Monday, December 3, 2012

Learning from a Church Planter

We can learn a lot from Church Planters especially in this era of declining congregations.  The Rev. Mike Michie is a long- time friend and a church planter who was just installed as the Rector of St. Andrew’s, McKinney, Texas.  For this edition of my blog, I asked him a few important questions.          

KEM: You were just installed as the first Rector of St. Andrew’s in McKinney in your beautiful new building after starting this congregation just 7 years ago.  How did you get interested in Church planting?

MM:  Church planting is all I’ve really ever known.  I can think of no better way to serve my Diocese and the Episcopal Church than to start new churches.  As hard as starting a church from scratch might be, I find it to be much more energizing than trying to change the culture of a church that is maintaining or in decline.   In so many areas, cities have grown around and, in many instances, away from our established churches.  The need for new ministries in these areas of growth is urgent.  That I could do something about this in McKinney is a great blessing.

KEM:  Your congregation grew fairly quickly, what size is it now in membership and attendance?

MM:   We started back in 2005 with about twenty people.  Now, our membership is just over 500 and our attendance since we moved in our building in January has averaged 297.
KEM: Was there a vision or core values that directed your work as a planter?

MM:  Yes!  I spent some quality time before getting started figuring that out.  My wife and I took a big, blank sheet of newsprint paper and put down what we wanted our church to be like.  When the time came to ask Bishop Stanton for a name for the church, we saw these values in the life of St. Andrew.  We are a place that invites, involves, instructs and inspires.  Our motto:  “a faith for all ages” has also been important.  We are a ministry that is “child-friendly” and intergenerational.  (If you don’t like to worship in a place with kids, we aren’t for you!)  Before we had a building or even a congregation, our ability to speak to this vision was a crucial. 

KEM:  In a time when so many Episcopal congregations have been in decline, what would you say has been the primary reasons for your growth?

MM:  A few come to mind.  First, and most important, be nice to people when they show up!  I’m always interested in the reasons why people decide to join.  Almost always, folks say, “everyone was so nice!  We visited other churches and no one even spoke to us.”  If your church wants to grow, then act like it.  Have nice greeters at the door, don’t ignore people at the Peace, and clergy, please, please, please, don’t hide from visitors.  Introverted as you may be, your church needs you to put a friendly, inviting and compassionate face to your congregation.  It does no good to have nice greeters if you are hiding in the sacristy!  Take the lead.  Second, make the worship accessible.  Remove all the obstacles you can for folks who don’t have experience with our worship, the BCP, Service Music, etc.  Third, preach practical, Biblical sermons.  I preach at least twenty minutes and always ground my sermons in one of the texts for the day.  It works!  Fourth, do a children’s sermon.  I make sure each child gets to connect and hear from me every week.  The grown-ups love it, too.  It also creates that child-friendly environment that is so important.  Fifth, have good music.  Even if you do hymnody, there are too many good hymns to ever sing a bad one.  Break out, if you can, sing a worship song, an old faithful from a Cursillo songbook, or even “I am the Bread of Life”.  Try to create moments of exalted worship:  give people the time and space to be in God’s presence. 

KEM:  What advice would you give to other clergy who would really like to see their congregations grow?

Be strong and courageous (Joshua 1:9)!  I firmly believe that every church can grow.  You can do it!  You have to be willing to work hard, though.  Follow-up is the name of the game in church planting, and I wish that Rectors of established churches value it as much as church plants do.  Also, be creative.  Do a sermon series and start a new class like Alpha or Financial Peace University.  Adopt a local elementary school or get your church involved in a great outreach project.  Be willing to break out of the program-year rut.  Finally, don’t give up!  Even when it is hard, be content in reaching the people that God sends you each Sunday.  One of the most difficult lessons I had to learn was to preach to the people that were there on Sunday, not to the ones that weren’t.  Ministering out of frustration, anger or panic isn’t good for anybody, especially you.  Love and teach the one’s you’ve got and trust the Lord with the rest!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Running a Church and Growing It

            One of the things that I share consistently with Episcopal Church Leaders is this: Running a church well and growing it is NOT the same thing.  Why is this true and why is this important? 

