November 2011

Can Hierarchical Churches Survive?

The Lutheran Experience

In the Church there are two types of churchwide structure — congregational polity in which congregations maintain rights to manage their own affairs and property and hierarchical in which an umbrella leadership has rights to manage outpost ministries. Denominations tend to be one or the other but some find themselves on the fence. They started out as one or the other but have drifted in practice. Confusion has resulted in some cases. Major legal battles have resulted in others.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (2×2’s roots) is a denomination formed in the 1980s by a merger of three Lutheran bodies. At the time of the merger, the polity was clear. Congregations owned and controlled their own property. Laity and clergy were equal partners in ministry. Synods existed to serve, not manage.

Leaders in predecessor bodies were called presidents. The new body decided to change the name to “bishop” for only one reason — to boost status in ecumenical dialog among denominations that were more familiar with “bishops.” Only the name was to change. Their role in the church was to remain the same — a servant leader.

It was not long before our “presidents” began to assume the authority of “bishops” in other denominations. Clergy and laity have come to accept the change. The further removed they become from the memory of true Lutheran polity, the less is questioned. The Lutheran church today finds itself in conflict. Governing documents become less recognized with each unchallenged infraction.

Leaders vs Managers

The resulting conflicts parallel similar challenges faced by the business world in the much discussed topic: Leaders vs Managers.

Congregations look to their denominational bodies for leadership but often what they get is attempts at management. Congregations are frustrated that people so distant from their situation are so ready to tell them how to do ministry in their own communities with their own resources. Pastors in the field  are forced to balance allegiance to bishop with responsibility to parish.

In severe cases, denominations are forcing closure against the will of the congregation and laying total claim to the assets. This has intensified as the economy strains the resources of all.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review can shed some light on this shift from congregational polity to ecclesial hierarchy.

In the article, “First, Let’s Fire All the Managers,” Gary Hamel provides a description of hierarchical business leadership as inefficient, cumbersome and costly. This is true in the church, too.

  • Hierarchies create expense.
    A boss oversees supervisors who oversee managers who oversee foremen who oversee workers, creating layer after layer of expense. Management becomes the job of everyone but the lowest level workers! (ELCA constitutions are written the other way around!) Congregations cannot afford this structure. This does not automatically translate to inability to fulfill ministry, but this conclusion is often reached by hungry denominational bodies.
  • Hierarchies lead to poor decision-making.
    “The typical management hierachy increases the risk of large, calamitous decisions.” Hamel explains that as the power of the hierarchy grows, the ability of the lower ranks to challenge their decisions wanes. When power becomes incontestable, expect royal screwups, he warns. You do not have to look far in either the business or religion section of the newspaper for evidence. This may be the root of some of the challenges the ELCA is facing today exemplified by a 10% exodus of its congregations and escalating court battles.
  • Hierarchies are sluggish.
    As a hierarchy becomes more complex, initiatives and responses become more difficult. (Remember the Middle Ages from which Protestantism emerged. It was the pinnacle of the era of church hierarchy!) Managers can spend more time protecting authority than reacting to ideas presented by the lower ranks. Add to that the power to kill ideas that might threaten their own and the result is status quo at best — decline, conflict or demise at worse.
  • Hierarchies inhibit innovation.
    When lower level workers have little voice they must work harder to implement even simple decisions. Volunteer church workers become less valuable as they become demoralized and lose incentive to improve either their own status or their congregational mission.

Our Ambassadors have encountered this quiet desperation of the faithful. They have high hopes for their congregations but cannot find a way to make it happen. They are fighting an uphill battle with leadership claiming powers to dictate. Dictating managers are finding themselves with fewer people to manage — but they expect the same salaries and benefits.

That’s something the church hasn’t grasped: Participation of the faithful is optional.

All of these issues were faced by Lutherans before. We hashed out the relationships we wanted to have 500 years ago. We revisited the issues 200-300 years ago as Lutherans began to populate the New World.

Apparently, the polity of our faith requires vigilance which is much more difficult in congregations that have dwindling parish education programs. Newcomers, unacquainted with our history, can easily accept attempts at adopting hierarchical leadership. In the resulting vacuum of tradition and knowledge, laity with firm roots in Lutheran tradition can be seen as trouble-makers. In reality they are protecting their traditions which have been tested over centuries and which are protected in their founding documents.

Lutherans must return to their heritage.

Children in Church: Where have all the children gone?

