Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Changing Culture: Awareness

As they swam past each other, one fish asked another, “How’s the water?”  The other fish replied, “What’s water?”  The point of the story is that it is easy to forget what surrounds you and fail to examine it because it is what you know.  To an outsider, those same surroundings might seem strange.

We are immersed in culture with its artifacts, values, and assumptions.  Unless something happens to challenge those givens, we rarely think about the culture we find ourselves in.  

For those of us who work with churches, the term “culture” has at least two meanings. 

On one hand, culture is the larger environment in which we live.  For Christians, culture can be both a gift and a challenge.  Our culture--language, political structures, customs, relationships--provide a stage on which we perform our ministry.  Early Christians like Paul discovered how to use the Graeco-Roman culture to communicate the Gospel.  As missional Christians, we have to decide what aspects of the culture help to fulfill the mission of God and when we must be counter-cultural to do so.

Second, there is the culture within our particular church and denominational “tribe.”  These include the doctrine, practices, and rituals handed down to us and the way we relate to each other through a common terminology, ways of relating, and values.  Some of these aspects are clearly identified and espoused, but more are like the water in which the fish swims:  we don’t see them until something changes.  In fact, much of the culture within our organizational structures is submerged and invisible like the larger mass of an iceberg.

For example, many churches have accepted specific roles for women and men in their particular setting with little or no overlap. In recent years, however, those roles have changed and we have to consider questions such as, “What is the role of the pastor’s spouse when the pastor is female?” and “Since over half of our congregation is female, why don’t we have more women in leadership roles?” or “Are we teaching the Bible in such a way that the gifts of both women and men are affirmed?”

If we want to change our churches, we must understand both the internal and external culture. Not everything happening in the larger culture is immoral, although it may be different.  The way we have always done things in the church may not reflect the intent of the Gospel.

In a recent blog post, Seth Godin wrote, “We have far more ability to make an impact than we expect.  The only people who can change our culture (and thus our future) are us.” Perhaps we need to put on the hat of the sociologist, examine our cultures, and identify the best way forward.

Monday, April 15, 2019

We Can Do Better

Charles Chandler
The reality is startling:

  • Over 20,000 clergy in Protestant/evangelical churches are forced from their ministry positions in the United states every year.
  • Just over half of these ministers will return to full-time ministry roles.
  • One consequence is that fewer seminary students are choosing parish ministry.
  • Only half of the seminary graduates will be in ministry roles ten years after graduation. 

Charles Chandler, President of Transforming Clergy-Congregational Health Network, Inc., shared these statistics with 25 participants called together for a “think tank” in Ashland, Virginia, earlier this month.  The group was challenged to provide input on these topics:

  • Characteristics of healthy relationships in congregations;
  • Conditions contributing to unhealthy relationships; and
  • Strategies fostering healthy relationships.
John Killinger and Trisha Miller Mandarijn

Being part of this two-day meeting was an intense, enlightening, and sometimes depressing experience. Those involved might be termed a “blue ribbon” team made up of lay leaders, pastors, denominational leaders, and seminary representatives.  The discussion in the large group and in small groups was honest, realistic, but also hopeful

Reflections on all the information generated would be impossible, but these five questions seem to sum up the meeting:
  • How do we create trust?
  • How do we make the Gospel central for mission and vision? 
  • How do we encourage caring relationships by sharing our faith stories?
  • How do we address continual change?
  • What is the role of leadership in this process?
Will Willimon and Charles Chandler
During the meeting, someone asked me, “What is the answer?”  This discussion helps us to understand that there are many answers.  This is a systemic problem, and the task is to identify the strategies that have the greatest potential leverage to improve the climate. Actions must involve clergy, laity, judicatories, and theological institutions.

There is a better way. This was a step in finding it.

Made possible by a financial grant from the Rotary Club of Richmond, the think tank was sponsored by Transforming Clergy-Congregational Health Network, Inc.  Charles Chandler is President and Treasurer, Bob Dale is Vice President, and Arch Wallace is Secretary. Facilitators were Susan McBride and Kathryn W. Kruschwitz. Information here is used by permission.  

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

How Does Your Church Measure Success?

