Monday, January 21, 2013

Congregations: Why One Size Does not Fit All

“What do you think of Natural Church Development?”  This is a question that I have heard often in the last few years.  Not long ago the question would have been “What do you think about The Purpose Driven Church?”
The programmatic approaches to congregations or what I like to call the “One Approach Fits All” methodologies are all developed with the belief that these will fit most any congregation.  I have seen such approaches (even tried some) for many years now.  In this blog, I want to share what I think is right about them and where I see their limitations.
First let me start with a list of some of these:
                The Purpose Driven Church
                Natural Church Development
                Small Groups: Evangelistic, Pastoral, Instructional, etc.
                Fuller Church Growth Institute – The Church Growth Pastor 

This week I learned from one of our Oklahoma Rectors that the Diocese of Chicago has developed a program based on Bill Hybel’s work at his Willow Creek Church, but of course “adapted” to an Episcopal setting. 

Two of these, Natural Church Development and the new Chicago one, use a survey of members to determine a church’s strengths and weaknesses and then recommends a course of action.  The others use a model for the church (or in the Fuller approach, for the pastor) that can be imposed upon the current congregation.  Many of you may remember Carl George’s evangelistic small group strategy which argued for building churches on small groups.  “Grow larger by growing smaller” was a slogan for this movement.  Dale Galloway took a similar approach using pastoral small groups in his church in Oregon and then published a whole curriculum around it.   

Now let me make myself clear.  I am not universally discrediting such approaches.  All of these do work and all have strong advocates of their methodology.  I often point out that given most Episcopal congregations operate on simply repeating what they have always done.  This means that any approach that gets church leaders to think systematically about their church will generally improve things.  Further, the survey and application approach bases the plan on analysis of the present situation in a church.  This is never a bad idea.  These approaches do have limitations and they are not my preferred way of developing congregations.  What really astonishes me is when I hear of some Episcopal Diocese that has decided to make one of them their general approach to all congregations. One thing that I have done which such dioceses have not is to analyze congregations where these approaches have not worked.  

The Limitations
So here are some of the limitations I have found with these approaches: 

1.        Some programs assume that growth of churches is “natural” and follows a straight upward line as long as certain issues are attended to.  Natural Church Development and The Purpose Driven Church both follow the evangelical assumptions of the Fuller Church Growth Institute.  I would summarize these as “Real Churches are evangelistic churches and these churches will grow naturally unless something non-Gospel oriented or artificial interferes with this growth.”  

Often these approaches do not fit well with historic, sacramental churches.  Episcopal congregations that use these approaches often have to adapt the language to fit our context.  Further, is growth a constant and straight line affair?  Congregational research reveals that long-term growth is almost always a series of growth periods followed by plateaus.  In development understanding, plateaus follow a time of growth as the “system” adapts to the changes that the growth has produced.  Just observe any teenager to see how this works.   

2.        Such approaches often work best with larger congregations.  When I was rector of St. Luke’s in Seattle, we introduced a pastoral small group model for the congregation.  Within six months, the congregation was the largest it had ever been with ASA running between 450 and 500.  However, we introduced this into an already programmatic size, multi-staffed congregation by training new leaders over a three month period.  Second, we allowed many of the present members to opt out of this new approach and applied it most directly to new members.  I have found that the Purpose Driven Approach has seemed to work best when introduced to transitional and program size churches.  

Why is this so, because the obstacles and resistances to growth in smaller size churches are rooted solidly in the complex social relationships among current members.  This is enhanced often with a small church mentality, “We like our small church because we know everyone here.”   

By the way, one of my successors believed that lay people should not meet in small groups unless the pastor was present.  Today that congregation’s ASA is around 25.  This is not the only reason for the church’s decline, but it was a significant one.  

3.       Such approaches often work best in newer congregations.  Most church plants that become larger congregations tend to start with a systematic approach for reaching new members such as small group discipleship classes.  Every new church without buildings, Rose Windows, and an altar guild to sustain it, needs a methodology to hold it together.  I always ask a new church planter what is your vision for this church, what are the core values, and what is the proven methodology that you will use to attract and assimilate new members.  

4.       Such approaches often work when there is a dynamic and directive clergy person who believes in the methodology and persists in it. Of course, I’ve seen many situations where the methodology failed and the pastor either left or was removed.  However, if you discover one of these approaches and believe with your whole heart it is Jesus’ way for the church, than by all means find a congregation that will follow it or start a new one.   

The Alternative
For me the alternative is Congregational Development.  This approach is more complex, more nuanced, and often takes more patience.  It is the way of working with congregations that I first learned from Lyle Schaller.  It is based on anthropology, psychology, organizational development, and a good dose of historical and ecclesiastical experience.  When we start with this perspective, we assume the following: 

1.       Congregations are complex communities made up of unique leaders and members.  Obviously, one size cannot fit all. 

2.       The size and history of a congregation often determines which steps can best work and which ones will not take. 

3.       All congregations have developmental areas. The local leaders are the best people to determine which areas need their attention. 

4.       Not all congregations have growth potential. 

5.       Some congregations will decline, and death is part of life.  

6.       There is no idea, no matter how great, championed by a judicatory that cannot be easily sabotaged by people on the local level. 

