Congregational Transformation

Two Secrets of Good Leadership: Learning to Live with Other People's Pain and with Your Own Mistakes

By Derek Penwell

Two Keys to Good Leadership

Thesis: You can’t be a good leader until you get comfortable with other people’s pain and with your own mistakes.

Learning to Live with Other People’s Pain

I know about a church that developed some bad habits over the years. They had worked with a paradigm of ministry in which the minister was responsible for virtually everything. If a light bulb burned out in the exit sign, they dropped a note to the minister. When the lady who was supposed to bring the grape jello to Vacation Bible School forgot, everything stopped while they called the minister to let him know. When the garbage cans didn’t get put back, somebody would leave a message on the answering machine to apprise the minister of this crucial oversight.

And, as if by magic, new light bulbs and purple jello would appear. The garbage cans mysteriously found their homes. The minister made sure complaints were addressed and problems were solved. He did most of it himself.

The arrangement suited everybody—the minister had a compelling need to feel needed, and the congregation had a capacious reservoir of need. Everybody wins![1]

Except when the minister left, the arrangement was no longer viable. Now there was a congregation trained to be needy, but no longer anyone to meet those needs. How do you handle a situation like that?

What will the next minister have to do if she doesn’t want to continue this co-dependent relationship?

She’s going to have to develop an extraordinarily high tolerance for pain.

“What?”

Any minister who wants to make changes to a system that depends on the minister to make changes is going to have to get comfortable watching people suffer.

“How can you possibly say that? Isn’t suffering part of what ministers are supposed to be in the business of alleviating?”

No. Where did you get that idea? Ministers are in the business of helping equip people for the reign of God. Sometimes that means being intensely and pastorally present when people suffer. But pastoral ministry is almost never about fixing people’s suffering, about doing away with people’s anxieties, about slaying everyone’s dragons for them.

Pastoral ministry is about helping people discover a new story that makes sense of their suffering and anxiety (and hope, doubt, aspirations, needs, etc.) in light of God’s reconciling love manifested in Jesus Christ.

In the case I’ve been describing the new pastor, if she is going to be faithful to her vocation, is going to have to get comfortable with the pain caused when people see burned-out light bulbs, jello-less VBS extravaganzas, empty garbage cans by the side of the road, and mistakenly believe that the only person responsible for them is the minister.

“So, you’re saying the minister should just be lazy and let everybody else do everything?”

No. I’m saying that if everybody else believes the only person who needs to do anything is the one getting paid, you haven’t hired a minister; you’ve hired domestic help.[2] The minister isn’t doing anybody any favors by constantly rescuing the congregation from those situations for which other people need to be taking some responsibility.

Authentic, Jesus-centered ministry that seeks to enable growth rather than merely enable, requires learning to have a high threshold for other people’s pain.

It’s tough, but there aren’t any shortcuts.

Learning to Love Your Own Mistakes

I just took a group of people down to San Luis Potosí, México. We work in a children’s home there, started by Ted and Wanda Murray. I’ve been taking groups down for over 20 years now. The trip is one of my favorite things to do.

Anyway, I took my two oldest children again this year. My daughter wants to speak Spanish better to be able to communicate with the kids down there. So, I started her on a language series, The Pimsleur Method (It’s the best language learning system I’ve found, for whatever that’s worth).

So, I've been talking to my daughter about how her Spanish is progressing. She said she really likes the lessons. So, I gave her some tricks about learning a language.

“The nice thing about the Pimsleur method,” I said, “is that, if you do it daily, you wind up having to hear yourself speak the language out loud over and over again—which is important, because one of the biggest obstacles to speaking a foreign language when you travel is overcoming your fear of speaking out loud in front of other people.”

She said, “Yeah, that’s the scariest part, because you don’t want to goof up and have people laugh at you.”

“That’s the trick to learning a language, though—being able to withstand the embarrassment of getting it wrong. If you can’t stand being laughed at, you’ll never learn another language.”

Why is that?

Because the process of mastering a language requires making mistakes. Lots of mistakes. Tons of mistakes. Painful, embarrassing mistakes.

Learning a language is just as much about learning what not to say. There are no shortcuts to the hours of practice or the patience to endure the humiliation of doing it incorrectly.

I also think that’s another secret to good leadership.

Much of what passes for conventional wisdom about good leadership has to do with always making good decisions.

When presented with a choice, the good leader will choose X; the poor leader will choose Y—where X is eventually shown to be a wise decision, and Y a poor one.

I want to suggest, however, that making good decisions isn’t the best indicator of leadership. Instead, I think the sign of excellence in leadership is the desire to learn from mistakes.