You can always count on your students to bring you back down to earth!  In the seminary class I teach on Missional Imagination, we challenge students “to think, imagine, innovate, and lead in ways that foster ministry startups and nurture established ministries that are missional in nature.”  At least that is what the course description says.  Another way of describing our goal is helping students to reimagine Christian ministry as part of the missio Dei--the mission God given to the people of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  

Of course, it takes a whole semester to unpack this concept, but eventually someone will ask a question or write a paper that includes a statement like this:  “Although missional ministry is often slow and may not have quantifiable results, the truth of the matter is those who are funding the ministry will always want to have a visible and measurable outcome as proof that their dollars are put to good use.”  In other words, what is the ROI--return on investment?

Churches in 20thcentury America generally had two measures of a successful church--nickels and noses (although sometimes stated in less delicate terms):  How much is being contributed?  How many attend on a Sunday?  These metrics have continued into a century where many churches finding fewer individuals passing through the doors and fewer dollars placed in the collection plate. 

Both of these measures are important.  We do want people involved, and we do want the financial resources to pay the bills; however, are these the only way to measure effective ministry?

A starting point is to adjust our paradigm or frame of reference.  In his book Missional Renaissance, Reggie McNeal suggests three shifts for a missional church.

First, from an internal to an external focus.  Much of the effort expended in the 20thcentury church was about maintaining the institution as an end in itself. This is characterized by the member in a declining congregation who says, “I just want my church to be here to bury me when I die.”  From a missional perspective, one might say instead, “I hope that people will remember how this church was an influence for good in this community.”  Rather than thinking of church development, we should think about community development.

Second, from program development to people development. The genius of the 20thcentury church was based on an industrial model by which we could produce more active church members through a standardized approach to Bible study and training.  The idea was, “One size fits all.”  The missional approach recognizes that everyone comes to Christ in his or her own way and disciple formation must be customized.  We don’t all start at the same point in our Christian journey and our uniqueness determines how we can best grow and serve.

Third, from church-based to Kingdom based leadership. The 20thcentury model was based on a denominational brand.  If you went to X church, you had a pretty good idea what it was all about because of the sign outside. There was a time in our culture when some car buyers were less interested in transportation than in owning either a Ford or Chevrolet because they knew what they were getting.  In the same way, you chose your church by the brand.  The Kingdom was divided up into little fiefdoms.  The current trend to take the denominational tag off the sign or declare a church as “nondenominational” or “interdenominational” has only amped up the competition.  The missional church recognizes that each church is unique and has something to offer in the larger work of the Kingdom of God.  God has placed it where it is for a special purpose.

If we adopted McNeal’s paradigm shift, we might start using metrics such as:

  • What percentage of our church’s budget is invested in community ministries?
  • How are our buildings being used to serve those who are not part of our fellowship?
  • What partnerships are we developing that benefit those in our community?
  • How are helping people develop their personal relationship to God?
  • What opportunities are we offering to help those in the church discover their gifts?
  • How are we equipping church members to serve each other and those outside the walls of the church?
  • How do we encourage and support those who serve outside the walls?
  • How are we developing structures of accountability for Christian growth and service?
  • How many partnerships are we developing with other churches, faith groups, and community organizations to meet community needs?

There are certainly other effective metrics, but these are attempts at measuring long-term impact for the Kingdom of God.  So how does your church measure success? Give it some thought.

Monday, April 01, 2019


In one of my seminary classes, I ask students to write a final paper describing what they have to offer as a missional leader--one who leads a church or organization to embrace the missio Dei--mission of God. On several occasions, students have cited the quality of resilience.

Resilience is defined in the dictionary as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”  Much like grit and mindset, this has become a topic of research in positive psychology where it is seen as the ability to cope with a crisis or to return to pre-crisis status quickly.

In most cases, those students who cite resilience as a personal characteristic have identified it as a result of life experience--failure in a project or program, loss of a job, rejection by a significant other, or death of an important person in their lives. This is not a theoretical attribute but one that they have practiced and recognized in themselves.

What are some things that can help a person in ministry to practice resilience?

First, a person must have a clear sense of calling to ministry.  If one is truly called to ministry, the initial perception may be only a seed, but as one practices his or her calling, the rightness of vocation will grow over time.  My calling as a minister has been verified by my life experience.  Although the manner in which my ministry is practiced has changed over the years, the deep inner conviction has only grown stronger. This gives me a sense of hope and purpose that is sustaining.

