Thinking about church size in relationship to mission

Last week I shared discussion questions to help a congregation understand what exactly its church size is and how this size relates to 1) expectations placed on the pastor and 2) the ways newcomers are welcomed and included. These reflection points are important because they help leaders pinpoint why the numbers aren’t increasing – or why they rise, only to be bumped back down. But much more than that, the accurate assessment of size enables a congregation to consider what God is calling it to do and be and to make needed cultural and structural shifts toward those ends. Here, then, is part two of the discussion guide.

Opportunities

Who comprises our community? A demographic study could be helpful for gleaning this information. Even better, take a prayer walk or drive around your immediate community, making an effort to notice who your neighbors are. Once you have identified your neighbors, ask them about their concerns.

What organizations meet the needs of the different populations? According to the different populations and service organizations, what needs are not currently being met? There’s no need to re-invent the wheel. Where might there be opportunities to come alongside agencies or churches doing good work? Where are the gaps your church might consider filling? (Hosting a panel discussion with representatives from city leadership and/or the service sector is one way to get at these questions. Talking with social workers and school counselors is another.) Think in terms of physical, spiritual, relational, mental, and emotional challenges.

Assets

What resources for ministry do we have at our disposal? Consider but don’t limit your thinking to money on hand and the physical plant. Other assets include spiritual leadership, ministries/programs, relationships/contacts/spheres of influence, special skills/knowledge, work ethic, and the willingness to try something new.

Capacity

What is our capacity for ministry? Every congregation has a sweet spot in which members feel a healthy sense of urgency and deep engagement but aren’t in danger of burnout. What is your congregation’s capacity in terms of relationships, leadership, energy, finances, and physical space?

  • In which areas have we maxed out our capacity?
  • What do we need to give up to create more capacity?
  • In which areas do we still have capacity left to use?

Represent the different areas of capacity with pie charts or thermometers, then color in the percentages.

Convergence 

What is God nudging us to consider? Given what you have noticed and prayerfully considered, what is your congregation’s mission in the coming months and beyond?

Are we the right size for taking this on, or do we need to size up or down? You have discussed your church’s size, culture, and expectations. Now it’s time to lay those over the vision God has given you and see where there’s alignment and where changes need to be made.

If church size needs to change size to fulfill calling, in what ways can we begin to function at that size? The system will always bump your congregation back to the size it was if you don’t make infrastructure changes first. Given what you know about various church sizes, what might those changes include? Think in terms of pastoral/staff leadership, lay leadership, inroads for newcomers, and procedures. If you can articulate the why for making these shifts – your mission – you will have a much easier time executing them.

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Raising awareness around your church’s size dynamics

“How can we grow our church?”

This is the question that haunts a clergyperson’s dreams, whether it wells up from the minister’s own mind and heart or is voiced by laypeople every time they look at attendance and giving patterns. It’s not necessarily a bad question. It does make a couple of big assumptions – that we need to grow and that we are in agreement about what growth looks like – unless it comes at the tail end of discussions about the congregation’s culture and God-given purpose.

Boiled down to its essence, a church’s size is based on two factors: the role of the pastor and the way newcomers enter the system. (Descriptions of the various size designations are available here.) Ministers can use questions and storytelling around these two dynamics to help leaders begin to understand how the church works and what might need to change for growth to occur.

Pinpointing the church’s actual size

  • How many members does our church have? What is weekly attendance? How do we define regular attendance?
  • What do you love about the size of our church?
  • What limits does our church size put on us?
  • What is your favorite story about this church that relates to its size?

Understanding ministerial functioning

  • What is the role of our pastor(s) – from pastor’s point of view and people’s?
  • What engages and energizes our pastor?
  • What would our pastor like to do if there was time/energy?
  • What leadership support does the pastor have? Need?