If you’re going to learn to pound nails, you’re going to have to make peace with mashing your thumb every once in a while.

On this reading of leadership, excellence requires not only a willingness to be wrong, but an enthusiasm about being shown where you went wrong. Good leadership values being shown where things went wrong.

You can’t be a good leader without risking mistakes and embracing the humiliation of getting it wrong.

Here’s the secret: Ministry isn’t about being right; it’s about getting it right.

And if you want to get it right, you’d better learn to love your mistakes, because they’re your friends on the path to good leadership.

Good leadership is often counter-intuitive. But if it were easy, great leaders would be everywhere. They’re not. So, we have to work at it.

_______________

  1. Before I get a whole bunch of email arguing either that I’m being unfair to to needy congregations or needy ministers, I’m willing to spread the blame across the clergy/laity spectrum.  ↩
  2. Again, prior to emailing me, let me hasten to say that I know there are lazy ministers out there. If that’s your problem, then this post won’t help you address your situation.  ↩

Enemies, Trust, and Dying for Congregational Transformation

By Derek Penwell

From time to time someone will come to my office, anxiety etched across the brow, looking for a listening ear. When I open the door on these occasions, I don’t know what kind of pain lies on the other side. I summon my best active listening practices from Pastoral Care 101, and I say, “What seems to be the trouble?”

“Well, Gladys and I have been having problems. You may have noticed we haven’t been around much lately.”

 

Sometimes I have, and sometimes I haven’t. I try to remain noncommittal: “I”m glad you’re here now."

“Let me cut to the chase.”

(That’s good. I’m pro cut-to-the-chase.)

“I think Gladys has been having an affair with a co-worker…”

And with that we embark on an all too familiar journey into betrayal, fear, and recrimination.

I listen to another sad story, which often ends with a question. It’s a big question, one I never feel comfortable answering. People who come to see me with problems like this ask it anyway:

“What should I do?”

I know the difference between directive and non-directive counseling, between offering a way to move forward and offering the person the opportunity to make those kinds of discoveries and decisions. I often have a hard time keeping my mouth shut about what people ought to do, but in these situations, it always seems better (easier?) to go with a non-directive approach:

“What do you want to do?”

“That’s just it. I don’t know what to do. I lover her, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to trust her again.”

There it is. Trust.

Trust. Relationships require it if they have any chance at being healthy. To say that “once lost, trust is difficult to recover” is, surely, to have said something everyone already knows instinctively. How long does it take to quit checking text messages and phone logs? How much time has to elapse before you believe that a trip to the store for milk and bread is really a trip to the store for milk and bread?

Unfortunately, there’s no calculus capable of offering a quantifiable answer about how much time it takes to rebuild trust. However, one thing is certain: If trust is to be rebuilt, it won’t happen just because of the elapse of time. Trust takes work, hard, often tedious, repetitive, mind-numbing work. Showing up when you say you’re going to show up. Being where you said you’d be. Doing what you said you’d do. Going out of your way to reassure the other person.

No matter how strongly a person feels about having recovered, no matter how eloquent the protestations about “turning over a new leaf,” no matter how many genuine tears are shed seeking forgiveness, there’s no short cut to the actual work of rebuilding trust.

Everyone knows that, right?

The other side of it, though, which also seems equally self-evident, but often gets overlooked in the face of the pain is that the wounded party has to want to heal, has to want to find trust again. This too requires work.

It’s possible to bang your head against a wall for someone who appears only to relish the sight of you concussing yourself. It is impossible to heal, however, when the infliction of pain becomes the glue that holds the relationship together.

Betrayal and the Congregation

It occurs to me that many churches have been wounded, whether by promiscuous pastors who took advantage, or by unprincipled lay leadership, or by denominational neglect–or just because the organizational system was set up to fail. Whatever the cause, the first casualty of betrayal is trust.

Unfortunately, the lack of trust in wounded congregations is a self-destructive feedback loop of bitterness and distrust that inhibits healthy growth and creativity. Distrust in a congregational system treats all change as equally menacing, treats everything new (people, programs, ideas) as presumably hostile–until proven otherwise.

A trip to the store for bread and milk is always assumed to be a pretext for something else, something surely more nefarious.

A new Sunday School class can never be just a new Sunday School class; it’s an indictment of the other Sunday School classes or a new avenue for some hostile party to consolidate power.

A change to the worship service or to the worship space is either an attack on tradition or a play to increase the power base of some suspicious constituency–or both.

What gets communicated in a wounded system where trust has been lost is: “We’re not quite sure yet how you’re trying to screw us over, but we’re pretty sure you are. Therefore, we’re withholding approval and/or permission.”

