Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Lessons Learned: The Power of the Pulpit in Leadership

Years ago, I subscribed to “Preaching Today.”  They would mail out a monthly tape cassette with two sermons.  Between them were workshops and interviews that were quite helpful. There I found two great preachers and teachers who influenced me both as a preacher and a leader. One was Fred Craddock.  I used his book “Preaching” in workshops and when I taught preaching at the Stanton Center in Dallas.  My favorite, however, remains Bruce Thielemann.  If you have never heard one of his sermons, do a web search and listen.  You will be richly rewarded. He not only preached well, he also helped many of us learn the power of the pulpit in the arsenal of the clergy leader.  

Here are some important things that I learned from Thielemann.

Christianity is about BIG and IMPORTANT things. Do not waste your time explaining minor points from this Sunday’s lectionary.  Preaching allows us to set the main agenda and what is demanded from us as Christians and as the Church.   

I add a subset to this by always reminding Episcopal Clergy that if we don’t preach on the mission of THE church and our mission as a congregation, no one else will. And guess what, once a year is not enough to communicate its importance. 

Thielemann taught that our 15 to 20 minutes in the pulpit is an incredible opportunity for the preacher to be both a pastor and spiritual director to our people.  What did he mean? 

Thielemann pointed out that folks in our congregations suffer from a relatively common list of problems and affections. For examples:

            Relationship issues; love, betrayal, forgiveness, dysfunctional behavior, revenge, resentment

            Addiction, either in ourselves or in those we love

            Depression and its opposite, anxiety


            Grief and loss

You get the idea.  Then he would point out that the Scriptures are ripe with examples and stories that touch on these topics.  He suggested that the wise pastor should make a list of these maladies and periodically ask if our preaching helps those afflicted with these issues.  Sure, there are great saints who have wrestled with “the dark night of the soul,” but congregationally speaking, not so much.  However, depression? You can count on it! 

He added to this what we Episcopalians would call “Spiritual Direction.”  If we conceptualize any way of understanding spiritual growth, we realize that we have many parishioners moving along this path. We need to ask if we are helping them take that next step or even know there is a next step.  C.S. Lewis pointed out that Jesus offered unconditional forgiveness to the woman taken in adultery, but he demanded something of the rich young ruler.  Jesus understood that people need different directions based on where they were at that moment in their relationship to Christ.  

I hear a great deal of preaching in TEC about inclusiveness, grace, and unconditional love.  But Jesus didn’t say to James and John, “You fisherman understand that God loves you just the way you are?  Have a nice day fishing.”  He called them to intentional and sacrificial discipleship.  Many in our churches need to hear that call. 

This is how I ended my sermon on the 1st Sunday of Lent in my home congregation this year.

“We Episcopal Clergy often suggest that our people give up and/or take on something for Lent. Most of these things, if we think about it, generally benefit us.  Wouldn’t all of us be better off having a little bit more of quiet time?  The problem is that this makes Christianity about what we do, not who we are.  If we really want to revolutionize our spiritual life this Lent, why not ask ourselves a much more penetrating question?  How am I not yet the person that God has called me to be in Christ?  Of course, this will require repentance and amendment of life, but you see Christianity is not about doing something, it is about being someone!

What does all this have to do with our leadership?  I can tell you.  The Priest who keeps the big issues before our people, demonstrates our compassion and love by addressing their wounds and hurts, and who applies the appropriate spiritual direction to the souls committed to our care, gain a place of influence in their hearts.  John Maxwell said it often and best, “They don’t care what you know till they know that you care.” 

Bruce Thielemann understood this and we should too. 


Monday, March 5, 2018

Lessons Learned: The Main Thing

Jane Hansen was one of the most remarkable Christian leaders I have ever known.  She was for many years the President of Aglow Ministries International headquartered in Seattle.  Most of my readers will not know her or much about Aglow Ministries, but I sat as a member of their advisory board for the 7 years I served as Rector of St. Luke’s in Seattle.  Aglow is an independent evangelistic ministry aimed at women and strongly associated with The Assemblies of God and also other various Pentecostal denominations.  For those 7 years, I watched one of the best managed Christian organizations that I have known.  Jane’s ministry team was very professional and at the same time a wonder example of a Christian team ministry.  Ironically as a woman, Jane would not have been allowed to be a pastor in her own denomination though she ran a ministry that vastly outnumbered any of their churches.

I was on the Advisory Board because my predecessor at St. Luke’s was before me.  I sort of inherited the position.  The board of Aglow has a bit of an unusual organization.  It was comprised of Jane and her Vice Presidents all of whom headed up a major division of Aglow.  The Advisory Board was made up of six area pastors most of whom headed large, 2000 plus ASA, congregations.  I wish I could say more about Aglow’s work back in the 80s, but it would take too long.  I want to focus one of the primary things that I learned from Jane.   

