Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Leading Revitalization: What to Look For in the Next Rector

 Continuing my blogs on Congregational Revitalization, I want to return to the subject of leadership and particularly what a church should look for in the Rector selected to lead this change. 

In my many years of working with congregations, I have had the great privilege of working with many remarkable clergy.  I have found that it takes a significant combination of personality and skills for clergy who have successfully lead efforts of congregational revitalization.  What are these?

First, let me remind you that in my previous blogs on this topic I have outlined some important pre-conditions that help a congregation in this task.  It is important to remember that leadership is NOT just about leaders, but also about a congregation’s readiness for change and the context of the community surrounding the congregation.  Too many congregations especially in the Episcopal Church have lived with the illusion that “if we just got the right Rector this time” then everything would go well for them.  Often the image of this “right Rector” is that of a past beloved Rector of the 50s or 60s.

Having reminded my readers of this, I now want to suggest what a congregation should look for in the new Rector to lead Revitalization.

1.      I would look for a candidate with a proven track record.  Past performance is the BEST indicator of future behavior.  I would look for a leader who has demonstrated an ability to inspire church members and to attract new and especially unchurched people.  As fundamental as this may seem, it is amazing to me the number of search committees that fail to do their research on this.  Often they based their impressions on one or two of the following. 

a.     Their Bishop’s recommendation

b.     The physical attractiveness of the candidate

c.      The ability of a candidate to answer a few selective questions with no connection as to whether the candidate has ever done what they have written

d.     One example of a sermon by a candidate

e.     How a particular candidate stacks up against the other 4 candidates they have seen so far 

2.     I would look for a leader that has an infectious spirituality.  This leader is able to draw people to her or his vision of the church and its mission and who is able to communicate an image of God and of Christ that is inspirational and attractive.

3.     I would look for a candidate who is an effective communicator of the Gospel.  Here I put the emphasis on “communicator.”  Most Episcopal Clergy are intelligent and thoughtful people who share a certain intellectual ability assured by their seminary training and confirmed by the examination of a Commission on Ministry.  This does not mean that they are effective as communicators. 

When I evaluate sermons, I look at two important skills in preaching.  Fred Craddock called these simply “having something to say” and “saying it effectively.”  I can almost always give an Episcopal Clergy person high marks on have something intelligent to say, but I give few good grades on saying it effectively.  Unfortunately, most clergy use the same form for a sermon over and over again.  We wear the hearer out in our predictability of what we will say and how we will say it. 

4.     I would look for a candidate that loves people, accepts people where they are and yet is ready to challenge them to grow deeper into discipleship and into Christ’s mission.  I would look for an encourager and someone able to affirm lay leadership.  If a larger congregation, I would look for someone who can build a strong team of staff members and effectively delegate.

5.     I would look for someone who values and loves the Church even the local congregation.  Many Episcopal Clergy communicate a certain disdain for ordinary parish life.  We make fun of the Altar Guild or we are cynical about the annual Parish Fair.  We often fail to simply thank volunteers for their contributions.  We frequently chastise those who loyally show up and do the regular routine things that make a community work.

6.     I would look for a candidate who knows what she or he does well and who knows their own limitations.  An effective leader focuses on what that leader does best and delegates what that leader does not do well. 

I once told a search committed that “if you are looking for an inspirational leader who can communicate a vision in a passionate way, than I am your guy.  If you are looking for someone who is focused on details and repetitive tasks, look for someone else.”  Was I a good administrator?  Yes, if you mean by that visionary leader, team oriented, and problem solver.  No, if you mean by that someone who can organize the next parish supper.  I learned often the hard way that I worked best as a Rector when I had a strong administrative assistant on my right hand. 

7.     I would look for a person who models, as a leader, what it means to be a follower of Christ.  I would want a person who can admit a mistake. I would want a person who is able to forgive.  I would desire a leader who is generous in financial matters, tithes to the parish, and gives to other important ministries and organizations.  I have never found a parish where stewardship is strong where the Rector does not tithe.