Has your church lost trust? Here’s an informal checklist:

  • Do you regularly have meetings that last longer than 2 hours?
  • Do people bring dog-eared copies of Robert’s Rules of Order to board meetings?
  • Do you hear at least one reference to the Constitution and By-laws at every meeting?
  • Do people bring their own calculators and red pens to the meeting where the budget is being proposed?
  • Do you have meetings where there are arguments about whether everybody on staff “really needs their own stapler?”
  • Does rearranging the furniture in the narthex or switching brands of air freshener require board approval? (Bonus: If really bad, does it require congregational approval?).
  • Do you have a lot of congregational meetings?
  • Does the announcement of a meeting elicit a particular kind of feeling in your stomach?
  • Do you keep an extra bottle of Rolaids in your car for use before meetings?
  • Does recruiting for congregational officers evoke anxiety not for a fear of who will say “no,” but for fear of who will say “yes?”
  • Do you require a doctor’s note from staff who call in sick?
  • Do you have people who regularly drive by the church to see if the pastor’s car is there?

How Can We Trust Again?

I wish it were easy. It’s not.

I wish I could point you toward “7 easy steps to recovering your trust.” I can’t.

It all comes down to this: a wounded congregation must make a decision to begin trying to trust again. You may get burned. But relationship is always a crap shoot.

How about this?

  • Be mindful that each positive step in which you don’t get hurt is a step in the right direction.
  • Call attention to and celebrate positive steps.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t enter every new situation convinced you’re going to get burned.
  • Assume people (even those who feel like the “enemy”) are telling the truth until you find out otherwise.
  • Don’t get into the habit of thinking of people with whom you share the body of Christ as the “enemy.” It’s too difficult to pull back from the precipice.

Even if trust hasn’t been restored, you’re going to have to live like it has. Until you can live together with a commitment to restoring trust, ministry, if possible at all, can only be tenuous and fragile.

And if all else fails, remember, it’s God’s church–not your’s (or your “enemy’s”).

Besides, trusting your enemy is just about impossible--although dying for your enemy has been done before.

Finding Excuses to Die: The Problem with Thinking It's about Everything Else

By Derek Penwell

(From the archives) 

Finding Excuses to Die

“It was great to see all those people there for Easter yesterday.”

“Pretty great.”

“Of course, and I hate to say it, there’s a part me that dreads Easter.”

“Well, there’s a lot to dread about Easter. It’s busy, and all those extra services. Easter’s tough on ministers.”

“No. That’s not what I’m talking about. Well, all that stuff is hard, but I mean something else.”

“What?”

“Monday. I hate the Monday after Easter. Because as soon as Easter’s over, I start thinking about next week, and how most of those people won’t becoming back. Then that reminds me about how it feels like our congregation’s dying.”

“I know. That’s rough. So, what are you doing to make things different?”

“We want to change.”

“Why don’t you?”

“Well, it’s more complicated than that?”

“More complicated than what?”

“We want to change, but in order to change we need some things to be different.”

“But if things were different, that would be change already, right?”

“Has anybody ever told you how obnoxious you are to talk to?”

“Yeah, I get that a lot. But what is it that you need changed that—if you got it—would finally provide the right environment for transformation?”

“For one thing, we need more people to get involved.”

“How are you going to get them involved?”

“We’ve tried everything we know to try: begging, chiding, wheedling, shaming.”

“How’s that working for you?”

“It’s not, actually, smart guy.”

“So, you can’t change until somebody else does something?”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t sound very good when you say it like that.”

“Why else can’t you change?”

“We need more resources.”

“Like what?”

“It’s been tough. The budget’s been a train wreck. Money’s just hard to come by. If we had more money, things would be way easier.”

“What would money buy you that—if you finally had it—would allow you to change?”

“I’m not sure. Wait. I could get a new computer.”

“What would you do with a new computer?”

“I could get more done.”

“What kinds of things could you do with a new computer that you can’t do now?”

“I could write more, organize my time better. Digitally. You know.”

“You don’t have a computer?”

“Yeah, but a new one would be more efficient.”

“I’m just going to take shot in the dark: Have you ever considered the possibility that the quality of your tools isn’t your most pressing problem?”

So, here’s what I think: Most congregations don’t want to change. I’ve said this before, but I’m still convinced it’s true. Most congregations would rather die than change.

Believing that something external has to change before anything internally has a crack at transformation is a recipe for death. Whether you admit it or not, when you say, “Just as soon as _____, then we can start thinking about changing,” you’ve started making preparations to die.

And the convenient part about it is that you’ll have ready made excuses for why it’s dead.

