church growth

Please Insert Cassette Two

By Colton Lott

 

Over the past few years I’ve become skilled at talking about my calling to ministry. For example: unless I am directly asked, I don’t mention I am going to be a pastor at the fish-fry/quasi-family reunion. Because, once I do that, the person I'm not actually related to finds it necessary to apologize every time he grabs a beer from the cooler. When a guy is trying to plow through a twelve pack, my meek, “I don’t mind/even like beer,” is drowned out by the incessant plea of, “Please forgive me, brother Lott!”

There is also that part of my calling that makes me kind of freaky. I first discerned that I was headed for ordained ministry at thirteen. I hadn’t even started shaving! I went to church camp in junior high, got the obligatory calling like all the good Christian boys and girls, told all my counselors, and then seemingly forgot that I was supposed to forget about it by fall break and resume saying I wanted to be something practical when I grew up again. My family was rooting for something like a doctor, or a lawyer, or an insurance salesman, you know, something that actually makes money. I think ballerina-astronaut would have been a more convincing career path.

So bit-of-a-freak me went through junior high school, where I learned to tell peers reluctantly that I wanted to be a minister when I grew up. I remember being backstage of my teenaged, theatrical debut in Disney’s: Mulan (Junior) with my peers, who were asking very pressing questions between scenes. “Can you get married?” “Can you say cuss words?” “Why do you even have to go to college? I didn’t think ministers needed any special education.” “Will you ever have sex?”

High school was a different ballgame because we all knew that I was ‘unusual’ and my sarcasm had developed nicely. While my friends were looking at state schools and maybe a research institution or two in Texas, I was fervently emailing Disciples colleges, asking if any of them had money for weird high school kids who knew they wanted to be a minister.

“No, sorry.” “No, but is your parent a minister?” “No, but we can get you half off!”

And then… “YES!”

From a little school in the godforsaken cornfields of the Midwest. EUREKA! I hit the jackpot with… Eureka College. So, off I went on a scholarship designed for students who knew at seventeen they desired to go into ordained ministry (HA! I had that beat by four years, suckers!).[i]

As devoted readers of my article know, because my “devoted readers” are mostly friends and family, I graduated from Eureka this past May and am now in the last few days before my M.Div. program begins in Divinity School. After nine years, I am sitting where I always wanted to be.

Foolishly, I am now realizing something embarrassing, albeit inconsequential:

I never really imagined what this time would be like.

I started researching seminaries before looking at colleges, which I’m pretty sure is not the correct way to do it. High-school-me saw college as a stepping stone and college-me (thankfully) was busy living in the moment, so the projected images of my life that I created in those tumultuous years of adolescence start cutting out…now. Now that I am where tape one ends and I need to insert tape two, I’m not sure where I exactly left tape two.[ii]

This is not bad, per se, but does create an interesting season for my life. I don’t have a playbook that is as solid and fool-proof anymore. Now that I’m actually knocking on the door, I forgot what happens when the door is opened unto me.

In some ways, I think our churches are like this. We set arbitrary goals and wishes with no expectation of how these goals and wishes actually help with God’s mission in the world. Oh, how lovely this sanctuary would be when it is full again! Or, how revitalized we will be with 100 in worship on Sunday! Or, if we could just afford a full time pastor again!

I continually struggle with figuring out what’s on the church’s tape two. I get tape one—working toward this goal that will bring happiness and awesomeness—but what would the church do if that actually happened? What’s on tape two that everyone is so jazzed about?

My sinister suspicion is that, just like for me, there is no tape two! (*Lightning crashes in the background while I manically stick my index finger high in the air.*) Churches have spent so much energy imagining life up to a certain point that they have forgotten why that certain point exists in the first place.

Am I bothered by my first realization of the day: that I didn’t imagine in crystallized detail what my graduate experience would be like? No, I’m actually grateful. It’s still weird that I’m in this long term relationship with the church and that next summer will be a decade of my discernment in a prayer labyrinth made of flour at church camp. I know, and am comforted, that I still have the goal of ordination on the other side and the opportunity for life in public ministry in some form.

But I do worry about the churches I love. I hope they are really thinking of the story they want to write and that they begin gathering up their second and third cassettes. Because maybe, just maybe, they’ll realize that tape one gets boring. We don’t need more people or more money or more staff hours. Maybe we just need to see what life is like on tape two, heck, I’d settle with just moving to Side B! Maybe we need to re-dream and loosen the ties.

I don’t know. But today I sit in a bit of stupor and am continually thankful for the churches that prayed for me up to this point.

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[i] This scholarship has since evolved into the Disciples Leadership Program. A full-tuition scholarship for four years, it is open to any Disciples of Christ student who has a record of academic success, service, and leadership. Candidates no longer need to be ministerial in nature, just committed to a life of faith-based service and a deep love of God’s church. Visit: http://www.eureka.edu/admissions/doc/ for more information.

[ii] For younger readers “tapes” are VHS or cassette tapes. Long movies, or books ‘on tape,’ have two, or more, cassettes. 

Photo credit: 
http://www.undertheradarmag.com/news/sony_unveils_185_terabyte_cassette_tape/

An Open Letter to Church Shoppers

By Rev. Mindi


Dear Church Shopper,

I hate the term “church shopping.”  Shopping implies casual browsing, sampling, purchasing, consuming, returning and exchanging, etc. I know that you have been brought up in a consumer culture, and this is the language you are used to. You want to find the right church like you want to find the right pair of shoes: you want to make sure they are a good fit, and that they feel on the inside as good as they look on the outside. You want to find the church that feeds your needs, your desires, what you imagine church should be. And if your desires are not being met, if you are not being filled, you will move along.

