Monday, November 28, 2011

Changing Priorities in Giving

Let me tell you a story about some friends of mine.  This Christian couple are longtime church members. The husband’s family practiced the tithe (ten percent of one’s income BEFORE taxes, of course), believed that the church was the “storehouse” of God’s tithe, and taught him the same. The wife’s family were church donors but not tithers, but when they married, the couple decided to be regular contributors to the church, always giving ten percent of their income.

The church they have attended for years was a generous supporter of the denominational missions program at one time, usually sending more than ten percent of its undesignated gifts to the denomination for “missions” (that included not only domestic and foreign field personnel, but seminary support, benevolences, etc.).  In fact, their church was one of the largest supporters of the denominational work in the state.

Something interesting happened several years ago, however. The church found that it needed more money for church-based ministries, so the decision was made to cut back in missions giving.  The cut was small at first, but once the change was made, it was easy to continue reducing the amount that went to “mission causes.”  This really had nothing to do with changes in the direction of the denomination but was determined more by local needs.  Today, the church gives about 2.5% of its undesignated gifts to “mission” causes outside the immediate community.  Members have the choice of giving plans and can support the missions program with which they are most comfortable—the old-line denomination or a new organization of moderate churches.

There is another interesting twist to this story.  My friends still give more than a tithe of their income, but only a small portion of that funding goes to the local church—about 35% and part of that goes to a capital campaign.  It seems that when the church felt that its support for external missions was optional, my friends decided that they had permission to redirect some of their gifts to what they perceived as worthy mission causes.

I thought of my friends when I read a short item in “Century Marks” in a recent issue of the Christian Century.  The article discussed charitable giving and closed with this observation:

“[C]hurch members are not likely to increase giving toward institutional maintenance.  To stimulate increased giving, church leaders need to convey a vision that engages people both inside and outside the congregation.” 

These words certainly seem to address the decision made by my friends to support causes that have a greater vision for mission and ministry beyond the local congregation.  I wonder how many people are like my friends.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Planning or Preparation?

Each year churches and other Christian groups spend a great deal of time on strategic planning.  They consider their environment, assess their resources, and make goals for three, five, or ten years into the future.  Unfortunately, most of this is wasted effort.   Current realities change so quickly that it is difficult to know what will happen next week much less years into the future. 

What’s the alternative?  In Great by Choice, the new book by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen, the authors address the question, “Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not?”  The answer is not simple, but an illustration early in the book reflects some of the characteristics of organizations that prosper in uncertain times.

The authors tell the story of the competition between Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott in 1911 to reach the South Pole.  Amundsen’s team succeeded, reached the Pole, and returned home safely.  Scott’s team finally made it to the Pole, only to find the flag of Amundsen’s native Norway planted there, and died in the return trip. The difference was in the preparations that Amundsen made.  He trained his team for the physical stress they would face, he learned from others (such as the Eskimos), he chose his equipment carefully, he developed redundant systems for safety, and he did thorough research.  In summary, he made good use of his resources and prepared for the unexpected. 

What does this mean for the church?  Drawing from Collins and Hansen’s approach, let me suggest four things that we need to do.

First, we need to develop our people so that they will be prepared to lead and minister.  This involves helping them discover their gifts, embrace their talents, develop their skills, and exercise their opportunities.  We do not need programs to face the challenges that are around us but gifted, motivated, caring individuals.

Second, we need to learn from others.  This includes the churches that may not be like us (even the megachurches), business leaders and consultants (like Collins and Hansen), and socially conscious entrepreneurs.  Their experiences can give us the insights we need to prepare for the changes that will certainly come our way.

Third, we need to face the reality of the world we find ourselves in.  The church no longer holds a preeminent place in society.  Our “competition” is not other denominations or megachurches but a secular society that often does not value what the church has to offer.  The game has changed, and we must be willing to accept the challenges that brings.

Fourth, we need to be clearly focused on our mission.  We need to know what business we are in and pursue that business.  Does a specific activity contribute to the growth of the kingdom of God? If not, why are we wasting our time on it?

Although we may not know what challenges or opportunities the coming weeks or months may bring to the church, we can start developing our people, learning from others, facing reality, and sharpening our focus in order to ride that wave.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Importance of People Development

A couple of years ago, I read Missional Renaissance by Reggie McNeal.  McNeal calls for several shifts in emphasis for the church in the 21st century:
·         From an internal to an external focus.
·         From program development to people development.
·         From church-based to kingdom-based leadership.

The one that particularly got my attention was his strong appeal for the church to move from a program-driven focus to a people-centered focus.  He suggests that the effectiveness of a missional church is based more on the quality of its people than the quality (and quantity) of its programs.