During one Board meeting a group made up of local fundamentalist and evangelical organizations made a presentation on abortion.  They represented a national organization that was trying to get every conservative denomination and para-church ministry to sign a common declaration opposing abortion in the strongest terms possible. After an hour of presenting their point of view, they concluded with how important it would be for Aglow Ministries to sign on and how strange it would be if they refused.

Now remember, all the board members were women, most were grandmothers, and all would have been clearly opposed to abortion.  After the group left, Jane asked the advisors for comments.  Three of the pastors were strongly in favor of them signing on. Three others of us weren’t so sure.  For me, it felt like the presenters were a bit intimidating and certainly they were pushing to get Aglow to sign on.

After we had spoken, Jane paused and looked at her board members.  Several of them were members of two of the Churches represent by advisors in the room.  She then asked if we would mind stepping out of the room for a few minutes while she had an conversation with her fellow leaders.  Half an hour later, we were invited back in.

“Well what did you decide?” asked one of the pastors who had been vocally in favor of them signing on. Jane pause, smiled, and then said gently, “We have decided that it would not be right for us to sign on to this declaration.”  

That Pastor looked stunned.  “Why not,” he angrily replied.  Here is how Jane answered: 

“Pastor, you know how all of us feel about his issue.  It was a difficult decision for us.  However, when we thought about our mission to introduce women to Jesus Christ it caused us to stop and ask this question; what if one woman decided not to attend an Aglow meeting because she once had an abortion? Then we would be failing to carry out our mission.” 

What did Jane and her associates grasp?  Long before secular writers wrote about this, they knew that a ministry, denomination, and congregation needed to remember to keep the main thing the main thing.

I have consulted with many congregations and worked with three dioceses and time after time I had to remind myself of the importance of keeping the main thing the main thing.  This is often a difficult discipline for leaders to keep.  Keeping it means that leaders need not to dilute their effectiveness by adding more and more good things to what they are called to do.  Next, leaders need a way to say “no” to what they are not called to do.  Of course, the discipline is dependent on two other things. 

1.      You have to know what the main thing is!

2.     You have to organize everything around it.  

Most Episcopal Churches that I’ve worked with have no idea what their main thing is.  When I ask leaders to share their mission and core values, I often find the mission is so vague that they are not able to build a strategy around it.  In addition, they will list 20 or more core values and some of these congregations have less than 100 people present on any given Sunday.  

The congregation that I served in Seattle was just like this.  They had way too many good things and no way of centering on what the main thing was.  So my first work was to find the main thing.  Then we set to work carrying out strategies that made the main thing the main thing.  In three years, the congregation, already large by Episcopal standards, became the largest it had ever been in its history.  Then we launched a daughter congregation as a part of our strategy. 

My advice to every leader is to always Make the Main Thing the Main Thing! 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Leadership: Lessons Learned

I am starting a series of blogs on lessons on leadership that I learned from others.  As you can imagine, with 42 years of active ministry, I had a chance to learn from a number of great teachers, mentors, and peers.  I do hope you will respond and possible even share stories of your own. 

My second year at Berkeley Divinity School, the seminary called the Rev. Michael Allen to be our Dean.  It was a very tumultuous time for both or society and for our School.  Michael led the school through the process of merging with Yale and becoming The Berkeley Center at Yale Divinity School, making Episcopalians the largest denomination at YDS.  He was an unusual choice for Dean because he did not come from an academic background.  He had been Rector of St. Mark’s in the Bowery in New York.  It was a cutting edge activist congregation with a very diverse membership and a strong commitment to serving the needy of that area.

Dean Allen had been a reporter who responded to a call to consider ordination by Bishop James Pike after he had interviewed the controversial Bishop.  He attended the EDS and ordained in the Diocese of New York.  I do not think it fair to call Dean Allen a Progressive, he was much too radical than that.  He was either liked or hated by both the faculty and students who were very polarized about the future of the Seminary and his leadership style.  I liked him and he was very helpful to me in a number of ways.  Later in life, we drifted apart over a number of issues, but I always remained grateful for what I learned from him.

Michael believed passionately that faith and courage were inseparable!  He taught this and modeled in in a number of ways.  He would point out that being a leader of the Church demanded courage.  Often for him this meant courage to speak out against injustice and courage to speak up for those who had no voice.  This brings me to his main message and the key lesson that I learned. 

Faith demands courage on our part.  If our faith is not demanding this from us, then it really isn’t faith.  I learned from him that where I was called to be most faithful as a Priest and Christian was the area where courage was being demanded of me.

