May 2015

How Will We Measure Success in the Church?

United Methodists Ponder
Strategies for Survival
(We Can, Too)

I had an  uncle who was a United Methodist minister. He had a pastoral philosophy that went something like this: “Jesus is the answer. What is the question?”


He often said this in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but I’m pretty sure that it was truly a part of his faith.


I remembered him this week when I read about the United Methodists as they meet in advance of their 2016 General Conference.


At one planning meeting, held this week, Donald House, a lay member with a PhD in economics, warned financial planners that the next 15 years are pivotal to survival.


He predicted that unless things change soon, the denomination in coming decades will not have enough U.S. churches to pay for its connectional structures. Such structures include conferences, bishops, agencies, missions and international disaster response.


Read about it here.


The Methodists are struggling with the same problems facing all mainline churches. Their studied approach to current challenges is worth following.


The temptation as we all face these problems is to measure our success by our ability to fund national oversight. Following this temptation will speed our downfall.


The Church has always grown from little up. This is likely to be even more true today.


Changing World Calls for Changing Structure

Today’s Church structures were all created pre-internet. They helped us connect when connecting was expensive and a logistical challenge.


This is no longer true. Small churches, willing to use the internet to its fullest capabilities, can be big influencers—directly, without the national and international networks of the past.


Survival of out-dated structures should not be our mission. The struggle to support them beyond their usefulness may be a huge part of Church decline.


The road to survival may mean restructuring—even rewriting our governing documents. 


That’s a huge job. That’s what leaders are for.


Some points to notice from the Methodist’s planning: (return to this link for references)

This Methodist economist proposed a Benchmark Project to focus on developing funding for lay leadership. His solution for finding this funding is to turn to congregations—including congregations as small as 125 members. While our denomination focuses on down-sizing, this Methodist plan calls to double the number of “vital congregations.” Interesting! I wonder what their definition of ”vital” is!


Note also the term “culture of call,” which hints that they might see the concept of call reaching beyond the clergy.


This is long overdue. The Church has neglected the concept of call for a very long time—talking about it in broad terms but compartmentalizing it in practice. God calls clergy.


This limitation on God’s people serves two needs—control and measurability.


The controls and measures of the past will no longer work.


For example, the predecessor body of the ELCA forbade congregations from publishing. This concentrated the power of the press in its official publishing house (control). Congregations had to use the resources provided. Titles selected for publication came from vetted sources. Sales were the measure of success.

Today, it is impossible to stop people from publishing. Control is lost, but the potential to witness is enormous! So is the ability to measure. Online metrics are available by the minute!

What Are We Measuring?

Return for a moment to the economist’s warning.

Unless things change soon, the denomination in coming decades will not have enough U.S. churches to pay for its connectional structures.

We measure congregations by how well they support structure. Sounds good. But it can be crippling.


Concentrating on structure means this: The unstated primary mission of every congregation is to support a pastor. The secondary mission is to support the denomination. The biggest piece of the church budget pie goes to these two things. Mission is secondary. Connectedness is primary.


These connectional structures are growing increasingly archaic. Continuing to seek funding, just so hierarchy and agencies can continue what they have done in the past may be a waste of resources. These structures, even when well-run, are expensive! More than this, it may be blinding us from seeing better ways. The Church has a choice—preservation or innovation.


A Changing Reality

Congregations can now connect directly. This calls for changes in how we lead.


For example:

A regional office might have a communications department. In most cases, the communication department will act as a public relations office for the regional body. They will operate the online presence and communicate, mostly with pastors. They will address the needs of the regional body and its role in the national body. Congregations are supposed to be content to pay for services with little benefit.

A better use of communications dollars may be for the regional body to make sure each congregation has a modern communication network that connects with its community. They won’t be able to control this, but it is key to evangelism. As it is, very few congregations, even those with fancy web sites, have a clue how to use these tools. Clergy are woefully behind in these skills. Laity to rescue, if we dare!

Big May Not Be Better

There is efficiency in big. But there is recognition of mission in small.


A denominationally sponsored agency may deserve a great reputation in delivering services. The connection often is lost between congregations that fund services and the recipients. The acceptance of public funding makes the connection even weaker. The people behind the agencies are invisible. Their message is unheard.