Waiting for the conditions to be just right, focusing on external stuff is like saying:

  • I could be a better preacher if I had a nicer pulpit.
  • We could have more baptisms if we just had a nicer baptistry.
  • We would have bigger budget if we had better accounting software.

It’s fiddling. Plain and simple.

You can’t lose weight by buying a cooler treadmill. If you’re not using the heck out of the one you’ve got, buying a new one is only going to succeed in making you two things you don’t want to be: fat and broke.

In fact, you don’t even need a treadmill at all, we have these wonderfully free analog devices called “roads” and “sidewalks” that, with a little effort should suit your purposes.

If you’re not changing with the people and resources you’ve got, then even if all those Christmas and Easter folks came the next week, nothing would be different. In fact, things might get considerably worse.

Most ministers are afraid in the deepest part of their souls of getting everything they’ve always said they needed.

Because if your wish list is completed, and you finally get everything you think you need to change (more volunteers, a better web site, an associate, the right associate, great leadership, a bigger parking lot, an oversubscribed budget, shade grown coffee and Barcaloungers in the narthex), what happens if things don’t change then?

If you think what’s at stake can be fixed by newer and better Barcaloungers, then this is the best I can do for you.

If you’re worried about equipping disciples for the reign of God, then get back to work. You’ve got all you need to do that right now.

You want to change? Then change.

“That’s easy for you to say.”

No. Well, it may be easy for me to say. But it’s not any easier for me to do than anyone else. I fight my own battles with resistance.

The question isn’t whether I’m perfect at it. The question is whether I’m right about it.

The fact still remains that if you think the culture of your church is going to change for the better if you wait long enough for everything to fall into place before you do the difficult work of transformation, you’re always going to find an excuse to die.

Embracing Failure: Why the Church Needs to Quit Worrying about Dying


While on vacation, I thought it might be helpful to revisit this post. Enjoy!

Love,

Your pal, Derek


My Dirty Secret

I have a secret fear. I don’t like to talk about it, because I find it embarrassing.

I’m afraid of looking stupid.

I don’t like to be laughed at. As a professor, I operate with a low-grade fear that at any moment one of my student’s will pipe up and say, “That’s not correct, what you said.”

I teach World Religions–mostly the big five: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I’m fine with Christianity, and Judaism to a lesser extent. The other three, though …

I’ve taught the course so many times that I maintain a fair comfort-level. But when I get into a tradition that’s not my own, I realize how much I don’t know. It can get pretty nervy.

I had a student one time who had been a Buddhist monk. I found that out, of course, just as we reached the unit on Buddhism.

Really? It already feels like I’m doing this without a net. Now, you’re going to tell me you know this stuff better than I do? How am I supposed to teach this stuff in front of you?

I told him to jump in if I got it wrong. (I hope my commitment to education surpasses my fear of looking incompetent.)

He was really nice about it—corrected me only a couple of times.

As a pastor, my recurring nightmare is that I show up to church on Sunday morning, everybody’s waiting for the processional—when I realize I can’t find my sermon. I look all over the place, growing more and more embarrassed by the moment. As I scramble around, the panic grows, and I can feel the disapproving looks joining together in some great meta-expression of disappointment, as if to say, “Yeah, we knew it was only a matter of time before he screwed up on such a grand scale.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had that dream. After those dreams, I realize how much I have invested in wanting to appear omni-competent. Always ready. Never makes a mistake. Mr. reliable.

Looking stupid is something I assiduously try to avoid. I don’t like to fail.

But it happens.

It’s my dirty secret.

Failing in Church

The church, which ought to be a place where the penchant for failure is readily recognized, often has the same aversion to failure as individuals. This realization seems odd, since the church has traditionally understood itself as a reception hall for failures—which is to say, sinners, those who’ve failed to hit the target. The whole concept of grace centers on the idea that when we sing “Just as I am, without one plea,” whatever else we mean, we most certainly don’t mean, “Just as I am … as soon as I get it all together.”

I find it interesting, then, that the church often operates with such an institutional fear of failure. I don’t just mean failure in the large our-church-is-dying-and-we-don’t-know-what-to-do sense; I also mean failure in a much smaller we’d-like-to-paint-the-women’s-restroom-yellow-but-what-if-someone-feels-strongly-it-should-be-pink sense. On this account of the church, boldness and creativity emerge as threats to an ouchless existence. In fact, decisions don’t even have to be bold or creative to meet resistance, they just have to represent something different.

This paralyzing fear of failure is why the default answer for declining congregations is “no.”

“Should we launch a new ministry to homeless people?”

No.

“The largest part of our congregation works evenings and nights. Could we have a service at some other time than in the morning?”