Most mainline church leaders, and this includes Episcopalians, have been taught to believe that “If we run it well, they will come.”  There was some truth to this idea back before 1965 when we lived in what could be called “the Protestant Era.”  During this time, there was a cultural expectation that most people would be members of a church and, if the church was run well, it tended to grow. I remember a priest who was about to retire in 1971 telling me that in his younger days, “if you preached a credible sermon and provided Christian Education for children, people joined your church.”   Even though this has not been true for many years, the idea that running a church well is all we need to do still persists.   

Here is a typical example: the Rector and staff of St. Swithen’s are gathered to plan the Lenten Program.  As they discuss it, they decide they need to make a few adjustments.  This year they decide to add a lite supper, an alternative class, and something for the youth of the parish.  They may spend a great deal of time working on this.  It is possible that an improved Lenten program may lead to more “members” attending the event, but this will not lead to more non-members or un-churched folks attending.  The same principle applies to Sunday Worship, Adult Education, Church School, fellowship groups and on and on.  The underlying principle remains, “Run the Church well, and they will come.”   

This especially applies to mainline attitudes toward worship.  I often meet church leaders, especially clergy, who believe the number one thing they need to do to help their church grow is alter their Sunday morning worship.  This might mean lengthening the sermon or shortening it.  It may mean taking out the traditional organ and replacing the choir with a “contemporary music” group.  This may mean dropping the Rite I liturgy for Rite II or dropping the Rite II service for something more culturally relevant from the Alternative Service Book.  One I find especially interesting is incorporating some things from the New Zealand Prayer Book.  The truth is that such changes, the more radical they are, usually lead to a decrease in attendance, or even worse, major conflict. 

Here is how to demythologize this belief.  Studies of new members show that most people decide within the first 5 minutes of driving on your parking lot whether they will return again.  By 15 minutes almost all of them have decided this.  What this tells us is that how people are welcomed and greeted is far more important to connecting with new people than the style of music. And I should add for the benefit of clergy, this includes the sermon.  Clergy sermons come far too late in our service to be the primary ingredient in determining whether new comers will return.  

Now, of course, I am not arguing for bad liturgy or bad anything in church life.  What I am saying is that the skills necessary to help grow a congregation are DIFFERENT from those required in running it well, and that most of us focus most of our energy on running it well. 

If you want to grow a church, you will want to focus on two important dynamics.  The first is what we generally know about the front door of a congregation.  The front door involves three important tasks: 

1.        Inviting people: this involves signs, internets, Special Sundays, advertisement, and in today’s world, social media. 

2.       Welcoming people: this involves the hospitality ministry of the entire congregation.  It is what happens in those first 5 to 10 minutes of new people arriving.  For example, very large, growing, mega-churches often have volunteers greeting folks in the parking lot and helping direct them to the right place.

3.       Assimilating people:  This involves the conscious and intentional actions and activities of the congregation to move people from first time visitor toward both membership and discipleship.  I urge every congregation to have a clear path to both. 

You can learn more specifics on each of these tasks in my book Five Keys for Church Leaders in the chapter on “Opening the Front Door.” 

                The second dynamic has to do with size or “culture” of a congregation.  If you lead a Pastoral Size Church, the activities and events that will lead to growth are most predictably those that fit the style of the congregation.  If you lead a larger Episcopal congregation with attendance over 400, the activities and events that will lead to growth are very different from those of smaller congregations. 

                You can learn more on this topic by reading my book The Myth of the 200 Barrier where I describe these different dynamics.   

                Are you laboring under the assumption that working hard at running your church well will lead to growth?   If you are, learn the skills of growing a church.  These are not the same as running it well.  There is a relationship between these two, of course, but it secondary to focusing at the right issues.





Wednesday, September 12, 2012

You are an Advocate for the Church

You are an Advocate for the Episcopal Church and Your Congregation

Several years ago, I was asked to speak on evangelism and newcomer ministry in a Diocese where many of the clergy were unhappy with decisions and the direction of TEC. After my morning presentation, several of the clergy gathered around the coffee pot to ask me a challenging question. “How can you get people to join TEC?” For example, several said to me that when folks in their confirmation classes heard about the Church’s stand on certain controversial issues, they refused to join. I responded that this was such a good question that I would answer it at the beginning of my second talk. I am pretty sure that many did not like my answer, but I think it was right, and I still think it applies to our work.