The church is the body of Christ, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 12. It is a body. It is an organism. It is something you become part of and participate in, not sample and browse, consume and leave behind. Church is something you belong to, become part of, and it becomes essential and integral to your life. As Paul says, the hand cannot say to the foot, “I have no need of you.”

Unfortunately, for many churches in the United States, they have also bought into the consumer culture. They try to put on a good show to feed your entertainment needs as well as your spiritual needs, but often the spiritual need they fill is to make you feel good about yourself. We all like to feel good. But at times we also need to be challenged and have a kick in the pants when we are not doing our part to help the poor and the oppressed around us.

Sometimes the mainline liberal church has bought into the consumer culture as well. Sometimes we use phrases like “social justice” and “missional” as catch phrases to lure you in to doing work in the community to help others, but we aren’t always good about it. Sometimes we are helping ourselves. Sometimes we don’t listen to the needs of the community and continue to do the same things we have always done rather than meeting the needs of those around us.  Sometimes what we are doing is not social, is not justice, and is not about serving others. Sometimes the church has used bait and switch tactics, without realizing it.


Church is not the pastor. Church is not the building. Church is the people, the body of Christ, coming together to be one. We shouldn’t be church because the building is pretty. We shouldn’t be church because the pastor is inspiring. We should be church because we recognize that we are the body, together, and we have need of each other. And our money shouldn’t be the most important thing—whether it is our individual giving or the church budget. Sometimes, I think the real problem in all of this is that we have given money power over all of us. That is consumer culture in a nutshell.

So please, stop shopping. Join a church community and belong. Of course that might take a little time finding—there is something to be said about theology and mission that connects you—but don’t go for a while and then leave because you hope to find something better elsewhere. Become part of the community. Belong to one another. Be the church. 

(And churches, let’s be the church, too. Let’s stop trying to show up one another. Let’s actually focus outward to do that social justice thing in being part of God’s beloved community on earth. Let’s worry less about entertaining and feeling good, and more about being the church together, beyond our building’s walls).

Be the body. Belong. Become.

Inside Out

By Rev. Mindi

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

There stood a church by a major road that said they wanted to grow. They had a beautiful old building and everyone in the community knew exactly where the church was, but few knew there was a congregation that still met there. They tried making better signs, but still, people zoomed by in their cars. Sometimes, people would stop and visit, and now and then some would stay and join the church. This congregation was not too small, but not very big. They held a Bible study and a youth group and four Sunday school classes. Still, they said they wanted to grow.

And yet… the church did not grow very much. Some were puzzled by this. Others were concerned, worried about finances. Most didn’t know what to do, except to say that they needed to advertise more. The church often said they wanted to grow, and immediately afterwards would add, “But we don’t want to be a megachurch.”

The church had traditions it practiced for years—a yearly retreat, a Christmas party—but the folks who had been there a long time never talked about what they were. The folks who had been there for a long time lamented that the new folks never came on the retreat. The newer folks said they were never invited, and they didn’t know where it was or what happened on the retreat. The Christmas party was held year after year, and everyone knew what they were supposed to bring except the new folks, who felt out of place if they came at all.

But the kicker was the time the church leadership purchased new mugs with the church logo, but gave them only to members and told the pastor and the greeters not to give them to any new people that day, because they were a gift for the church.

The church claimed to want to grow, but what it really wanted was to stay the same and not die. It wanted to keep the people they already had, and while they were friendly they were slow to welcome newer people into leadership, and sometimes those newer people faded away after a few years.

Sound familiar?

Maybe that church isn’t so far, far away after all, but way too close to home. We have become an internal institution with insider speak, hell-bent (for lack of a better term) on sticking to what we know because we don’t know what else to do. We don’t want to die, but we don’t want to do what it takes to change, because it means we have to change, and it means that the whole understanding of church we grew up with has to be turned inside out.

The first place to start is to stop. Stop using insider language. Start from within and work on moving outward. Start making sure that traditions are explained and not assumed. Start by assuming that not everyone always knows what everyone is talking about. The worst place insider language is used is in the talk of church membership. We assume everyone knows what membership means and why it is important. Even in my current church setting, though I have invited people to become a member almost every Sunday, it was only recently that someone who has been part of the church for a long time asked me about what it means to be a member and wanted to know if they could join. Even our membership language is insider language that needs to be turned inside out.

Next, look at those traditions and see if they are only practiced by a few (usually the folks who have been there a long time) and if it is time to start something new. Then look to moving outward. Moving ministries from inside the building, inside the time constraints, inside the leadership that has always done things one way at one time in one place and move back into the community.

We have to turn the church inside out in order for the church to be what it was intended to be: the body of Christ, the community of faith.


“But what about the people who have been here for so long? What about the people who have been part of this church their whole lives?”

When I’m asked that question, I often ask the person who is questioning me if they have talked to the senior generations in the church. In all of the ministries I have served, the oldest generation in the church has never been afraid of change—because everything already has changed.

We need to speak the truth. We need to stop talking about growing if we really just want things to stay the same. If we are the ones afraid of changing, then we must turn that fear inside out into hope. And if there is just one thing to change, one thing to start that you can do, its stopping our insider language.

