Defining our End Product – What is a Disciple

Bob Farr, in his book Renovate or Die: Ten Ways to Focus Your Church on Mission, states “When you renovate something, you have a pretty clear picture of what you want the end product to look like.” (p.67)  Without that end product in mind how can you achieve what you hope to achieve.  An athlete already knows what she hopes to achieve.  If a volleyball player has a dream to win the gold in the Olympics that is the end product of her hopes and dreams.  From there she can back up to understand what steps it will take to achieve her goal.

The trouble is I am not sure many churches have an end product in mind.  I do not think many local churches have a goal in mind of a person who joins their congregation.  If I would ask I am sure the answer would revolve around, attend worship regularly, give, and volunteer.  These are not necessarily bad intentions but they are not defined.  Farr’s comment has stuck in my head after reading it and I have been wrestling to come up with what the end product of my congregation would look like.
This past week we accepted into membership a woman who has never been a member of a church.  She grew up catholic but now in her retirement she has decided to become a member of our church.  What is the end product or vision for her as our newest member of our congregation?  As I chewed on this cud I attempted to think what our end product looks like.
The answer is easy a Disciple of Jesus Christ…but how lived out….how do you communicate that in real and tangible ways to a congregation…there lies my sticky wicket!
Our mission has been given to us by Jesus Christ at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” (CEB) This is what we are to be doing but how does a person come into a community of faith and live this out.  What does a true disciple look like?  This would be our end product. 
The words echoed in my head from this last Sunday, “As a member of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness?” (UMH p.38)  Our end product as United Methodists is living out these five areas of discipleship.  A true disciple is one who prays, is involved and present at worship, gives generously of their gifts, both money and talents, serves as God’s love in this world and tells others why.
What would happen to a congregation if everything they did had one of these components in mind?  If every event, worship service, meal, fellowship, small group, mission project, all that this end product in mind, how would this change the congregation?
If someone lived out all five aspects of their membership vows their life and the life of the congregation would be drastically different.  I bet everyone who knew this person would call them a true Disciple, including God.  Dream of a church where every individual worked to live these vows out consistently and with a cheerful heart. 
To get there would we have to reorganize what we did as a congregation?  Rethink what we deem as important?  Renovation would have to take place!

Am I onto something here?  Is this a valid end product?  When I think of what Jesus called his disciples to do, I find echoes of it here in our membership vows.  Do they miss anything?  I would love to know your insights.

Strategies and Values

In Bob Farr’s book Renovate or Die: Ten Ways to Focus Your Church on Mission he explains how churches need to approach ministry to their community.  This was an eye opener and gave me language to use as I move my congregation forward.

What Farr does is explains the difference between a church’s values and its strategies.  Here is his definitions of both: “A value is something of the heart and a strategy is a method for carrying out the value.” (p.52)  He goes on to give the example of Sunday School.  Sunday School is not a value it is a strategy.  “The value is to teach children and adults life teachings of Jesus.” (p.52)  That is the core value of why Sunday School is done.  Does that mean to keep the value the same it has to happen during the 10:00am Sunday school hour?  Does that mean the value can stay the same but small groups are started at people’s homes instead of at church?

This was my ‘eureka’ moment.  People cherish the values and they are wonderful values we need in our local churches.  But people confuse the strategy for the value all the time.  What some congregations even do is they take a beloved strategy and melt it down into a golden calf.  These strategies turn into sacred cows that they worship.  Defining values and strategies is so important to both the congregation and the minister/staff.  We need to look at our core values and the strategies we use to implement them.

Let’s take worship for example.  I would say the value of worship is a time to gather together to glorify God through music, God’s Word, offerings, and the message.  How this is accomplished is the strategy.  One strategy to accomplish this is the Order of the Word found in the beginning of the hymnal and led by a beautiful pipe organ.  Another strategy is a modern worship service with a band which plays for 30 minutes before the preacher/teacher comes out to give the message.  Both accomplish the same value but two different strategies are implemented.  Is one better than the other?  NO because they both accomplish the same value.

Recently my wife and my kindergartner got in an argument on who to write a lower case ‘a’.  My wife and I learned that you make a circle and then draw a line down on the right side.  My son learned to draw a magical c and then a line down the side.  His ended up looking more like a ‘d’ and that is what we were trying to remedy.  Now whether you use a ‘o’ or a magical ‘c’ to write an ‘a’ doesn’t matter.  Those are the strategies being used.  The value is that a pencil is hitting paper and a legible ‘a’ is written (the value).