“What is faith when everything is going well?” he would ask.  Whether this mean standing up to someone in power (say a Bishop, and I’ve needed that at times!) or facing up to cancer, or facing up to people who disrespect your, or those who even hate you for your beliefs, or standing up to members of a congregation that speak ill of you, all need courage. 

I have often shared this with parishioners and friends when they faced difficulties.  It always had a way of strengthening them.  Instead of seeing the “faith” as something they had to hang on to no matter how they felt, they could see faith for what it was, a call to be courageous, a good soldier of the cross, no matter the circumstances. 

Not a surprise that two of Dean Allen’s favorite hymns were “They Caste Their Nets in Galilee” and “Am I a soldier of the Cross.”

This leads me to two important aspects of this truth.  First, I was working with a congregation where the Vestry and Rector were in conflict and they had brought Peter Steinke, a great teacher and consultant, to work with them.  The Rector had definitely pushed the leaders beyond their comfort zone and they had decided that the best way to deal with this was to force him to resign.  Eventually, he did.  He just couldn’t take their criticism and hostility and who could blame him.  Steinke came in to debrief the Vestry in the aftermath and carried out his listener and consultant role well. After the meeting, I asked him what he really thought of all this.  In summary, this is how he described situation.  

The Rector was like a lot of clergy I have worked with over the years.  He saw what needed to be done and he took action to make it happen.  When he got resistance and sabotage, he was at first naively surprised thinking he could just charm his way through it all.  When this failed, he became angry and discouraged.  He was leading change beyond his capacity to deal with anger, criticism, and pushback.  They read that from him and pushed even harder. He failed to count the possible cost of the changes, rally allies to his side, and have the courage to persevere.  In the end, they just wore him out and then they bought him out.    

Faithful leadership takes courage.  Dean Allen understood this.

Second, What is the greatest obstacle that many clergy (and yes I include myself in this at times) face in leading; the desire to have people love us, and the inability to accept that often when you do the right thing, many will NOT!

I would have followed Dean Allen into any battle.  Ironically, I would also say this about Bishop Ben Benitez.  I didn’t always agree with either of them, but I would have followed them to the gates of hell. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Leaders: Born or Made?

One question that often gets asked about leadership is whether leaders are born with some sort of leadership gene, or are they made by teaching and experience? 

Since I am in the business of teaching leaders, you can probably guess my bias, but the question allows me to introduce my experience with developing leaders, especially clergy leaders.  This blog will then serve as an introduction to a series of blogs on things that I learned about leadership.   

Do We Have Lots of Bad Leaders in the Ministry?

When I went on the staff of the Diocese of Texas, Bishop Payne had just been elected coadjutor.  Our offices were adjacent and this gave us a good amount of time to discuss congregations and clergy leadership in the Diocese.  We found that we were being asked an evocative question by many of our clergy and lay leaders; “What are you going to do with all those ineffective and troublesome clergy you have in the diocese?”  About three years into Bishop Payne’s tenure, I had worked with enough diocesan clergy that I had a much different perspective.  This held up for all my time on the staff in Texas, and it continued to be my experience in working with clergy leaders since that time.   

First, let me say this.  We did have problem clergy.  However, they were very few in number.  They had poor leadership ability and they often generated conflict in their congregations by both their style of leadership and their personality.  They were the source of much of that question we were being asked. They were few in number, but they generated a lot of attention from parish and diocesan leadership and thus created the impression that there were “lots of them” out there.  They, of course, had to be dealt with one at a time as the next crisis arose, and there was always a next crisis. 

Training and the Three Types of Leaders

What I found interesting is that I could divide the clergy in this large diocese into three distinctive groups.  Here is how I came to see them. 

The Instinctive Leaders

We had about 10% of our leaders that I would describe as Instinctive Leaders.  They had instinctive and intuitive leadership skills and mostly these worked well for them.  They were not much interested in what we taught or shared about leadership.  This was because most of them believed they already knew how to lead.  Now note that I am not denigrating these folks.  Some were very talented and I often tried to have them teach or share with our other clergy.  When I did the problem I encountered was that many times what they thought that they had done as a leader had little to do with what they actually did, or it was so instinctive, they could not really describe the how and why.  They were essentially saying “do what I did in this situation and you will be a leader too.”  Unfortunately for some of these instinctual leaders when their natural instincts didn’t work, they did not know how to adjust.  They just kept plugging along with what they had always done before.  A very few hit a wall hard enough that it opened them up to learning new behaviors, but mainly we found it best to let this 10% just run with what they knew.  