No.

“There’s a Korean church who’d like to use space in our building. We’re not using it. Should we let them?”

No. No. No.

The interesting question is whether the relationship is causal or correlational between congregations in decline and congregations whose knee-jerk response to anything new tends to be “no.” That is to say, is continually meeting each new opportunity with a “no” a cause of congregational decline, or is it merely the case that congregations that tend to say no also tend to be in decline—but for different reasons? To put a finer point on it, is saying "no" as a default response, at its heart, a disease or just a symptom of disease?

I’m not sure I’m smart enough to untangle that knot fully, but I do think that confronting each new situation negatively suggests a persistent fear of failure. In sports, coaches call it “playing not to lose.”

I would like to suggest, however, that congregations that live with fear always gnawing at the edges hasten the very death that has them in such a constant state of panic. It’s a vicious cycle.

Get Used to It

I want to set down the paradoxical assertion that it’s only when a congregation can endure a load of small failures that it has a possibility of avoiding the largest failure—death. Conversely, a congregation that spends its life avoiding as many small failures as possible will often wind up dying earlier than it might have otherwise.

Failure is not an enemy to be avoided at all costs; it’s a guide to be embraced.

Notice I didn’t say that failure should be embraced because it feels good. I’m not saying that messing up isn’t painful; it is. What I am saying is that success only comes in the midst of a flurry of failures. Failures help you to refine the field of possibilities. This is true for individuals; it’s true for businesses; it’s true for athletes, musicians, people who play Sudoku; and it’s true for churches.

All right, so opening an ice cream store at the North Pole wasn’t such a great idea. So what? If the question is “What do we do next?” you’ve already trimmed the range of possible options by at least one.

Maybe that Death Metal service wasn’t such a good fit for your country club neighborhood. Now you know. If it teaches you something about who you are, and where your gifts lie, and what kinds of things you’re able to do in the context in which you find yourselves—you’re now a smarter congregation. But just as importantly, you also know that you can survive decisions that don’t pan out. What is almost certainly a threat to your survival, however, is having three hour board meetings in which you painfully try to head off every possible failure, then wind up doing nothing.

Sitting on your hands is an option—one that many congregations have employed. But let’s not kid ourselves that the ministry Jesus has in mind requires nothing more than locking the doors and hoping that someone will magically bulldoze the neighborhood and build a sparkling new subdivision, filled only with young professional families.

Living like Jesus, really living like Jesus, is an outrageous act no sane group of people would presume to tackle.  As a congregation of Jesus-followers you’ve already taken a precipitous slide down the ladder of common sense. Get used to it.

Live Courageously

  • Think hard. (Brainstorm. Dream. Embrace the vision of a different future.)
  • Pray ceaselessly. (Why not bring God into the whole process?) 
  • Do something interesting. (There’s plenty of mediocrity out there mass-marketed as “safe for church.” Hint: Throwing out your hymnals and getting a “praise team” was still daring in 1988. Now it just looks like you think that if you wear fishnet stockings you can be Lady Gaga.)
  • Evaluate. Evaluate. Evaluate. (This is the part where you learn from failure. If a ministry flops, factor it in as you get back on the horse.)
  • If the timing wasn’t right, but everything else seemed poised to succeed, be flexible enough to try it again under better conditions. (The same idea may work next month, in the summer instead of the winter, or next year.)
  • If a decision doesn’t work out, don’t make the mistake of automatically shutting out the person who brought the idea. (Monday morning quarterbacking that takes on an accusatory or condescending tone disincentivizes creativity . . . from everyone.)
  • Bring young people into the process. (Let them try some crazy-sounding things. They need the experience, and the church needs the life and creativity they bring.)
  • For denominations: Try letting folks who don't ordinarily get to make the final decisions, make the final decisions. (It's less than helpful to bring Latino/as, AfricanAmericans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Women into the planning process, then just go ahead and do what you were going to do anyway.)

The gospel is first about failure and death—because it’s only losers and corpses who who’ve got nothing left to lose. Why a people who remember the failure of crucifixion and celebrate the victory of resurrection in the Eucharist every Sunday should have its sphincter seize up every time it thinks of death is beyond me.

Embrace failure as a road to success—even God did.

It Was Like This When I Got Here

Rev. Evan Dolive

**Also posted on Sojourners** (http://www.sojo.net/blogs/2015/02/10/it-was-when-i-got-here) 

A lot has been written about the decline of the mainline church over the years. There are numerous theories have been passed around. Nearly every pew-sitting faithful Christian in America has her or his own opinion. As a minister I have heard a lot of these complaints from the masses; the request is simple. They want the church to be the center of social and political life as it seemed to be in the 1950s and 1960s. They want the pews packed with people, the nursery overflowing with babies, and the church to have the same level of particularity that it did years ago. The church today finds itself having to share time and attention with the rest of the world. Because of this (and numerous other factors), the church for the most part has seen the number of people attending the hallowed halls of a church house begin to decrease.