Second, we must exercise the ability to learn from failure.  The easiest part is to fail.  The difficult part is to want to learn from the failure and attempt to avoid making the same mistake twice.  We learn from failure through self-reflection and feedback.  In self-reflection, we are willing to revisit the failure and pick through the pieces much as an FAA analyst picks through an airplane crash.  It can be painful.  This process has a tendency to be subjective, so we ask others for their analysis and feedback but, most importantly, we take that feedback seriously. The good news is that, in the process of analyzing failure, we discover the good as well as the bad.  We see what we did right as well as what we did wrong.

Third, we get up, dust ourselves off, and try again.  Of course, if we have practiced step two, we don’t do something exactly the same way again. We develop new strategies and approaches.  We build on what we have done before but with improvements.  Most importantly, we act.

The only one who never fails is the person who tries nothing.  Brene Brown has popularized this memorable quote from President Theodore Roosevelt (please forgive the gender bias):

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

Saturday, March 30, 2019


In the wake of the resignation of the pastor of a megachurch in our area, the local paper published an article citing the findings of a survey related to pastoral attrition:

“LifeWay Research also found that 40 percent left pastoral work before age 65 because they had a change in calling, 25 percent cited a conflict in a church, 12 percent left because of personal finances and 12 percent left for family issues. The online survey conducted in 2015 asked questions of 734 former senior pastors who left in four Protestant denominations, and respondents could choose more than one reason.”

In reviewing these results, most of us realize that if a person is continually dealing with conflict, financial concerns, or family issues, he or she will probably consider “a change in calling” for personal well-being and relationship health!  We expect too much of our senior leaders and often fail to provide the support they need in setting boundaries.

Most of the challenges cited here relate to boundary issues.  Both lay clergy leadership may have difficulty knowing where one’s responsibilities leave off and another’s begin.  There are often assumptions on both sides that are not only wrong but create an environment that feeds distrust and power struggles.

Of all the work/life balance issues that pastors address, those related to family are most sensitive.  These may range from how much time the clergy person spends with family to how much the church expects from the spouse and children. 

Financial concerns, of course, are often left unaddressed by leadership.  Staff members don’t like to address issues of adequate compensation and the lay leadership would rather assume that everything is going well as long as the staff member stays with the church.  When one clergy person of my acquaintance left his former church, he was able to express in the exit interview how poorly he had been compensated.  This did not help him, but it did provide a wakeup call for the personnel committee to address the needs of those who were still on staff.

There are ways to address these concerns, thus improving pastoral satisfaction and tenure.  Church leaders can provide coaches for pastors to support them in setting healthy boundaries.  They can also promote an atmosphere where their clergy leaders can be honest about the pressures that they face, calling upon outside consultants and denominational staff to facilitate such discussions.  They can work to provide the resources—spiritual, professional, and financial—that their clergy leaders require.

The key thing to realize here is that clergy leave the ministry every day; that is not news.  This story only saw the light of day because of the high profile of the minister involved.If lay leaders do not step up and accept this responsibility, stories like the one in our local paper will only multiply.  

 (This post originally appeared here on September 21, 2016.)

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Investing in Your Pastor

The pastor cares for the congregation, but who cares for the pastor?

I often hear the phrase "a healthy pastor makes for a healthy church," but we will only have healthy pastors as well as other clergy leaders if we are intentional in providing the support they need.  Unfortunately, many churches do not yet see the need to invest in their ministers.  

Whatever the church can do assure the health of the pastor and staff--spirituality, physically, emotionally--produces a great return on the investment. Every change of pastor or staff member challenges the smooth functioning of the congregation.

When a pastor leaves, churches not only go through a time of transition, but members are called on to invest time and money in finding a new pastor.  The same is often true in replacing an effective staff minister. In most cases, a longer pastor or staff tenure benefits the congregation, providing continuity and assuring forward momentum. In a like manner, a minister who is nearing burn out cannot lead effectively.  If a clergy leader is struggling with a spiritual, emotional, or physical concern, he or she cannot function effectively in congregational leadership.

What are some things that a congregation can do to invest in its ministers?

First, set boundaries. The congregation does not own its ministers nor are they simply hired hands.  They are professionals who are seeking to fulfill their call as well as uniquely gifted individuals.  Lay leaders need to have a clear understanding both of their expectations of their staff and when they are intruding into the personal lives of those individuals.