The Dichotomy of Function Hides a Even More

 

By J.C. Mitchell

Years ago I remember sitting around a fondue pot with my friend Dick and many others.  Dick was at that time an octogenarian, and I was in my late twenties, and around the table were people of all ages in between.  One person observed how wise it was that Dick had friends of all ages and it was mostly through church he developed these relationships.  Dick had one rule: the word “old” and “young” were not allowed.  Older and younger were unnecessary, as age is relative.  This was a great lesson I have internalized.  Dick also mixed bourbon and sweet vermouth in a gallon container so Manhattans were easily at hand, but alas I do not have the energy to handle a Manhattan nightly, so I keep my vermouth and bourbon in their respective bottles in my cabinet.


So in the autism world you have heard the dichotomy of functionality.  Sometimes one is referred to as “High-functioning” and others as “low-functioning.”   It may seem descriptive but it is an arbitrary dichotomy that really does not say anything about the individual.  Using the illustration of age, one may call someone old based on their age, their fashion, their attitude, their appearance, or, based on the perception of the one saying the word, old.  This is the same with functionality, and it says nothing about a person with autism.


I must confess, having a son that barely communicates verbally, is far behind academically and socially  and is in diapers, I have desired to use the term “low-functioning” to make it clear what we are dealing with, but I remember my friend’s words about old and young, so I translated it to “lower-functioning” and “higher-functioning.”  But upon reflection this does not translate in the same way as age, for when you use these terms even as a descriptive it is only for those with the developmental delay and not for all people.  Thus even using “higher” or “lower” creates this artificial dichotomy just as much, and I was quite aware of it, but alas whenever talking to people about my son outside of the autism world (yes we have culture and it is just as nasty and nice as any other culture), I feel forced to use these overly simplified terms to help the person I was talking to understand as they felt comfortable.  


I knew it was a problem but until I saw a friend’s Facebook post that read, “Every time you say ‘High Functioning Autism,; I die a little inside,” I realized I had been badgered by the ableist mindset to use their terms, and even with my tweaking to say it more relatively I had been perpetuating the false dichotomy that is part of anti-autism mindset of our culture.  My friend makes it clear it is not a compliment nor a description that has any real meaning.  The only possible meaning is that one with autism who is given the descriptive high or low is not a normal person who simply proves how they function through other means.  The real dichotomy this functional classification is people who are autistic and those that are not, with an assumption those who are not are the most functional.

 
If we are going to say we welcome everyone in our churches (or anywhere) no matter their ability, let us not use language that assumes autism to be less a person.  And like me, let us learn from those that understand this dichotomy do have the voice to teach us, and not assume we understand from our biases. 

 

tip of the iceberg

tip of the iceberg

Change and Control

By Rev. Mindi

Recently I was part of a conversation with someone about a local nonprofit advocacy organization. The local nonprofit has had ups and downs but is less than three years old. It’s doing amazingly well for a new program. And yet, they told me that one of the founding board members feels the organization should fold because “it’s fizzling out. No one wants to be involved.”

I and others look around and see the amazing work this organization is doing, how it is reaching new people all the time, and wonder how in the world a founding member could say that. Then we realized that this founding member is tired and doesn’t want to be involved any longer, but does not want to see the organization proceed without them, and does not like the direction it is going with the new folks that have become part of it.

Immediately a little bell rang in the back of my head. This is just like church.

A lot of churches have people who are on the governing board who have been part of the congregation for a long, long time. They remember how great the church used to be, and all the programs it once had, and all the things they used to do—and because the church is no longer doing them, the church is fizzling out. Dying. Even if new people are coming in.

Now, we all know churches that hold on so dearly in hopes of not dying that they don’t ever change and eventually do end up closing. But I have seen a few churches in which those in leadership clung so tightly and were ready to have the church close and die as long as the hymns didn’t change. As long as the pastor they loved could bury them. As long as they could still sit in the same pew. And the leadership board never changed because they never asked anyone new, or made assumptions that new people couldn’t fulfill the commitments.

I guard against jumping to the conclusion that this is all elderly people in the church. Some of the greatest supporters for change in every church I have ever served and in many churches I have known have been my 80+ folks. While they love the old hymns they haven’t been afraid of trying a new song, or a new way of worship, or a new way of community involvement, even if they cannot participate at the same level any longer. I have found it doesn’t matter what age the person is; what matters is control.

Are those in leadership willing to let go of having control and allowing room for the Spirit to guide change in the congregation? Are we willing to let go of having control and allow room for new people with new ideas, insights and energy to move an organization forward? Are we willing to let go of “my way” or “our way” or “the right way?” And perhaps the greater question, for both the nonprofit organization and for our churches is this: can we be part of something we don’t have control of?

I see churches closing, but I also see a number of churches managing a great shift, from inward focusing to outward focusing, to finding new ways of being part of the ever-changing communities we are in. While these congregations may dwindle in numbers on Sunday morning, the impact they are making on the community is increasing tremendously. Making this shift does not mean these churches won’t close; but it does mean they gave the opportunity for the Spirit to be at work.

Churches, community organizations, nonprofits and others can learn from this: when we try to control and put our vision in place as the right one, it may work for a while but eventually it will fail. Because the Spirit works in community (we see this all the time in the book of Acts). The Spirit works when we come together and build vision together. When we try to maintain control, we have lost sight of the work of the Spirit among us. When we only have the same people, the vision grows stale. Leadership must change and grow, just as the church or organization must change and grow, and just as the community already is changing and growing.