In the past, we often operated out of this mindset:  “Here is what we have for you. Come and plug into it.”  We accepted programs that were developed elsewhere and forced them to fit our context.  The question we need to be asking is, “Where are you in your Christian journey and how can we help you live for Christ each day?”

The difference is between an industrial approach and an organic approach.  The industrial, “one size fits all” approach assures church members that an activity is good for them and they should join without any questions asked.  The organic model assumes that each person is unique in the eyes of God and has special needs and opportunities.  By recognizing this uniqueness of each individual, we are also recognizing the unique nature of every fellowship of believers.

McNeal notes: “People don’t go to church; they are the church. They don’t bring people to church; they bring the church to people.” Wherever a believer is, there the church is present.   As we develop and form people who are followers of Christ, we are building up a church uniquely fitted to serve the community in which it is located and the people around it.   What we do with our people makes a difference.

New Metrics

As I am involved in discussions with pastors and other church leaders, a question that surfaces frequently is “How do you measure success in the church?”  Traditionally, we have used the “nickels and noses” (giving and attendance) approach.  Some measure their success by baptismal rate and others by the numbers involved in Christian education programs or weekday ministries.

Many leaders are moving beyond these metrics because they do not always reflect what the leaders are really seeking to form—committed followers of Jesus Christ.  Several years ago, Willow Creek church commissioned a study that revealed (it was called REVEAL) that the church was not achieving its goal:  “Willow Creek exists to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Christ.”Some used this as a basis of criticizing the church and its methodologies.  In reality, the church should be praised for being willing to ask the hard question, “Are we really doing what we say we are doing?”

Writers like Will Mancini in Church Unique and Reggie McNeal in Missional Renaissance have pointed out that the old measures no longer apply.  The challenge is to find what will take their place.  How does one measure spiritual formation and maturity?

In Growing an Engaged Church, Albert Winseman suggests that the answer comes from engaging people in the church.  He states that each person wants the answers to these questions:  “What do I get?” “ What do I give?”  “Do I belong?” and “ How can I grow?”  If these questions are answered, members will show gains in life satisfaction, serving, inviting others to become involved, and giving.  These are all spiritual outcomes that are measurable.

I am not sure that this is the best or only answer, but if we want to see our people grow, then we must clearly identify our desired outcomes and the methodologies to achieve them.  We must be more explicit about what is expected of a follower of Christ and then provide opportunities for people to pursue those things.  You can’t hit a target unless you know what it is.


Tuesday, November 08, 2011

New Sources of Leaders

Where will we find the next cohort of church leaders?  Traditionally, our leaders grew up in the church, were nurtured by youth ministries and collegiate ministries, responded to “the call” to ministry, and then prepared themselves through graduate theological education.  Although there were certainly exceptions to this pattern, most current leaders followed this path.

Of course, this is no longer a truism. A recent article fromLeadership Network addresses significant changes in church leadership.  Two items caught my attention.  First, the article states that “an increasing number of key implementers and team leaders are coming from business vs. ministry backgrounds.”  I agree and could add that many are coming from other backgrounds as well, such as education and the not-for-profit sector.  These folks have unique skill sets that are needed by the church at this particular point in time, and their selection for such roles should be encouraged.

The author goes on to say “seminary training and ordination don’t address every leadership need in burgeoning ministries.”   In reality, we are talking apples and oranges here.  Ordination does not equip anyone to address a need but affirms that the people of God (usually a congregation) recognizes that person’s giftedness to perform a task and, through the act of ordination, is “setting the individual aside” to pursue that task as a minister of the faith.  No matter where a person begins his or her journey to church leadership, ordination is not a formative factor.  On the other hand, seminary training or theological study makes a difference in a person’s leadership in the church and should be provided in some way.  For example, if a church calls a particularly gifted educator to lead their children’s ministry, he or she still needs some understanding of doctrine, biblical content, and the nature of faith formation to do that job in a church.  The church should seek out ways to provide that type of preparation for those lacking a theological background.

The second item in the article that got my attention was the statement that “less formal ministry training” and “more ala carte, on-the-job training” is a trend.  Although the article points out ministry leaders who are self-taught, this does not necessarily mean that a person should eschew formal theological training or the assistance of informed Christian educators to develop those skills needed to do their jobs more effectively.  Although we can learn much from our peers, isn’t it possible that seminaries and other theological institutions might provide some assistance?  After all, most of these institutions recognize that they are called to serve the churches through the formation of ministers and leaders.  This assistance could be provided in various forms--on-line classes, on-site instruction at the church, directed studies with seminary professors, or mentoring or coaching brokered through the seminary.

