Leadership

The Mysterious Magic Pill

By Colton Lott

 

This is going to seem like an article about politics, but it’s not. Promise. Just keep with me. How folks feel about one issue/item/thing often reflects how they view another issue/item/thing—like how our views of the church influence our views of politics and vice versa. For example, this week Derek Penwell (one of the senior writers for [D]mergent) wrote a fantastic article about Donald Trump and evangelicals, which you can read here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/derek-penwell/evangelicals-love-donald_b_8058518.html. For all of you who won’t read the article, he says that evangelicals crave a cultural relevance that Donald Trump seemingly has.

But Rev. Penwell isn’t the only one talking about the GOP nomination and the takeover by non-political candidates, such as Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Virtually every news source has article after article asking “Why are voters gravitating towards these unconventional candidates?” The peculiar rise of these candidates is not only a topic of the talking heads on the national level, but one that is happening in my own intimate world, as I have  family members who favor some of these dark horse candidates. On the whole, I am intrigued with their support of folks who, in the eyes of every savvy political strategist, should properly be considered “losers.” So I, too, keep gnawing on that why.

When I conduct my informal research, the responses are something like, “we need someone who knows what they’re doing,” or, “we need an outsider to fix Washington,” or “I want someone who has a business background to fix the financial mess.”

I don’t mean to de-legitimize the benefit of fresh ideas to any corporate body or diminish the way that different forms of knowledge come together to make a more powerful whole. But where did we come to believe that any one person possesses a secret knowledge that will somehow “save” this entire country?

Because at the root of many of these conversations, the subtext of what I keep hearing is: “we desperately need a magic pill that will shock our system into working like it did ‘in the good ole days.’”

In truth, I don’t have much interest in using my weekly article for political analysis. But this style of thinking/wishing/hoping is not isolated to the political sphere; indeed, these unsaid-but-ever-near desires show up far too often in the church. In the parking lots comes the whispers of:

“If we just had a young pastor, we could get young families.”

 Or in those fraught moments we may let say something like:

“Our pastor doesn’t have a clear vision or leadership. If we just had someone who would tell us what to do, we would be successful.”

The list goes on and on about the good fruit that follows the “if we just had…”

Are leaders and leadership important to institutional vitality and success? You bet. Can poor leadership disrupt and seriously injure religious communities? Absolutely. Can a pastor make everything good and smell like roses? Definitely not.

When churches decide to pin all their hopes on a minister they are trying to swallow the elephantine magic pill that will solve the problems that come with being church in this time and in this place.

A new president nor a new pastor will fix all the problems that plague life as we know it. Just as running a successful government takes a sincere congress and prudent courts, a healthy church takes praying elders, service-oriented deacons, and loving members. Perhaps we would be well to remember that revolutions are lengthy affairs; that turning around lives and culture are like steering a large ship with an undersized rudder; that churches are successful in how they are faithful to God, how they work alongside what the holy is doing within their community. We can’t wish a better time into being. We can’t hire solutions. We can’t elect a savior. But we can stop reaching for the opiates, stop begging for the magic pills of wonderfulness. By breaking free from our addiction to dreams unobtainable we can start to be authentic and earnest no matter what conditions we find ourselves to be in.

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Clip art used can be found at: http://www.clker.com/cliparts/b/e/I/U/t/B/pill-md.png

UnCommon Acceptance

By Rev. Mindi

Two years ago, I sat in a breakout session at my first UNCO—The UnConference for pastors and church leaders—and in the first fifteen minutes of the session titled “Show Me The Money,” I learned more about fundraising and stewardship campaigns than I had in seminary—and I had taken an entire January term course on stewardship and church finances. I listened as church leaders shared what had worked in their congregation, ways of talking about stewardship, and focusing on the positives (“Look what ministries we participated in last year”) rather than the negatives (“Our budget shortfall means we will have to cut programs unless we raise enough money”). 

Two years ago, I connected with pastors and church leaders that I still go to regularly for ideas, support, and encouragement, as did my husband who was planting a new church. But more importantly for us, it was the first church conference that not only provided space and childcare for children (called KidUNCO), but fully welcomed our child AJ, who has autism, into the full life of the UnConference.

