How firm a foundation

I currently have the privilege of serving as transition facilitator for a congregation in Memphis, Tennessee. This involves coaching a team of laypeople as they lead the church through some discussions that will be intense as well as – if we do our work with great intention and trust God’s presence – fruitful and hopeful.

This past weekend I trained this transition team. We had a big agenda for our Saturday together. Worship together, bond as a team, understand the scope of the transition process, pray our way through the large physical plant, plan for our first congregational conversation, and set the timeline for our work. (Yes, I was tired, and I’m sure the team was as well!)

I was not surprised that we quickly fell behind in our ambitious schedule. The people around the table were telling stories and enjoying one another’s company. Internally, my desire to stay on task warred with my conviction that these conversations were the work, no matter what our agenda said. A key component of the day was the sharing of faith journeys. I was amazed by the depth to which team members told deeply personal stories. There were tears. There was laughter. The connections being formed and strengthened were almost visible, they were so visceral.

We were able to check off the most important to-dos in preparation for our work with the church as a whole (and still adjourn on time!). But when we reflected on the our work we had done over eight hours, there was consensus that the team-building pieces – faith stories, casual conversation during lunch, a tangent or two, affirming one another’s experiences and gifts via call and response – were where God was most powerfully at work.

This team was put together through congregational ballots that were then processed by a nominating committee to ensure as much diversity in life and church experience, perspective, age, and gender as possible. It was purposefully representational of a church that – like most churches – has plenty of different thoughts on what the next chapter of ministry should look like.

That’s exactly why this “soft” or “slow” work was necessary. (To be clear, I believe attention to relationship-building is tough and makes processes more efficient in the long run.) We were able to see the image of God in one another and note what we have in common so that we can work from that starting point rather than areas of disagreement. Now the team members can model that recognition of each person’s belovedness, that delight in one another, that love for their church as they lead the discussions that must be had if the congregation is to notice and respond faithfully to God’s invitations in this season.

Where in your ministry setting is the “real work” getting hung up by disagreement, disengagement, or lack of follow-through? I encourage you to consider whether taking a step back to strengthen relationships might be a way to move forward.

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash.

 

 

 

‘Tis the season for nominations

In churches that have January-December lay leadership terms, fall is the nominating committee’s active season. In many congregations the nominations process consists of looking at the rosters of all the committees and boards, noting who is rotating off, and plugging in (often recycled) names. It’s not uncommon for nominees to be approached with either apologies (“I’m sorry – I know you’re really busy – but we need you to fill this spot”) or guilt (“If you don’t fill this spot, I don’t know what we’ll do”).

I believe we can do better.

A big part of the problem is that we’re starting the nominations process too zoomed in. There’s no reason to look at the rosters of committees and boards until we’ve spent some time considering why we have these working bodies and how they fit into the overall direction of the church. Here, then, are some questions to help nominating committees broaden their thinking.

What is God inviting our congregation to consider doing in the next nine months to three years? Hopefully this question will have already been discussed at the congregational level. If not, the combination of nomination and stewardship seasons could provide opportunities for discernment.

What is the relationship of each working body to that invitation? If a new initiative is in the cards, that will impact what committees and boards do and how they work together.

What will the capacity of each working body be to live into that relationship when members with expiring terms rotate off? Notice that even three questions in, the focus is still on the bigger picture.

What gifts are needed to help each working body hold up its part of God’s invitation going forward? Think broadly about spiritual maturity, talents, perspectives, energy, and expertise.

Who are the people with those gifts or with the potential to develop them? Look for a balance of experienced and new nominees, making sure that all the various constituencies of the church are represented across the rosters. When contacting nominees, name the gifts the nominating committee sees in them, how they would strengthen the working body, and how the working body helps the church live into its mission.

If we still have holes after hearing back from all of our nominees, what does that mean? Consider what barriers to participation exist, whether committees and boards need to be right-sized or combined, if there is good understanding about what each working body does and how it contributes to the overall direction of the church, and whether further big-picture discernment is needed before resorting to the any-warm-body-will-do approach.

What lay leadership needs do we anticipate beyond the coming year, and what work can be done now to prepare those who are not yet ready to serve? Here we broaden back out to lay the groundwork for a pipeline of ready leaders. Communicate responses to this question to pastoral staff for further deliberation.

The nominating committee might kick into gear at only one time of the year, but its work is significant. Getting the right people on the right working bodies ensures not just functionality but energy and creativity that in turn propel the church toward its God-given vision. Blessings upon this hard, holy work.

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash.

 

Indignation and indifference

“JEEEE-susss, it’s no fair. Mary is making me do all the work. Make her help meeee.” This quote is often used to pit Martha against her sister in Luke 10:40, thus retconning the catfight trope into holy scripture itself.

Not today, Satan. Not only does the typical translation of these women’s relationship set up a false binary between doing and being, service and leadership, it keeps us from more deeply seeing ourselves reflected in the scripture.

Martha says, “Tell Mary to get off her butt.” She speaks to Jesus with the confidence of someone who knows her hearer will certainly see her side. Instead: “Sorry, Martha. I’m enjoying this conversation with your sister.” If she’d had access to an ice pack, Martha would no doubt have used it on her floor-bruised jaw and her indignant-red cheeks.

How often do we approach God authoritatively, knowing God will agree with us? If you’re like me, it’s more often than I care to admit. “Not my will, but thi…yada, yada, yada, I’m sure you’d like to bless me with good weather for my road trip and a change of attitude for that person who has been a thorn in my side and a new on-sale dress for Easter.”