2×2 visits churches. In the last 15 months we have visited 35 congregations — 34 Lutheran and one Presbyterian. Many of the topics we address on our web site are developed around observations made during our visits.

One thing we have noticed almost across the board is that children are not well represented in worship — even in some of the larger churches. Pre-teens and teens are even rarer. This should be alarming to churchwide organizations as this will surely impact the church within 20 years. We suspect it is already impacting ministry with most churches experiencing decline.

A review of ELCA Trend reports reveals that many churches have little in the way of Sunday School programming. We counted 36 churches within a 15-mile radius of our own that have no Vacation Bible School. We have also noticed that modern VBS programming is geared to the very young and for only five days in the summer. Opportunities for Christian education seem to wane from third grade on! What this means is that most children will have only the dimmest memories of ever having any religious education. They are not likely to remember their experience as something valuable they want their own children to have.

Perhaps we are sensitive to this because our own congregation — before we were evicted from our property — was top-heavy with children. It was not unusual for children to outnumber adults in our worship services. Children were also very active in worship throughout the service. Our visits to congregations larger than ours with no children or only a few very young children is a new experience for us.

As we visited, we have noticed many approaches to children in worship, including several styles of children’s sermons, children’s choirs, etc. We want to explore every aspect of children in worship and explore the potential for enhancing the worship experience for a new generation.

On Thursday we will launch a new series, “Children in Worship.” We will explore the topic and we invite your participation. This is a serious challenge for today’s church and it will take many heads to meet it.

Categories Give Blogs Structure and Direction

Categories are collections of content that relate to a designated topic.

A previous post explored how “categories” help readers wade through pages of valuable content. They can also be a valuable tool for you as author.

If you are like most people, you started your blog with just a couple of posts in mind. Categories were the last thing you were thinking about. Now, several months later, you have a blog with a dozen or more posts and your interests are beginning to broaden.

Scroll through your posts. You are probably finding some of your best content buried, requiring a dedicated reader to scroll for seconds to find them. Placing them in a category is the fastest and easiest way to make your older posts more prominent.

Look again through your blog posts. Do you see any recurring themes? Make a list. These are your categories.

You do not want to create a category for only one post. In your mind you are just starting to write on the topic. To readers it looks like you have no passion or authority on that topic. So hold off until you are sure you can offer your readers more than a fleeting opinion.

Creating categories becomes a useful planning tool. You will begin to understand your blog and its structure. This may give you insights about your blogs future and help you plan future posts.

Here are the steps to take when creating categories and developing your blog into a useful resource.

  • Review your content.
  • List the topics you are writing about.
  • If you see a topic that is of great interest to you, but you’ve posted only one article, pull out your editorial calendar and brainstorm more topics for that category. Hold off on creating a category until you have at least five posts to add.
  • Your review of categories might identify a dominant topic. This could lead you to create a separate page for that topic or even to create a separate blog.
  • Once you’ve identified a few categories, plan for how you will continue to address each topic. You might want to address each topic every week. Soon you may find a structure. Write about topic A on Mondays and Topic B on Wednesdays, for example. You might want to add a special feature such as a poll on Fridays. Soon you will have a PLAN!
  • Review your editorial calendar and make sure each category is regularly represented.
  • While you are at it, brainstorm new content ideas for each category you’ve identified.

As you develop your blog, you will want to start publishing newsletters, white papers and perhaps even ebooks. If you’ve carefully maintained your blog categories, you’ll be able to easily identify content to adapt to other purposes. A good bit of the organizational work for larger ventures will be done!

Ambassadors Visit St. Michael’s, Unionville (Kennett Square)

St. Michael, UnionvilleSecond time’s the charm. Last week we set out to visit St. Michael, Unionville, and ran into multiple detours and road blocks. We returned this week and experienced no problems.

St. Michael’s appears to be a thriving congregation that relocated to a 7-acre rural lot about 25 years ago and has undergone some major expansion projects since. We entered an unusual sanctuary, much wider than long. Attendance on this Thanksgiving weekend was probably a little over 100, although we didn’t tally.

Their worship was traditional with an LBW liturgy. A hostess explained after the service that the choir had a week off in preparation for the busy holiday season to come. Two members sang a beautiful duet. They introduced one new Advent hymn and used several other more traditional Advent hymns.

Their new associate pastor gave a nice sermon and children’s sermon and blessed the work of their knitters and crocheters who had made prayer shawls. They seemed to be in the midst of a stewardship drive — seems to be that time of year!