The Majority of Leaders

Most of our clergy leaders, I would say about 70 to 80% were teachable. It was this group that I worked with over my 9 years there.  They had some skills, wanted to lead, and were willing to learn especially when what we presented helped them.  We weren’t teaching them a single style of leadership.  What we tried to help them understand was the kind of leader their personality and experience tended to make them.  Personality profiles are helpful in this and so was the DISC profile.  I believe the Meyers-Briggs info is best for intrapsychic understanding and the DISC was best for organizational or outward understanding.   

So, I liked leaders who had self-awareness about this information.  Then the issue became how to maximize their assets.  I am a strong proponent of the Situational Leadership Grid and often use this tool to help leaders come to understand both their preferred style and what a group might need from them at any given time.  For 9 years we gave these leaders sound theory and practice, and watched so many of them grow and do wonderful and effective work in congregations. 

The Agent Leader

I also found that there were clergy who were unteachable on the other end of the scale from instinctive folks.  These clergy did not function well in most any leadership role.  We started sending these for evaluation at the Clergy Career Development Center in Fort Worth.  They were often anxious that they would be told they shouldn’t be priest, but this never happened.  What did happen for most was that they came to understand that they worked best in a structured environment that provided strong and clear organization roles for them.  Several of these went into chaplaincy in medical institutions and schools.  They were happy to take communion to the sick or lead a school devotional service.  I call them Agent Leaders because they loved carrying out many of the tasks of priesthood, but had trouble handling the leadership role demanded of them in the open ended and precarious world of parish ministry.  Sometimes these folks ended up on the staff of larger congregations, but again their job carried definite structural boundaries.  One could hardly doubt their dedication and spirituality, and once finding the right environment, they flourished.  

Why Seminaries Cannot Teach Leadership

What I did come to understand clearly during that time was that most of us come out of a seminary environment where the model of leadership is that of “knowledge leader.”  This is what our professors were, well most of them.  They honestly believed that the task of clergy is to deliver scripture, theology, church history or whatever and our knowledge will win trust, impress our laity, and have them willing to follow us as their “ordained” leader.  Most of us learned quickly that this model just does not translate into the community of the Church and our parishes.  We often learned this painfully.  Sometimes the pain of this initial learning causes clergy to withdraw and lose confidence in the abilities and potential they do have.  They get stuck.  This is why dysfunctional congregations make such a poor context for young clergy to learn and grow. All the learnings are negative.   

I know what you are thinking.  Then why don’t we teach folks leadership in Seminary?  My answer may make some of you mad, but I have come to understand that one learns leadership in the field and by attempting to lead.  We learn it by taking initiative and learning from experience.  Good leadership theory helps, but leading is learned in a community because leadership is both relational and behavioral.  It is not an office or title, and it is certainly not something as simple as “the ten characteristics of a great leader.”   

I say it this way.  Developing leaders is the work of the Church.  It cannot be delegated to seminaries. I am not saying that seminary education isn’t important.  I believe strongly that to be an effective parish priest requires learning in these areas.   

Effective Leaders

So what kind of clergy leadership do I find helpful?  I like Leaders who think and pray through what needs to be done while interacting with the key lay leaders of their churches. Then they take initiative, and have the ability to stop periodically and ask a profound question, “Is what is happening, what I intended.”  Then they ask, “How do I need to adjust or enhance my leadership to be more effective?  Leadership is not about good or bad leadership.  Leadership is about effectiveness.   

What kind of leadership is often ineffective?  Those leaders who do everything instinctually and with little self-awareness are sometimes great in the right situation.  However, some times they are dangerous.  I’ve found some who have a sense of entitlement and this can be very damaging to their congregations and ultimately to themselves.  Ineffective also are those leaders who are so introspective (I did not say introverted, the majority of clergy are introverts) that they are unable to act.  They are much too analytical or self-critical to be able to take initiative and stay with it long enough to have it work.  A good leader cannot ever have all the facts, nor can one wait to “feel” good about making a decision because most important decisions have some inherent risk in them.   

My advice? 

If you are called to ordained leadership accept that with this comes a commitment to life-long learning.  Along the way you will also find that having good mentors and honest colleagues will help you become the leader God and your people need you to be.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Evangelism and Vibrant Congregations

As someone who has been passionately committed to Evangelism in the Episcopal Church for almost 40 years, I am very pleased with our Presiding Bishop’s emphasis on The Jesus Movement and the need for more Evangelism in our community.  Many of our leadership signing on to this Jesus Movement idea, however, are quick to say that this is not about building churches or adding to our membership.  For them it is about proclaiming the good news of God’s Kingdom of Justice, equality, and inclusiveness of all people.  While I understand some of these comments, I want to underscore the important of healthy and vibrant congregations to the Jesus Movement and the work of Evangelism.

