Monday, September 19, 2016

Readiness for Revitalization

In my last blog, I began a series on revitalization.  I started with an emphasis on leadership and I will return to that topic in a further blog.  In it I will explore the characteristics and behaviors that I have seen over the years with clergy who are able to help a congregation revitalize their life?

In this blog, I want to change focus for a moment to move toward what I think is one of the most important issues in congregational revitalization, namely the congregation’s readiness to undertake this process.  Far more Episcopal congregations need revitalization than are willing to take on the process in a healthy manner. 

Often new clergy are recruited or sent to congregations to lead this process without the congregation and especially its leadership buying in to the need for change.  The congregational leaders are assuming that if we just had a new and younger ordained leader who will help us recruit some new families with children, we will be alright.  Once the price of revitalization becomes apparent (it is always CHANGE) then the congregation reacts, then frequently resists, and even can sabotages the process.

My first experience as a Rector was exactly this kind of situation.  I naively thought that given the desperateness of the situation, members would understand the need for change.  At my first Annual Meeting, I plaintively said, “Many of you don’t seem to understand that this congregation must change or it will die.”  A long time member stood up and responded, “No, you don’t understand.  We would rather have the congregation die than change.”  He was right.

So, what are the signs that a Church is ready to seriously undertake revitalization? 

I would list these:

  1. An honest and frank assessment of their true situation that is shared broadly with the membership. 
  2. A willingness to engage with new ordained leadership in a 5 year process of Change.  This means no terminations.  When a congregation engages a new clergy person for the purpose of revitalization, I would establish a 5 year contract between Priest and Congregation.  (It is one of the only times that I agree with having a contract.)  If you fire the clergy person, you will pay that person for the full 5 years.  This gives the new ordained leader leverage. 
  3. A willingness to engage with the Diocese by establishing key points of accountability.
  4. A willingness to establish a consulting/coaching relationship with an outside person who helps the local leaders persevere through the process and predictable obstacles they will face.
  5. A willingness to reduce the Vestry to 5 to 7 Key leaders who will not rotate for at least the first three years of this process including establishing or keeping the current Senior Warden for the 3 year period.  The congregation needing revitalization needs continuity.  Bishop Payne used to say, “Put the A team on the field.  This is a critical time for the congregation and we need its best leaders to step up to the work.” 
  6. If the diocese provides financial support, it continues only as long as the congregation keeps to the agreed upon steps of accountability.  I am astonished at the money some dioceses give to subsidize declining and dying congregations even when local leaders are sabotaging revitalization efforts.

Now while all this seems daunting, the good news for Bishops and Staff is that not very many of our declining congregations are ready for this intensive work. Many just need someone to maintain them and help them get to the point of readiness.  This also means that a diocese doesn’t need a whole bunch of ordained Leaders capable of leading revitalization.  These are hard to come by these days.  They just need the right one for the next ready congregation. 

So Revitalization demands a congregation’s readiness to enter a process of change with accountability and intentionality.  If this is present, the Diocese and Congregation can enter a partnership for the revitalization of the congregation that has a reasonable chance of succeeding.  Without this readiness and a cooperative partnership, revitalization has a much smaller chance of ever happening. 

In my next blog, I want to revisit the three types of strategic action that are necessary for congregations that have begun to decline.  

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Christianity: Movement, Organization, Community, or Institution?

Because the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church uses the phrase “The Jesus Movement,” the phrase is catching on around the Church.  I am glad because “The Millennial Goals” and “The Five Marks of Mission” are phrases that have not communicated such energy.  However, the phrase raises a number of questions.  I think the most important one is whether Christianity is fundamentally a Movement, an Organization, a Community, or an Institution?  Of course, historically one can argue that it is all of these things because a religion that has been around for a couple of thousand years would have all these dynamics in it.  The phrase becomes more important for me when applied to the current situation in The Episcopal Church.

When Bishop Michael Curry was elected Presiding Bishop, the Episcopal Church was in serious trouble.  Despite loyalist, particularly Progressive ones, trying to spin an optimistic view, the numbers told a more critical story.  The number of members, attendance, and congregations were all trending down.  On top of a historic 30 year decline of 1/3 of our membership by 2000, since 2000 we have lost another 1/3 of our membership.  Significantly, the major discussion and debate in the year previous to Bishop Curry’s election was over restructuring which was really a kinder way of saying downsizing. 

Bishop Curry seemed to instinctively realize that the problems facing TEC were not in adapting to these historical trends, but in infusing new life, new vision, and positive leadership.  Like any new visionary leader, he brought change in both perspective and in language.   Here is where the phrase The Jesus Movement becomes significant.  It communicates two significant and important truths to Church members.