I have started to look at the ministries of my church with different eyes.  What is my congregations core values?  What are our current strategies we are using?  Which strategies have turned into golden calves?  What strategies may we do differently to keep our values going?

Delicious food for thought.

How to Spot an Insider

In the book by John Flowers and Karen Vannoy, 10 Temptations of Church: Why Churches Decline & What to Do About it, they write about how to spot insiders within the church.  Those who love the church and have been embedded for years there.  I think it is important to notice who the insiders are within a congregation because insiders will set up the most resistance to change and to open a congregation up you have to open the insider up.

Here is their list (in a Jeff Foxworthian style)

You know you are in insider if….

  • You know the names of a significant percentage of the people in your worshiping congregation.
  • Your table is the first table that fills up at all the church.
  • You can recite the linear history of your congregation for the past two decades.
  • You were around prior to the last building campaign.
  • You are a carrier of “institutional memory.”
  • You have received direct benefits of long-term membership
I am sure there are others.  I had one parishioner introduce himself to me as, “I’m the oldest rat in the barn.”  I should have seen the huge flashing sign over his head that read, “INSIDER!!!”
Insiders are not ‘bad’ but they can get in the way of opening a congregation up to change and moving forward to be the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in this world.

Cutting Districts

The Western North Carolina Conference (WNCC) decided to move from 15 districts to 8 districts by January 2013. This move will save the conference $1.5 million dollars a year that Bishop Goodpaster (BG) would like to see go towards making our churches more vital in our area and starting new congregations. This is hot news among the denomination considering while I was at the School of Congregational Development I spoke to people from California to New Jersey who had heard of this decision. Some were excited. Others warned of the impending doom that will follow (ok a little harsh but I was told by a DS from another conference that we would lose 5-7% of our giving towards apportionments because of this decision).

The Disciple states that the Annual Conference (AC) is the one who agrees on the number of districts and that it is the job of the Bishop to set the boundaries and structure. Without a defined plan the AC gave permission for BG to move forward. I think that speaks highly of our trust and confidence in BG and that he will not lead us down the wrong path.

Last quadrennium we voted to add a district because the 14 current districts were too big for District Superintendents (DS) to handle, especially down in the Charlotte area. Now the DSs who make the cut and stay on will have double the amount of churches, clergy and area. how this will all be worked out will be handled by a team assembled by the Conference of equal representation of clergy and lay. They announced this list not too long ago.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when I saw the line up of the usual suspects. The conference took this leap with the hope to save money but also to become more vital in our conference. There was talk of making sure we are not doing the same old thing over and over again because they same old thing really isn’t working. That sounded exciting, promising and I truly believe it is what BG wants for our conference and our denomination as a whole.

Yet I believe some people are missing from this team that could help bring a new set of eyes to our conference to move us forward. I cannot speak about the laity on this team, only to the clergy. But as I looked at the clergy that will represent the conference and help it decide what this huge restructuring will look like there were no young clergy named. No one under the age of 40 (from the looks of it), forget the legal age of ‘young clergy’ which tops out at 35. There is no one who received their Masters of Divinity in this millennium or who has a congregation who averages less than 100 people in worship each Sunday.

It seems the usual suspects will make the decisions. The rural small churches, which makes up the vast majority of our congregations in our conference, will have no clergy representation. The young clergy, who are a small minority, are the same way. I think an opportunity to be really innovative and bring new eyes to the table may have been missed. I pray I am wrong.

I pray for this team as they meet to discuss what our conference will look like and act like for the next however many years. I pray that God will work through them to empower the UMC in WNCC to become relevant, to grow, and to be full of vital congregations doing life changing ministry through Jesus Christ for the people in our communities.

School of Congregational Development 2011 Review

As the School of Congregational Development ends tomorrow I thought I would take some time to give some highlights in quotes and other things learned. (I know what you are thinking, A NON-SERMON POST?!?!?!?) In random order….