Last year, when we returned to UNCO, not only did we receive our warm welcome again, but as AJ ran across the gathering space, where we livestream our worship services and large group “brain-dump” sessions, people who knew AJ from the previous years but could not attend tweeted their greetings to AJ.

UNCO has created a community of church leaders who are connected not only after UNCO meets via Twitter and Facebook, but a way of connecting those who are physically present and those who participate via Twitter and livestream. And following last year’s UNCO, those of us involved in new church communities and the challenges of raising funds for our new ministries began using Google Hangout on a monthly basis—not only to share ideas and knowledge, but also to check in, and lift up one another and our ministries in prayer. The networks created within the larger UNCO gathering, including a writer’s group and synchroblog, provide support and encouragement for creativity in leadership.

UNCO has given me and my husband the opportunity to attend a leadership gathering together—and to bring our child with special needs to an inclusive and welcoming environment. Because of KidUNCO, my husband and I have been able to attend breakout sessions without one of us having to care for our child while we are learning and sharing.

More importantly, UNCO has provided close friendships with colleagues facing similar challenges in ministry. UNCO is not a conference you attend and take back with you what you learn—UNCO is the UnConference, in which you are participating all year long and in person for three days, if you are able to be there.

UNCO West is October 26-28 at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Click here for more information and to register. You won’t find a more affordable continuing education event that will benefit you throughout the year. You can also read Carol Howard Merritt’s excellent article on UNCO in the Christian Century.

De-Centering

By Rev. Mindi

“We’ve always done it that way before.”

You probably have heard of the Seven Deadly Words of the Church. And it doesn’t matter how often we talk about the need for change or transformation, or that we are in the 21st century, these words creep back up into board meetings, coffee hour conversations, and other areas of decision-making and complaining. Other variations of this are “We’ve never done it this way before” and “We tried it once, it didn’t work.”

All of these statements center us and our experience. The universal “we” can mean the whole church, or it can mean a small group of people, or it can mean just one person under the assumption that there must be more than one. Whatever the case, they are centering themselves. The reason whatever-it-is-you-are-trying-to-change won’t work is because from their experience, from their perspective, it won’t. They are putting their experience above any others.

How do we take a step back in these conversations in congregational life? How do we de-center the ones dominating the conversation when it comes to being the Christian Church in the 21st century? 

This question of de-centering has greater implications. In the current climate of the United States, too often white persons have centered themselves in conversations about race. White people have decided what is or is not racist, what actions are or are not racially motivated. Straight people have centered themselves in the conversations about welcoming and affirming gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Cis-gendered people have centered themselves in the conversations about what gender is or is not. Often, we center ourselves in the conversations that really have to do with other people and not with us, just whether or not it makes us comfortable, and we dominate the conversation rather than accepting an invitation to listen to those who are different.

If we are attempting to be the body of Christ and to “grow” the church (whatever “grow” may mean for you and your congregation), we need to allow for voices to come from outside. We need to de-center the insider voices and move to the outsider voices [Note: you may very well have outsider voices within your congregation—youth, elderly, people who work on Sundays, homebound, folks who come on occasion, children, disabled members, etc.] You may need to de-center the voices of those who are part of the congregation and listen to those who are not. Listen and center the voices of those in the community. 

All too often, churches find a perceived need in the community and decide to address it. However, they don’t always ask those they are supposedly serving if that is the real need that needs to be met. When we center ourselves in the context of mission and ministry, we are doing what we want, what makes us feel good—then we get upset when no one shows up, or they aren’t as grateful as we hoped they would be. We didn’t center the voices of those we should have been listening to.

In this post-Christendom 21st century, maybe it is high time we all de-centered the church voice. We are not the most important building in town. We are not the most important group. We are not the most important thing in people’s lives. God is still working in the world, in our community, and God calls out through the voices that we often have pushed to the margins. We have put ourselves first, our survival first, our prominence first. And we have failed.

I know. We’ve never done it this way before. Let’s take ourselves out of the center of the conversation, and move to listening to those voices that need to be centered. Maybe then the church can really grow into what is was intended—the body of Christ.

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.

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!

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.