 Examining systems of welcome and inclusion

  • What is our system for recognizing and welcoming newcomers?
  • How do we follow up with visitors?
  • How do these systems relate to our size?
  • When is the last time a visitor came 3+ times?
  • How did our newest members know they wanted this to be their faith community?

These prompts are designed to help laity get up on the balcony and see the congregation from a new perspective. Next week I’ll share questions around discerning mission that can bring another level of awareness, such that the congregation can consider whether and in what way(s) it needs to grow to live toward its vision.

When you want to make a significant change in your congregation

In 2011 this video of a guy with some, well, creative moves made the social media rounds. He is the embodiment of “dance like nobody’s watching.” Except that people are watching, and a second person joins in. Then another. And soon there’s a crush of festival-goers feeling the groove.

This is how it goes with innovation. A few people are eager to jump on board at the outset. Most hang back, though, waiting to see how those around them will respond.

In thinking about introducing change to a congregation, it can be helpful to remember that not everyone is going to embrace the new at the same speed. It’s essential for a leader do due diligence with ideas, communicating them and involving the appropriate groups in refining and rolling them out. There are situations, however, in which leaders might have legitimate cause to initiate a change when only the early adopters have bought in. In those cases, here are some ways to make the shift well.

Pray. Start with gratitude for the idea and the opportunity to implement it. Ask God to open hearts and minds – your own as well as others.’

Set meaningful metrics. Know what the goal of the innovation is and name milestones that will allow you and others to assess (accurately) progress toward the end game.

Accept that not everyone will be an early adopter. People have different leadership and followership profiles. And someone who might be an early adopter of one kind of idea might drag their feet on another type.

Roll out the change on a provisional basis. It is possible to try out something new before fully committing to it. (Consider carefully, though, what message having a provisional period sends about your own enthusiasm for the change.)

Stay in regular communication with enthusiasts and skeptics. Seek out feedback frequently. You’ll get encouragement to keep forging ahead as well as thoughts on how to improve the new initiative so that it sticks. (Be clear with skeptics about what constructive feedback consists of!)

Continue to discern. Discernment is a relationship, not a one-and-done. Ask God to give you wisdom about adjustments that need to be made and pastoral care that needs to be carried out with people most affected by the change.

Give frequent updates through many voices and means. Communication lowers anxiety, especially when it includes both stories of and data around  how the innovation is bringing positive results. (Here’s where those metrics come in.)

Remember that big shifts take time. A change that is forced might have good short-term results, but the strain it puts on relationships and trust over the long haul is hard to repair.

About what might you need to dance with abandon?

How to close the church for good

In his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, positive psychologist Adam Grant offers his thoughts on how to champion new ideas. (If you haven’t read the book, I recommend it. He backs up his suggestions with engaging stories and with hard data.) In one of his illustrations, he talks about one CEO’s approach to helping his company get unstuck: telling his executives to brainstorm ideas for putting the company out of business. For two hours these leaders named all the paths to shuttering the doors, their energy building all the while. And when the executives were out of ways to kill the company, the CEO turned the tables and asked the gathered body to come up with ways to insure against these realities. Now understanding that it would be lethal not to take risks, the executives felt the urgency of innovation.

I wonder if congregational leaders would benefit from a similar exercise: “how could we kill this church?” Get all the options out on the table. (Maybe even think about which ones the church is already – or has considered – doing and what the loss would be to the community if your congregation closed.) Then consider what the opposite approach to each might be.

The goal would not necessarily be to take on all of those opposite approaches – they would need to be weighed against the energy and purpose of the congregation – but to move from a mindset of “we can’t afford to change” to “we can’t afford not to change, and we have some ways forward.” This exercise could help communicate the need for urgency to the participants’ minds and hearts and could illuminate some of the opportunities in challenge, two of John Kotter’s strategies for moving people out of complacency.

Consider using this approach, then, next time a visioning process for an individual ministry or the congregation as a whole yields the standard answers. I’d love to hear what ideas are gleaned and what shifts are made.