  • There actually is a good list of how to do Vital Church Mergers and it only has 24 steps!
  • We live in a world where we think we can change our identities because we can change where we live, what we do, even our family and religion. This is exciting though because instead of being told what we are (factory worker, stay-at-home mom, doctor) by the world we can ask ourselves who God has created us to be.
  • It is out of chaos that God created the world but the chaos didn’t leave it was simply ordered.
  • Culture is a deliberate choice & behavior is what we chose to live in.
  • God’s judgement is allowing us to live in our vision. God’s grace is allowing us to live into God’s vision.
  • A manager asks “Are we doing things right?” A leader asks, “Are we doing right things?”
  • You have the power to change one person, yourself. God does the work on the rest.
  • Transformed = being shaped and formed by Jesus Christ.
  • All congregations have tribes who see things differently, just like the 12 spies who went into the Holy Land. Are we willing to take the human opinion and run back to the Egypt or are we willing to listen to the two and move forward?
  • Repentance has to be in the vocabulary and culture of any transformation. If you don’t know what you have done/are doing wrong in God’s eyes and will how can you/the congregation move forward?
  • Acts 20:20 point to the need of worship and small groups, “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you, but have taught you publicly and house to house. (underlines added)
  • God wants all churches to grow larger, wider, deeper in influence until all the world is called back into right relationship. Did you catch that? ALL CHURCHES! No matter how big or small, our job is not done until every human being believes.
  • Our job is to retell the creation story that has happened, happening, and will happen.
  • The church exists for those who are not yet there.
This has been a great conference and I have felt I have learned a ton. The challenge will be taking all this information, all this new knowledge and putting it into action.

Denomination Renewal – Small Church vs Big Church

John Meunier has some interesting thoughts on the gathering of the 100 largest UMC (by worship attendance) pastors in the US. As I read Adam Hamilton’s review of this gathering it started a question started to hit me, will the revitalization of the UMC denomination come out of the largest churches? I have my suspicions.

I think sometimes we get too caught up in the wrong numbers and don’t celebrate true church growth. (that was hard to type, I do love numbers) At our Annual Conference our Committee or Team on Congregational Development put out a brochure showing the largest churches and the largest growth churches in our conference. It was full of the usual suspects. These churches were all part of Hamilton’s gathering, four even reside in the same county. But is a better example of church growth when a congregation who average 60 in worship grows to 90? The dynamic there has a much larger effect on that congregation then adding 100 new members to a congregation who averages 1200 people a Sunday.

The majority of our denomination churches are small to medium congregations. (my guess is congregation who average less than 250 a Sunday) I know in my small city there are ten congregations and only one out of those ten average more than 250. If these churches all saw a 10% growth it would completely change the dynamic of those congregations and town. Would this be better church growth?

Yet this is where church growth is the hardest and thus frustrating and exhausting. Here you have family entrenched into thinking it is “their church”. Plagues all over the walls have their family names on it. These are close knit communities that have been through hell and back with one another and to welcome new people in can be a hard sell. Yet when a small/medium congregation see growth, a turn outward instead of inward, the community sees a change.

Small congregations can make progress but it is like turning the QE2 with a canoe paddle. Yet great change can happen when they starting to reach out instead of turning in. Yes, the uber-mega churches have a ton of resources and there are 400 times more small to medium churches. (rough guestimate) If each of these small churches gained 10% over the next five years it would be astounding. If the nine churches in Thomasville each gained 10 members we would match my current average worship attendance. It would be like starting new church but with 9 locations!

Yet most Annual Conference monies and focus are on the new and modern churches. The ones with the largest numbers, I mean congregates. They talk nice about ‘church renewal’ but are there really resources that don’t force these congregation to pay an arm and a leg? We have gone through some of these programs but they did cost us thousands. There are some free material out there, but then it is at the whim of the minister or laity to understand it and consume it. A coach or consultant, with more experience could do much more.

Walmarts are springing up everywhere. They are huge, convenient and seem to have everything. But is the community better off because a giant has come to town or would it have been better if the nine mom and pop shops actually stayed opened? If we are going to survive as a denomination, the growth will have to come from the small and medium churches. They may not have the loudest voice but they are the meat of our denomination.

Appointments and Congregations

I appreciate the comments about my post about Rick Warren. For those who didn’t read it there was a conversation started about how long clergy, United Methodist Clergy in particular, should stay at appointments. Allan agreed with Warren and stated that many congregations do benefit from pastors who hang around for a long period of time and that real, dramatic, and long lasting change really happens between years 4-10. I completely agree with Allan on the fact that long lasting change in a congregation cannot happen in the first two, if not three years of an appointment. This got me thinking of back to a conversation I had with a friend while at the Reynolds Program in Church Leadership.

During one of the talks there we discussed who different minsters have different gifts. Some are great with starting congregations, pounding the pavement and getting people in. Other ministers have a knack for diving into the family systems of congregations and working the politics of a church to administer change or provide a vision or excitement about the church again. We all have certain gifts in ministry that help us do our calling best.

