Sacred Bundles and Cows

Don’t make today’s innovations into tomorrow’s sacred cows. — Jeanie Daniel Duck
The Change Monster: The Human Forces That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change (New York: Crown Business, 2001), 263.*

My Pastor Parish Relations Committee and I recently went through a study together called Pastor and Parish.  It is an excellent study to help demonstrate what the PPRC is supposed to do and their purpose.  In this study it talks about something called the “Sacred Bundle.”  The “Sacred Bundle” is defined as “the congregational memories, taboos and traditions that define their church’s culture, but may not be readily apparent to a new pastor.” 
The Sacred Bundle is filled with the little things that make the congregation who they are.  Examples could be things like unwritten expectations like the Pastor always makes coffee for the Sunday School classes.  Or it could be that the offering plates were the only thing left after the church caught on fire in 1963.  Or the painting in the back of the church was the last one done by the matriarch before her passing.  It could be even emotional ties to events like July 4th BBQs or Christmas Eve 11:00pm worship services. 
The Sacred Bundle can be filled with glorious and meaningful things but it can also be filled with sacred cows.  The pastor and many times the congregations really don’t know what is in the Sacred Bundle until change starts to happen.  I think it takes at least two years to really start to understand what is in the Sacred Bundle, both the good and the bad.  A pastor almost needs two cycles of the Christian year, two Christmases and two Easters and everything after and in between, to fully understand the congregation.  For some congregations this process might take even longer.
It is only after truly understanding the Sacred Bundle that solid and lasting change can happen.  When you understand what is inside the bundle you can speak to the good parts and honor them and cherish them along with the congregation.  The bad sections, the sacred cows, you can speak to as well and start to discuss openly why they are there and if they need to be. 
However, one needs to be careful because as change occurs the Sacred Bundle changes as well.  Are you as the pastor setting things in that bundle that will build and nurture the congregation or are they simply sacred cows that will weigh them down in the future?  Do we remove congregational sacred cows and toss in our own?  Is the change we are offering the congregation fluid enough to go through its own change down the road?  Or do our egos as pastors get in the way because we see that specific change as our little baby or possession?

Jeanie Daniel Duck is right, “Don’t make today’s innovations into tomorrow’s sacred cows.”  Our job as pastors is to invoke, implement and invite change that will lighten, support, and build the Sacred Bundles within our congregation.  We cannot add more sacred cows.  True leadership through a time of transition and change is the willingness to admit if the change we desire has turned into a sacred cow and if so, are we willing to let it go?  We ask congregations to do it, but are we, as leaders, willing to do the same?

*a quote in Lovett H. Weems, Jr’s pdf called “50 Quotations to Help Lead Change in Your Church”

Knowing Everyone

The church I pastor has seen some significant growth in our congregation.  Over the last two years we have grown by 19% with membership and 20% in worship attendance.  Now, since we are a small church (currently averaging around 95 in worship) we wouldn’t make the Top 25 Fastest Growing Large United Methodist Churches, but I am starting to see some growing pains.

The most recent one I heard that has sparked my thinking.  I have started to hear “We don’t want our church to grow too big because we like to know everyone.”  It is true, as a person sits in a congregation with 95 people in it, they can know the name of everyone there.  But how much do they really ‘know them.’

The truth is, as their minister, I know many of them but there are others I don’t really know.  I know their name but I cannot tell you anything about their family history, their likes and dislikes, their children’s names or where they live.  I don’t know these things and I am the minister!  How well do we really know everyone in the church?

I understand what the underlining thought is though.  I understand this saying is a reflection that the current church is comfortable.  It is warm, welcoming, and people honestly care for one another.  Yet, if we pick apart the congregation, all that really happens with small groups.  People naturally lean towards certain demographical groups due to their age, life experiences, and shared views.  This isn’t bad and my congregation is very good being welcoming.  We don’t have major clicks.

But when I stepped back and look around, we have small groups within our small congregation.  These small groups are the ones where people feel welcomed and cared for.  It is the people they sit next to in the pew and the ones they talk to during the social time that make them feel like they know everyone..but we really don’t.

Change and growth are scary and as the pond gets bigger the big fish don’t seem as big anymore.  This all has social implications for a congregation and that can lead to fear and fighting growth.  I am aware of this and my first response is to remind them they don’t know as many people as they think but that response is abrasive.  I need to find out how to address the true nature of the comment, speak to the fear, comfort it, and refocus people on why a growing church is a good thing.

How have others dealt with this feeling within your congregations?  This isn’t something EVERYONE is feeling but it is something that will come up more and more as we continue to move towards the future God has in store for us.

Any advice is appreciated.

Attracting Millennials….thank you God I don’t have to wear skinny jeans!

Rachel Held Evans wrote a very great article at  (click here for the full article) about why the Millennial Generation is leaving the church.  Recent studies have shown that many young adults are heading to more traditional, high church worship because of the things missing from the hipster churches.  When asked how to attract more millennials many churches, pastors, and laity think it is about the ‘cool’ factor.  Rachel disagrees.  Below are two quick quotes that do a lot to sum her thoughts.
“But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.”
“You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”  (this one stung a little..okay…A LOT!)
What I read in her article was a relief for me.  Attracting young people, millennials, is not about doing A, B and C.  It is about authenticity.  Are you being authentic in your worship and in your missions.  I think she hit the nail on the head that Millennials have a highly sensitive BS meter.  They (personally I have one foot in the Millennial and GenX generations so I talk about both of them as ‘they’) can see right through masks many churches put up.  They can see authentic a mile away. 
Maybe what churches should do is stop worrying about the type of worship and simply learn to do what they do really well.  Instead of trying to be everything to everyone just be yourself, and be really great at it.  People are attracted and want to participate in authentic worship/missions/small groups/(insert other church functions), no matter if it is high, low or in between.
May we strive for authentic and not cool.  What is cool is always changing, authentic sticks around.

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.

Assess Your Leadership

In 2008 I wrote a post after reading a book by John Maxwell.  In the book, Developing the Leaders Around You, he gives 25 questions to assess the leadership around you.  As I am approaching the 4th quarter of my first year of this appointment, I stumbled on this post.  It is worth a read because it gives some keys to identifying great leaders verses emerging leaders.

Too often in the local church we place emerging leaders in places where great leaders are needed.  Emerging leaders have passion and a lot of heart but may not have all the skills needed to follow through with a project or task.  Especially in the UM system which demands working within a structure/polity, it may be too much for emerging leaders to tackle. 

The ability to name where leaders are in their growth is beneficial because it provides a way to name the abilities of your leadership.  There is nothing wrong with emerging leaders, but they need coaching.  Great leaders and even good leaders can be left alone to use their talents and gifts but guidance is needed for those honing their leadership abilities. 

As Chairpersons of the Nominations Committees of our churches, leadership assessment tools are great assets to have in our tool box.  Please read (link above) it can be enlightening. 

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.