I have two hopes. I would hope that churches could see the seminaries as partners in ministry rather than irrelevant “preacher training schools.”  I would also like for seminaries to see themselves as resource centers for the churches, willing to adapt delivery systems to meet the needs of the churches.  Hopefully, we are all going in the same direction.  Why can’t we help each other on the journey?

Monday, November 07, 2011

Reimagining Theological Education: Cooperation

If you haven’t noticed, theological education in North America is going through a “shake-out” process. I learned this week of one free-standing denominational seminary that is negotiating to become the divinity school of a college in the same denomination.  Other seminaries are combining or closing their doors.  Those that survive with find new partners and strengthen their relationships with old partners.

New approaches to theological education like those being offered by Central Baptist Theological Seminary require contextualization and creativity, but they will fail without cooperation.  Healthy, flexible, and supportive partners are needed for these efforts to be successful.

Partners assist theological institutions in a number of ways.  For one thing, partners—church, judicatories, other institutions—link the theological schools with potential students.  Seminaries and divinity schools are exhibiting flexibility by offering programs to educate lay or licensed ministers (such as Central’s Foundation program),  train bivocational ministers, and educate staff and laity within the walls of the churches.  The endorsement of a judicatory or church also provides credibility to the theological institutions.  Churches and judicatories often provide financial assistance for students as well.

Partnerships do not end there, however, but can include relationships with other educational institutions, not-for-profit organizations, and other theological schools.  Such relationships can be mutually beneficial for all concerned.  The Wisconsin center of CBTS has prospered due to its relationship with the Housing Ministries of American Baptists in Wisconsin.

Theological institutions are also finding value in ecumenical relationships.  Some denominationally-related institutions did not start out to do this, but they quickly found a responsive clientele in students from other denominations.  This is not only aids the viability of the institution but it enriches the learning environment for all of the students.  In a world where faith issues are becoming both important and divisive, people of faith must respect, teach, and support one another.

Finally, theological schools need the cooperation of donors.  For the most part, alumni of theological institutions are not their best supporters, but one is sometimes surprised by both the resources and generosity of former students.  Present and former students are also a link to other donors—individuals, churches, judicatories, and foundations.  As my friend John Gravley often points out, seminary students don’t pay for their own education; they provide only a part of the funding needed.  Theological institutions need friends who are willing to step up and provide the financial resources to form competent and creative ministers.

Theological education continues to change rapidly but it will flourish if its leaders, students, and supporters embrace contextualization, creativity and cooperation.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Reimagining Theological Education: Creativity

The decentralized model of theological education that Central Baptist Theological Seminary is offering not only in Tennessee and Wisconsin but through the Access Program depends on three things:  contextualization, creativity, and cooperation.  This post addresses creativity.

In August 1967, Rita and I packed all of our worldly goods into a station wagon and a trailer and left Alabama for a sojourn of three years in Fort Worth, Texas.  In order to get a seminary degree in those days, a person needed to relocate (unless fortunate enough to have a seminary in their backyard) in order to get an education and a degree.  This meant finding a new job (for at least one family member), a place to live, and a new church (where you would serve either as volunteer or paid staff).  This also meant leaving behind family and friends (although some people we knew had made the same trek) and a church context that we were very familiar with and we deeply involved.  Was it worth the effort?  Yes.  The education and the friendships were valuable. Could it have been done another way?  Perhaps not then but now there are alternatives.  Through initiative like the Tennessee center, we are taking a new look at the old paradigm and coming up with creative alternatives.

One new approach is fully accredited centers like those Central has established in Wisconsin and Tennessee.  Other seminaries pioneered this approach and, for those seminaries that want to survive, this will become more common in the days ahead.  Seminaries partner with churches, judicatories, or other institutions to create these centers.  Students can now stay where their extended families, jobs, and places of ministry are located and still get a degree.

Another option available to students now is online study.  At present, the Association of Theological Schools allows students to take up to two-thirds of their course work for the Master of Divinity degree online.  The remainder must be taken in residence.  The goal of Central is to eventually offer all classes online although one-third  of the classes still must be completed onsite in Shawnee, Murfreesboro, or Milwaukee.  This provides students a great deal of flexibility in their schedule planning.  Are there some courses that are more appropriately taught in a classroom setting rather than in a virtual environment?  That question is still open for debate not only among theological educators but all educators who consider this alternative pedagogical approach.  I will reserve my opinion for another time, but this creative approach is certainly increasing the options for theological students.