 

 

 

Why coaching is the best use of your continuing ed money

Sure, I’m biased. But as someone who was coached long before she became a coach, I can tell you that coaching is the best way to get the biggest bang from your professional development funds. Here’s why:

All of your money goes directly toward learning. You don’t spend a nickel on travel, meals, and all the other hidden costs that come with going to a conference.

The approach is completely tailored to your goals and your learning style. There’s nothing cookie-cutter about coaching. It’s my job to adjust my questions to your needs.

Sessions take place on days and at times convenient for you. You don’t have to move meetings around, get approval for time away, or arrange for pastoral care coverage. And if an emergency conflicts with our call, we simply reschedule.

There are no lectures or workshops during which you’re a passive participant. You won’t wonder why you paid a speaker to tell you something that 1) you already know or 2) is completely irrelevant to your context. We start with your wisdom, your experiences, and your resources, then go from there.

The learning is spread out so that you can implement it a piece at a time. Have you ever come back from a conference with a file full of ideas, only to have those ideas quickly gather dust? In coaching you take a big goal, divide it into bite-sized chunks, and design a few action steps at a time, then come back to reflect, adjust, and build on what you’ve done.

You get a built-in encourager and accountability partner. I think my clients are amazing, and I tell them so. And while I help coachees create their own accountability networks, knowing that I’ll ask about the action items coming out of our last call often motivates clients to implement them before we talk again.

Let’s set up a time to talk about how you can make your professional funds work for you through a coaching relationship.

Dealing with the shoulds

Do you have a case of the shoulds? (I have a chronic condition that I struggle to keep in check.)

“I should finish this sermon before I go to bed.”

“I should visit my homebound member, even though I saw him two weeks ago.”

“I should count my calories more closely.”

“I really need to marinate on my response some more, but I should send this email reply now anyway because my board chair is expecting it.”

“I should go to that third evening meeting this week, regardless of whether I have much to add to the discussion.”

“I should tackle that pile of dirty clothes in the floor.”

I should…I should…I should. 

Now, there are a few worthwhile shoulds. I should eat more veggies. I should make an appointment with the dentist. I should be kind to everyone I meet. But in most cases, this is how I’d describe that big pile of should:

Originality: How do I know what I’m capable of if my life is ruled by shoulds?

Understanding: How will I grasp who I am, what my call is, and where others are coming from if I’m too busy doing shoulds?

Leisure: How will I ever get time to rest and re-center if I’m playing whack-a-mole with shoulds?

Deeper connections: How will I ever create time and space for knowing and being known by God and my loved ones if there’s always – and there is – one more should to check off the list?

Shoulds are loud, persistent, confidence-kicking tyrants. Next time a should pops into your head, ask:

Who says I should do this?

Why is it important to that person that 1) this get done and 2) that I do it?

What do my head, heart, and gut tell me about this should?

How will fulfilling this should help me be the minister, family member, friend, or person God has called me to be?

You are valuable, you are beloved, just as you are. You don’t have to earn it.

Dealing with contrarians

Contrarian 1: “I’m not so sure that starting this new ministry is a good idea. It will take a lot of financial and people resources that we don’t have to spare, and we can’t be sure that it will move us forward. Can you give examples of other churches that have tried this and had success?” 

Contrarian 2: “This new ministry isn’t needed. What we’re doing now is perfectly fine. Even if we did try something new, this particular idea is doomed to fail. I’m only thinking of the church when I say I can’t support this initiative.” 

If you’ve spent any time in congregational ministry, you’ve dealt with these two contrarians. Both of them can be very frustrating, especially when it seems so clear to you that change is needed and that there’s a solid plan for said change. There’s an important distinction between these two contrarians, though, and being able to identify and manage it could mean the difference between the congregation getting behind the change or staying mired in complacency.