I started my answer by reminding clergy that we are the chief apologists for both the wider Church and the local congregation. I then responded to the issue of confirmation participants not joining after hearing “what we believe.” I asked the clergy bluntly, “So, what are you telling them?” Of course, many were telling folks that, despite the local congregation’s “orthodoxy,” that TEC was teaching heresy and making immoral decisions. Of course, this explained perfectly why folks would not join. However, I was concerned with a more basic issue related to clergy leadership. At the end, I said this, “If you cannot stand before a group of people and give five good, enthusiastic, and positive reasons why a person should become a member of TEC and your congregation, then you should think about doing something else for a living.

Now, let me be clear, I am not saying that we clergy have to always affirm decisions by the Church. I am not saying that we should not be concerned with the Church’s direction or its current teaching. I have spoken openly from time to time about my unhappiness with our current national leadership. Given my theological perspective, I am not in agreement with the strong advocacy position taken by TEC in recent years. What I am saying is this: as ordained leaders we hold a critical role in advocating the values and nature of our community. We would understand this in any other organization. Can you imagine the owner of an Apple Store saying, “I am not sure you will really want to buy one of our products when you learn about our company?”

It comes down to this, no matter how I might feel at a particular moment about current issues or decisions, I am still the primary advocate for my community. So, what should I do if I find myself out of sorts with some action? I need to express this to “those in charge,” but then I have to find my way back to being able to say, “Let me give you five reasons why you should consider being a part of this community.”

Here are some things that I have highlighted over the years:

• The Episcopal Church is welcoming of all people, as our sign says, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!”

• We are a creedal Church, teaching what is essential and majoring on the majors and not the minors of faith.

• We are a biblical Church. We read more scripture each Sunday than many so-called “Bible” churches and we engage all of the Scriptures, not just the parts we like.

• We engage Scripture with our minds, willing to question and be taught. We engage with our hearts, willing to be changed. We engage with our Spirits, willing to be fed. We are biblical, but not rigid or literal in our engagement with Scripture’s meaning.

• We are a Sacramental Church. We practice the Sacraments (all of them) of the historic faith. We look for the sacred, the good, and the holy in life.

• We are a Church with structure and order. We have a balance of authority between clergy and laity, and we have a balance between local, regional, and national leadership. We base our life on mutual accountability and not rigid or repressive hierarchy.

• We are a Church with rich worship, enhanced by the Prayer Book, and drawing upon the best prayers of all the saints who have gone before us. We can worship within this framework both formally and informally.

• We are a Church that is willing to engage culture. We are not afraid of science or secular society. We don’t see the church as a fortress that must be protected from every new style of music or trends in culture. Anglicans have been business leaders, scientists, artists, writers, teachers, actors, songwriters and even pop music stars. We engage culture for the purpose of transforming it toward God’s Kingdom.

Of course, I spice these assertions with flavor from my local community. I could always say of the Cathedral in Dallas that “you won’t find a more loving and supportive community in time of need.” I often would speak of how our architecture revealed awe, wonder and transcendence.

In our role as leaders, remember that clergy are heralds of God’s Kingdom, spokespersons for the Church’s mission, and advocates of the values of our community.

You might read this blog and conclude that I am saying that it is important for our churches that we are advocates, and you would be right. However, I would add that it is just as important for us as leaders that we embrace this role and find ways to express our enthusiasm for the community we represent. Communities and organizations have a strange way of living up to their leaders’ expectations.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Is There a Future for Diocesan Structures?

            In 1990 I attended a conference put on by Leadership Network.  There I heard one of my mentors, Lyle Schaller, say something very evocative about denominations and judicatories (dioceses for us Episcopalians.)  What he said that day was that everyone understands the importance of the local congregation for Christians.  Then he added that no one can explain a rationale for the existence of a national organization.  Finally, he went on to say that there is a role for the local diocese, but it must be transformed.  The problem he went on to explain is that most everything done by a judicatory on the national or local level can be done better and more effectively by some other organization. 