Trust the Spirit; trust the process; trust that new leadership in the church will not let it fail. Even if they don’t do all the things you once did. Even if they don’t continue all the programs you did. Even if they come up with something very different than what your vision of the church should be. Trust the Spirit, and trust that new leaders will be open to the movement of the Spirit of God just as you are.

Grow up, Grownups!

By Rev. Mindi

I went to hear a prominent Christian speaker today and she was excellent.  She spoke about our current cultural dynamics, broken down by generation and religious affiliation, and that the future of the church is now. 

The speaker mentioned how those in the 18-29 age range are adults.

Then an older woman made the comment, “Legally.”

SERIOUSLY?

And we wonder why millennials are not in the church?

Right after the woman made that comment, several people shouted back, “NO” to the woman, and “They are adults!” The speaker confirmed gently that yes, they are adults and we need to reframe our thinking.

But this comment by one woman is a symptom of a much greater problem in the church. The fact is, we treat young adults like they are children and what used to be middle-age like they are adolescents.

Look at your church board. Is there anyone under 40 on it? Anyone under 30?

I have seen this happen in the churches I have served. As a young pastor, I’ve been called “kid” many times. Ironically, when my hairdresser recently asked me about coloring my hair I said no. I need my grays that are streaking in. However, the larger issue is that regularly, people in their 30’s and 40’s in the churches I have served and known are referred to as kids (because everyone probably remembers when they were kids and their parents probably still attend that church), but what’s worse, they are often treated like kids.  I have seen adults in their 70’s and 80's scold the 40-year-olds in the church over various things—their attire, their tattoos, the way they teach Sunday School—and we wonder why even younger adults are not there.

We have to stop this symptom. We have to change our attitudes. We have to treat millennials and Gen-Xers as adults. Gen-Xers are middle-aged. Millennials vote and work.  We are adults. We have a vested interest—perhaps even more than others—in the future of the church and if we are not included right now, treated with equal value and respect—then why in the world would we want to stay in an institution that doesn’t treat us this way?

This symptom, of course, is a symptom of a greater issue—power and control. I remember in a previous church a group of young 30-somethings complaining about some of the decision-making in the church and how they were excluded from it. Even though they served on the board, their ideas were dismissed and opinions ignored. They often joked, “When we get to be their age, then we can be ornery and stubborn and make the church the way we want it!” That was said tongue-in-cheek, but it reflected the behavior of the boomers and the seniors in the church leadership at that time.

We shouldn’t divide on generational lines, and as was shared by another participant in this conversation, the church is one of the last institutions that can be truly intergenerational and was intended to be that way. There is value of all people of all generations being together, and we know the value of diversity within those generations. But all too often, we are dismissing “younger” adults as not being an adult, not capable of participating or making decisions or being trustworthy or having the right skills. News flash: if your church is in decline and all your leadership is above fifty, you might want to consider that you may not have the right skills for leadership today.

We cannot change all of the reasons why younger adults are leaving the church, or why they haven’t come in the first place (that would take another article, plus we would need to address the assumption that we still need to get people in to the church, and that perhaps we need to rethink our models of church, but I digress). But we can do better. The first step is changing our attitudes about younger adults. The second is to be intentionally intergernational and to break down our stereotypes of all generations.  It’s going to take all of us, together, to nip this in the bud.

Growth . . .

By Rev. Shane Isner

In the course of my workaday, church pastor life, I have occasional opportunity to chat with consultants.  Rarely is this by choice.  I’ll be at the office when a call comes in, “Can I speak with the pastor?”  “This is he,” I say.  The pitch begins.  “I’m Ms. Johnson, and I want your church to grow.”  

Well, how very nice of you, I’m known to think; services are at 10, and all are welcome.  But that’s not the growth Ms. Johnson has in mind (names changed, of course, for propriety’s sake).  She’s not offering to join the church.  Instead, she has a program to sell, a great opportunity: Five proven principles for making your church get bigger.

Typically, the call ends quickly, and not only because our church can’t afford it.  Frankly, I’m skeptical of most church consulting programs I’ve encountered.  First, it often sounds too simple, too easy.  Five basic principles, three stress-free program changes, just clearly articulate the church’s vision and values.  And then, so the narrative seems to suggest, all will be well and all will be lovely.  Again, I’m unconvinced, though I realize my response is slightly unfair.  No consultant I’ve spoken with actually promises quick fixes.  They’re typically honest about how challenging it is for churches to discern and define their identities.  They understand, usually, that modern religion isn’t paint-by-numbers.  Nevertheless, if there truly is some secret to explosive growth, I haven’t heard it.  Perhaps that explains why each consultant markets different products and plans.

That gets to my second reason for skepticism, derived from several plans our church previously crafted under outside guidance.  Invest in youth ministry, paper the neighborhood with invitations, within two years hire a family minister, within five years build a bigger sanctuary because, obviously, you’ll be bursting at the seams.  Some of those ideas proved useful, I’ve heard (these were tried before my arrival).  But they weren’t sustainable, and community life became challenging (as it always will!), and these old plans now read to me like records of failure.  At least, that’s how some experienced it.  So another plan was crafted, with different ideas, but those didn’t pan out as dictated either.  The deflating sense of “we can’t do this right,” however, returned in force.  And it hurt.