During a side conversation, we discussed how it would be nice if we had a universal way of talking about where congregations are. One example might be George Bullard’s graph that depicts the life cycle and stages of congregational development (see picture below). What if there was a way to map where congregations were on this life cycle and then match them up with ministers who were good at that part. For example, if you have a congregation who is moving from adolescence to adulthood which means they are in need of someone with good management/accountability/systems/resources skills to be their minister. Then the cabinet looks for someone who has those skills to place there in an appointment. I think it is very rare to have a minster who can continue to move a congregation into the prime area and then back through the redevelopment stages into a period of growth once again. They are out there, Slaughter, Hamilton, and Harrish come to mind.
If there were such a way to identify the stage of the congregation it would also be easier for the minister, almost any minister, to know what to do as well. If a congregation is at the point of maturity and needs redevelopment, that can be done. If a church is moving from infancy to childhood and needs programs developed, that can be done. Would this make it easier for ministers to move into a congregation and know what steps need to be taken to grow that congregation?

This may also relieve a pastor when she knows they have taken a congregation past her skill set. It may take her 12 years to get a congregation to move from adolescence and into adulthood but then it is a way for the minister to say look this is what you all as a congregation need to continue to grow, you need someone to come in and redevelop the mission of the church and this is not something I have a calling to do.

It seems many congregation are simply on cruise control and do not know where they are. Many pastors are just floating on down the river with them enjoying ignorance, not aware of the rough waters that might lurk around the bend. With more understanding of something like a congregational life cycle, we could better see where congregations are and what clergy could do well going.

Sure this opens up the door to a whole flood of questions and issues. Do clergy really know their gifts in ministry? Do churches really want to face they reality they are in? Does this already happen during cabinet meetings? What if the pastor best suited for a church isn’t in that church’s pay grade? And so much more but it is what my brain has been munching on for a while.

Church Consolidation: Part II

What can be done? What are answers to the Thomasville UMC problem? Yes I am calling it a problem. There are only suggestions at this point and I am not naming any names to not cause too many ripples. But it looks like there are at least four congregations that are nearing the point of having to do something. Membership is down or hitting a plateau. Deaths are becoming overwhelming. Their building are old and need of repair and the cost of the upkeep in some cases is too much for congregations to handle. Within these four congregations the cost of the clergy ‘package’ (salary, healthcare and pension) is estimated at $225,192. When it comes to apportionments, two of these congregations paid out at 100% and one paid nothing.

There are bright spots in these congregations. Some have wonderful outreach to the community and thriving programs for children, youth, and adults. There are plenty of good things happening but will it be enough to sustain long lasting and fruitful congregations down the road? Plus, with a hat tip to Jim Collins, is good getting in the way of great?

What would happen if these four churches came together to form a new congregation? Combined the average attendance would be almost like the largest congregation in Thomasville, 300 worshipers each Sunday. Down the road it would only take one senior minister for this congregation (and other staff of course) but the senior minister ‘package’ would be cut by 2/3rds. Which means instead of $225,192 it would look more like $75,000. That frees up a ton of money to pay out at 100% the apportionments for this congregation. It would also enable the congregation to have money to create a new worship space and not be tied down to older buildings.

Yes, this is pie in the sky because there are realities. One, not all members would be excited about this and we would be silly to think all 300 people would continue to come to a new congregation. There would be a lot of pain involved because people would have to say good-bye to ‘their’ church. We would have to die to ourselves to become something new. (I think there is something biblical about that though) It would probably take years to prep the congregations, make plans, and take those baby steps forward until we were ready to make the move.

Land would be a major issue. Some of these congregations have graveyards and I am not sure what you do with those. Plus with the state of the Thomasville economy I don’t see selling the prosperities as a slam dunk either. What if these church facilities would turn into mission outposts? Maybe homeless shelters or soup kitchens, learning centers, affordable adult and childcare facilities, other things the city needs instead of another steeple.

There are even more issues when you get down to money, debt, power, and committees. Who knows if it would ever work? I wonder if this has ever been done before in other places in the nation and within United Methodist congregations? What I do know is that Thomasville is not the only small city out there with this issue, too many small congregations JUST making it. I am sure many other small cities in the Western North Carolina Conference, the state of NC, and heck all over the US have similar stories and situations.