8.     I would look for a Rector who is connected to other leaders.  I would want a full participant in the Diocese.  I would want a leader who has good relationships with colleagues.  I would want a leader who takes good counsel from other leaders.  I have learned that in the long run there is only one illness in a leader or a church and it is isolation. 

Narcissistic leaders stand alone.  They only have admirers or fans.  They do not live in relationships where they are help accountable.  I remind us that clergy are members of an “order” and not Lone Rangers.  These relationships help a leader remember that he or she is not the Messiah and that the Church exists apart from them, and they apart for their role.  In other words, I would want a healthy person and healthy people exist in relationship to other healthy people.

9.     Finally, I would want a person who is dependent on God’s Grace.  I once heard a clergy spouse respond to a question about the clergy family being “models” to the congregation.  “Yes,” She said, “we are to be models to the congregation.  We are not, however, models of perfection because we aren’t perfect and such an expectation is always destructive.  We are to be models of people who live our lives as if we are dependent on God’s Grace.” No matter what situation a leader or leaders find themselves facing, we can always model that we are dependent upon the Grace of God. 

Notice that I haven’t said anything about programs, or systems, or theories of parish organization.  Certainly these can be important, but without the above, they are of little use. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Declining Congregations Need to Use the Appropriate Strategy

In my last two blogs, I began a series on Re-vitalization.  I started with an emphasis on leadership.  In my second one, I shared my concerns about assessing a congregation’s readiness for the task. In this blog, I want to explore the three types of strategy that our declining congregations need to be healthy and vital.  
I have always found The Congregational Life Cycle to be a helpful tool in teaching Congregational Development and in understanding what a declining congregation needs.  Many of my readers would be familiar with this model.  A congregation is birthed.  It grows and, at some point in its initial history 15 to 20 years it reaches a stage of stability.  If leaders do nothing at this stage, a congregation will begin to decline.  This decline points to three necessary responses.

First is “Re-Visioning”
 This is what congregational leaders need to do during the initial turn down at the end of the stabilization period.  It is often hard to do, because in many ways the congregation is operating at its best in most areas of congregational life.  It takes gifted and dedicated and mission minded leadership to challenge others to think ahead and push forward. 

I learned some time ago by studying larger congregations that their history is often seen in as a series of growth spirts followed by plateaus that lead to a new time of further growth and greater vitality.  In other words, just as growth in the natural world is seldom a straight line, growth in a human community isn’t either.  Those who study such things now think that these moments of stabilization reflect the organism’s need to integrate the proceeding development and prepare for the future.  Failure to do this, leads to decline.  The scientific term is “atrophy” – things left to their own devices tend to run down.

Unfortunately, many congregations never move to this new level because the status quo is seldom challenged.  A typical pattern is a new plant grows until it can afford a full time Rector and then clusters around the Pastoral Size with an average Sunday attendance between 75 to 140.  This remains standard until either a crisis or the inevitable aging of the congregation starts the church toward decline.  Sometimes a new Rector brings new energy and new growth, but the congregation never moves beyond the Pastoral size and its limitations. 

What I am saying is this; Re-Visioning is the best time to re-evaluate and create a renewed vision, but satisfaction with the status quo keeps this from happening. Often Re-Visioning involves clarifying or refining the current sense of mission.  Writing a mission statement can be a helpful tool especially if new and expanded ministries are planned and executed.

Once decline is clearly evident, the congregation needs “Re-vitalization.” 
This is a harder and more costly process because it demands change that is not congruent with what has gone before.  The Leaders often feel that the problem is simply a need for a few newer families with children rather than realize that this is merely aimed at maintaining what is known.  So let me say this as clear as I can.  The almost universal suggestion by Dioceses that congregations write a mission statement is almost useless in a congregation needing Re-Vitalization.  When the leaders write one, it will mostly be a maintenance statement disguised as a mission statement. 

Re-Vitalization takes place best when a clergy leader with skills in congregational transformation in in place.  Many will not like to hear this, but the leaders who got the congregation to the stage of needing Re-Vitalization are not the ones to get you out of it.  In my next blog, I will discuss some of the skills and characteristics of such clergy and lay leadership, but for now I want to focus on the process needed.

