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I recently asked some leaders what their biggest challenge was in leading their teams. One person wrote:

The biggest challenge I face is finding volunteers to step up and lead or help.

Here’s some reflections I offered:

Recruits for Ministries

Technical fixes

  • offer time-limited, clearly defined, small tasks 
  • change the story, e.g. from “we need someone to volunteer to help with the Sunday School” to “there is an opportunity here for you to impact a child’s life”
  • don’t appeal to people’s sense of duty; invite them to offer their gifts. I use the “Go with the guilt” principle. Sometimes, when people are asked to do something, they say ‘yes’, even though they would like to say ‘no’. They say ‘yes’ because they think that they will feel guilty for not helping out where needed. Then, they get angry and they resent the time and energy the task is taking. I invite them to ‘go with the guilt’ and just say ‘no’. Do what brings you joy and delight. 
  • limit the number of ministries that each person can take on (one or two at the most: one major, one minor):  less assertive people often don’t offer their help if someone else is already doing it
  • offer ‘apprenticeships’ — pair a less-experienced person with an experienced person so that the less-experienced person can learn and gain confidence in their capacity to do the task. In this way, ‘volunteers’ become ‘leaders’, their creativity is unleashed, commitment strengthened, confidence developed
  • celebrate the work people are doing; help them find and articulate the holy significance of what they are doing. Send letters to them reflecting on the holy significance of what they are doing; invite people to share their experiences of God’s presence and work during worship, in newsletters, in special publications.

Adaptive changes

Turn the notion of ‘church’ upside down.

The model of ‘church’ we have inherited delivers projects and programmes that require ‘volunteers’ and committee members. People are recruited to fill positions that 

  • may or not be clearly defined 
  • may or may not have a clear end-date 
  • may or may not fit their gifts, passions, interests or skills.

Missional church focuses on developing relationships — with God, with each other, with the ‘neighbourhood’. People aren’t recruited to fit the needs of the structures as much as the structures are shaped to nurture and develop the Spirit -driven gifts and calls of the people so that they are equipped for mission in the world. 

It assumes:

  • the the mission is God’s and God will provide the gifts and people that are needed to fulfill the mission. (Develop your capacity to pray and trust Psalm 23:1 —  “The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need” — not everything I want but everything I need to accomplish the work God has given me to do)
  • the work of the church is to be open to what it is that the Spirit is asking of its people; to be open to where the Spirit is leading the people in mission. This means developing the capacities of the people for prayer, for listening and for discernment; developing eyes to see what God is supplying and the ways in which God is already working
  • you need to develop the person before you develop the ministry. “Change happens at the pace of relationship”. The process/programme/project are only tools for developing the relationship with the people. This includes allowing people to ‘drop the ball’ and not rushing in to cover for them. If you always pick up the responsibilities that they drop, you infantilize them. The point is not to run a successful programme; the point is to develop people and relationships
  • ministry happens through collaborative teams of ‘ministers’ (defined as all the baptized people of God) vs. hierarchical ministry offered by paid professional ministers who look for lay people to help them do the ministry or accomplish an agenda. I have been working with a group of lay people who are engaged in developing their capacity to respond to the Holy Spirit and who have been experimenting with new ways of participating in God’s mission. A member of their congregation said to them, “Why are you doing this? Isn’t that what we pay the minister to do? Why not leave it to her”. I reflected back to them, “You have been experiencing God’s presence and work in all sorts of relationships, both inside and outside the church. You have been struck with awe as you have been part of holy moments of God’s grace in other people’s lives and in your own. You get to be in sacred experiences. Why would you want to leave all of that to be only the experience of the ordered minister?”
  • ‘failure’ will be expected. The Church is venturing into uncharted territory. We don’t know how to make ‘church’ work any more. We need to take one step at a time, to discern, to experiment, to reflect on what happens and learn from it. Create a culture in which experimenting and failing are expected as steps to learning what will work.

When you operate out of these assumptions, the focus shifts from accomplishing a task to growing people. Put the work into growing people in their capacity to listen for, discern and respond to the Holy Spirit’s leading. It may be slower than jumping into a new project. One group who spent 3 -6 months learning how to listen and discern (and grumbled about it the whole time) discovered that, when they did launch a project which they believed that the Holy Spirit was leading them to do, things fell into place more quickly and with a far greater effect than they had expected. Many more people showed up to help than they had expected. The project grew more quickly; far more lives were impacted.

Be ready to be surprised — 

by the ways in which God is working in people’s lives; 

by the ways in which God supplies what is needed for the ministry/mission;

by resurrection!

Give God plenty of room to use people in ways you cannot imagine 

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I’ve been  doing some research on congregational amalgamations. One thing is very apparent: amalgamations have a greater chance of being ‘successful’ if they are driven by a conviction that the participating congregations are able to serve God’s mission better together than separately.

What is also apparent is that most congregations enter into the conversation about amalgamation when they are desperate: the leadership of the congregation are tired of working very hard to keep things going; the building is in need of major repairs; the finances are unable to sustain the ongoing costs.