I am not saying that small congregations are bad or that you cannot be a God loving, Jesus following congregation unless your average worship attendance is over 300. But we have to look at the fruitfulness of our congregations and the weight that the finance and facilities of these congregations are dealing with. Could more ministries be done in the name of Jesus if a church consolidation happened in Thomasville? If we pooled our resources together, instead of holding them within the walls of our 50-90 year old buildings, what could we do in the name of Jesus?

If we in the Western North Carolina Conference are to Follow Jesus, Make Disciples, and Transform the World, what are we willing to do to follow that calling, that mission? Does this live into the “Power of 3” vision our conference is currently in? Are we willing to just hope it all works out or are we willing to ask hard questions of our congregations, our cities, our districts and our conferences, and make the necessary changes to be fruitful disciples of Jesus Christ?

Church Consolidation: Part 1

After a conversation with a fellow minister in my city (Thomasville, NC) my mind has been stirring about possibilities. Let’s face it Thomasville is not a growing city. After Thomasville Furniture Company, and almost every other industry, decided it was cheaper and easier to make the furniture in China, the city has been hurting for jobs. Our unemployment rate is somewhere around 15%. It is estimated that our population is 25,000, which is 3,750 people out of work in our town.

Within this small city, or I should say zip code, there are 15 United Methodist Churches. Yes, 15. Now some are in the out beyond the city limits so we can take them out and that leaves us with 10. 10 within a 5 mile radius of each other. When I first moved here I given a reason why there were so many close together. Back in the early 1900s when many of these churches started people had to walk to the mills/factories to work. Thus churches sprang up in the neighborhood where these people lived. The church I serve has their original piece of property in rock tossing distance from two factories. (that is an actual measurement of distance, it just depends on who is throwing the rock) However we got where we are today, the truth is there are 10 churches within the city of Thomasville, but the question was raised does Thomasville need 10 United Methodist Churches?

Now this is a loaded question because what it does is automatically set up tons of questions. What churches should hang around? If you ‘consolidated’ some where would they be consolidated to? Would you simply shut some down and ask them to find other UM Churches to join? How many should be left open? What is the right number for our area? Then what do you do with the land/buildings/grave yards/parsonages, etc?

With these questions in my head I decided to do some research on these 10 churches within my zip code and tally up some stats. In the last five years (the stats referred to are between the years 2004-2008) there has been 58 less people worshiping in these congregations, that is -58. Some have seen growth in their average attendance, the highest being 39 additional worship attendees and the lowest being a -43. These are hard numbers to judge because my own church has seen a -8 turn in the last years but I personally know that during my time (starting mid 2007) I have kept detailed stats on worship attendance and the previous minister did not, so the 95 we averaged in 2004 is simply a guess. This may or may not be the case in other congregations and when I looked at the numbers I could tell that some where a little cushy.

These 10 churches have seen a net total of 67 new members over that same time period. The highest church received 58 more members and the lowest losing 18. The cause of this is tenuous but by looking at the stats provided it looks like death is a huge cause. One congregation lost 49 members to death and that was almost 10% of their membership. Others lost 12% of their membership and the lowest was 4%. If you are getting the sense here, many of these are aging congregations.

There is also some other interesting stats. The estimated salary for senior ministers (doesn’t include other staff or associates) in 2008 is $526,000 and the cost of healthcare and pension for 2010 (estimated off my personal amount) is $220,528. The cost of the senior ministers for these ten churches is estimated at $746,528. Three quarters of a million dollars between these ten churches go towards the senior minister and that minister’s benefits.

I do know some of the churches out there are not making it or if they are the conference apportionments are hurting because of it. In 2008 the average percentage of apportionments paid between these 10 churches is 66%. One church didn’t pay any apportionments and only two churches paid out at 100%. What this means is there are churches out there who cannot make their obligations and by looking at the stats some of them have not been doing so for years now. No wonder our conference has to make cuts every year and have people do two or three different job titles for the conference.

After looking at these numbers I am wondering if we are looking at only three different options for the churches within Thomasville. 1) Just let some churches die whether through euthanasia or by natural causes in the next 5-10 years, 2) Consolidate some churches and create a new church from these congregations, one that can and 3) Do nothing

The unwritten facts are, Thomasville doesn’t need 10 United Methodist Congregations anymore. We have cars and we can travel. The closest UMC is not even the one I serve! When you add up all the other churches too, Baptist, Wesleyans, Presbyterians, Church of God, etc. there are TONS of churches all competing of the 14% of Thomasvillians that is only who wake up and attend church on a regular basis, which is less than are out of work in the city. How will the UMC survive in this town and should we? Part II to come.