First, Bishop Curry is reminding us that we are about Jesus and not just good intentions, progressive politics, and inclusion.  By his own account, he learned of this Jesus from his grandmother, and he has never forgotten that the Church and its mission are inseparable from the person, work, teachings, life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  It is from this Jesus that we draw our identity, our purpose, and by His Spirit, the power to accomplish his work of redemption and reconciliation. 

Second, by this phrase he states clearly that the mission of the Church and its organization and institutional life are inseparable.  The fundamental problems facing TEC are not about our General Convention structures, nor our low birth rate, nor our aging membership, nor our lack of gender inclusiveness, nor our loss of mainline status, our problems are fundamentally theological and missiological.  By re-phrasing our identity as a movement, Bishop Curry has changed our paradigm.  This is what a revitalization leader has to do, redefine reality, and all clergy called to such revitalization on a local level should take note and learn from him. 

In further blogs, I hope to extend a conversation about congregational revitalization, so I will leave that last statement hanging, because I want to address the question about a Movement versus an Organization, Community or Institution.  Many years ago, one of my favorite history professors said something, almost in passing, that I have never forgotten.  It is this:

The history of almost every organization or institution whether it is an Empire, a Country, a Political Organization or even a Corporation is the same.  Namely, people discover that they have a common experience or concern.  They gather to draw from one another and start what we would call a Movement.  This Movement generates leaders.  Over time, these leaders create structure and organization.  This Organization creates hierarchy and this hierarchy then generates over time a bureaucracy.  Finally, this bureaucracy creates rules and regulations to assure that the experience that created the Movement is controlled and suppressed. 

He went on to note that this is the history of the most Empires, the Roman Catholic Church, the Communist Party, and will be the history of The United States.  The only thing that can delay this inevitable process for any organization or institution is the leaders’ ability to reinfuse and recapture the essence of the Movement often expressed within a new context.

I believe the history and continual viability of the Church rests the multitude of leaders and movements that have happened within the life of the Church.  When you read the history of Benedict, Francis, or Wesley for examples, you are reading about movements initially held in suspicion by the hierarchy and its bureaucracy. 

The Anglican Church can be seen as a part of the Protestant Movement.  Within Anglicanism, the Evangelical Awakening, the Oxford Movement, and the Social Gospel Movement can all be seen as movements within the organization to rekindle the initial flame and life of a now decaying institution concerned primarily with its own organizational life and institutional survival instead of its mission.  One could say, I would certainly say it, that Anglicanism itself represents an umbrella Organization under which a number of sub-movements and their adherents exist.  Until 2003, I would claim that TEC was a Church that held together at least 6 sub-movements that had generated new life at some point in our Community. 

I would suggest that if everyone reading this thought about it, he or she would realize that our own identity is made to some degree by various movements that have influenced and framed our life.  For any Episcopalian, this means movements in and outside the Church.  I know that I am and remain an Episcopalian because Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Progressives have all had, brace yourself, a positive influence on my life, and as a Southerner, I have also been deeply influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. 

Sydney Ahlstrom of Yale said that one cannot tell the history of Christianity in America by way of denominations, but rather by way of the leaders and movements that have touched each denomination.  Some denominations formed in the last 150 years owe their very existence to one of these leaders or movements. 

Will Bishop Curry’s attempt at reinfusing our calcifying and decaying organization result in revitalization?  It is certainly too early to know.  This one thing, however, is true.  If TEC will have a future, it must begin with Jesus and have his mission and ministry at the center.  If Bishop Curry can help accomplish this, he will have accomplished something significant. 

Remember this; revitalization for Christians in never merely about structure, programs, or strategies.  It will involve these things, but it is first about Jesus and his movement.  All else is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  This is as true on the local level as it is on the Denominational level. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Why Your ASA (Average Sunday Attendance) Matters

I have seen some interesting comments in recent weeks on Facebook about how people understand or interpret a Church’s Average Sunday Attendance.  Since I am a strong advocate of knowing this number and understanding how to use it, I found some of the comments helpful, but another group of them not so.   
For example, one Priest observed that while they had a small ASA, they had an outreach ministry that served over 50 people a week.  The Priest asked, “Why can’t these numbers be added to our ASA to show the importance of this ministry?  Do we think that those who gather for Sunday worship are the only ones that matter?”  I think the outreach numbers are important, but keep reading to find out why “adding them to Sunday attendance” is largely meaningless. 

In a similar vein, a Bishop criticized “ASA envy” and said that congregational impact on the community is much more important than worrying about where a congregation’s average attendance stacks up against other congregation.  In a way, this is the standard criticism in new packaging that I have often heard from more Progressive church folks.  They used to say, “We don’t count numbers!”  Well as Bishop Payne liked to say, “We do count numbers because the numbers represent people and people matter to both God and the Church.”   

So why does ASA matter? 
Remember that ASA is the average of all people who attend a congregation on the Sundays in a year.  Yes this includes the 8am folks.  It also includes A Saturday night service or a Sunday evening service provided that the majority of those who attend such adjunct services do not attend Sunday morning.   