The message behind providing service (that God is love) is best communicated the more hands-on the congregations can be in the delivery.


The old view is that these agencies need the congregations. But the opposite is also true. Congregations need these connections. Without these connections,  congregation have a difficult communicating their message—that God is love. Truth be told, they may even have trouble feeling their own message when they are viewed as little more than faithful funders.


Fortunately, connectedness was never easier!


The Methodists are correct that empowering the laity is key to success.


It may be how churches grew to support large national entities in the first place.


Jesus is the answer. Now, what is the question?

Watching Faith Come Alive

Something is happening in Rome. It’s news. True news.


Eyes are on the world of Catholicism, as they always have been, but now in a different way. We are less critical and—what is this unsettling feeling? Could it be envy?


All Protestants have roots in Catholicism, but we have an odd love/hate relationship—a team rivalry that continues with fading memory of how it began.


Excommunication was once a real part of our history. It was dreaded punishment. It meant being ostracized by most of society. Today, we remain separate by choice. We are severely fragmented even as we play with concepts of “full communion.” Nevertheless, differences that were deal-breakers centuries ago are no big deal today. We are less separated by doctrine than we are by the need to hang on to our little pockets of power and wealth.


Our early differences with the Roman church were real. Blood was spilled. Prison doors were locked. Dissenters fled Europe in droves.


Here we are today, living peacefully with people who within our lifetimes were perceived as “the others.” We are occasionally haunted by a nagging distrust. “What does loyalty to the Pope mean?” we once asked of those running for office. And yet, both secular and religious leaders are drawn to Rome, seeking photo opportunities with the pope, an odd source of validation.


We’ve been watching as outsiders for a long time—more curious than envious.


But suddenly things are different. We, born of the Reformation, are watching a reformer.


We see a leader who cares less about power, maybe because he knows he is secure. Nevertheless, we sense his motivations are sincere. He leads by example. Bit by bit, and with amazing rapidity considering the track record of his predecessors, he is filling in the ruts, correcting the course.


We’ve watched him break down the system that collected offerings from the faithful to build palaces for clergy. He demanded transparency and professionalism from those who manage the business side of church. He sent them back to school! He is holding leaders accountable for looking the other way while crimes were committed. Heads are rolling— bloodless but decisive. He makes it look easy.


Last week, came the welcome news that the imposed five-year oversight (Lutherans would call it involuntary synodical administration) of the American nuns was ending two years early. It was an embarrassment that it was ever imposed—just as it is in our denomination. Why do church leaders do this? Because they can.


Rarely is it admitted that power, wrongfully used, is a mistake. Decades or centuries of cover-ups are preferred to simple apologies. But here we have a leader pulling the plug on bullying. He could have let the disgrace continue for two more years. What’s two years? It would save face for those imposing control. They could release the reins with positively spun news releases. But this pope called a halt to it. Enough!


Still, it couldn’t have been easy for the sisters. We know from experience how condescension feels. There is something to admire in this, too. The sisters have humbly turned a humiliating debacle into a teaching moment.


Now we Protestants stand on the sidelines and cheer a pope who shows leadership we wish we could see within our own ranks.


This unsettling feeling? It’s not envy. It is hope.

Why Church Revival Is Better
than Church Replanting

shutterstock_130314704Church replanting is once again on denominational minds. I follow several blogs presenting the concept as if it is the greatest news since the ladies at the tomb shouted “He is risen.”

In fact, some subscribers to this ministry plan liken Church Replanting to the Resurrection—and that’s where the whole concept gets derailed.


Let’s put that analogy to bed once and for all. Church replanting is not akin to the Resurrection.


Christ died, once and for all people. He rose, once and for all people. There is no need for any of us to replicate this act of God—even if we could!


True believers don’t know the word “hopeless.”


Restarting ministry with a human judgement that an existing faith community is detrimental to the Church is not playing Christianity’s strongest suit—that God values each one. Remember the imagery God gave us through Jesus—the pauper woman who puts pennies in the offering and the lost sheep, to name two. Then there’s that little “toxic” guy, who climbed a tree.


