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.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Suggested New Year’s Resolution for Clergy

Note: Since I am an Episcopal Priest and almost all of my readers are Episcopalians or Anglicans, these comments are intended to apply primarily to us. 

I have been a clergy person for 44 years and during that time I have preached many sermons, heard many sermons, and even taught preaching.  Now that I am retired, I get to hear a lot of other people preach. I know that most of my colleagues consider themselves to be good preachers, so you might be curious as to my suggested New Year’s Resolution to all of us.  Here it is. 

I resolve that in 2016 I will become a more effective communicator (of the Gospel.)   

You will note that I put “of the Gospel” in parentheses.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that I think the Gospel is secondary or optional to delivery in a sermon.   I put it that way because the focus of this blog is on “effective communications” and believe me when I say that most of us have some work to do in this area. 

Fred Craddock, in his book Preaching, says that there are two tasks that a preacher faces each time we prepare.  The first is having something to say.  This takes study, analysis of the text in its context, and the ability to understand what the writer is saying using commentaries and other resources.  From this we think through the message that we want to convey to the congregation.  I have always liked Craddock’s idea of creating in my own words a one sentence declarative statement of the message I want to share and seeing to it that all my sermon material, teaching, and illustrations hold to this message.  He and others call this The Sermonic Sentence. 

Craddock also devotes the second half of his book to saying it effectively.  A sermon is not the mere restating of what we learned as we studied the text.  It is also communicating in an effective manner using the skills of rhetoric to our advantage.   In one very helpful chapter he lists twelve effective forms that have been used in oral communication throughout history.  Instead of giving us their technical names, he gives us descriptive ones. 

For example, there is the “Not this, Not this, Not this, But this” form.  If you have heard a good preacher use this method, or seen a good essayist write with it, you know that it builds a message to an effective climax.  We find exactly this form in the first chapter of John’s Gospel as the writer says how we are born as children of God; not by race, ethnicity, or family (the genetic code), not by human desire, but by the power of the Spirit.  I have often heard sermons on this text and wondered why the preacher did not choose to use this effective method to communicate rather than explain three points the preacher believes found in the text.   

Then there is the “Not this, But this” method.  This is an message in which contrast is used to illuminate an important distinction and truth.  “There was a man who had two sons,” Jesus declares as he uses contrast to make a vivid point about willing obedience.  Contrast is frequently used in the Scripture because it is rhetorically effective. 

One method he mentions is the “Explore, Explain, Apply” sermon.  In this method, the preacher explores the meaning or possible meanings of the text, explains some of the implications, and finally applies this for the listeners.  It is a good method and useful.  I believe this is now the dominate method used by most of our clergy.  This is true for several reasons, but three primary ones stand out.  First, it is taught in our seminaries and modeled by our professors because it is an effect teaching pedagogy.  Second, it is a form that allows a preacher to craft a coherent written document and most preachers today preach from a manuscript. Third it allows the preacher to present material in a detached and objective manner often preferred by college educated people.  Unfortunately, it also makes most sermons topical with our points sometimes far removed from the intent of the writer. 

I heard an example of this not long ago on Jesus healing the ten lepers.  The preacher ‘explored’ the attitude in the ancient world toward lepers who were social outcasts and believed cursed by God.  Then the preacher ‘explained’ how Jesus was often compassionate toward the poor, hurting, outcasts, and people seen as socially inferior such as Samaritans and women.  He duly noted that the one who returned to give thanks was a Samaritan.  The conclusion was that Jesus demonstrated “inclusion," God’s acceptance and inclusion of all people.  The preacher ‘applied’ this to our world and the Church and our attitude toward those who we see as different such as gay and lesbian people.  One is left to wonder what a person with leprosy or some other serious illness would take away from the passage.   

Sometimes when Episcopalians use this method, we downplay the application leaving our listeners to work this out on their own.  I heard one teacher say “I don’t bother much with application because to me the point is obvious.”  I have talked to lots of lay folks on this matter and I can assure you that they often say that the application is for them the most important part.  They are like the crowd on the day of Pentecost who interrupt Peter’s sermon and demand “what should we do?”   

Now here is my point.  This is the major method used most often today.  It is clearly habitual for many preachers to gather our sermons within this framework.  What we do not realize is how the overuse of this method defeats effective communication in two ways.  It makes us very predictable and applied to all texts ignores other more creative ways of communicating.  Take my example from John’s Gospel.  Why make it an Explore, Explain, Apply sermon when John has already demonstrated in a great piece of literature a more effective way of doing this.  In fact, what I noticed is how often I have fallen into the overuse of one way of presenting my message and how often I see this in other preachers.  Unfortunately, this is an area where our tendency to develop a habit defeats our intended goal to communicate and to communicate effectively. 

Here I found Craddock a great help.  I took the twelve forms from his book and listed them on a note pad on my desk where I did my preparation.  I began with study intending as he says to have something to say.  I would then ask myself what form of oral communications would more effectively bring out my message.  I found that this gave me greater flexibility and creativity in preaching.  I noticed that some forms were already suggested by the literary form of the text.   

Once I was preaching in a large congregation where the Rector used the same structure for preaching on every text.  I got up to preach on the Prodigal Son.  I started with these words, “It takes a prodigal like me to tell this story.”  Then in narrative form, I delivered the story moving toward the first person as though I was the desperate and lost son overcome by the Father’s love and stunned by the older brother’s resentment.  I ended and to my surprise, I got a standing ovation.  The Rector was dumbfounded.  Later he asked me how I was able to get such an amazing and spontaneous response.  I tried to explain that his habitual form of preaching made my task easy.  People heard the Gospel in a new and different and captivating way.  His predictability along with his analytical form expressed with emotional detachment was hindering effective communication. 

So why not resolve that this year you are going to become a better preacher by becoming a more effective communicator of God’s Word?  You could start by getting Craddock’s book, reading his chapters on effective communication, and applying this by keeping his forms in front of you as you wrestle with the enormous task of creatively communicating your sermon. 

Trust me; your people will appreciate it.