What we learned nearly 25 years ago was that ASA is a more helpful number than membership.  There are lots of reasons for this, but the basic issue is that Churches and Pastors vary greatly in how they count membership.  For example, it is not unusual for a large Evangelical Church to have large attendance, but smaller membership.  Why?  Because to be an official voting member, the congregation requires that you submit proof that you tithe.  On the other end of the scale are Episcopal and other mainline churches that count people as members who have not attended for years.   

Even within a denomination this varies.  I have found that churches that have a long-tenured Rector often show an ASA that is as low as 20% of their membership.  Churches that have had a change in the last two years of a Rector often have an ASA that is nearer to 50% of its membership.  Furthermore, most new church plants can have over 50% of their members attending each Sunday.  There are reasons for this, but the bottom line is that membership varies so greatly that it is not a useful number for understanding a congregation’s life.  I only use membership in the way I just mentioned, measuring the percent of stated members present on an average Sunday.  In an average Episcopal congregation that number is normally 35 to 40%.  It is variations in this “normal” percentage that gets my attention and has me asking “why?” 

So why does ASA matter?  It matters because when you add the attendance for 52 Sundays (yes this includes Easter and it also includes the summer months) one gets a very consistent number.  Easter doesn’t distort things too much because it is only 1/52nd of the total.  What research on congregations has shown us is that ASA tends to group around certain predictable patterns that reveal a congregation’s culture.  These should be familiar to most Episcopal leaders by now.  They are as follows:

ASA of
20 to 50 = Family Size Congregation
75 to 140 = Pastoral Size Congregation
141 – 200 = Transitional Size
200 – 400 = Program Size
400 + = Resource Size 

By the way, the Diocese of Texas pioneered the use of the term “Resource Size Church” because the general protestant term “Corporate Size” seemed too, well, corporate minded.  In addition, these larger congregations are resources to their diocese; they give more than they get back from diocesan resources.   

So ASA gives us a way of diagnosing the type of culture and nature of the congregation as expressed in these descriptive titles. 

A Family Size Congregation (which usually has a bi-vocational, shared, or retired clergy) hold together around a group of key families and households.  These bonds transcend the importance of the ordained person.  Or as one Bishop used to put it, “Our Family Size Churches are clergy immune!”   I would add that they have to be. 

A Pastoral Size Church is a congregation with enough people and money to have a full-time, seminary trained, ordained leader.  I point out that in a Pastoral Size Episcopal Church that the Parish Calendar and the Priest’s Liturgical Desk Calendar is the same thing. 

Transitional Size is not a true culture but reflects a congregation often caught between the small Pastoral Size and the larger Program Church.  This is a hard transition and few churches make it. I could write a book about this topic.  Oh wait, I already did, The Myth of the 200 Barrier. J 

You might find it interesting that while there are some variations in larger Program to Resource Churches, (see Alice Mann’s book on this topic) the Program Churches can grow to almost 800 ASA by just doing well what they are good at.  As as long as facilities, staff, and program are expanded to incorporate new people growth can continue.  This is why large churches have an advantage over smaller ones.  The transitions from Family to Pastoral and from Pastoral to Program are radical cultural changes.  While there are significant changes when a Church’s ASA passes 800 in the Culture of a large church, this is not a topic for Episcopalians.  We have only a handful of congregations with an ASA larger than 800.   

So, let’s get this straight; there is no virtue in a church simply having a larger ASA than another church.  There are significant and impactful Family Size Churches and there are also dysfunctional ones.  There are significant and impactful Pastoral Size Churches and there are also sick and dysfunctional ones.  And, believe it or not, there are even unhealthy and dysfunctional larger congregations.  ASA is important, but it does nothing to tell you about a congregation’s vitality and health or its mission impact on its community.  These simply have to be measured in other ways and I have always encouraged Dioceses to develop these measurements.   This should address the “impact” and “ASA envy” issues mentioned at the beginning.   

It also tells us why adding the folks who come to your Food Bank or other outreach ministry to ASA is meaningless.  If you want to measure impact, just count the people who are served or supported by these ministries.  In addition, you will want to measure the number of volunteers who do these ministries because if it is a small percentage of the congregation, the ministry is at risk.   

How is the ASA trending?
Now, we can turn to one other diagnostic question.  By noting the ASA for say ten years, we now can see the trend for a congregation.  So we can take the graph provided by the staff at our Church’s headquarters and determine whether a Pastoral Church is declining, growing, or stable.  If you are in an Episcopal Congregation that has been stable or growing for the past 10 years, then you are to be congratulated.  You are bucking the overall trend of the decline of the Episcopal Church.  Generally speaking, our Pastoral Size Churches are in decline and our Family Size ones are in serious decline.  These sizes make up 80% of Episcopal Congregations and this is one of the main reasons why our denomination remains in decline.  I should point out that this decline of smaller congregation is a serious crisis for many of our Dioceses.  It is a topic worthy of much more discussion and strategic planning by Bishops and diocesan staff.   