In an effort to find a culprit for the shrinking size and popularity of church, a scapegoat has been named and they are "young people today” — a catchall term for people under the age of 35 (or thereabouts) who have seemingly left the church en masse.

They are vilified as the sole reason and cause for the church to not be busting at the seams with people. If only those "young people" could just stop being so selfish on Sunday mornings and just come to worship God at 11 a.m. like people have been doing for years, the world might be a better place.

Maybe you have heard some of these gems before:

"Young people today don't care about religion ... unless they can find it on an iPhone."

"Young people today weren't made to come to church and that's why they aren't here."

"I know young people today like contemporary music but I don't care for it."

"Young people today would rather sleep than come worship the Lord."

"Young people today are too busy with sports and extra activities. They are too overextended. If they can put effort into sports, they can put effort into God."

"Young people will spend all day getting ready for a prom or a dance but show up to church in jeans and t-shirt."

The list goes on.

How does a "young person" effectively convey the notion that “the church was like this when I got here?”  

I have met some people who are deeply spiritual, caring, compassionate, loving people, but they don't attend church. But young people for the most part do not have a problem with the church or with Jesus or even with teachings of church. So why the absence on Sunday morning?

For many people, the problem is the people who call themselves Christians but don’t live up to Christian ideals. They say the church focuses on the wrong things; why are some people so acutely aware of the "sins" of others but cannot see the hungry child in their own backyard.

If you want young people in your church, give them something to do. Young people are ready to go, do, serve, be, and extend the ministry of Christ to all people — but they have to a place through which they are able to do so.

There is a drive in young people who want to do something greater than themselves and to give and love, but when it's met with pledge cards, committee meetings, condescending looks for wearing jeans and t-shirts, or saying they have to wait until they are 45 and have three kids to make a difference, then what's the point?  I can worship God in my house or in nature just as easily as I can in a building with stained-glass windows.

Give "young people" the chance to and they will knock your socks off ... I promise. You will see movements of God that you would have missed if you had "stayed the course."

The decline of the church is not my generation's fault. It was in decline long before I was born; it was like this when I got here. But that doesn’t mean it is too far gone. The church does a lot of things right and can still do more.

Let the "young people" lead; let them be the hands and feet of Christ in the world and watch what happens. Listen to their passions, listen to their concerns, and listen to where they feel God is leading them.

It's not "young people's" fault for the decline of the church, but they can surely be a part of the answer.

Keep the faith ... all is not lost.

You can contact Rev. Dolive at evan@evandolive.com

If You Were Successful, Would You Even Know It?

Living with Drama

I’ve got a friend who, not too long ago, experienced some difficult times with his family. Addiction. Co-dependency. A nightmare of family recriminations. For a couple of months, it seemed, he was on the phone every day with his family rehearsing some new sordid development.

He and I went out to breakfast one day, and I asked him how he was doing. He said that this family crisis seemed to consume him, and that he didn’t have any energy for anything else. Always some new wrinkle, some new situation requiring that he devote more time and energy.

“It’s like living in a soap opera. And the weird thing is, I feel almost like I’m addicted to it.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

“At first it seemed interesting being involved in something important. I liked the phone calls and the meetings, thinking I was helping to make the situation better. Hours every day. But then I realized that I needed the adrenaline rush I got when some new twist appeared, and we were all on the phone about it. Now, it just feels like we talk endlessly and nothing really gets fixed. And I’m beginning to wonder if I’m hooked on the drama.”

“So why don’t you quit doing it?” I wondered.

“It’s not that easy. I want to quit, but we really are talking about some important things. On the other hand, whatever we’re doing isn’t really changing anything; it’s just making me constantly stressed out and preventing me from doing other things I need to do. I don’t know.”

Have you ever been around somebody who’s gotten hooked on drama? Everything in their lives revolves around “the thing.” They endlessly run conversations and scenarios in their head, like the Joint Chiefs of Staff war gaming the invasion at Normandy. There’s intrigue and subplots, betrayals and instances of sacrifice, great acts of courage and petty retributions.

I’ve been a part of congregations like that. Congregations get hooked on drama. Phone line marathons. Postmortems on the board meeting in the parking lot. Strategy sessions seated around conference tables, furiously poring over copies of the by-laws, now complete with marginalia and a cross-referencing apparatus.