Put the Movement First

First, let me assert that I am 100% in agreement with the statement by Bishop Curry that we are the Episcopal/Anglican expression of the Jesus Movement.  I think it is extremely important to acknowledge that Christianity has and always will be about Jesus and it is a movement much more than an organization or institution.  The Church is essentially the Community of Christ, and Christianity is a transactional experience where one or more follows of Jesus communicate through the power of the Holy Spirit who the Resurrected Jesus is, what he has done, and what he is doing in our lives and in our world. 

As Richard Chartres the now retired Bishop of London said recently, “Christianity is first and foremost a way of life.”  To be a Christian is not just to hold to a set of theological positions and truths.  We have truth and we have theological beliefs – the content of the faith once received and passed on by the Apostles - but at the heart of Christianity is the way of life that Jesus has modeled for us and given to us by his Spirit.  This is why the Church talks about “formation” and not just teaching people.  As Paul insisted, Christ is in us and the fullness of Christ is being formed in us.  This is true both for individual Christians and for the Christian Community which we affirm is the living body of Christ.  To affirm these things is in no way to denigrate the place and role of the Church for Christians, it is merely to put first things first. 

We Have Thought About This Before 

Now the relationship between Evangelism and the Church is something that TEC has given serious consideration in the past. While many current leaders tend to speak negatively about the Decade of Evangelism, It is important to remember that one accomplishment of the emphasis on Evangelism during that time was the careful thought given by TEC to what evangelism is and what it is not.  Unfortunately, much of this work has been forgotten.  However, two things came out of that Decade. 

First was a thoughtful and comprehensive Episcopal definition of Evangelism that is still the official definition of our Church.  Building on Archbishop Temples’ definition, the official definition remains “Evangelism is the presentation of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit so that others are led to receive him as Savior and follow him as Lord within the fellowship of His Church.”  Some, especially English Evangelicals, seriously objected to the “within the fellowship of His Church” statement.  They contended that Evangelism is primarily about proclamation and had little to do with bringing people to the Church.  I sense that some of our Progressive leaders have come to this same conclusion when they state that “Evangelism is not about numbers or building churches.”  For example, the Rev. Michael Hunn speaking of current efforts toward evangelism said recently “The fundamental goal is to spread the good news, not to bring people into the church.”  While this may sound good, it really makes little sense in practice.  People do not just hear the good news and end up formed in Christ.  If it takes a village to raise a child, it no doubt takes a community to form a new soul in Christ. 

Second, during the Decade of Evangelism, we grew and expanded TEC.  In the last five years of the Decade of Evangelism, 1995 to 2000, we were the only mainline denomination in the United States that had increases in the number of baptisms, attendance, and membership.  It is important to recognize that this was the result of intentional efforts at Evangelism and intentional efforts at expanding membership in congregations.  Of course, other things have happened since then.  There were difficult and controversial decisions that divided the Church and led to losses in membership, but there was a time when the work of Evangelism was being done and was bearing fruit.  It is still being done in 15 to 20% of our congregations and they are still bearing fruit.  That fruit is new believers brought into Christ’s Church. 

And this is still being done in congregations despite the growing secularization of our society, the death of many out dated institutional structure of the church, and a huge number of congregations (dare I say even Dioceses) that are focused on institutional survival.  Let me say this even more plainly.  In many of the declining congregations that I have known and many I have tried to help, the current membership is singularly fixed on what the current members like and do not like.  They focus on what members want without ever asking the missional question of what the community around them and the people in these communities need.  So, numbers for numbers sake?  Many of these declining churches would love to have more people giving more money, but their inward focus makes getting new folks almost impossible. 

People Will Be Drawn by Our Good Works 

Lastly, I need to say something about another issue that is implied by many of our current leadership.  It goes something like this.  If our churches do right, just, and fully inclusive things, people will be drawn to our communities.  Of course, some of us remember the famous statement by one of our Bishops that “affirming homosexual persons and agreeing to marriage equality would lead to hundreds of thousands of new members joining our churches.”  Such hyperbole is misleading and worse, said often enough, people who say it come to believe it. 

In commenting on the potential that we have as a church, one leader said that if the Church were to take on human trafficking or sexual exploitation of Children that this would be an incredible opportunity for Evangelism.  People would see our work for justice and helping the marginalized and flock to our communities.  There are two reasons why this is mistaken.

First, churches in the U.S. already do an incredible among of work for both justice and on behalf of marginalized people.  We do this because it is part of that whole “following him” perspective that we carry.  I have known a few folks over the years that were attracted to Episcopal churches because of such good work, but this has never been the primary thing that has drawn people to Christ and his Church. What draws most people is well, how should I say this without being offensive, something spiritual.

