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.