The whole negative feedback loop of drama can start innocently enough. A personnel issue here, a budget problem there—and pretty soon you’re talking about Roberts Rules of Order over your cornflakes.

But the irony is that doing anything creative (or even constructive) is almost impossible once the drama takes hold. Reactivity reigns. You spend more time rehearsing what you “should have said” at the meeting than imagining what kind of action could allow you to realize a faithful vision of the future.

“So, how do we stop it?”

It would be easy for me to be glib, coming off like I have all the answers about how to disrupt the drama enough to get purchase on a healthier way of being. The truth of the matter is I don’t have any magic elixir I can dispense.

But let me get back to that in a minute.

If You Were Successful Would You Know It?

I was driving the other day, and this phrase popped into my head: If your congregation were ever successful, would you recognize it?

That’s a lot to unpack, right? Most of which has to do with how you define “success.” That’s problematic, as I’ve argued before, since congregations tend to have standards of success that are largely impossible to achieve, having to do with a variety of complex factors mostly out of any congregation’s control. Because of the culture we live in, we have a pretty good idea of what “successful” congregations are supposed to look like. They’re the one’s getting all the attention, the one’s reporters turn to to get a comment on breaking news, the one’s highlighted in denominational P.R. materials.

I’m increasingly convinced, however, that success has more than just one face—past which we all too quickly walk. There are successful congregations—congregations that are living faithfully their calling to embody the reign of God—which, because they don’t look that great according to the ways we’ve been taught to keep score, are always in jeopardy of despair—always in danger of succumbing to the temptation of drama.

These churches limp along on budgets that rarely seem to cover all the costs. They don’t have huge numbers of transfers. They can no longer support a graded Sunday School program. By all popular ecclesiastical accounting measures, they’re failures.

And it would be one thing if they failed courageously, but for the most part their failures are pedestrian, unexceptional, ho-hum.

Decline. Attrition. Death. Not with a bang but a whimper.

But what if there were some congregations, congregations that had no business calling themselves successful, that were actually doing something huge, enormous, earth-shattering? Because of the ways we’ve trained ourselves to think about success, would these churches even know they were setting the world on fire—and if not the world, then at least the worlds they occupy?

“So, where are you going with this?”

Let me try to weave two separate strands together.

The Tsunamis of Drama that Keep Us Preoccupied with Our Inadequacies

Congregations, like the enablers addicts require to feed their addictions, often get caught up in the self-destructive cycle of drama. They move from one catastrophe to another, always convinced that they’re in a life and death struggle. Three hour board meetings, frantic phone calls, endless email threads exegeting each passive-aggressive line of text.

The handwringing is exquisite in its enjoyment of self-inflicted pain, like the ever darting tongue rolling over a canker sore. Drama gives satisfaction, just to the extent that it allows its participants to feel the same apprehension and foreboding felt by people who really are facing cataclysms. Life seems so much more significant when infused with the adrenaline of anxiety.

But here’s the problem I see: Congregations addicted to drama are virtually incapable of doing the kind of reflection necessary to recognize when they’re doing something right. The lizard brain takes over, reactivity sets in, and every external stimulus gets read as a threat requiring all the energy and resources of the body.

What if you were doing something outrageously important, but because it didn’t fit whatever model of success sold to you by a cynical culture you continued to cling to the familiar fears you associated with your inadequacies?

What if caring for that group of aging CWF women was the very thing God put you on the earth to do?

What if as God is busy drawing up the blueprint, your congregation’s role in helping usher in the God’s reign is handing out backpacks and haircuts to the children of migrant field workers?

What if what you have to offer for the cause is a van and a couple of folks willing to go to the wrong side of town to pick up a few kids who’ll never swell anybody’s bottom line?

What if God is busy saving the world with the very resources you discount because you’re so addicted to the drama, so afraid your resources can’t possibly be enough that you don’t even realize it?

In The War of Art, a book about writing and the pursuit of creative passion, Steven Pressfield gets at the crux of the issue:

It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.
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You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Don’t let the drama suck your soul and steal your passion for the very thing God is depending on you to do.

15 Things the Church Needs to Do in 2015

By Rev. Evan Dolive

It's that time of the year again, when we stand on the precipice of a new year and look forward to what is in store for us in 2015. Last year, I wrote 14 Things the Church Needs to Do in 2014, and many of them are still true for 2015. However, given the events of 2014, the church now also has a monumental opportunity to provide healing, justice, care, and compassion in new and exciting ways — ways I believe are important for the church in the upcoming year. 