Whole congregations can do this too. We pray for more people to join our membership – because God must want that for us – but what if we’re already the right size to do the job God has for us? We pray for more resources, but what if more money leads to more distractions and excuses from spiritual growth and disciple-making? To the best of my understanding, God doesn’t think in the same categories and metrics that we do.

This is what makes the prayer of indifference – a key component of discernment – so important and so dang hard. It means acknowledging our short-sightedness. It means giving up some control. But unless we can offer prayers that sound like, “Here’s what I’m worried about, please do your God thing” without prescribing what we’d like that God thing to look like, we’re too attached to a particular outcome. That means limiting God, or at least limiting our openness to God.

The prayer of indifference is made a bit easier by cultivating a habit of gratitude. Noting where God has been at work in, around, and through us in big and small ways reminds us that our faith in God’s presence and goodness is warranted. God doesn’t do on-demand prayer responses, but God hasn’t abandoned us yet.

What adjustments to your prayer posture would you like to make? How might you incorporate noticing gratitude into your routine to make these changes possible?

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash.

Learned helplessness vs. learned optimism in congregations

In the field of psychology there is a condition known as learned helplessness. The subject is put into a challenging environment – for example, there might be a persistent, sharp sound – with no way to overcome the issue. After experiencing that initial lack of agency, the subject gives up trying to alter the condition or escape. The subject accepts the situation as permanent, and this learned helplessness induces a passivity that becomes a default response in other, unrelated circumstances.

In contrast, another subject is given the means to change the challenging condition, such as by pushing a button that stops the noise. This subject learns that the problem is temporary and that the means are available to address it. This subject bounces back quickly from adversity, because the agency claimed instills a sense of optimism.

While many studies of learned helplessness and optimism have focused primarily on the impact to individuals, I think these phenomena are very applicable to congregations. Take a church that considers itself in decline, for example. This congregation tries everything it can think of to reverse the trends, such as sending postcards to the neighborhood, hosting a community cookout on the church lawn, sprucing up the nursery, and offering a grief support group. At most, a couple of new people start attending on Sundays from these efforts. The church accepts that it is helpless to stop its slide. It gives up trying to reach out to the community, and it dwindles until a discussion about permanently closing the doors becomes imminent.

On the other hand, a church in similar circumstances might claim a sense of optimism by finding agency in its situation. This could involve the congregation naming and ministering out of the gifts that a small church has to offer that a big church cannot. It might mean reframing growth so that it is not about Sunday morning attendance and offering but about numbers of unique individuals involved in leadership in the congregation and community or the length of time it takes a youth group to name all of the ways it saw God at work during the week prior. It could entail using perceived failure as a springboard for ongoing discernment and deeper dependence on the Spirit.

Learned optimism is not fanciful or untethered from reality. It is a secular term for the hope we claim as people of faith, rooted in the partnership that God invites us into. Whereas helplessness and passivity prevent growth, optimism creates the possibility for all kinds of positive change and for relationship development and strengthening.

Where, then, does your congregation need to recognize its God-given agency and begin to act out of hope instead of helplessness?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

Planning from abundance, part 7 – designing initiatives

Over the past several weeks I have introduced ways to take stock of the gifts of individuals in your church, the congregation as a whole, and your surrounding community. I have also offered means of celebrating those gifts and assessing how they are currently being used. After completing all of this faithful work, it is now time for leaders (planning team, if there is one, or board/vestry/session/council) to consider the accumulated information in view of the future. Below is an outline for initiative design that is rooted in Spirit-led discernment rather than human-led decision-making.

Create an atmosphere for discernment. Prepare the gathering space in a way that is conducive to worshipful work.

Set aside distractions. Ask, “What does each of us need to turn over to God before we can focus on the work at hand?”

Worship together. Invite everyone to name where they have seen God at work throughout the planning process.

Review and celebrate all that the leaders have learned from listening and information-gathering.

Pray as Jesus did: “Not my will but Thine be done.”

Discuss the question undergirding the planning process: “Given all the information and reflections we have gathered, what is God inviting us to consider for the immediate future?” Notice where there is excitement or energy as well as where there is a feeling of flatness.

Identify the realization that seems (realizations that seem) to be emerging. Get every concern on the table for the invitations around which there is excitement. Refine ideas that bubble up related to these invitations.

Work toward agreement. What further exploration is needed to confirm or flesh out our responses to God’s invitations? What will faithfulness look like in moving forward with what God is inviting us to consider?

Test the agreement. Let the resolution(s) rest. If your leadership isn’t able to sleep on it/them, take a meal break and then discuss how leaders are feeling in their heads, hearts, and guts about the proposed way forward.

Ask the “next step” questions. What leadership (lay/clergy) will be required for what God is inviting us to do? What current programs do we need to scale back or celebrate and let go of in order to respond to God’s invitation? To whom do we need to reach out to start living into God’s invitation? Who will be the primary point person/group or liaison? When and how will we stop to evaluate our progress toward our vision of faithfulness? (Next week I will provide a ministry reflection form to aid in this assessment.)

Take action. Make detailed plans for action steps. Who will do what? How, and by when? What support and/or accountability is needed? The planning team takes these responses and begins putting detail to potential initiatives, handing them off to standing committees and/or leaders for approval and/or implementation as appropriate.

Offer gratitude to God and ask for God’s help in the coming months.

As the work draws to a close, be sure to celebrate! You have done faithful, hard work on behalf of your congregation.

Photo by Daniel Fontenele on Unsplash.

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.

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.