Thus my disinterest in the church growth guru industry.  I’m cognizant, though, of what my wife would say (she, the statistics master and early career church consultant), “Your experiences with consultants don’t define all consulting.”  Truth!  That got me wondering recently about what kind of planning or consulting would stir my soul rather than stoke my suspicions.  An idea emerged, that I’m sure wise consultants have sold before, but it’s new to me.  

You see, I realized that I get annoyed when churches talk about getting bigger, and call that growth, as if the two are obviously the same.  But are they?  My wife says, rightly, that focusing on numbers matters, but also that counting the right numbers matters even more.  The church-growth-as-getting-bigger project has the benefit of simplicity; only one number matters- How many people attend your church.  This provides clarity for decision makers.  Do what adds more people, avoid what keeps them away.

But suppose you’re convinced- like me—that a church can get bigger, but not truly grow.  Or it can stay the same size, and grow wildly!  Then, measuring “growth” would include different numbers than simply how many attend weekly, right?  Obviously, attendance numbers matter.  A lot.  It’s hard to grow in discipleship, spiritual depth, faithfulness when people aren’t coming, with their energy for worship waning.  Still, isn’t a church growing when its attendance is stable but its frequency of Bible Study increases?  When it uses more funds for feeding hungry neighbors?  When its sermons more consistently address issues broader than solely church concerns?  When members talk more about authentic family struggles than budget or building troubles?

I’m unsure how I’d transform that insight into a consulting process; I’ll leave that to my brilliant wife!  But I find the question interesting.  And I’m anxious to hear others’ answers.  What’s the difference between church growth and simply getting bigger?  How would you measure that?


Rev. Shane Isner is the pastor of a small Disciples of Christ church in the northwestern suburbs of Minneapolis.  He serves on several community non-profit boards, is the chair of his region's Commission on Ministry, loves his wife and his dog, and Jesus.  And the church!

Slow Down, and read Slow Church

By Rev. Mindi

My small local clergy group was taking suggestions for new books to read, and me with my smart phone and sometimes smart mouth decided to search right then and there for a new book rather than taking a month to go do research. In my Amazon recommendations popped up Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. I really didn’t know much about it but that it was a brand new book, and that the book has a Twitter account that followed me, so I followed back.  It was really by chance and Amazon’s logarithms that I began reading this book.

But I’m so glad I did. Smith and Pattison are not pastors, not professional church leaders, but were inspired by the Slow Food movement to think about church life as an alternative to the “McDonaldization of Society” as George Ritzer coined it. (I read The McDonaldization of Society back in college and still have the book on my shelf—it was a profound wake-up call to the capitalist production machine that our society functions by: the idea that we have to make more stuff and make it faster, and that even our self-worth has come to depend upon it).  Slow Church looks at how church, just like the rest of the institutions of our society, have bought into the hyper-fast production-based model. “Decades, if not centuries, of taking shortcuts have repelled many people from the faith and diminished the quality of our life together” (117). We have tried to short-circuit discipleship and evangelism.

You might think at first that this is a book for a more conservative or evangelical audience, not for a mainline congregation—but we have done the same thing in the mainline church. Maybe we haven’t watered down the Bible to a tract that fits in the size of a business card, but we have (often) failed to do a good job of teaching our children and youth what it means to believe in and follow Jesus, what it means to be part of the church, how to participate in the kingdom of God.

Furthermore, we have failed to connect with the greater community, and that is the key of Slow Church—a reminder for us to slow down and reconnect with God, others and nature. “The ‘ecology’ of Slow Church is embedded in the interconnectedness of creation and God’s reconciliation of all things” (90).

Mainliners don’t differ much from our evangelical or fundamentalist kin in that we also water-down and short circuit the uncomfortable parts of our faith. We don’t do mourning well. Where our evangelical and fundamentalist kin will jump to “there’s one more angel in Heaven,” and lots of celebration that a loved one is now with the Lord, we do the same: we water-down the grieving process and try to jump into getting over death, rather than struggling with the suffering. Slow Church looks at the way our society as a whole has tried to just overcome suffering rather than the “willingness to enter into the pain of others” (83). If we are going to be committed in community to one another, we also need to be willing to suffer together as well as rejoice. This is what it means in particular to be part of Christian community: that we do not suffer alone.

Slow Church is about digging deep and being engaged and committed to the process of God-growth in us and around us. This commitment happens with God and with each other and with the greater community. Slow Church goes back to the roots of our faith in Scripture—Sabbath practice, discernment, community—and asks how we can re-engage with our roots and develop long-term, lasting foundations.

My major critique of this work is that  while my experience resonates with the book's view of church and society, I wonder if similar parallels would be drawn by my colleagues of color and different church cultures. I often err on the side of viewing US culture as homogeneous when it never has been; even critiquing the McDonalidzation of our US culture comes through a white lens, as the McDonalidzation was a white creation to begin with. Just some food for thought.

I highly recommend Slow Church. It is not often that I read a book that I say, “Yes, Yes!” out loud while reading it. I often highlight while I read; this time, I made notes as to what parts to quote for my next board meeting when we talk about stewardship. Each chapter has good discussion questions at the end for small groups or churches. The authors also have a blog: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slowchurch/ and are active on Twitter and Facebook.

Rethinking Stewardship

By Rev. Mindi

It’s getting that time of year again, for those of us on a January-December fiscal year. Stewardship season. Pledge cards and budgets and all that.