Second, who are all these people who are going to flock to us because we are taking on these important and worthwhile causes?  You see for people to want these issues corrected and are willing to labor, give, pray, and sacrifice to have them happen would in itself take a conversion. The problem is not that we have all these good people who want to join churches that are doing good and just things.  It is that we have huge numbers of self-centered, self-indulgent, and indifferent sinful people who do not care about these issues and the people caught up in them.  For them to care, would take quite frankly a transformation and conversion to another set of values.  In other words, we have this formula backwards. 

Evangelism and the Converted Life 

The Church’s own history teaches us this truth. Take Francis of Assisi’s conversion from smug and indulgent dandy, to Christ-centered revolutionary.  Contrast this to the babble on TMZ and the superficial folks they hold constantly before us.  Or take John Newton’s conversion from slave trader to evangelical preacher and reformer of English society.  Take Paul’s conversion from self-righteous persecutor of the early Christians to Apostle to the Gentiles.  Take John Wesley’s conversion from Anglican moralist to radical conversionary.  Take Simon Weil’s conversion from comfortable middle class bureaucrat to radical witness to Christian solidarity with Jews during the holocaust.  The list goes on and on.  In most of the Church’s history, radical justice and good works are the fruit of conversion to Christ; they are not the magnet that draws the indifferent human heart.  If you believe that most people are well intentioned and just looking for a Church making a difference in our world, you are either naive or diluted.  Our world needs what Jesus has given us, the compelling icon of self-sacrificial love and compassion. 

If our community wants to do Evangelism, it must move deeper and more closely to the Christ who is the good news for our broken world.  His cross is both a judgement on this world and its values and the cure to heal the human soul and society.  People who have discovered this truth have formed a Movement that has been converting, reforming, and healing our world for 2000 years.  We find these people in the Church, the Body of Christ, the Household of God, the Fellowship of the King, and the communion of the saints. 

If you think we can do Evangelism without such local vibrant communities, you will be sorely disappointed.  We cannot have vibrant Churches without Evangelism, and we cannot have Evangelism without vibrant congregations. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Interim Ministry, Why One Shoe Doesn’t Fit All

This blog is about Interim Ministry and what is wrong with the current approach made by many dioceses toward transition of leadership in congregations.  This leads me to the wider topic of what is wrong with policies and procedures being used in TEC especially given our on-going decline.  If you are a Bishop or diocesan staff person, you may find what I have to say challenging. I want to challenge all of us who have a leadership role in our Church to re-evaluate some of our assumptions about how we deal with congregations.

Before I get to those items that may challenge current thinking about Interims and Interim Ministry in TEC, let me start with this positive statement.  The well trained Interim can help a congregation in the transition from one Rector to another in positive and healthy ways that allow the leaders and congregation to move forward toward mission and ministry.  TEC has a network of trained interims and this is good, and I know some who are very good at what they do.  Having said this, there are issues with Interim ministries that need re-evaluating.  Among them, I would identify the following;

Studies of congregations continue to highlight that the size and culture of a congregation as well as its location and the length of the previous tenure are important ingredients in planning a healthy and good transition.

Transition in A Large Church

Recently I worked with a larger Episcopal Congregation that has started the transition to a new Rector after the retirement of their Rector of over 20 years.  The Diocese insisted that they take on an Interim Minister for two years to assist in the transition.  The congregation had a senior associate who had served the Church for over 10 years, and the Vestry believed this associate was in a better position to lead the transition because he understood the needs and because the congregation is doing well. The leadership naturally wanted continuity as they moved forward. There was no hidden agenda to promote the associate since he is near retirement.  The Diocese pushed their procedure and requirement, but the Vestry leadership persisted. 

When the Church leaders asked me to visit with them based on writings I have done on the issues of following a long-term Rector, I found the Vestry and Search Committee eager to hear what I had to share.  They were also quick to see how to avoid certain land mines and to guide the congregation through this time of some anxiety.  Being a larger church (80% of Episcopal Congregations are less than 150 Average Sunday Attendance or ASA) they were first concerned with continuing to sustain the health and momentum they have.  Naturally, the senior associate is in a unique position to support the leaders and to help with individuals who were concerned about the future and grieving the loss of the previous pastor.

Here is what I think is wrong in this situation.  Diocesan policies and procedure in almost all dioceses are based on a small church culture.  It is, of course, understandable that small church culture frames the diocesan response to transition and change, but it violates one of the major principles of church consultations, namely, the needs of churches are different based on size and whether the congregation is stable, declining, or growing. 

Dioceses seem to understand this in their smaller congregations where tenures tend to be short.  These congregations can hardly afford a full-time clergy person let alone a full-time 2 year Interim.  In these situations, it is likely that a 2 to 4 year interim is just exactly what the next rectorship is going to be.  In fact, many small churches experience one Interim after another.  This is one major reason why they stay small. 