The theories and practices of Church Replanters, born of trying economic factors, have been tried and tested for the last 20 years at least. The methodology was a cornerstone of the Ministry Transformation movement. The theories already have a track record—a dismal one in some cases. It is too soon to tell if any successes are sustainable. A lot of the transformational efforts end up in court!


The Problem Is Focus

Church Replanters go wrong from the start because of focus.


They are focused on church, not people. They are replanting structure. The successes they seek are feathers in the denominational cap. Pastors will have jobs. Church Replanters will be in demand. Blogs stats will spike. Books will be written and sold. Speaking engagements will be booked.


Early and measurable success is important to church replanters. They want to sweep in, wave a magic wand, and move on. They are not in it for the long-term. Their expertise is in the replanting—not in the followup or in the long-term maintenance. Failure can be attributed to leaders that follow—maybe the clergy, surely the laity.


Entire communities are asked to buy in—lock, stock and barrel—with no guarantee that the concessions they make will have success. Church Replanters admit that they often fail. The people in the community will be left to pick up the pieces regardless of the success or failure of the Church Replanter.  They will lose their investment in property and their accumulated offerings.


Failure is OK. Necessary even. We learn from mistakes.


When Church Replanters fail it is permanent. There is no Plan B.


Church Replanters have created rules that ensure that they stand to benefit from either success or failure. Most are well aware that Replanting is far from guaranteed. In the Replanting effort, the spoils of failure are pre-allocated to the sponsoring body of the Replanter. Motives are therefore suspect, especially when denominations are struggling.


The Premise of Church Replanters

The basic premise of Church Replanters is that they must start fresh. Old members must leave. Property deeds and financial assets must be relinquished to them. They need a clean slate, they say. What they want is total control—without dealing with the intricacies of ministry. No past. No heritage.


There is no way to do this nicely.


First, the rules of many denominations forbid it. Most Protestant denominations operate with congregational polity. Congregations have rights to property, financial oversight, and even a big say in mission strategy. Pastors are called as servant leaders.


Church Replanters may have to sidestep the rules. Messy! So eager to be rid of the distractions of the past, they’ve created new distractions!


Denominations end up in court with their congregations — an unfair playing field for laity. The denomination will claim separation of church and state. Laity within the same denomination have no such rights and are at a severe disadvantage. The personal cost will be high.


Denominations prime the pump with carefully chosen Bible verses.


The favorite Bible reference is  Mark 2:22

And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”

This is a misuse of scripture. Among Christians, it is the same wine. Church Replanters have no NEW message.


God loves because he first loved us. Christ died so that we might be closer to God. That’s the message. It applies to old and new members alike.


God does not alienate, exclude, or reject any believer.


Scripture tells us this in the first sixteen verses of Matthew 20. In this parable, the owner of the vineyard pays the new laborers the same wages as the old. The old and new laborers are of equal importance. The temptation when reading this parable is to focus on the benefits to new laborers, but it can also be comforting to the veterans.


Let’s look at another verse from Mark.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. Mark 9:42

Make no mistake! Church Replanters who insist that existing members leave and stay away cause believers to stumble.


Church Replanters have given themselves permission to not care for the existing sheep. They are focused on implementing their view of success. They aren’t there long enough to see problems develop. They chalk up a success and move on to the next replanting.


What happens to the members who have been excluded? The Church can easily ignore them. Laity never had an effective voice in the Church. Now they have none. There will be no follow up. Leaders have already made it clear they don’t care.


The focus is on the new members, attracted as much to the new pastor as to the message. How long will these relationships last? The example of long-time members who are likely to have experienced many transitions could be valuable! But church replanters have silenced them. Time will tell.


Church Replanters Need to Care

Yes, it is work. Yes, it is time-consuming. Yes, it is vital. And biblical!


Church Replanters imagine the unwanted members will just fade away. Wrong!


The evicted members still live in the community where the Church Replanter hopes to build a new following.  Old church members are sure to encounter new church members. Will they share the fact they were excluded? Will they share their hurt? What do you think?

  • The excluded people include families. The reach of families is difficult to measure.
  • Excluding members causes pain. Pain divides families.
  • Fingers are pointed. The denomination started the finger-pointing. But that’s only the start. Husbands and wives squabble over what they might have done differently. Children are lost. They are locked out too.
  • Hurting people look for answers. They feel bad. Their self-confidence is in the pits. They are sitting ducks for the charlatans of ministry.