The first contrarian is a skeptic, a logical thinker. Skeptics are cautious. They can help refine ideas. They can be brought on board to new initiatives with more facts. Skeptics might slow down processes, but their need for details can help churches guard against trying to do all the things. And once skeptics are convinced of a plan’s merit, they can become big cheerleaders and hard workers.

The second contrarian is what John Kotter calls a NoNo. NoNos don’t want change and will never support new ideas. In fact, a NoNo will actively work – loudly or behind the scenes – to undermine any change. When NoNos ask for more details, they are looking for selective facts to support their positions, not information to help them process the proposal. Many a NoNo has killed small-scale changes and ministry action plans coming out of a visioning process.

Last week I wrote about the importance of true urgency, and one of Kotter’s tactics for creating urgency is dealing with NoNos. Kotter says that NoNos will let the air out of congregational urgency if you spend time and energy try to convince them to get behind the coming change. On the other hand, they will gain power if you simply ignore them. Here, then, are some constructive ways to deal with NoNos:

Pray. Pray for the NoNo, for the situation, for discernment, and for your relationship and interactions with the NoNo.

Distract them. Identify their talents and recruit them to ministries (far away from the one they’re trying to kill) in which they can put their skills to good use and feel positive about their contributions.

Use positive peer pressure. Find someone who is a big proponent for the new ministry idea and is respected by the NoNo. Assign this person the task of neutralizing the NoNo’s negativity anytime the NoNo voices it. If this person can use humor gracefully, great! If not, the person can gently remind the NoNo – and more importantly, others who are listening – why the change-in-progress is important for mission fulfillment.

Remove them from leadership. This is really tough to do with volunteers and should only be attempted if the two tactics above don’t work. Sit down with the NoNo and at least one other congregational leader. (You might also want to give your judicatory leader a heads-up in advance.) Express that since all the voices have been heard and all the options have been explored, and the congregation has subsequently decided to move forward with the initiative, it’s essential that lay leaders be focused on how to implement it most effectively. If the NoNo is not willing to be solution-focused, you would be happy to help the NoNo find a different way to use gifts and skills in service to God.

It just takes one NoNo, even one working diligently at the fringes, to bring innovation to a grinding halt and make your vocational life miserable. Don’t let a NoNo keep you and your congregation from living toward God’s vision for your ministry.

Creative Commons image “Arrows” by librarianishish is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Creating urgency

Two-plus weeks into the new school year, our family is slowly getting into a groove. One big adjustment has been the loooooong afternoons. (My son got home from preschool around 4:00. At the end of his pre-K day, we’re pulling into the driveway by 2:20.) One of the gifts this “found” time offers is an opportunity to read. While L watches an episode of Nature Cat – the four-year-old’s equivalent of an evening at a NYC comedy club, judging by his laughter – I sit beside him and knock out a chapter in a book on systems theory, business, leadership, or practical theology.

I just finished A Sense of Urgency by John P. Kotter, a quick read that defines urgency and why it’s so important to organizational life. Urgency is an awareness in the head and heart that something must soon change for our church/business/institution to keep moving forward and that I have a role to play in creating that change. Urgency is the foil to complacency, which convinces us that things are fine as they are. True urgency is different from false urgency, which is driven by anxiety and characterized by busywork that has little to no impact.

I probably don’t have to convince you that a sense of urgency is very much needed right now in the church and in the world. Complacency keeps us from fulfilling our mission until that purpose is out of reach – or at least requires digging ourselves out of a sizeable hole. False urgency makes us think we’re doing something until we realize that all our busywork has actually been guzzling our energy and distracting us from moving toward our goals.

How, then, do we create real urgency as pastoral leaders? Here are Kotter’s tactics, reinterpreted for clergy.

First, feel a sense of urgency yourself and act out of it.

  • Focus on your specific call to ministry and on the mission of your congregation. Run everything you do through those filters.
  • Look for ways to shift or eliminate tasks and meetings that don’t relate to  personal or congregational mission. Unrelated “doing” likely falls into the false urgency category.
  • Tell others what you are doing and why. “Here’s how I’m spending my day. Here’s how those actions move us closer to our vision.”
  • Leave no open/loose ends. At the end of meetings, get clarity about who is doing what and by when.