One more observation should be made about all this ASA information.  Note that there are two kinds of growth in churches.  There is growth that is congruent with the congregational culture.  There is also growth that is transformational, from one size to another.  The first type of growth usually feels good to Church people.  The second, transformational, brings stress and sometimes tension.   

Your ASA and how this is trending is a very helpful tool to Clergy, Vestries, Bishops, and Church Consultants.  If you want to use it for other purposes, I will give you some golf advice.  I don’t let my score in a particular round determine my self-esteem.  Do not let the ASA of your congregation determine the esteem of your members or your Clergy person.  These should be measured by the joy, love, mutual support, and caring outreach which you share together as a community in Christ. 



Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Congregational Leadership Needs to Strike the Right Balance for Creative Leadership

 Catherine Thompson is the Rector of Church of the Annunciation in Lewisville, Texas.  Since I came to faith and the Church when Annunciation was a mission church of the Diocese of Dallas in the late 50s, I was pleased when she asked me to give her some coaching last year. 

She is facing two interesting challenges in taking on the calling of Rector to this congregation.  First, she has all the issues of following an over 20 year tenure of her predecessor.  I have written on these challenges in other places, so for this blog, let me just say that thanks to her predecessor’s work at the end of his tenure, and the good lay leaders of that congregation, and her own pastoral abilities, she is weathering through this well. 

Second, she is facing the on-going challenges of a church moving back and forth between the conflicting demands of an over-grown Pastoral Size congregation and an under-developed Program Size.  This issue will take a much long time to address.  In fact, I could write a book on this topic.  Oh wait, I already did. 

In this blog, I want to share a creative way that Catherine discovered to help build a more cohesive and creative Vestry.  She had been doing a great job in getting the Vestry centered on goals and what needed to be addressed for the future.  They have over-come some substantial hurdles in debt reduction and staffing.  However, at the same time such intentional goal directedness has a tendency to wear on even the best congregational leaders.  She was sensing that this year she needed “something” different from goal setting at her Vestry Retreat.  I suggested that her hunch was right and that she needed to do something that focused on the health and mutual support of leaders for and to one another. 

She came up with a great plan and she gave me permission in this blog to share it with you.  This year Catherine began the retreat by stating her intention to set goals aside and focus on the life of the vestry.

She then shared a video presentation  “Why Leaders Eat Last,” by Simon Sinek with her leaders.  (Here is the link  ) 

 In the presentation, the teacher focused on creating a safe place for people to work together.  It points out the pitfalls of not attending to creating this kind of safe place and how humans who do not feel such safety react to challenges and changes, mostly in negative ways.  Catherine then led the members in a discussion of what they needed to do to make the Vestry such a place. 

The results were surprising and insightful.  After an open and frank discussion of the needs they felt, the Vestry eventually returned to some planning.  This time there was a surge of energy, creativity, and commitment that had been lagging in recent meetings.  As I listened to the story, I could also hear the energy that Catherine felt from that retreat.   

What did Catherine learn from this creative venture?  I would suggest that she learned one of the fundamental truths of healthy community life.  It is the need to strike the right balance between task and group life.   

Many years ago, I learned this truth in my early work in organizational development.  It came from a secular source, but it has direct application to the Church.  I would say it has even more application to the Church.  This truth is at any moment in a group’s life there are two needs.  One is the need for structure and meaning that comes from “purposefulness.”  Individual and groups of humans badly need a sense of purposefulness.  We need, in other words, goals and direction.  We need to know where we have been and where we are going.  An essential element of what we call “self-esteem” is found in such purposefulness.  Many parents need to learn this lesson in regards to their children.  For years, parents have been urged to praise their children and this does have value, however if the praise isn’t attached to purposefulness, the praise soon sours into meaninglessness or worst narcissism.   

Second, a group also needs to attend to its affective life of mutual trust, caring, and create what we are seeing in this blog to be “a safe place” to belong.  It has been my experience that many Vestries pay far too little time dealing with this issue or striking this balance.  Even a vestry that primarily meets and maintains corporate life in reports, budgets, and plumbing, will grind out into a un-healthy place over time.  Here is a critical point; “community” in the New Testament doesn’t just happen by carrying out business, even purposeful business.  It happens when we attend to the needs of our interior corporate life. 

Of course it is possible for Church leaders to become too preoccupied with the interior life to the point of abandoning purposefulness for an attempt at emotional well-being, but this happens much less than the grind of usual life.  I have met many former Vestry Members who tell me that after a term on their local Vestry, they would never serve again.  When I ask why, they refer to how lacking in trust, love, and mutual regard, their experience was.  What a sad testimony for a Christian Church where such behavior is supposed to be normative for us. 