Often, then, people enter into the conversation hoping that an amalgamation will solve those problems. Past experience indicates that that will probably not be the case. If nothing is done to address the dynamics that caused the decline and the crises in the first place, within a few short years, the new congregation will be facing the same problems again.

Addressing those dynamics is hard work. Once a congregation enters into the process of amalgamating with another congregation, its people can be easily distracted from that hard work by the technical details of making an amalgamation happen. However, figuring out why God has called them to be the church in a particular place and time is critical to their becoming a flourishing congregation. That work needs to be done before, during and after the amalgamation process.

In the recent past, many congregations tried to do that work by developing mission or vision statements and by listing their values. I am not convinced that that has been helpful or fruitful. Many congregational mission statements are merely generic descriptions of what the people think a church should be. They are seldom very compelling. They are usually focused primarily on the church rather than on the mission.

So, what does a congregation do in order to get a clear sense of what God is calling them to be and to do in their particular place and time? I suspect that the answer to that question lies in story-telling. The Church is a story-formed community. The Bible doesn’t list a set of values. It tells stories about the Triune God and about the people who have lived in response to and in obedience to that God.

What would it look like to reclaim that way of being the Church? People would need to know the Story well. It would need to dwell deeply in their hearts and their lives. The sad thing is that so many Christians have given up on our Story. They are not convinced that the stories in the Bible have much to say to the way they live their lives. It is a great challenge for their leaders to wrestle with the scriptures so deeply that the Story catches fire in their own lives. Then they will have something to offer their people.

The people will need to know the Story well enough that they are able to work with it creatively. Then, there will need to be a culture in the congregation that nurtures in them that creativity and celebrates it.

I am wondering if a way to start would be to give story-telling a more prominent place in the life of the community of faith. Have people tell the stories of what God is doing in their lives. Discover what biblical stories are living at the heart of the community. Learn those stories. Wrestle with them. Tell them to each other. Let those stories shape the decisions that are made. Let them be the lens through which the congregation sees what God is calling them to be and to do.

Does anyone know a congregation where that is happening? I would love to hear about it.

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As the church moves into a new paradigm, ordered ministry personnel find themselves confronting questions about their identity and role.

Many different models and metaphors have been used to describe the role and identity of ordered ministers. When the Church existed in Christendom, the ordered minister often operated as a chaplain — tending to the pastoral and spiritual needs of people who lived in a culture that helped the church shape and form Christians and a culture that saw itself as  operating on Christian ethical principles. We live in a very different culture now.

A model or metaphor for ordered ministers that is being reclaimed is that of equipper — one who equips the culture of the congregation such that all the baptized know that they are ministers both in the church gathered (ekklesia) and in the church scattered into the world (diaspora). The ordered minister is a ‘ministry developer’ who mentors, guides and educates the ministers of the congregation for their ministries. S/he is the team leader, the overseer of the joint work of the people.

This model requires different kinds of leadership from the chaplaincy model. Among other things, it requires leadership that is willing to upset the status quo that prevails in the environment of most congregations. Major shifts need to be made in the ways congregations govern themselves and in their delivery of pastoral care, faith formation, worship and proclamation. They must be structured for relationships instead of programmes: relationships of trust, of truth-telling, of forgiveness, of compassion. That work of re-shaping congregations will require ministers who are cultivating a deep identity in Christ rather than in the work that they do or in the acclaim of the congregation.

Leaders need different metrics for measuring what they are doing. Rather than counting bodies, buildings, and budgets, churches could count how many people have had their gifts identified and their vocation made clear. How many people in the congregation are equipped for ministry? How many lives have been transformed? What is the depth of community? Where are there signs of mutual love and support? Those metrics are relationship-based. They are developed through different skills and capacities than most clergy received in their formal theological training. They operate out of a different imagination than functions in most congregations. William Willimon suggests that the test for pastoral ministry is not, “How much have I been able to accomplish at my church?” but rather, “How much have I enabled the laity to accomplish at their church.” (William Willimon, “The Point of Pastoral Ministry: Lay Ministry”  March 26, 2007).

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Something new is being created in various places across the United Church of Canada. A new congregational culture is taking shape, albeit often in tentative and fragile forms. Congregations and other faith communities are finding their way forward. Based on the conversations I have been having, some trends seem to be emerging.

There is a congregational culture emerging that is focused on the ministry of all the baptized, not primarily on the ministry of the ordered ministry personnel. Clergy-centred solo pastoral ministry is giving way to participatory leadership teams in all aspects of congregational life. Authority is being distributed among the people based on gifts, relational influence, and areas of mission; power is seen as something that is to be given away to others. Clergy are recognizing that it is not their role to ‘be the minister’ but to equip the ministers of the congregation and to cultivate a congregational culture where creativity and permission-giving and risk-taking are the norm. There is an expectation that people will be engaged in deepening discipleship throughout their whole lives since the work in which they are engaged cannot be done in one’s own strength and wisdom. What ‘deepening discipleship’ looks like is localized, depending on each different context and the gifts and passions of the people involved and driven by the missionary situation in which people find themselves.