1. Review what happened in 2014. What worked? What didn’t? Where did we spend our money? How did we touch people’s lives? What one word would describe 2014? Take some time and objectively look at what transpired in 2014.

2. Honestly answer the question, “Why in the world would anyone want to come to this church?" I believe this is the biggest question that every church must ask itself. How one answers this question affects the ministry, outlook, and mission of the church. If you answer this question honestly, the answer might surprise you and scare you at the same time.

3. Answer, "If we closed our doors tomorrow, who would miss us?" Is the church a place to go on Sunday morning or an impactful piece of the community? Is the church a place that is finding areas of ministry that are outside the four walls of the church? Is the church a place of community building, fellowship, and service, or is it just merely existing? If the church closed tomorrow would there be a gap, a hole, a void left in the community or even a particular community? 

4. Then ask the even harder question — "If no one would miss us, then what are we doing here?"

5. Speak up for the voiceless in our own backyard. Too often churches have a understanding of changing the world. Don't get me wrong — the message of Christ has that ability. But instead of constantly looking at overseas mission trip destinations, are we looking in our own backyard? Are there areas that we are missing because we think someone else is handling the problem? There are needs in any-sized community — the church is called to speak up for those who cannot and be the voice they are longing to have. If the church cannot and does not speak to community, state, and national issues then we are missing a big piece of the gospel.

6. Have honest conversations about race. In Ferguson, Staten Island, Ohio, and everywhere in between, the complexities of race in our society has been thrown to the forefront of news, conversation, and lives. Was Dr. King correct when he said that 11 a.m. on Sunday was the most segregated hour of the week? For many churches that still does seem to be the case. How the church responds to the issue of race in the 21st century will be extremely important.

7. Re-evaluate missions. What is the purpose of missions? What is our mission as followers of Christ? Is the church supporting missions that support our mission? Reviewing how the work of the church is done will focus the ministry opportunities for 2015. 

8. Remember that failure is not a bad word. So you planned and planned and planned some more and your ministry idea that was supposed to bring people the good news didn’t get off the ground. Well ... that's OK. Ministry is tough. Failure is never easy but it something we must see not as a negative but as a growing point. If we are holding back for fear of failure then we are limiting what God can do in that situation. Churches cannot simply just wait for "home runs." Ministry is more about trial and error than it is an exactly science. So get out there and try something, get your hands dirty, be the hands and feet of God!

9. Love the people, love the people, love the people. And I mean no matter what. The church needs to strip away the cold exterior and welcome people — all people — with the loving arms of God. We need to love people for who they are not for who we want them to be.

10. Answer, "If someone came to this community for the first time what would their impression be?" Some parts of the church have a reputation of being an "insiders" club. For some congregations it is difficult for a new person to find their place or role within the community. If the same 10 people do everything in the church, how can the rest of the church have an impact? If someone were to walk into your faith community what would their first impression be? Is the signage correct? Are things laid out well? Is there someone to greet them yet not ask 100 questions and make them fill out a commitment card? Let's look at the church with fresh eyes and see what happens.

11. Stop the bodies-in-the-pews game. There is more to being a ministry of God than painstakingly counting bodies in the pews. This is does not mean people who are missing are unimportant — it means the church needs to stop defining itself by numbers physically in attendance. What if we worried about how many lives we have touched, instead of the number of people that come on Sunday morning?

12. Pray for ... everything. Patience, peace, mercy, safety, movement of the spirit, direction. Start praying and never stop. The church, the world, and our souls need it.

13. Increase giving. It takes faith to increase giving even during good financial stability but even more when it times are tough. Have faith, take courage, and step out and increase the giving of the church. It doesn't have to be much, but it has to be some. Watch what happens when a little is given in faith.

14. Decrease complaining. Yes, there is a lot to do and few workers to do it. The budget may have its pitfalls and attendance is not what it once was 40 years ago, but that doesn't mean we have to let it affect us and our life. We have a lot to be thankful for. Attitude is important — especially in the church. If people are always complaining — especially about insignificant things — then this will spill over to all parts of the church.

15. Don't give up on the church. I know what Christ said — that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church — but there are times when this feels untrue. People from all walks of life have been shunned from or have run out on a congregation for differing beliefs or theological styles. As the body of Christ we need to remember that the church is made up of imperfect people who are trying to do the will of God. While we might not like the direction the church is heading we cannot give up on it. God has never given up on us — let’s not give up on God.

Rev. Evan M. Dolive is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He is married to his high school sweetheart and has two children ages 3 and 1. He currently serves in Beaumont, Texas. He also blogs for Houston BeliefGood Men Project, and Radical Parents. For more information about Evan visit www.evandolive.com or find him on Twitter or 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.