When we did intentional Re-Vitalization in the Diocese of Texas during Bishop Payne’s tenure, we would do some or all of the following.

1.      We would take an active role in recruiting the right kind of ordained leader for this work.  Declining congregations make very poor choices in a search process.

2.      We brought new resources in both capital and operating assistance usually for a period long enough to make a difference – 3 to 5 years.

3.      We reduced the size of the vestry to 5 to 7 leaders.  Our request to the congregation was simple and direct, “Put your A Team -best leaders - on the field."

4.      We would keep that Vestry in place for the 3 to 5 years of the partnership.

5.      We often kept the same Senior Warden in place during this time too. 

6.      We expected the clergy and lay leadership to review current ministries and stop those that were no longer viable. 

7.      We provided training in Leadership, Congregational Development, and Stewardship.  (For example: Congregations in the Re-Vitalization process were required to send a majority of Vestry Members to the Annual Diocesan Stewardship Conference.)

8.      We trained lay leaders in New Member Ministry (the genesis of Mary Palmer’s “Invite, Welcome and Connect” seminars.  And we shared best practices from similar sized congregations.

9.       We would ask the leadership to prepare a series of goals and timelines and made clear that continued funding was dependent on meeting them.

Of course, we were a large Diocese with plenty of staff to assist making these things happen.  Did these strategies work? In my 9 years with the Diocese, it worked in every intentional Re-Vitalization.

Once decline has reached a critical point, what is now needed is “Re-Birth” or frankly Resurrection.
A dying English speaking congregation of 15 folks becoming a growing Hispanic congregation is Rebirth, it is not revitalization.  Hence a dying English speaking congregation that starts a Spanish speaking service in hopes it will bring about revitalization to the English speaking side of a congregation is headed for trouble. 

In my experience, almost all Re-Birth events in congregations involved finding a new target for the future.  Sometimes this is ethnic.  Often times it is generational.  In dynamic places it often involves both.   I am also convinced that congregation Re-Birth is almost always a God thing and looks very much like a miracle.  I guess Resurrection is like that.  However, it is also important to remember that for a Resurrection to take place, something has to die.  And, of course, some congregations will simple die. 

Now with these three terms in front of us, Re-visioning, Re-Vitalization, and Re-Birth, I can now make a couple of final observations.

First, most congregational leaders wait too long to take initiative in each of these stages and often act in reactionary ways. 

Second, being in denial, the leaders often underestimate which stage they are really in.  Hence the congregation needing Re-Visioning just focuses on operations.  The congregation needing Re-Vitalization focuses on writing a new Mission Statement.  A congregation moving toward death believes a new Rector and new programs will turn things around.  And finally, a congregation in the throes of death believes that “Jesus will never let his Church die.”  As is often said, Denial is not a river in Egypt!

And third, Diocesan Leadership seldom intervenes with the right strategy at the right time even though they actual know better than local leaders the true state of the congregation. 

Now in my opinion, most of the 70 to 80% of our congregations in decline in TEC are in the Re-Vitalization stage and we need to train both clergy and lay leaders in the necessary steps to bring about this Re-Vitalization.  I would love to put together a two week continuing education at one of our seminaries on this and invite folks to attend.  I am still awaiting an invitation. 

In summary; A congregation in decline needs to understand what stage they are in and apply the appropriate strategy to meet it.  This often involves new leadership, especially clergy, and new information by way of training.  Re-Visioning can be done largely on the local level.  Re-Vitalization and Re-Birth need intentional Diocesan support. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Readiness for Revitalization

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

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

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

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

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

I would list these:

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Christianity: Movement, Organization, Community, or Institution?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 16, 2016

Why Your ASA (Average Sunday Attendance) Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Congregational Leadership Needs to Strike the Right Balance for Creative Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

She then shared a video presentation  “Why Leaders Eat Last,” by Simon Sinek with her leaders.  (Here is the link  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReRcHdeUG9Y  ) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Nine Things to do Instead of Balancing the Budget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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