The denomination they may have supported all their lives doesn’t care. They are focused on replicating the church of the past for as long as they can.


Writing from Experience with Church Replanting

As I mentioned, Church Replanting depends on laity having little voice.


Our congregation experienced Church Replanting implemented by its boldest proponents.


We have a voice. Here is our experience.


Our congregations was aging in the late 1990s when our denomination put us on death row. “You’ll die a natural death in ten years,” our bishop predicted and made no pastors available. (A decade if neglect is part of the strategy.)

We got by the same way many small churches get by—lay efforts and supply pastors.

We were succeeding — turning things around! It was now 2006. Our aging members from the 1990s were mostly gone, but we now had young members and many children. Six times the number of members when our denomination had given up on us!

We were self-sufficient with dreams, a plan, and a healthy endowment when our regional body suggested Replanting. We questioned the motives. Our endowment and property seemed to be the key attraction. The regional body, stuck in the past, still thought of our congregation as aging.

During the very little discussion that was allowed, our newly elected bishop presented her crowning achievement. In her first months as bishop, she replanted a church in a neighborhood outside of our city. She told us how well it went. The few remaining elderly members turned the property over to the regional body. There was a closing service. Within a couple of months the regional body reopened the church under a new name and under their control. The neighborhood was canvassed and about 170 members signed on.

This success was fresh and exciting for her. She wanted to replicate the process in at least six other congregations.

We were the first on her list.

Our situation was not the same. We were already on a significant growth track. We rejected the regional body’s plan.

“Thank you, but no” was not an acceptable answer. Our land and endowment funds were taken from us anyway. The process was hurtful and ugly and included six years of law suits. Pride and power became dominating factors.  Replanting was quickly forgotten.

We were evicted from our property. That was supposed to be the end of us. But we started visiting other churches. We visited 80 churches over three years before we visited the church that had been held up as the model we were to follow. We did not know what to expect of this now four-year-old congregation.

We entered an empty sanctuary. There were three musicians practicing, but not another soul in sight. We were on time according to the sign on the narthex wall. We waited 20 minutes and left. I checked the parish reports and learned that the 177 charter members had dwindled. The average Sunday morning attendance was now 30.  The original replanter had moved on to work in the regional offices. The grand success did not survive the transition to a new husband and wife team ministry.


Is this typical? I don’t know. The Church Replanters I follow online repeat the same caveat—“our efforts may fail.”


Thinking Long-term Survival

shutterstock_97902329It will take a couple more decades to measure the track record to see if replanting is sustainable through ministry transitions. I suspect that the modeling of the faithful they evicted, the people who have experienced ministry change, good times and bad, is more valuable than Replanters give credit.


A lot depends on the definition of success.


Here is something to remember. Laity can be planters, too!


Teach by example.

Don’t Be Boring, the Pope Says!

I was talking to a friend the other day. He made a similar observation I had been sharing with friends.

He was sure of it. So was I.

Pope Francis must be reading our blogs!

One by one, Pope Francis is tackling subjects we’ve been writing about for the last four years.

  • He asks for accountability among church leaders.
  • He asks for transparency as administrators. Where does the money go?
  • He is looking more kindly toward the American Sisters who had so riled the previous pope. The church has better things to do than dictate mission priorities to women who have pledged their lives to Christian service.
  • He is reining in the clergy who shamelessly amass fortunes at the expense of parishioners.
  • He is demanding priestly behavior.

And now he is addressing those newly ordained to speak from the pulpit.

Speak heart to heart. Don’t be boring.

I’ve been writing for a while that, at least in the way it plays out in thousands of congregations, the time and money spent on supplying a sermon each week is poor use of congregational resources—especially when listeners can’t remember a word by the time they reach the parking lot.

Pope Francis gives good advice.

We listeners know when the message is not heartfelt.

We cringe when the message is written to impress with obscure scholarly references.

We wonder if it is worth coming back when there is no connection between the message and our lives.

Thanks, Pope Francis. I’m sure more people read your blog than mine!