So let me be frank.  The Interim process that is used in most dioceses is based on the following assumptions.  The “normal” congregation is pastoral (75 to 140 ASA) in size, located in a stable suburb or town, and has had a 7 year or longer tenure.  In such situations, a two year Interim ministry is beneficial.  But what if the congregation is larger or growing steadily?  What if a congregation has had less than 7 years with the previous Rector?  What if a congregation is located in a suburb with high turnover in the population?  In these situations, a two year Interim could easily stifle any momentum and even lead to decline.  Next, imagine the tenure was 3 years and the relationship between clergy and congregation went badly.  Many of us who work with congregations know that an appropriate “Acting Rector” is a much better transition for such congregations. I did this at the Cathedral in Dallas and it worked fine.

Xerox or Apple?

Let me push this to even a step further. If you are a Bishop or work for one, hold on to your seat.  What do such policies and procedures that are often held by dioceses with the authority of canons mean in a community and organization that continues to decline steadily?

One secular writer commenting on why so few companies that were on the Fortune 500 twenty years ago no longer are around speaks to this directly.  The old companies keep in place policies and procedure that served the company well in its past, but continued to cling to them when markets, circumstances, and leadership changed. 

One might point out that the current leadership of TEC has little or no track record of revitalization and growth of current congregations. Here I am not trying to be overly critical of our Bishops and leadership; I am trying to raise awareness.   Most importantly, I am arguing for creativity, experimentation, and flexibility to meet the challenges of today’s situations and those of individual congregations based on the exigencies of time and place.  Isn’t TEC a little like Xerox continuing to try to improve copy machines as Apple changes the entire world of work and communications?

Willingness to Learn from Others

Interestingly, there is help in doing this.  After my visit, the senior associate sent me a email and said that “you may find the following announcement from the Senior Pastor of a very largest Baptist church on their transition to a new Pastoral leadership interesting.”  Here is the link:

Notice that the pastor begins by mentioning the planned transition that the leadership and staff had prepared using the book Next as a guideline.  This book was written on the positive experiences of larger churches making a successful transition to new leadership.  If you read the Pastor’s comments, you will also be impressed, as I was, with the insight of that 30 year tenured Pastor about what will take place and his role in making it healthy and positive.  “His role?”  Unheard of, in the TEC, where the retiring or leaving Rector is banished from the congregation for at least one year and might not be allowed to return as a member of that congregation.  My point is that there is insight and help beyond our denomination if we would care to seek it out. 

Bottom line for me is that a single cookie cutter approach to our congregations in any area and especially in transitions is not helpful and often very short sighted.

Other Questions

Do you think the long time members of that large Baptist Church would work through their grieving process in two years?  Some older members of that congregation may never stop grieving for the predecessor.  I live in a retirement community with lots of long term married couples in it.  When there is a loss, do you really think the widow or widower gets over it after two years even with therapy?  No, they must learn to function with it. 

Do you think that if the staff of a large church all leave within a year of the new Rector’s arrival, the congregation will thrive?  Continuity is the desire of the large church doing well.  I would contend that the large church doing well is at risk in a system where declining small churches dominate.  I hope you get my point.

 Let me end with this thought.  I remain optimistic for the future of TEC under the guidance of our mission centered Presiding Bishop, however, do we really think that policies and procedures (as well as structures) that were created out of a Christendom view of the Church will serve us in a post-Christian secular society?  I hear many of our current leaders saying that the Church must change, but I see few of our current leaders willing to take the risks that such change demands. 

What do you think?    

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

What Time is Your 8 O'clock Service?

I often joke at conferences that the Episcopal Church is the only church in the world where people call us up and ask, “What time is your 8’o’clock service?” 

For some churches the answer may be 8 o’clock, and for others it could be 7:30 or 7:45, but we know what they mean.  Why we have 8 o’clock services and the problem they create for many of our churches is an important topic that I will address in a moment.  First, it makes for a great introduction to the subject of service times.  I was pulled into this topic recently when a friend asked if I had ever done a blog on service times.  I had not, but I do have a number of things to say on the topic.

First, let’s establish the norm for our Pastoral Size (ASA 75 to 150) congregations.  These churches, the norm from the American Revolution till around 2000, tended after World War I to have a two service format.  First, the main service was usually at 10 or 10:30am.  This varied by region and the time was based on how long it took farmers to take care of the livestock and then load their families onto wagons and get to church.  In the West where we have larger spreads, it was normally 10:30 to allow for the wider distances.  Of course, almost no Episcopalians work on farms now, but this long-standing pattern established the principle that “Prime Time” for most churches was between 9am and noon.  I will return to the issue of Prime Time in a moment, but what about 8 o’clock services.