Since many of the CBF-related seminaries are not large enough to offer specializations in youth ministry, children’s ministry, worship and similar areas, some theological institutions are offering certificate programs that offer training in these areas.  Some are for credit and others are non-credit continuing education.  They often combine classroom and online components.  Whether a person has a theological degree or not, these special training opportunities are a creative way to meet the needs of both ministers and the churches they serve.

Seminaries are also finding other ways to respond to the need for continuing education or lifelong learning.  The Doctor of Ministry degree, first offered in the 1960s, is a structured approach to continuing education that requires academic rigor while taking seriously the needs of a specific ministry setting.  Central has recently launched such a program hosted at the Shawnee campus.  Central also offers a Master of Arts in Missional Church Studies that builds on the Master of Divinity degree.  Other seminaries offer degrees that seek to address the need to acquire specific knowledge, techniques, and skills for a particular ministry.  All of these may not necessarily be offered in every place where a seminary has a teaching site and some may be unique to a particular setting.  For example, I would love to see the Tennessee Center take advantage of area resources and one day offer a Master’s program focused on entrepreneurial leadership.

Of course, seminaries like Central continue to offer resources to lifelong learners through access to regular classes taught at the main campus or centers but may also go to churches, universities, or other settings to make these classes accessible.   

Some of these ideas are new but others have been around for years and have only adopted new delivery systems.   Whether old or new, varied approaches increase both the accessibility and the effectiveness of theological education.  Those theological institutions that are not afraid to try something new while maintaining quality instruction will not only survive but prosper in the years ahead.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Reimagining Theological Education: Contextualization

For the past six years, I have had the opportunity to work with the leadership of Central Baptist Theological Seminary to “create a bridge as we walked across it.”  The bridge is the Murfreesboro center of CBTS, now known as “Central Baptist Theological Seminary Tennessee.”  Our goal has been to offer quality graduate level theological education that is affordable and accessible.  During these years, we have offered thirty-four classes, enrolled some forty individuals, and graduated six students with the Master of Divinity degree. 

Although now fully accredited, the model of theological education we offer in Tennessee is still something of an experiment.  The ongoing viability of that experiment is contingent on three things:  contextualization, creativity, and cooperation.  I will address the first here and the other two in subsequent posts.

In our situation, contextualization can mean many things, but I believe that it begins with recognizing who our students are and what kind of churches they represent.  Most of our students are pulled in at least three ways if not more.  Our typical student is married with children (some out of the household), holds down a regular job during the week, and serves a church in a paid or volunteer role on the weekend.  Of course, there are students who are full-time ministers seeking to complete a theological degree and they have their own stresses.  The churches that these students serve range from small family-sized churches to large downtown congregations with many variations and examples in between.    The students are Anglo and African American, men and women, and represent at least four denominations.

What do they have in common?  They are passionate about their call to ministry.  They are highly motivated to become properly equipped for that ministry.  Their churches are looking to them for leadership. And they have many obligations in their lives. 

In order to effectively serve them (and their churches), we offer classes in a non-traditional format.  Our classes met on weekends, usually Friday nights and all day Saturday, on four weekends spread throughout the semester.  We also offer online classes through the Shawnee campus that allow students both accessibility and flexibility in their scheduling. 

Although some of our instructors come from the main campus in Shawnee, we most often enlist qualified adjuncts from the area. The combination of using both Shawnee faculty and local adjuncts strengthens our program.  Career faculty from the main campus bring a strong teaching background, ministry experience in varied contexts, and an understanding and commitment to the overall mission of the institution.  This helps to build the “one seminary concept.”

Like our students, our adjunct professors have other “lives” as well—college instructors, counselors, and ministers of congregations.  All either have their terminal degrees or are in the process of receiving one.  Three of our adjunct instructors are retired ministers and bring years of experience to their teaching.  Every one of our instructors brings real life experience to the table, and this is essential since most of our students also carry lifetimes of experience with them as well.

A helpful aspect of using local adjuncts is that they often come out of churches in the area where they either serve on staff or in lay leadership roles.  This means that they understand the worship, polity issues, and ministry challenges of churches in the middle Tennessee and surrounding areas.
One of the greatest assets of contextualized learning is that students have the opportunity to use immediately what they are learning.  This is true not only in the field education or ministry praxis part of the curriculum, but also in courses that deal with biblical and theological content, counseling and caring ministries, spiritual formation, and ethical practice.  Instructors often give assignments that challenge students to find ways to integrate their learning with their present ministry situations.

Our experiment in Tennessee will be sustainable only if we recognize the needs of our students, our churches and our area, providing the educational resources that speak to this particular context.  WE do this by exercising creativity and fostering cooperation.  Those are our next topics.