7.       Health is a better goal for congregations than continuing growth. 

8.       Growth is often a bi-product of other activities. 

9.       Aiming exclusively at growth can create unhealthy and anxious congregations. 

10.   Not all growth is good.  Cancer is a growth. 

11.   Dysfunctional behavior is a fact of life. 

12.   If there was a pill or a program that would fix all churches, there would not be a list of different programs.  All these would have long ago been abandoned for the one that works! 

In my next blog, I intend to start a series that builds on what I learned from Lyle Schaller about working with congregations.    



Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Three Important Aspects of Leadership

                As a leader who has had the privilege of teaching other leaders, I like to point out three areas for growth and awareness: personality, style, and skills.
                The first of these is personality.  Many of us have benefited from the Meyers-Briggs Personality Inventory.  This measures such things as introversion and extroversion, sensing and intuition, feeling and thinking, judging and perceiving.  This tool helps me understand the way I see the world.  It also helps we understand what energizes me and what stresses me.  As a slightly introverted person, I always find Sunday mornings stressful because of the number of social interactions required of a clergy person along with the need to be aware of all the things going on.  I prefer to withdraw on Sunday afternoons and get quiet.  My best friend is a strong extrovert.  He preferred to make parish visits and hospital calls after Sunday services.   

                Over the years, folks have asked me if there is a better profile for clergy.  I point out that there is really no virtue in one’s personality profile.  I have known very effective clergy of all types.  The secret is finding a way to do what you love and being attentive to what will bring stress.  I have also learned that leaders under stress tend to fall back on our strengths.  This tends to make the stress even more difficult.  Of course, a personality profile is different from character, especially integrity which is the ability of the leader to do the right thing when tempted to do something else. 

                The second aspect is that of style.  I learned many years ago that each of us has a preferred style of leading.  For example, my preferred style is collaborative and cooperative.  I work best in teams of peers.  Because of this preferred style, I am less comfortable with a directive style or a when I need to delegate even though I know that there are times when such leadership would be more effective.  Over the years, I have used a survey tool to help clergy identify their preferred style.  Then I help them see when their preferred style might hinder their effectiveness.  

                When you are a leader of a group that needs your preferred style, things tend to go well.  The problem comes when we are forced to provide leadership with groups that need another style.  I have found when things are not going well to stop and step back to think about the issue of style.  This keeps me from blaming the group or community for being “so difficult.”  This also explains why some clergy can do very well in one congregation and then find that the next one they serve is very difficult.  

                The third aspect is skills.  This is the subject of many books on leadership that rightfully point out important abilities of effective leaders.  Here the key word is “effective.”  For me leadership isn’t usually good or bad, but effective or ineffective.  For example, I find that effective leaders are good communicators.  Effective communication can be learned, or said another way, with work I can get better at it.  

                I consider that a good leader is committed to life-long growth.  This means identifying areas for skill development.  For example, I spent years as a Rector leading vestry meetings.  Many times these would go on for hours with little accomplished and much frustration.  Then one day, I picked up a book titled “Running Effective Meetings.”  It helped.  Today I consider a vestry meeting longer than 2 hours an ineffective one.  In the church environment, we often assume that ordination conveys all the skills one would need to lead effectively.  I have long ago renounced that idea.  

                Of course, being skilled does not guarantee that a leader will do the right thing.  I have learned that skills are always an adornment to character.  Character can never be seen as an adornment to skills.  We have all seen the damage that a skilled but unprincipled leader can do in a community.  The very pressure of leadership often brings to the surface the major character flaw of a leader.  Scripture is full of such examples, think Saul, David, and Solomon.  

                These three aspects of leadership are important for any leader.  I have found understanding my personality, understanding my style and the needs of different groups, and developing a plan for improving my skills enabled me to be a more effective leader.  Of course, all this means that as a clergy person I have accepted that I am a leader.  No every clergy person feels this way.  Over the years, I have encountered three attitudes among clergy about leadership.  I would describe them this way: 

The Instinctive or Natural Leader – This type leader acts instinctively.  They usually are resistant to learning about leadership.  They often do well because they instinctively find groups that need their preferred style of leadership.  They sometimes write books on leadership, and the thesis is always “This is how I lead, and you should too!”  I also find that when their preferred style does not seem to work they blame the community, at the extreme demonizing people in it.  In other words, they lack insight. 

The Agent – These are the Priests that insist they are not leaders.  Their calling is to celebrate the Eucharist, hear confessions, visit the sick, and give counsel to the needy.   Often, these persons work best in a structured environment such as a hospital or institution ministry where their roles are clearly defined.  Can such persons learn how to more effectively lead a congregation?  Of course they can.  Yet, I often find that their sense of “identity” keeps them from working at it.  I consider this a resistance to change. 

The Growing Leader – This is the 80% of the rest of us.  We know we are called to leadership.  Life and experience teach us that a part of our vocation is to get better at it.  I have been fortunate that in every stage of my development as a leader, I have had role models and examples of other leaders who have helped me grow in that calling. All have had insight into themselves, integrity, and have made life-long learning an important part of their lives.