Take for example Christian Education.  In the 1950s and 1960s almost every denomination produced Christian Educational materials for local churches – think Seabury Curriculum.  By the 1970s, local congregations could choose among dozens of alternative materials that were better, less expensive and more relevant than that produced by a denomination.  Or think about capital fund-raising, time was each denomination had an agency to help congregations when they needed to raise funds for buildings.  Again, by the 1970s, we had numerous organizations that would customize a program for each congregation.  I could give many such examples. 

Some of us do think we would be a bit better off if our national organization would cease to be so costly given its questionable role, but in this blog I want to focus on what Schaller had to say about a diocese.  He thought that there is a vital role for the diocese to perform, but it needed to re-invent itself to carry out this role.  He described this as moving away from many traditional things and toward new ones.  Over the years, I have become absolutely convinced at his insight.  Let me describe what I see as the primary functions of a Diocese in the old paradigm and the ones needed today.

Primary Functions of a Diocese in the Old Paradigm
1.       A Mission Funding Forwarding Agency.  In the old days, we on the local level would take up offerings to fund mission work somewhere else, usually the so-called third world; remember the “mite boxes”?  Today, local congregations can form companion relationships across wide geographic boundaries because of the internet and better communications.  We can even form relationships with non-governmental agencies in providing clean water or mosquitoes netting for local villages.  The point here is that we do not need our denomination to make these happen.

2.      A Resource Redistribution Center.  This simply means taking money from larger congregations in a diocese and giving it to smaller ones.  Today our largest congregations have plenty of needs on the local level and in their communities.  They do not worry about sustaining small mission churches in small rural communities.

3.      A Congregational Accrediting Agency.  This was the role the diocese had in planting and recognizing new congregations and closing dead ones.  Today we know that dioceses are one of the least effective agencies in forming new congregations.  If you do not think so, look at the abysmal track record within TEC in new church planting.

4.      A Clergy Accrediting Agency.  This continues in the work of Commissions on Ministries and Standing Committees. The problem is not with accrediting but rather with educating such persons for effective ministry leadership in today’s world.

5.      A Regional Program Entity.  Do Dioceses really need youth, adult education, stewardship and other such ministries done on a regional level?  Dioceses think so, but the participation by local congregations says “not really.”

6.      A Denominational Link to Ecumenical Activities, Agencies and other Denominational Bodies.  In the 1950s and 1960s, ecumenical work was negotiated on a judicatory level.  Today, ecumenical work is done cooperatively on the local level with judicatories holding symbolic meetings. 
Primary Functions of a Diocese in the New Paradigm
1.       Resourcing and Networking Congregations.  The Diocese that can serve as a resource to the local church has a place in the future.
2.      Strategic Planning.  Often a diocese can best frame strategic planning on the local level and can contribute significantly on a regional level.

3.      An Inspirational Challenge Agency.  A diocese can provide vision, funding and training to help local leaders carry out their work. 

4.      A Congregational Intervention Agency. A diocese can intervene to help declining, stagnant and conflicted congregations.  Let’s face it; this is more and more of a need of TEC given our recent high level of conflict and the 60% of our congregations in serious decline. 
I am not saying that a diocese can move totally from the old paradigm to the new one a short period of time.  Like Schaller, however, I believe those that start a steady movement from the old to the new assure a healthy future for themselves and their congregations into the 21st Century; those, that do not, make themselves more and more irrelevant to their congregations.  Where is your diocese in the movement from the old way of being the church to the need new way of being the church? 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Preaching Scale

In this blog I want to point to one thing the clergy could do to make our congregations more attractive and magnetic to non-Christians and Christians alike.  Why not improve our preaching?
Let me be clear, I am not saying that preaching in the Episcopal Church is bad.  I think it is generally thoughtful, contextually related to the Sunday lectionary, and generally informative.  It is, in other words, good.  And that is the problem.  It is not great, and I think I know the reasons why.