Notice that I say striking the right balance because this is the challenge that leaders face.  We need to know how to maintain this healthy balance and the sign of it is creativity, spontaneity and a sense of meaningful work.  I also like the way Catherine introduced this topic from outside by way of the video.  Often the least effective way at getting to this balance is to announce that we need to “look at the way we relate to one another” which can often create the exact tension that we need to avoid. 

How about your Vestry, Ministry Team, or Organization?  Are you striking the right balance between these two needs?.  If you are, you can probably feel it and see the fruit.  If you are not, the signs are often low commitment, morale, and mutual regard.     


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Nine Things to do Instead of Balancing the Budget

In this article Balancing the Budget is a short hand metaphor for activities of Vestries and church boards when they are focused on maintenance and not mission.  Many Vestries spend much of their time trying to create a balanced budget then meeting monthly to measure themselves against its performance.  I often say it this way, “With no sense of mission and direction, church leaders spend their time merely trying to manage the maintenance."  This article is about 9 things to do instead of doing maintenance.  It is about activities that we move the leaders and organizations toward mission-centeredness. 

1. Prayerfully seek God’s will for your congregation
Many Church Boards act like directors of a corporation rather than spiritual leaders.  Because in the secular world, many of church leaders have become familiar with organization practices and management techniques, they translate this into the church’s life.  In addition, many elected church leaders have not developed the personal and spiritual disciplines necessary to be a spiritual leader.  Lacking this, they fall back on the skills they know and understand even if these are secular.   

Instead of spending time managing affairs, “balancing the budget,” why not hold a retreat and through scripture, prayers, and personal sharing of our individual’s faith stories, seek to become a united body of spiritual leaders?  Pastors seem to understand that individuals need to grow in their spiritual life, but forget that this is true of groups and communities of Christians.  Much of the New Testament, especially Paul’s letters, is directed toward building up the corporate body of Christ.  In the Scriptures, the primary role of corporate church leaders is to discern the mind of Christ not run the organization.   
2. Do Strategic Planning
This may seem contradictory to the first item, but it is not.  Strategic planning is basically giving feet to the vision.  It is asking the question, “If this is the mind of Christ for us, how do we carry this out?”  It demands, as Stephen Covey rightly says, starting with the end in mind.  From this visionary perspective, we now ask what steps we would take today to make this happen.  

This means that the leaders must spend time reflecting on the past history of the congregation.  You need to ask, “Where have we been and where are we going?”  You will need to create a mission statement that expresses the passion of your congregation.  You will want to do this while involving as many members as possible in this process. 
3. Create a set of 3 to 5 year goals
When I worked for an Episcopal Bishop, I was often sent to local Vestry or Bishop’s Committee meetings. Most started with a brief prayer followed by the reading of the minutes, then the financial report which often set the emotional tone for the meeting.  All this followed a set agenda.  Every once in a while I would meet with leaders whose meetings started quite differently.  The meeting would start with a devotion often led, not by the pastor, but by a lay member of the board.  Then there would be a more extended time of prayer as the leaders prayed for the church and for one another.  Then the meeting would focus, not on the minutes or finances, but the stated and written goals of the board.  These usually spanned from 3 to 5 years.  These goals served as both direction for the leaders, and as points of accountability.  Rather than balance your budget, take time to set short and long term goals.  Review these at each meeting and become a goal oriented spiritual community. 
4. Improve all the means of communications
When I became the Dean of the Cathedral in the Diocese of Dallas, it was a struggling inner city congregation.  It had many challenges.  Where did I begin?  I created a leaders email and sent it out at least once a week.  I put on this everyone who was a leader, those I wanted to be a leader, and those who wanted to be a leader.  I soon had a list of over 100 people in a congregation with 160 average Sunday attendance.  
In this email, I discussed every issue before the community, every decision before the leadership, and what I was thinking as the ordained leader.  I not only shared this information, I actively sought comments and feedback.  This had a number of positive effects for the congregation. 

First, it ended the idea that a small circle of people around the pastor made all the decisions.  Second, it de-mystified issues and the reasons for certain decisions.  When I changed the times of the Sunday services, a sacred formula in most churches, I did not have one piece of resistance.  By the time the change came, everyone knew why I was doing it, what the options had been, and that we would evaluate this at a future point.  I can assure you that not everyone would have voted for the particular change that I made, some might have preferred another options, but all understand and felt that I had listened to their concerns.  

