of the organization, some people who are vested in the discontinued thing are going to be bitter about the decision – this is only natural.  Make space for their grief and struggle with change; give them some space.  (Sometimes leaders short-circuit the decision process or the related messaging because they are anticipating the negative reaction.  This never ends well.)

And yet . . .

Be willing to let someone else step in and take over and keep the beloved thing alive if that is a possibility.  Sometimes, faced with the reality that a program, event, or ministry is about to become extinct due to lack of support or resources, people suddenly step forward with a willingness to offer these desperately needed elements.  Often these are sincere overtures made by talented people.  Take people up on them.  It can be frustrating to have such a last-minute offer (“Where were you the past three years when we were struggling to keep this going?”), but don’t let that honest emotion get in the way of a solution.  Give it a try, being very clear with everyone involved that this is an experiment of a temporary nature – this gives you cover to continue with the shut-down plan if things don’t work out.  Also, as long as individuals or a group are willing to take on a boutique ministry, event, or program, it can be understood that this will be a small, limited operation.  If you have a small contingent of people who are still attached to a ministry that has outlived its broader impact, there is nothing wrong with letting the beloved version continue to exist for that small but attached contingent, as long as you have personnel and resources that are accordingly small and limited and not otherwise desperately needed elsewhere.

And yet . . .

You can also partner with people to find something similar.  If you are needing to discontinue a beloved program, event, or ministry, you might be able to instead partner in it with another church or organization that will share the leadership and resources to keep it going.  This is most popularly an option for outreach and mission initiatives, but it can work very well for sponsoring community events and even for specialized worship opportunities.  It is a great chance to develop ecumenical partnerships.  Two or more churches can work together in a community to do something that is too much work for one congregation alone.  Meanwhile, the pool of potential participants is organically expanded.  Let’s say for example that you wanted to do a worship service geared specifically for families with special needs.  That’s a great idea!  But if three local churches could work together, the opportunity for success would be richly expanded (not to mention the many other positive spin-off aspects of community churches working together.)  On the mission and outreach front, there are great opportunities to work with parasocial organizations and even local government.

And yet . . .

Even when we must discontinue a beloved event, program, or ministry, we can keep elements of the lost thing as part of the new thing.  Or we can retain elements of the lost thing as an occasional special thing (sometimes even transitioning the old thing from a regular occurrence to an occasional special throwback event).  When deciding to discontinue something, do a careful analysis about what it was about that thing that connected so deeply with people, then work to preserve opportunities to experience that sacred, connective thing.  If it was an event that featured new talent, you can find ways to work new talent into your regular events.  If it was a particular element of worship, you can find ways to work that element of worship occasionally into your regular worship experiences.  It’s important to then communicate those creative adjustments to people so that they can find the things to which they previously connected.  It’s also great to reach out to those people who were most deeply affected by changes and see if they are making new, suggested connections.  Give them a chance to process their feelings and offer them support in navigating the changing world.

Change is hard.  Even when it’s good change, it can be hard.  Let’s honor that truth as leaders.

How does your congregation do when needing to deal with its “Choco Taco issues”?  Do you have good processes in place for making decisions about what stays, what goes, and what needs evolutionary transformation?  Do you have strong communication about such decisions that help people understand and embrace them?  Do you search for creative solutions to meet the needs of as many people as possible?  Do you have ways to help people healthily process their nostalgia and grief?  Share your stories of triumph and struggle, your own Choco Taco narratives.