We also heard a talk from a son of the congregation involved in mission work in Mexico. He talked about taking an ethnocentric approach to spreading the Gospel and noted that their were 8000 ethnic groups or “nations” waiting to hear the Good News. He claimed that the Gospel is often best shared in setting geared to individual ethnic traditions. We talked with him extensively after the service and shared our multicultural approach.

We talked to several members after church and learned a good deal about their ministry experiences.

We inquired about their new web site project which we had reviewed before attending.

We had a delightful visit and enjoyed sharing our story and learning from theirs.

Blog Categories Help Readers Find Your Posts

If your church has a blog — and you should — you will encounter the option in blogging software to list your blogposts in a “category.”

Categories are helpful organizational tools for three reasons (at least):

  1. Categories give search engines more opportunity to find your blog.
  2. Categories help readers wade through dozens of blog posts.
  3. Categories can guide you as you develop your blog’s mission and help you keep content balanced and on topic.

Using Categories is totally optional, the option becomes desirable…and soon necessary to maintain sanity!

Categories can be described as a Table of Contents in a cyber sense. Unlike a book, this Table of Contents is not linear. Readers do not move from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2. Instead, categories organize the content in an interwoven tapestry. You, the author, get to choose where the information goes. It can go in both Chapter 1 and 2, and maybe even Chapter 30!

You can add a single post to any number of categories. For example, a 2×2 post on Social Media Outreach might be placed in a “Social Media Ministry” category AND a “Church Growth” category AND a “Transformational Ministry” category. Be judicious as you decide which categories to place your blogs. It defeats the purpose of Categories to place every post in every category!

Placing your blog in a Category does not remove it from the daily blog feed. It adds it to the collection of topics on the same subject. A reader can click on the Category and read all the other posts relating to the same topic without scrolling through posts which are not of immediate interest.

Placing your posts in a Category gives them longevity. As a blogger you may be writing on several topics of interest in no particular order or changing topics from day to day. Your list of blog posts will grow quickly if you are serious about publishing. You may have great posts on an important topic that you published months before. If you do not place it in a Category, it will be buried.

Using categories helps your readers focus on the content of most interest to them. Once you have a dozen or so posts, take time to create a set of categories and assign each blog post accordingly. Each new post can be assigned a category before posting.

Now sit back and feel satisfied. You’ve helped search engines find your content. You’ve helped readers find the content that interests them.

Tomorrow’s post will show how that same few seconds you spent placing your post in a category also helps you!

Redeemer Faces Adversity with Thanksgiving

Redeemer (2×2’s sponsoring church) is in its third year of exile from the ELCA. As we approach Thanksgiving we remember that this sacred national holiday grew from our nation’s darkest hour — the Civil War.

Our bitter and divisive national conflict ultimately unified our nation and made us stronger. Nevertheless, we wonder what the thousands who died at the hands of brothers might have accomplished given four years of peace and nurture.

We do not know what will grow from our own civil war. This Thanksgiving, we reflect on what we have learned. We have learned that:

  • church community can thrive without buildings. Buildings are tools for ministry but not requisite.
  • church community does not depend on clergy. Redeemer remains grateful for the handful of unnamed clergy who have provided occasional pastoral care.
  • the secular community is often more helpful and spiritual than the Church. Secular organizations of East Falls have shared generously. Churches have been silent.
  • our quietest members sometimes have the most strength given circumstances that draw upon them.
  • individuals are more likely to take action than organizations. The support we have received has been from individual Christians, not organized Christianity.
  • we are not alone in our struggles, but it has fallen upon us to bear the standard.
  • Christian community can reach beyond traditional definitions as we begin to attract support from around the world.
  • the difference between talking our faith and living our faith. We encounter that difference each week.
  • it is possible to live our faith, but we cannot count on church leaders for guidance, encouragement or conscience.

This Thanksgiving — our third since being excommunicated from the Lutheran Church and evicted from our property — we give thanks to our anonymous supporters who have contributed generously to our defense. God bless you and your ministries.

Most important, we give thanks to God 

  • for the strength He has given us to bear attacks from our brothers and sisters in Christ.
  • for the lives of those who passed through our community before us, setting examples.
  • for the lives of the named saints whose struggles teach us that the Way is not easy.
  • for the sacrifice of His Son, which makes our sacrifices seem insignificant.
  • for the challenges that have taught us things about ourselves.
  • for the opportunities which have led us to new ministries we might not have nurtured had we been focussed on the more traditional ministry.
  • for scriptures which mean so much more when facing hardship.
  • for His continued protection and love.