Most church leaders consider “communications” what they say to others. It is seen only as a top down activity.  Communications is multi-dimensional.  It involves this first part of what leaders say.  It also involves what members say to leaders, and what they say to one another.  Improving communication should be a must strategy in today’s world where all members demand more of a part in the decision making process. 
                                                  5. Upgrade your hospitality ministries
Most congregations do an adequate job at hospitality toward guests and visitors, and a very poor job of following up potential new members.  This may not be true of the fast growing, non-denominational, mega church out on the city loop, but it is true of almost all mainline or long established congregations.  

Most aging congregations think of themselves as friendly people, and they are.  They are friendly to the people they know.  They are not friendly toward the stranger.  Sometimes, they even act inappropriately toward strangers making them stand up or singling them out with name tags etc.  

Hospitality is not just a work of a greeters group or the church staff.  The leaders should spend time taking about the hospitality and assimilation ministries, improving them and know who the new members and potential members of the congregation are. 

Here are some questions for church leaders to answer related to newcomers:
What brought them to you?
How did they find you? 
Why did they stay? 

Leaders can also spend time planning an intentional path toward involvement.  Even consider asking those who did not join why they did not become members.  
6. Recommit your congregation to ministry with youth and children
While this should be a no-brainer, it is incredible how so many congregations age and lose touch with ministry to younger people and younger families.  The future is about the next generation, not the present one.  Here are some ideas to carry out renewed ministry to this group.

Plan activities that meet the needs of young families
Review your worship according to which generation it most serves
Quicken the pace of the liturgy; most were designed for life in the early 1920’s.
Add inspiration – for many mainline churches “inspiration” seems to be a negative word, but it is essential in connecting with today’s younger generations. 

Have your leaders review information about generational differences and emerging trends among congregations that reach young people in larger numbers.  You may not want to do all that such churches do, but you will want to do some of them.  The alternative can be found outside many church buildings.  It is called the cemetery!
7.  Improve the Stewardship
Instead of balancing the budget, why not have your church leaders focus on the stewardship of your congregation.  How does it compare to other churches in your judicatory, your community or region?  Focus on both the number of givers and the quality of the gift.   

As leaders, focus on the issue of year-round stewardship.  Avoid the trap of making stewardship a one time event in the fall.  Do not make stewardship only about money.  Focus on time and talents also. Consider holding a ministry fair where the various ministries and activities of the congregation are held up before your members. 

As church leaders, invite leaders of various ministries to your board meeting and ask them what resources they need to carry out their work.  And, of course, leaders should model stewardship to all your members.
8. Give the Pastor (and other clergy and staff) affirmation
Many church boards give little attention to the well-being of those who serve the congregation.  I am not just taking about the “Pastor-killing” congregations.  Even healthy congregations often take those who serve for granted.   

As leaders consider giving quality time and support to continuing education.  Review your benefits package.  Consider giving your pastor a raise.  In my denomination, clergy do not get financial increases, except for cost of living, unless they move to another congregation.  
9. Re-think your Budget by asking tough questions
Instead of balancing the budget, review the budget with some important criteria.  Ask yourselves these questions:

Does this budget reflect our mission?
Does it give balance to all our goals?
Does it express the passion, values and heart of our congregation?
Does it call people to commitment and sacrifice?
Is it balanced more toward maintaining the organization or in accomplishing Kingdom goals for our Savior?   

I close this article with this truth.  While it is true that most every congregation has individuals with deep spiritual lives, the corporate spiritual life of a church cannot exceed the corporate spiritual life of its leadership.  Abandon balancing the budget and make mission the priority, commitment of your leadership, and God will transform the life of your congregation.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Suggested New Year’s Resolution for Clergy

Note: Since I am an Episcopal Priest and almost all of my readers are Episcopalians or Anglicans, these comments are intended to apply primarily to us. 

I have been a clergy person for 44 years and during that time I have preached many sermons, heard many sermons, and even taught preaching.  Now that I am retired, I get to hear a lot of other people preach. I know that most of my colleagues consider themselves to be good preachers, so you might be curious as to my suggested New Year’s Resolution to all of us.  Here it is. 

I resolve that in 2016 I will become a more effective communicator (of the Gospel.)   

You will note that I put “of the Gospel” in parentheses.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that I think the Gospel is secondary or optional to delivery in a sermon.   I put it that way because the focus of this blog is on “effective communications” and believe me when I say that most of us have some work to do in this area. 

Fred Craddock, in his book Preaching, says that there are two tasks that a preacher faces each time we prepare.  The first is having something to say.  This takes study, analysis of the text in its context, and the ability to understand what the writer is saying using commentaries and other resources.  From this we think through the message that we want to convey to the congregation.  I have always liked Craddock’s idea of creating in my own words a one sentence declarative statement of the message I want to share and seeing to it that all my sermon material, teaching, and illustrations hold to this message.  He and others call this The Sermonic Sentence. 