When I do workshops on preaching or have taught preaching at our Stanton Center, I usually start off by asking about good preachers the students have known.  We make a list on a whiteboard.  The list usually includes some former rector, a current rector, an occasional bishop, and a few students point to some well-known clergy within our denomination such as our Presiding Bishop.  What I then point out to the participants is that none of them is known beyond the Episcopal Church especially when it has to do with preaching.  What this exercise shows is what is generally known outside the Episcopal Church, namely, our clergy are not known as outstanding preachers. 

Herbert O’Driscoll, John Stott, and Barbara Brown Taylor are three Anglicans known as great preachers by non-Episcopalians.  All are recognized by Christians outside our community as outstanding.  Now I ask, what do they all have in common?  Yes, it is true that they are all good story tellers.  All three use illustrations creatively.  True, they are full of biblical insights.  However, there is something else that is often overlooked and gives us great insight into our current situation.  The three were or are students and teachers of preaching.

For 15 years, I worked in positions that put me directly in clergy placement and recruiting which means that I read lots of resumes and Clergy Deployment Office Profiles.  I found that 90% of Episcopal Clergy list preaching as their first or second primary pastoral skill.  In other words, we think we are good preachers. So, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being outstanding, we rank ourselves in the 7, 8 or 9 category.  Why do we think this?  We judge ourselves this way because our scale is based on Episcopal clergy, those who teach preaching in our seminaries, and hearing ourselves preach.

Some folks think I am a good preacher, even some of my students.  They are surprised to learn that I rate myself as a “5” generally who can occasionally preach a “7” on what I call “The Preaching Scale.”  Then I point out the counter-cultural truth.  If I am a good preacher, it is because I think I need to work at it.  You see, if we rate ourselves as already good, we do not dedicate ourselves to becoming great.  I consider myself both a preacher and a student of preaching.  I attend workshops on preaching.  I constantly read books on preaching. I also study communications and read books on writing well.   I analyze the preaching of others, and I listen to outstanding preachers from other traditions. 

In listening to outstanding preachers, I mark how she or he uses language; words, phrases, and imagery to communicate effectively.  I listen to how they make their case, appeal to their listener, and motivate others to action. 

The good news is that preaching involves multiple skills, and because of this, any preacher can improve.  We can improve the content of our sermons.  We can improve the delivery of our sermons.  When we do, we almost always get positive feedback from our congregation.  When a preacher has something worthwhile to say, and says it effectively, it draws people in.

All our congregations are faced with challenges, and many are in decline.  There are many reasons for this, and the truth is that many of these are beyond the power of the clergy person to fix.  However, we can begin today to become a better and more effective communicator of the Gospel.  If you want to become a more effective clergy person who is a blessing to your congregation, give yourself over to becoming a student of preaching. Desire to become better at the task than you are now, and you will do yourself, your church and your community a favor. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Fast, Good, Cheap – Choose

Several years ago a management professional shared with me this principle, “You can’t get all three values:  fast, good, cheap.” I have found it true. 

Imagine you want to produce a newcomer’s brochure for your congregation.  You want it fast, good, and cheap.  It will not happen.  Here is what will happen:
You can get it fast and good, but it will not be cheap.
You can get it fast and cheap, but it will not be good.
You can get it good and cheap, but it will not come fast.

So, when you plan events, activities or need items, you will want to keep this rule in mind.  You will want to take the time to decide your priorities. 

For example, last year we decided we needed to improve the ramp for handicap access into the Cathedral.  We even received a generous grant from The Episcopal Foundation to help with this project.  Our primary goal was an ADA compliant ramp that enhanced the entrance to the Cathedral.  It has now been a full year since we started, and we have yet to begin any construction.  Our essential mistake was that, typical of churches, we wanted it fast and cheap.  I imagined it would take about a month, two at most, to execute.  Our problem was that we forgot to ask the priority question.  What will be our primary value in taking on this project?  I do not mean the obvious “providing access.”  I mean what value would our leaders and members use in evaluating this project.  I should have anticipated the answer.