Second, the pastor and other ministers need weekly Sabbath.  This does not take place on Sundays, usually the busiest day of the week for the staff. If most of the people in your congregation are working five days a week (probably 40 to 50 hours), then staff members should be expected to do the same with the understanding that Sunday is a day of work for them rather than a day off.

Third, the church should provide adequate health care for their staff.  Too many churches are taking advantage of their ministers by shifting the cost of health care to either a spouse’s policy or some other alternative such as military duty.  Health care must also be seen as holistic--physical, emotional, and psychological.  

Fourth, ministers need the opportunity for renewal.  When a minister attends a conference, participates in a denominational meeting, or attends a peer group, this is not vacation time.  This is necessary for the minister to “sharpen the ax” in order to be a more effective leader.

Fifth, each minister needs to have someone who can be an objective sounding board.  This function is often provided by a professional coach. Even if this benefit is not provided continually, a coach can be especially helpful for a minister when a new challenge or opportunity arises in the life of the clergy leader or the congregation. 

Sixth, the church should have a policy of providing sabbatical leave for each minister after a certain period of time, usually every five years.  Encouraging your ministers to have time away for relaxation, reflection, and learning reaps benefits for the congregation in more focused and better equipped leaders.

Unfortunately, few pastors or staff members advocate for these things on their own.  Key lay leaders in the congregation can show their love and support for the ministerial staff by being vocal advocates for this type of support.  Everyone will benefit.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Bible Tells Me So

As I read the story of the Good Samaritan during my devotional today, I was reminded of the times that I have heard the story in the Christian education setting of the local church--as a youngster in primary and intermediate classes (old terminology), as a young adult in college classes, and then as an adult, often teaching the passage myself.  The characters and story line are very familiar due to these experiences of Christian education.

These are challenging times for Christian education in the church.  Like so much of what is happening in the church today, the old forms do not seem to support present needs.  What once worked no longer seems to be effective.  Christian education or the formation of believers is in a state of flux.

In an article on ethicsdaily.com, retired professor Colin Harris addresses this issue. He points out that the period of the 60’s and 70’s “saw the beginnings of a loss of vitality within the educational dimension of church ministry, as the ‘school model’ of Sunday School and related programs began to lose its centrality for the nurturing task within church fellowships.”

As I think about the shifting role of Christian education or formation in the church today, I am drawn to the centrality of scripture in this process.  The Bible is our most important resource.  There are four things that we must address more effectively in regard to the biblical text.

First, learners need to be familiar not only with content but the context.  Not only do we need to know the characters and stories of the Bible, but we should understand the overall flow of the message of scripture, the context in which a passage was written, and the intended audience.  My Bible study class members seemed relieved Sunday when I noted that our lessons were moving from the Old Testament to the New Testament.  They struggle with passages that express an intent of God to either kill a large number of people or to instruct God’s people to do so.  How do we help learners to understand the underlying intent and meaning of such passages?

Second, we must help learners conceptualize the nature and formation of scripture.  Most believers approach the Bible as a one-dimensional book.  They may understand intellectually that there are different kinds of writing both in the Old and New Testaments, but this rarely impacts their interpretation and application. They tend to see the Bible as a flat plain with little differentiation in topographical features.  They fail to see the literary richness and diversity. The scriptures grew out of a dynamic context which is clearly reflected in their content.

Third, we can help learners adopt appropriate lenses through which to interpret scripture. One of these lenses is the person and work of Christ.  The way Jesus used the Old Testament provides us with a transformative view of the Hebrew writings.  We also have the lens of the Holy Spirit.  Just as the biblical writings developed in a dynamic context, the Spirit continues to intercede with us to provide insights that are appropriate to our lives and times.

Fourth, application is essential for those who study the Bible; otherwise, we are engaging in a ritualistic, scholastic exercise that fails to reach the goal of forming disciples.  Through the Spirit, God continues to use scripture not only to instruct and form us but to transform us as well.

Much of the decline of Christian influence today comes from our failure to form disciples who have a healthy understanding of scripture and how it informs our daily lives.  Believer, scripture, and Spirit can interact in a way that brings transformation in the life of the believer and furthers the work of God’s kingdom.