Craddock also devotes the second half of his book to saying it effectively.  A sermon is not the mere restating of what we learned as we studied the text.  It is also communicating in an effective manner using the skills of rhetoric to our advantage.   In one very helpful chapter he lists twelve effective forms that have been used in oral communication throughout history.  Instead of giving us their technical names, he gives us descriptive ones. 

For example, there is the “Not this, Not this, Not this, But this” form.  If you have heard a good preacher use this method, or seen a good essayist write with it, you know that it builds a message to an effective climax.  We find exactly this form in the first chapter of John’s Gospel as the writer says how we are born as children of God; not by race, ethnicity, or family (the genetic code), not by human desire, but by the power of the Spirit.  I have often heard sermons on this text and wondered why the preacher did not choose to use this effective method to communicate rather than explain three points the preacher believes found in the text.   

Then there is the “Not this, But this” method.  This is an message in which contrast is used to illuminate an important distinction and truth.  “There was a man who had two sons,” Jesus declares as he uses contrast to make a vivid point about willing obedience.  Contrast is frequently used in the Scripture because it is rhetorically effective. 

One method he mentions is the “Explore, Explain, Apply” sermon.  In this method, the preacher explores the meaning or possible meanings of the text, explains some of the implications, and finally applies this for the listeners.  It is a good method and useful.  I believe this is now the dominate method used by most of our clergy.  This is true for several reasons, but three primary ones stand out.  First, it is taught in our seminaries and modeled by our professors because it is an effect teaching pedagogy.  Second, it is a form that allows a preacher to craft a coherent written document and most preachers today preach from a manuscript. Third it allows the preacher to present material in a detached and objective manner often preferred by college educated people.  Unfortunately, it also makes most sermons topical with our points sometimes far removed from the intent of the writer. 

I heard an example of this not long ago on Jesus healing the ten lepers.  The preacher ‘explored’ the attitude in the ancient world toward lepers who were social outcasts and believed cursed by God.  Then the preacher ‘explained’ how Jesus was often compassionate toward the poor, hurting, outcasts, and people seen as socially inferior such as Samaritans and women.  He duly noted that the one who returned to give thanks was a Samaritan.  The conclusion was that Jesus demonstrated “inclusion," God’s acceptance and inclusion of all people.  The preacher ‘applied’ this to our world and the Church and our attitude toward those who we see as different such as gay and lesbian people.  One is left to wonder what a person with leprosy or some other serious illness would take away from the passage.   

Sometimes when Episcopalians use this method, we downplay the application leaving our listeners to work this out on their own.  I heard one teacher say “I don’t bother much with application because to me the point is obvious.”  I have talked to lots of lay folks on this matter and I can assure you that they often say that the application is for them the most important part.  They are like the crowd on the day of Pentecost who interrupt Peter’s sermon and demand “what should we do?”   

Now here is my point.  This is the major method used most often today.  It is clearly habitual for many preachers to gather our sermons within this framework.  What we do not realize is how the overuse of this method defeats effective communication in two ways.  It makes us very predictable and applied to all texts ignores other more creative ways of communicating.  Take my example from John’s Gospel.  Why make it an Explore, Explain, Apply sermon when John has already demonstrated in a great piece of literature a more effective way of doing this.  In fact, what I noticed is how often I have fallen into the overuse of one way of presenting my message and how often I see this in other preachers.  Unfortunately, this is an area where our tendency to develop a habit defeats our intended goal to communicate and to communicate effectively. 

Here I found Craddock a great help.  I took the twelve forms from his book and listed them on a note pad on my desk where I did my preparation.  I began with study intending as he says to have something to say.  I would then ask myself what form of oral communications would more effectively bring out my message.  I found that this gave me greater flexibility and creativity in preaching.  I noticed that some forms were already suggested by the literary form of the text.   

Once I was preaching in a large congregation where the Rector used the same structure for preaching on every text.  I got up to preach on the Prodigal Son.  I started with these words, “It takes a prodigal like me to tell this story.”  Then in narrative form, I delivered the story moving toward the first person as though I was the desperate and lost son overcome by the Father’s love and stunned by the older brother’s resentment.  I ended and to my surprise, I got a standing ovation.  The Rector was dumbfounded.  Later he asked me how I was able to get such an amazing and spontaneous response.  I tried to explain that his habitual form of preaching made my task easy.  People heard the Gospel in a new and different and captivating way.  His predictability along with his analytical form expressed with emotional detachment was hindering effective communication. 

So why not resolve that this year you are going to become a better preacher by becoming a more effective communicator of God’s Word?  You could start by getting Craddock’s book, reading his chapters on effective communication, and applying this by keeping his forms in front of you as you wrestle with the enormous task of creatively communicating your sermon. 

Trust me; your people will appreciate it. 


Thursday, October 29, 2015

There is a Deep Flaw in How We Select Future Clergy

When it comes to selecting new ordained leaders for the Church, the current Commission on Ministry System needs serious re-thinking and changes. 