I love and hate the season of stewardship.

I love the idea of recommitting ourselves to being good stewards of all of God’s gifts: our talents, our time, our finances, our very selves.  I grew up reciting a church covenant that included that concept of stewardship. We all participated, in all of who we are, with all of who we were. A little startup church that began in 1985 and sometimes had no more than ten members has managed to not only survive but thrive as a small church with this understanding of stewardship.

However, the first church I served in, a much larger church, talked about stewardship in the concept of filling out a pledge card. Don’t get me wrong—there were great “Stewardship Moments” during the worship which were mini-testimonials of what the church meant to them. We did a Gift’s Survey and tried to expand our concept of stewardship. But when it came down to it, the pledge cards were what drove the budget and drove the pulse of the congregation. A church with an operating budget of over two hundred thousand dollars, with an endowment—and every year there was talk of cutting the budget, cutting ministries—and cutting salaries. There was fear about not having enough.

I now serve a much smaller congregation. Pledge cards haven’t been filled out in years, and I have been told by leaders in the church they won’t fill them out on principal—it’s no one’s business to know what they will give except for God’s. While I could argue about giving as a spiritual practice and just like being concerned about their prayer and devotional life the church is concerned about their financial giving, I need to back up for a minute.

I believe that we have failed to teach about stewardship well in the church. 

This isn’t to say there aren’t good models of stewardship practiced in churches. But generally speaking in the churches I have served, and in conversation with many of my colleagues, we have limited stewardship to being about pledging or about financial giving only in our conversations.

We need to change our understanding of stewardship and we need to not be afraid of talking about all of our resources. Not just our finances, but using our gifts. How many of us scramble to find teachers every year for Christian Education programs? How many of us cannot find enough volunteers for our weekday ministries?  So are we limiting Christian Education to an outdated model of Sunday School? Are we continuing weekday ministries during which most of the people likely to volunteer are working? How can we use our resources of time, talent, finances—and our very selves—to the best of our God-given ability?

We may need to rethink our ministries of Christian Education and worship to be more inclusive, as evidenced by many churches ending traditional Sunday School programs and incorporating education and worship together in a multi-generational setting. We may need to rethink how we ask people to contribute to the work of God through the church. Maybe traditional pledge cards don’t cut it any longer. Maybe we need to commit ourselves, every year, to the fullness of the call to be the body of Christ.

We need to teach stewardship, that all of us have a responsibility to contribute and participate in the body of Christ. The old ten percent tithe doesn’t cut it any longer, as very few can afford to give ten percent with student loans, medical bills and just the plain old cost of living. But we can give in multiple ways. All too often, stewardship has been understood as financial giving alone. Volunteering one’s time has been a response to a call for a need for volunteers from leaders in the church.  Instead, we need to think about all the ways we can give, and share what our gifts are instead of waiting for someone to ask.  But we need to retrain the ways we talk and think about stewardship in order for that to happen effectively.

I don’t have all the answers—I’m still working on it—but for the past two years I have made new pledge cards that I distribute to the church. On them we write what we are thankful for in the past year. Then we write what we hope we can give in the coming year. Only a few write down a financial amount. Most write down a gift they can share—praying, helping in the church kitchen, volunteering with children. And all of us work to contribute out of what we have.

I believe not only will we survive, but we will thrive, when we all take part, recognize we are all the body of Christ, and that we are in this together.

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. 

--Acts 2:43-47 

Stop Taking Attendance

By Evan Dolive

At a church I used to serve there was a well intentioned person who after every service would tell me how many people were in attendance.  “We had 47 today, Preacher,” he would say.  I could hear the disappointment in his voice when he would have to tell me a low number like 35.  A smile beamed across his face when we had more than 50.  No matter the number, he would tell me without fail.  

In every church that I have ever visited or served there has been an emphasis on the number of people that attend the morning worship services. 

After years in the ministry I have come to the conclusion that the church needs to stop taking attendance, immediately. 

For many churches the process of collecting attendance is to get an accurate accounting of people in worship, to measure how many people occupy space in a pew.  Some churches have note pads in the pews so people can fill out their information and place it in a designated area.  Others have a volunteer to manually count the people in attendance.  No matter how small or big the faith community is an attendance is taken.  Some congregations publish the number of people in their church bulletins or have it on a sign in the sanctuary to compare last week to this week. 

For too long churches have measured their ‘success’ and ‘failures’ on the number of people that darken the door on 11am on Sunday morning.  The quickest way to get people to wring their hands in worry is to tell them that numbers in worship have dropped.  Visions of the church closing its doors will run through people’s minds inciting more and more anxiety.  

It’s no secret that the church in the American culture is not where most Christians would like it to be.  The church was once the central hub of the community is now a place where people go on Sunday mornings if they want to.  The church has been in a decline for some time and I believe this has caused us to become more inward focused.  As the church began to experience decline numerically the church’s reaction was to try making everyone left happy including the ministers, elders, deacons, lay ministers, organist and even the custodial staff.  The boat was not rocked, things stayed the same, a course was laid in and no deviation would be acceptable.  

I believe that this is the wrong approach.  One time when I was interviewing with a church for a position they inquired if I had any plans that would help the church grow numerically.  The answer I told them I believe with all my heart and prompted a bevy of puzzled looks.  I told them that I was not a ‘numbers guy.’  I did not measure the success of the church in how many people showed up on Sunday morning.  Is Lakewood in Houston, the largest church in America, a “more successful church” because they average several thousand people each week?  No.   Most churches just want bodies in the pews and babies in the nursery but this is the wrong approach.  