2×2 is taking a two-day Thanksgiving break. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

10 Reasons to Question the Wisdom of Interim Ministry

Interim Ministry is a fairly modern trend of assigning a short-term minister to a parish that has recently ended a relationship with one pastor and intends to call a new pastor. The process is described in a similar manner by various denominations as a time to minister to the people and help them identify ministry objectives.

One denomination described the interim period as a buffer between a congregation and its relationship with a former pastor and expectations of a new minister. One said, “The interim minister makes the necessary changes in a congregation. No reason to have the congregation get mad at the new minister. Let the interim take the heat.”

The days of a congregation enjoying the leadership of a single pastor for decades may be numbered.

This sounds like a good idea on the surface, but there is a danger that the practice could serve less noble purposes. Our recent visits to 34 congregations found a surprising percentage engaged in some stage of interim ministry. Some were just beginning the process. Some had been in interim status for more than a year. One had a new interim at our first visit and we learned a few weeks later that another interim was stepping in. “It didn’t work out,” the newer pastor explained.

Both the number of interim ministries we encountered and their length raised questions. We do not claim to have the answers but the questions could be important.

  1. What other aspects of our lives have such long fallow periods? We change presidents and mayors, jobs (and even spouses) without months of interim work. An argument might be that presidents and mayors have long campaigns before they are chosen for their jobs. That leads us to consider the call process.
  2. Perhaps it is the call process that needs changing? With the average length of pastorates fairly short — less than seven years — an interim ministry can be a frequent occurrence, adding to instability. The scenario could be 12-18 months of interim ministry, 12 months of honeymoon, three years of ministry, 12-18 months of interim ministry, etc. (Revolving door). While pastors may feel that the interim has eased the transition process, the lay point of view is that the process starts all over again every time the face in the pulpit changes — interim or not. The call process, at least in our denomination, can be unsettling. Candidates are given every opportunity to learn about the congregation, while the names of candidates are withheld from the congregation until a sample sermon is delivered. The approval process is often based on little more — yet congregations expect so much more!
  3. Shouldn’t congregations undergo a constant process of self-examination? If ministry is to be effective, congregations will change constantly. Communities also change quickly.
  4. Shouldn’t all pastors have skills to help congregations assess goals and strategize?
  5. Does the interim process change the role of lay representatives? Who does the interim pastor report to and work for — the congregation or the regional body? In several of the churches we visited, the interim pastor announced that he or she would be making a report to the bishop that week. There was no mention of any lay involvement.
  6. Wouldn’t it be easier to train one leader to handle change than to try to work with dozens of congregation members?
  7. Is the interim process good use of congregational resources? Congregations pay good money to the interim for a very short-term investment. If this is a period where ministry concentrates on self-analysis, that translates to a long period of time when resources are spent on activity that is not, at least for the time being, outreach-oriented. Are visitors during the interim going to be attracted to a congregation in long-term transition?
  8. Do interim ministries meet the career needs of pastors and administrative needs of regional bodies more than the ministry needs of congregations? Interim pastors are making short-term commitments. Short-term commitments are safer entry points for the many seminary candidates entering ministry as a second career. Interim pastors don’t have to consider the hassles of moving and relocating families. It’s an attractive opportunity for pastors who don’t want to make changes in their lives that may not match the career objectives of their spouses. But the congregations are expected to change!
  9. Do interim pastorates change the political balance? An overlooked consequence of the over-dependence on interim pastors is the shift of power away from the congregation. Interim pastors have close ties and loyalty to the denominational body and its current leadership. When a high percentage of congregations have interim ministries, that has the potential to skew the decisions of representative governing bodies.
  10. Why should the interim process, led by experts in interim ministry, take more than three months?

Ambassadors Visit Lutheran-Sponsored Home

The Ambassadors set out with the best of intentions to visit a church which supported a Lutheran Retirement Home where a friend of our congregation lives. Circumstances conspired against us. The Philadelphia Marathon blocked major roadways crossing the Schuylkill and we ended up being close to on time, but we don’t like being late.

Instead, we took a tour of Luther House in West Grove, Pa. Our friend has lived there for seven years and enjoys it immensely. She led our tour.