[Note: much of ministry is “soft,” such as making pastoral care visits and dealing with contrarians. That doesn’t mean these tasks are not urgent. It is important, though, to connect these undertakings to the bigger picture.]

Second, communicate facts about the need for urgency in ways that speak to others’ heads and hearts.

  • Create spaces for storytelling. Data is important, but narrative is convincing.
  • Get an outsider’s perspective. Talk to the church’s neighbors. What are their gifts? Needs? Views of the church? Or bring in a panel of people who serve the community. In what areas do their needs for partners and the church’s resources meet?

Third, seize opportunities that come with challenges.

  • Reframe problems. Don’t deny the issue, but also note how it creates new possibilities.
  • Do things you can’t do during times of stability. Stability breeds complacency. Challenges shake up our perspectives and force us to act.

Fourth, deal with naysayers.

  • This is a huge issue in churches that merits a blog post on its own. Stay tuned for part 2 on creating urgency, coming next week.

Creative Commons image “Urgent” by Judith E. Bell is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

A celebration of my preaching box upon its retirement

I have yet to find a pulpit or lectern designed for someone who is 4’10.”

This wasn’t really an issue until my senior year of high school. As a condition of graduation, all seniors had to give a talk to the entire student body. It was likely that my audience would only be able to see my teased hair over the big wooden podium. I thought, Hey, now I won’t have to see any bored or disgruntled faces!  On the other hand, I’d be putting in a whole lot of work for nothing. No one’s gonna listen to a floating coiffure.

My dad came up with a solution. He asked someone at the family business to build a box for me. This person found some wood scraps and carpet leftovers and whipped them up into a platform.

 

I used the box for my senior talk, then put it in storage for a long time. When I received my first call to a church, though, I dusted it off and carted it to Winston-Salem. It has traveled with me ever since. I often leave the box in the car when I supply preach for the first time at a church, until I see if I need it. (I can dream, right?) My host usually greets me, sizes me up, and says, “We have a platform we can get from the choir room…” I listen politely and then inform my host that I have my own box, a faithful companion for lo, these 23 years.

The box is not much to look at. The carpet is that industrial kind you find in offices. It’s been fraying at the edges for a while. It kinda stinks after having my feet on it so often.

But.

The box is practically indestructible. I have never doubted its ability to hold me those six inches off the ground. It is the perfect size – not too big to carry, but wide and deep enough so that I have only almost fallen off of it once. The carpet pieces protect against any distracting shoe noises. At some point along the way I inscribed a couple of Bible verses on the inside of it that give me some extra juice when it’s time to preach.

Not only that, but I imagine Robby, a long-ago employee in a now-defunct business, searching through the warehouse for just the right materials, lining up the wood, driving a million nails into it to make the box as sturdy as it is, and cutting the carpet scraps just so. A lot of care went into giving me a good foundation. The box represents all the encouragement and guidance I’ve been given through the years, which bear me up when the ministry gets rough.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a collapsible stool on the random row at Aldi – the one that has the short-term specials on any number of home/personal care/school items. The stool is much lighter than my box. It has rubber on the top and the bottom to keep it – and me – from skidding. It won’t trap foot stench. It folds up flat. It can live in my trunk for, you know, any random preach-ins or height-boosting needs. I realized then it was time to retire my preaching box.

The box still lives under my desk, so anytime I’m coaching or writing, it’s holding my feet up so they don’t go to sleep. It’s living into its purpose in a new way. I can’t imagine ever getting rid of it. (I’ve had it for over half my life, for goodness’ sake.) It will still be a trusty companion. It just won’t travel anymore.

And so, for all the miles it has gone, for all the ways it has held me up, and for its continued support, I give thanks to my preaching box. Well done, good and faithful servant.