I have learned that the primary value we use when related to the Cathedral Church is “good.”  We consider the architecture and aesthetics of the Cathedral building a heritage.  We are stewards of this inheritance.  On the other hand, our other facilities are often valued by “cheap.”  For example, “What is the cheapest price we can get for fixing our 70 year old air conditioning system?” As soon as we had our first architectural rendering, I knew the ramp was in trouble.  It fit the budget (cheap) but no one liked the way it looked (good).  After lengthy discussions, we came up with an alternative.  This looked great, but our first estimate was way over our budget.  We could now get good and fast, but it would not be cheap.  This led us back to the drawing board one more time.

My point is that much of this could have been anticipated if I could have remembered the critical formula: you can’t get fast, good, and cheap at the same time.  You can only get two. 

You will want to consider this critical formula when you consider a new website, an addition to present buildings, the remodeling of any present areas, any printed materials, what color to paint the rectory, and any other myriad of decisions.  Remember fast, good and cheap; you probably will not get all three.  Knowing which of these is the most important will save time and confusion.  Oh, and if anyone tells you they can get something for you fast, good, and cheap, the person is probably in sales! 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hints for Welcoming and Incorporating New Vestry Members

            One of the biggest issues facing Episcopal Vestries at the beginning of a new year is how to best welcome and incorporate the newly elected vestry members. 

Most Vestries operate by electing 1/3 of their members each year at the Annual Meeting.  My experience is that these Vestries do not pay close enough attention to the inclusion of the new members.  Simple steps can help new members more quickly become fully participating leaders.  Over the years, Vestry members have told me that usually it takes about a year for them to feel free to speak up and understand all that they are called to do.  Here are a few suggestions that I have for making this transition go faster and better.

1.       Tell nominees up front what you expect of them.  This year at the Cathedral we created a nominating form that states clearly the expectations and requirements of vestry members.  We asked both the nominator and the nominee to sign the statement, which includes the nominee’s agreement to support the mission of the Cathedral as stated in our mission statement.

2.      Bring the new members on board right at the first meeting.  Here is my favorite question to ask new vestry members:  “Could you share with us why you were willing to allow your name to go forward for election to the Vestry at this time?  Or, “What concerns do you bring to the Vestry as a new member?”

3.      Orient them to unfinished business.  Take time to have a warden or longer-term member share what the on-going matters are before the Vestry.  For example, we do our Stewardship in January at the Cathedral, so we spent time at our first meeting with the new members explaining both the rationale and the assumptions we made in our budget and the on-going challenges we faced.  In addition, three major facilities renovations are in process.  We explained these and allowed for questions. 

4.      Debrief previous challenges.  When appropriate, I ask the current Vestry members to share what they see as the greatest challenges the parish has faced during their tenure.  It is also stimulating to ask them to share what has been their greatest sense of accomplishment during their time on the vestry.  Even when there has been substantial conflict in the past, these questions allow all the members to gain some perspective on the issues.

5.      Have the Rector share her or his experience with Vestries.  Most clergy have had considerable experience with Vestries.  Take advantage of this early on.  I always like to share what I perceive to be the greatest problem a Vestry faces; namely, a Vestry member with a sole agenda who is unwilling to sacrifice this agenda in the best interest of the entire congregation.  I have lots of examples after 40 years!

6.      Share on how to bring feedback from congregational members to the Vestry and Church leaders.  Explain “triangulating” and how to avoid this.  It is always best to do this before issues arise.

7.      Talk about how decisions are made.  Most vestries work by consensus until “something really important or legal” comes along.  Discuss what decisions with take a simple consensus, which ones require a vote, and which ones would require a ¾ majority.  (Yes, there are some really important ones that do!)

8.      If you have Vestry committees, describe these and give the new members an opportunity to participate on the committee of their choice.  We have four at the Cathedral, and we give new members a description and ask them to indicate their first two choices.  The Senior Warden and I then assign them to a committee based on these two preferences.  (We do not worry if the committees are equal in number.) 

It was the lack of good orientation for Vestries that led my last Diocese (Texas) and my current one (Dallas) to provide a Vestry Leadership Day.  Our newly elected Vestry members find these very helpful.  Take the time to bring new members on board and you will reap plenty of rewards in your life together.