We also enjoyed a breakfast and planned our Christmas worship. We do not look forward to being locked out of our church for a THIRD Christmas, but we make the best of things. Redeemer remains a faithful congregation called to action — not just prayer.

Ministries in Decline — The Boat’s Getting Crowded

The year was 1998. A few representatives from SEPA Synod Council were meeting with Redeemer congregation.

They had just made their first attempt to close our church and seize our assets. Working with the congregation council behind the backs of the congregation, they had convinced leaders to resign en masse to create constitutional grounds (where none existed) for SEPA to step in.

On cue, seven council members tossed their resignations (drafted by a synod staff person) onto the table. A synod representative scooped them up and declared “synodical administration.” But three council members refused to be part of the scheme. With the help of two anonymous pastors, they re-established the congregational council — following the constitution — and successfully challenged SEPA’s plot.

SEPA’s interference damaged our church and the network of friendships that characterizes all congregations. The council members who had worked secretly with Synod were disgraced. They left Redeemer with their families. Some had been at Redeemer for decades. We learned that our Synod rarely measures the personal cost of their actions.

There was also damage to our congregation’s reputation. The conflict challenged giving and our ability to attract leadership. Branded.

At this meeting, a synod council member (a pastor from a neighboring church) started to talk to our members about statistics of small churches, patiently explaining that we couldn’t survive.

We pointed out that what congregations in the heart of the city were currently experiencing would become problematic for churches in outer city neighborhoods and suburbs within a decade or so. It was time to find answers.

A decade or more has passed and the churches we visit today on the edges of Philadelphia look remarkably like Redeemer looked in 1998, including the congregation of the pastor who was lecturing us 14 years before. Most congregations are experiencing serious decline, often in double digits.

We are learning through our Ambassador visits, that even suburban churches with fairly healthy worship attendance face financial challenges. Two of the largest congregations we have visited have liquid assets very similar to Redeemer’s and are carrying a similar debt load. A remarkable statistical difference is that Redeemer was growing in membership and attendance while TREND reports show that the larger churches are in decline.

If so many congregations are failing, why are we pointing fingers? Time and resources would be better spent looking for answers.

One thing stands out from our experience. The trustees in 2008 reported to Synod Assembly that we had a vibrant outreach ministry, but it was not run in cooperation with Synod’s Mission Director. In other words, Redeemer was growing without Synod’s help!

There is NO requirement for congregations to run evangelism efforts past the Synod for approval. That goes against Lutheran polity.

The persistent attacks from our denomination have given Redeemer a valuable perspective. We actively seek answers to modern ministry challenges. This IS Lutheran polity.

We recovered from the 1998 damage and were again growing in 2007 when Bishop Burkat, facing serious Synod financial challenges, decided to evict our congregation from our property, effectively excommunicating us. As we approach 2012, without a building or much in the way of money, we continue our ministry and have a glimpse of where churches must go to thrive in a dramatically different world. We continue to grow in ways we did not anticipate as we create a worldwide community, forging invigorating intra- and cross-denominational bonds.

Congregations must be encouraged to find their own answers to ministry challenges. The prescribed way — by every statistical measure — is not working!

14 Reasons Congregations Should Avoid Social Media Ministry

Maybe Social Media Ministry isn’t right for you. There are plenty of good reasons to avoid it. :-)

  1. Religion is a mystery. Let’s keep it that way!
  2. Let people form their opinions about our religion from the popular media. They do a pretty good job!
  3. Social media allows for too much interaction between clergy and laity. It’s best to maintain boundaries.
  4. We do not want to be known by our works. It’s a theological thing.
  5. Why monitor our image? We have a great reputation. No one could possibly have a beef with us.
  6. What if people who don’t know anything about us take cheap shots online? So what! Everybody knows the truth. No one will pay any attention to them.
  7. We want the people who join our church to know as little as possible when they join. That way we can tell them what’s what! We don’t want their ideas to mess up something good.
  8. Our congregation is a close-knit family. We are busy helping each other and don’t have time for other people’s problems.
  9. Pen and ink were good enough for St. Paul. No need to make any changes there.
  10. We think it is a bad idea to reach more people with the message of God’s love. What’s in it for us?
  11. If we start writing with other people in mind, they may get the idea that we care more than we really do.
  12. We can’t afford to serve any more people than we already serve. It’s just not in the budget!
  13. Who has time for this Social Media nonsense? Our current members keep us plenty busy as it is.
  14. Everything is great just the way it is.