I would rather have fifty people in church on Sundays that went out and touched a hundred people’s lives, than have a hundred people in church that only touched fifty.  

The church has become too worried about having more people than the other churches in town.  The church needs to stop looking inward and start looking outward.  There is a world that is in desperate need of a Savior right outside the walls of the church.  The time we spend in meetings or around the pot luck lunch table talking about how big the church was in 1947 is wasting everyone’s time.

I have to admit that even I can fall into this number trap.  It can be disheartening when a minister prepares a sermon or the choir works diligently on a piece and only a handful of people are there to experience it.  I have to remind myself that the people who are in attendance are there to experience God and worship and that is it.  God can use all sizes of churches and faith communities to promote God’s message of love, peace, joy and reconciliation.  

I want people to experience God in the same way that I do but I am not beholden to a number.  

Let’s start taking a new kind of attendance, one that is centered on the other, not bodies in the pew. 

 

In Christ,

Rev. Evan 

 

Rev. Evan M. Dolive is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He currently serves in Beaumont, Texas. He is currently writing a book to be published by The Pilgrim Press (publishing house of the United Church of Christ).  For more information about Evan visit www.evandolive.com. Follow him on social media at @RevEvanDolive and fb.com/evandoliveauthor. 

The Myth of the Ten-Year-Full-Time Pastorate

By Rev. Mindi

I don’t know where I learned the myth—somewhere along the way in attending church in my youth to my college days and even into seminary and my first call—somehow, I believed that the average call to pastoral ministry in congregations was about ten years. After consulting with a few other seminary friends, they tell me that they also heard this myth in seminary. I believed that churches provided full benefits and adequate salary and housing that would help cover my student loans from college. I believed I would be able to have my own one-bedroom apartment and take my day off and work a 40 hour workweek.

That all changed very quickly. My first call was full-time and did offer me retirement and health insurance for me—but when I got married, not for my spouse unless I paid for it. My first call did not pay an adequate salary nor was the housing allowance enough to cover my rent—I found a house with three other roommates to split the rent four ways (I did have my own bedroom), and I was able to pay a car payment on a used car—but without consolidating my student loans I had $45 after every paycheck. After consolidation, I had $145 to pay for groceries and gas. Needless to say, I opened a credit card in order to survive that first year and a half until I received a raise. Then my roommates moved, and I had to move into an apartment with a roommate with higher rent. The debt caught up quickly.  This was all while working at one of the most prominent churches of my denomination in that state, connected to a seminary and regarded as a pillar church, a church that did not pay its staff a livable wage.  In addition, I was often working 50-60 hours per week. I was in charge of starting and building the youth group, running the church school, participating in worship and other duties in the life of the congregation. However, most of the time I did manage to take Friday off. I stuck with that, though I worked several 12 hour days during the week.

It wasn’t until my second call, just less than four years later, when I moved into a parsonage and I received a salary in which I could meet my expenses. Here, I was paid a livable wage, my family was covered under health insurance, and I worked reasonable hours during the week (40-50). In my first call I was an associate minister; in this call, I was the senior pastor of a smaller congregation.  It seemed perfect. I imagined myself there for seven, eight—even ten years. We wrote a family leave policy into my contract and I had a child. I began to work on writing in sabbatical leave, as the congregation wasn’t used to sabbatical leave before.

But even there, I ended up moving before four years. My husband received a call to a church in another state, and it seemed an opportunity he could not pass up.  It was bittersweet—a great opportunity not only for my husband, but for us as a family as I could be home more with our son—but leaving a wonderful church community and call.

To be honest, I really wrestled with leaving in this time. I felt that somehow I had failed to live up to the standard of a ten-year pastoral call. But then I began having conversations with other, older pastors and I suddenly learned that the ten-year pastoral call is a myth. And then it hit me: my grandfather, a pastor I had looked up to as the model of the perfect pastor, never had a ten-year call, either. Most of his were 4-5 year calls, several were shorter than that.  Many times it was because of unhealthy aspects of the congregations he was serving. Sometimes, though, it was because of family dynamics and choices made for the entire family.  Sometimes he served part-time congregations and did other work on the side. My grandfather had a slew of odd jobs over the years to help make ends meet at times.

I was so worried in leaving that church that I was leaving behind any chance of having a full-time, long-term call again. That somehow I would be marked by this. Thankfully, this has not been the case—in talking with search committees, most have been very understanding of the decision to leave full-time ministry to care for my child and to move for my spouse’s call.

At this time, I am serving at two part-time calls. I do not have full benefits—I rely on my spouse’s insurance to cover the family.  It is working, though it is hard to be in two places—as my husband, who also serves two congregations, can attest as well. Neither of us can envision a ten-year pastorate any more.

At a recent gathering of younger clergy, none of us saw ourselves in a ten year pastorate. Most of us were averaging a vision of about five years. Times have changed. And congregations, for various reasons, are no longer preparing for long-term pastors. It’s not only that fewer congregations are not providing full time salary, housing and benefits, it’s not only that there are unhealthy congregations that run through pastors every few years--it’s that our understanding of vocation, call, purpose—it is all changing. This is not to say pastors are still not called to congregations, but that perhaps the Spirit is moving in new ways.