When I ask clergy why we have an eight o’clock tradition, most respond with either “People like a quieter more traditional service without music” or “Some people prefer the earlier time to allow them to get off to the golf course or wherever.”  These are some of the reasons we have these services NOW, but they are not why we have an 8 o'clock tradition.  The origin lies in a historical fact that almost no current Episcopal Clergy would ever understand.

You see before the liturgical revisions brought about by the Oxford Movement, the typical service on a Sunday in TEC was Morning Prayer.  The two most common patterns were Communion once a month for higher church folks and Communion four times a year for broad church folks.  When more clergy and laity wanted to have more frequent opportunity to receive Holy Communion (they never would have called it the Eucharist) then a good alternative was to institute an 8 o’clock alternative.  It was an effective strategy because it meant change without having to disrupt the tradition of most members.  By the way, attendance was always lower on Communion Sundays because non-confirmed people could not receive communion (a fact that most Episcopalians have completely forgotten!)

Once the radical idea emerged in Prayer Book Revision that Holy Communion or the Eucharist was the standard for churches on Sundays, the Oxford Movement had reached one of its most profound influences in TEC.  With the 79 Prayer Book, we moved on to this now normative formula, but alas the 8 o’clock remained and became for most folks the refuge for those who love traditional English.  Now, of course, it is about golf, breakfast, shopping or whatever.  I say “alas” because this eight o’clock tradition (what time is your 8 o’clock service?) often gets in the way of growing congregations.

This brings me back to the issue of ideal service times.  Given that this depends some on geographical locations and time zones, the NFL plays on Sunday mornings on the West Coast, here are some important points to ponder.

For most churches, Prime Time remains between 9am and 10:45.   Starting before 9am is just too early for families with younger children and impossible for families with teenagers.  10:45 is the earliest you can start a main service and end near noon.  This isn’t so much for the popular idea that if you go beyond noon, the Baptist will beat us to the restaurants, but rather that noon marks a significant shift in the day and families with younger children will find it much harder to keep the hungry critters quiet.

Most Pastoral Size congregations, as I pointed out above, have a 10/10:30 main service and an 8 o’clock format.  It would be far better for them to have a 9 or 9:30 service aimed at families with younger children.  It is not, of course, simply to have it for these families, but to find creative ways to keep all generations engaged in the service.

Imagine you are planting a new Episcopal Church that will start by sending a church planter to a community.  One would start with one service at say 10am and when the congregation gets large enough than shift to a two service format say 9 and 10:30 and largely use the same liturgy, music, and sermon for both.  This is the typical pattern used by Lutheran and many Methodist plants and it works well in allowing the congregation to grow to over 150 ASA.  Remember Lutherans and Methodists don’t have an 8 o’clock tradition! 

Now even though this works and many Episcopal Churches of Pastoral Size would greatly benefit from such a Sunday morning schedule, two problems immediately arise.

First, what to do with the already existing 8’oclock service?  This is sensitive because in many churches the early attenders give a much higher percentage than their later service time attenders.  One church I worked with recently told me that 70% of the income comes from 12 regularly attending members at the 8’oclock service.  All this makes creating space for the newer Family Service very hard. Warning, do not try to combine both into an 8:30 service, neither group will be happy!

Second, what do we do with Christian Education?  If you have a 10 or 10:30 service, chances are that you have Church School just before the main service and you cannot figure out how to fit Christian Education between two major services on Sunday without moving the later service into starting too late.  11am is too late! 

The answer to this second issue is a bit complex, but let’s turns to our Baptist friends for the clue.  Most Baptists have a Bible School at 10am (for all ages based on age, gender, or school grades) followed by a 1 hour service with hymns, sermon, offering, and altar call set to 16 verses of “Just as I am” but ending by noon.  Why do they do this?  Because Baptists give Prime Time (10am) to what is most important for them, the class format study of the Bible.   For Episcopalians, it is simple.  Our Prime Time should be given to Liturgy.  It is our “thing” after all! 

The more important issue for churches wanting to appeal to younger families at an earlier service is not what time the Church School will be, but rather can we get volunteers to cook up a breakfast before the 9 o’clock service.  This takes a tremendous burden off parents and especially single parents. At the Cathedral in Dallas, we found that kids can even help prepare and serve the breakfast. 

So, here is the consultant question.  You can send me a check if you use it.  “If we could start from scratch, how would we structure our Sunday morning, especially in Prime Time, to appeal to a wider group of individuals and families?” 

What about Christian Education and the present 8’oclock service?  See my next blog!