In 1971, the year I graduated from Seminary, the Episcopal Church put in place a system to assist Bishops in the selection and screening of potential clergy.  These Commissions on Ministry (COMs) were intended to be advisory to Bishops and Standing Committees.  I think it is clear after over 40 years that this system has largely failed in helping the Church recruit, select, and train clergy.  TEC is 1/3 the size it was in 1971 and while the Commission on Ministry System is not the primary reason for this, I would contend that it is a major contributor.  Here are some of the issues that I have observed over the years.   

1.      While intended to be “advisory” to the Bishop, in most Dioceses the Commission is de facto the group with the authority to approve aspirants to enter the ordination process.  I can count on one hand in 40 years the number of times that I have seen or heard of a Bishop taking the advice into consideration and decided differently.  

2.     There is research that shows that a committee recruits toward the bell curve of the life experience of its members which explains one of the major reasons why the average age of seminarians continues to go up even with efforts by many in the Church to provide younger generational leaders.  This factor alone could explain the aging of our denomination and the inability we have to reach younger people. 

 (This “unspoken bell curve” speaks to other issues besides age.  For example, in the mid-nineties, and with the Bishop’s permission, I gave the COM of our Diocese the DISC profile (on leadership) and compared this to aspirants who were accepted.  The DISC normative profile of the COM and those of the Aspirants matched.  When we gave the DISC profile to our Church planters, we found they were all a considerably different from the COM and the DISC material suggested that they would be predictably most likely to be viewed negatively by those in the normative profile.  No wonder the Church has so few willing Church planters in ordained ministry.    It might also suggest why so few clergy are able to do revitalization of declining congregations.) 

3.     When the Diocese of Dallas decided to recruit younger aspirants, the Bishop and Standing Committee were forced to by-passed the COM system and in most cases the Bishop directly recruited the people to accept the challenge of considering ordained ministry and actively directed them toward their theological education. Today, Dallas has a remarkable number of outstanding younger ordained leaders. 

4.     Since the ordination process with seminary is often 5 to 6 years long, aspirants have little continuity with a rotating membership.  This contributes to the aspirants often feeling that they are seldom fully accepted and often have to face continuing re-examination by such commissions. 

5.     Commissions on Ministry almost never recruit or challenge younger leaders to consider the ministry as a vocation.  Many tell aspirants that if they “can do anything else in life and be fulfilled than they should do that and not apply for ordination.”  In other professions, people are charged with recruiting the brightest and the best to accept the challenge of entering that profession.  

6.     Almost all people entering the ordination process today are second vocation people.  The argument is that such people have seasoned life experience and therefore will be better leaders more effective in leading congregations and who will be less likely to behave badly.  There is no evidence to support these claims as compared to the past.  

7.     There is evidence to suggest that the people most able to take risks and very difficult assignments that demand sacrifice are in their twenties or older than fifty-five, while those most concerned for their financial package, benefits, and self-care are those in their 30s and 40s especially those who have families.  In other words, we find many new ordained people are low risk takers. 

8.     When leaders of the Church are challenged over the COM system, they almost always respond with “But it is so much better than what we had before.”  Yet few today can tell us what we had before or point to objective evidence that this contention is so.  It appears that clergy who go through this system or like hazed fraternity or sorority candidates who after the hazing are committed to requiring it of those who follow after them.  (Perhaps this explains why many clergy will admit privately that their COM experience felt abusive.) 

9.     In the old system, we had examining chaplains whose task was to assure that the candidates had received an adequate education.  Candidates were examined on content.  COMs tend to focus on more nuanced psychological and personality issues.  There is tremendous emphasis on subjective issues.  

10.  In the COM system there is often tension between the Standing Committee and the COM with a lack of clarity of their roles in the ordination process.   

11.  In the history of the Church, the consistently more effect methods for recruiting, supporting, and developing new clergy are the Mentor model and the Order Model.  In the Mentor Model, the mentor provides support for decades (such as Paul and Timothy) and in the Order Model, the Community provides such mentors and teachers for a lifetime (such as Patrick and his fellow missionaries to Ireland.)  

12.  Almost all Seminaries today claim that they are “Preparing future leaders for the Church.” In most situations this is merely marketing.  No other profession believes that a three year academic experience prepares professionals for leadership.  As one former Navy Captain who entered the ministry explained to me, “When I went to the Naval Academy it was clear that I was being trained to become an Ensign and that the Navy would teach me how to command.  When I went to seminary, I realized that everyone expected us to be able to Captain a ship of almost any size once we graduated.”   

It is true that some Dioceses have made modifications and adjustments to the COM system to try and correct some of these issues, but we need much more radical re-thinking of this method.  In my next blog, I intend to make a few suggestions to improve both our recruiting of younger leaders and our training of newer clergy.