It seems to me that one of the shifts that has happened is that the leadership within churches has become more long-term, fixed (even bylaws have been changed in churches I have served to allow for continuous terms), the pastor’s tenure has become shorter.  In congregations with history of long pastorates, often the leadership within the church went through periods of transformation and change. New people were brought into the lead, new styles brought on, new models tried out. Now, in my experience with congregations with shorter term pastorates, the leadership has stayed the same, but the pastor is the one who changes. Sometimes this is good; sometimes this is stagnant and the problems are associated only with the pastor.

A short term pastorate is not necessarily a sign of an unhealthy congregation or pastor—sometimes, the Spirit is doing something new, and the work that was done between the congregation and pastor needs to shift or move on. And often, in places where there perhaps was an unhealthy element within the congregation that didn’t get addressed by an interim (and intentional interim ministry is a key point that I am not addressing at this time) a new pastor is able to help the congregation move forward and become healthier, and once that new health is achieved, it may be time for a new transition, a new shift.  

Pastors are all unique and have different gifts and abilities. As the kinds of pastoral ministry change along with the settings (there is no one-size-fits-all pastor for an “average” church, as may have been perceived in the past) perhaps certain skills and gifts are needed in certain times of the church’s life, and the pastor find themselves wanting to continue to use those gifts and skills in new settings.

Pastoral ministry is changing, as much as the church continues to change, as much as pastoral ministry has changed. I’ve reflected on this before: in my twelve years of pastoral ministry, I have gone from having a cell phone as an emergency phone for my car only, to using my cell phone as a way of providing pastoral care through text message, tweeting prayers, and connecting with others in leadership. I have moved from being in the office 8-5 to being at the coffee shop in the mornings and a bar in the evenings. As the world of pastoral ministry has shifted in the past ten to fifteen years, so has the focus of gifts and skills in pastoral ministry, and so has the vision of the pastor’s role within the congregation. And while there are still full-time pastors serving in congregations 10+ years, the ones I know I can count on one hand. The myth is not holding up as it once did--if it ever really did.

Wrong is Right

By: J.C. Mitchell

 

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.  1 Corinthians 1:25

 

It is cold and dark, and my December schedule is very full.  So I have been daydreaming of riding my motorcycle.  There has not been time for a relaxing therapeutic ride this month.  So I do the next best thing: meditate on the lessons I have learned on such rides.

The one I want to share was a late afternoon ride that I was taking on dirt roads outside of town.  I was about 30 miles out of town when I decided to turn back and take the state highway home.  I got up to speed, and I noticed a lack of power.  I was certain there was something wrong with the engine, to keep the speed at 75 (or so) with the throttle all the way open.  There must be something wrong with the engine the way I was losing power in a consistent and steady way.  I decided I should just limp to town on less power.


I then saw a small country gas station and had a desire for a cola, so I lifted off the throttle and rolled onto the dirt.  I dismounted and saw my back tire was going flat from large puncture.  I was wrong.  I was so wrong, that if I went on my assumption further the tire would have started shredding.  I was very glad I was wrong.


Many churches (or individuals) are very certain they know what is wrong.  For example, I was having coffee last week and overheard a group from a church talking about what they needed to do to attract younger people.  I had heard every suggestion that I have heard before at the various churches I or friends have served.  Most of the ideas were not new, but they were certain that they would work if they could implement them correctly.  I do have to admit I could hear the tire shredding when one said, “We could attract young people if we change the time of the Board meeting, we should ask them what time.”  Oh yes, I start following Jesus, but it is because of the Board meeting’s time that keeps me from a particular church.  I see the ditch coming quickly.


I was certain my lack of horsepower was due to the engine, but because I listened to my gut, I stopped (and I was thirsty).  I did not really know until I stopped.  I avoided the ditch, and I was very happy to be wrong.


As I took off my helmet, I had no idea how I would get home.  I went into the country gas station and bought the cola.  The clerk at the counter looked for a plug and came out to see if we could plug the tire.  He only had one and it was certainly for a smaller hole.  However, with a little work with the reamer, a lighter, and the last plug he had, we got the hole filled.  Once pumped up the tire hissed slightly, and I pulled out onto the highway.  


I must admit I was nervous as I got up to speed.  I made sure I observed and checked that I was making progress.  Sure enough I got to the motorcycle shop in town.  They came up to the bike and before they saw the makeshift patch they could hear hissing tire.  


Often churches add programs to what they had been doing for years, as if these programs will draw people in not just for that new program but to fulfill what they know as church.  My motorcycle lesson suggests we need to stop, and see where we are wrong, before we end up in the ditch. If we figure out what we do not know and where we are wrong, we can perhaps with the help of a consultant or other observer, we will continue on the journey.   We may not be confident it is safe, nor should we be, but our success is found in our ability to share vulnerability. 


Most churches end up attempting to jump the shark, with all their baggage weighing them down, rather than doing the hard work down on your knees in the dirt with a lighter and a plug, new friends and a lot of faith and vulnerability, to bring the Gospel to town.


I am pretty sure Jonah and Paul were not motorcyclists, but both had been shown by God that they were wrong.  It would be wonderful if we could have such certainty, but honestly I believe it is because we cannot not see or hear over our own certainty of being correct.  However, will we respond as Jonah, or as Paul?  Will we whine about losing our own construction of God, or will we enjoy being wrong for God.  

 

JC on the bike.jpg