A congregational culture is emerging that prioritizes the deepening of the ministry of all the people over the continuance of the institutional structure or the building. Organizations get the results for which they are structured. That which is given attention is what grows. Churches are changing what they are paying attention to. This includes changing the way the church measures what it is doing. Rather than measuring how many people are on the membership roll or how many dollars are being raised and spent, churches are beginning to measure the people’s depth of involvement in ministry and mission in the world. Rather than paying attention to who is serving on what committee, worship services and annual reports are providing opportunities for people to witness and testify to the ways in which the Holy Spirit is working in and through their lives in their neighbourhoods, places of work and leisure times. The conversation is about ‘sightings’ of the reign of God, not the needs of the institution.

The emerging congregational culture is finding ways to attend to the pastoral care and spiritual needs of its members (often through small groups) but the dominant conversations are not about getting one’s needs met but about discerning what God is doing and what God is calling the church to be in the world. The focus is not on programmes and membership privileges but on following Jesus as a way of life. People are learning ways of listening to others outside the church. They are learning not to approach situations as ‘fixers’, with their well-intentioned agendas; rather, they are recognizing that they are often on the receiving end of the hospitality and gifts of ‘the other’. There is a humility and openness in their relationships — and a recognition that it is about building relationships rather than fixing problems.

Not every renewing congregation or developing faith community exhibits all those characteristics. However, these trends keep emerging in the conversations I have been having. What is also apparent is that congregations often are finding their way forward in isolation from others. They need to be in networks with other faith communities that are finding their way. What another church does is probably not directly transferrable to another church. ‘Cookie cutter’ solutions will not work in the diverse situations in which congregations find themselves. We live out our faith incarnationally, which means its expression is shaped by the local context. However, what is working for one church may provide inspiration for a creative initiative in another congregation. Besides, we all need companions on the journey, especially on this journey where we have no maps but only Jesus who is himself the Way.

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Conversations about equipping the baptized for their ministries turn quickly to matters of spiritual formation and discipleship. What Christian practices need to be embraced? What does evangelism and witness look like in our context? What enables people to discern not only where the Holy Spirit is at work but also what their call is in that work?

What is apparent is that behind those questions lie more foundational questions about the nature of our congregations. What does spiritual formation and discipleship look like in a church culture where that has not been a priority? It is difficult for people to discern where the Holy Spirit is already at work when they are unpracticed in such elemental disciplines as prayer, standing under the scriptures, and talking about faith together. Exciting new initiatives lose steam when those who participate in them are not deeply grounded in the Source of Life. As Elizabeth O’Connor articulated the wisdom of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., “If you do not attend to the journey inward, you will burn out on the journey outward.” Frank Viola has warned, “You cannot raise the bar on discipleship without raising the bar on the ekklesia—the living experience of the body of Christ—the native habitat in which true disciple-making and transformation take place” (Discipleship in Crisis, e-book).

What is needed is not simply a matter of offering more courses and seminars on discipleship or evangelism. What is needed is a shift in the culture of congregations. A new imagination for what it means to be the church needs to be cultivated. A different set of symbols, metaphors and narratives need to shape the ethos of the United Church of Canada.

Chris Pullenayegem, New Ministries Animator for EDGE, outlines the process of change as a matter of asking some basic questions:

*What has to remain?

*How do we do it more efficiently so that resources are freed up for new experiments?

*What do we need to let go of in order to create space for something new?

*What new things do we need to do in order to make this new thing happen?

Andy Crouch, in Culture Making, advises that “the only way to change culture is to create more of it. . . . If culture is to change, it will be because some new tangible (or audible or visible or olfactory) thing is presented to a wide enough public that it begins to reshape their world . . . if we seek to change culture, we will have to create something new, something that will persuade our neighbors to set aside some existing set of cultural goods for our new proposal” (p. 67).

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The Triune God is already at work among us, making a new creation. We know from the scriptures that, if we are to see that work of God, we need to pay attention to what is happening at the margins, at the edges of what is ‘mainstream’. At the margins of the United Church of Canada, new patterns of being ‘church’, new patterns of leadership, and new patterns of ministry are taking shape. Many of them have been ‘flying under the radar’, quietly but courageously finding a way forward into God’s new creation. Sometimes they are at the margins because the realities of these faith communities do not fit the current structures and policies of the United Church. Sometimes not much attention is paid to them because they don’t look successful the way that we often measure success (numbers of people in the pews and dollars in the bank).

These faith communities at the margins are taking many forms: collaborative or regional ministries, house churches, lay-led congregations, base communities, fresh expressions, pub churches, congregations sharing technology and worship, intentional communities. In almost all of them, there is a turn toward reclaiming the ministry of all the baptized, although it may not always be expressed or experienced in such terms.

As new communities of faith emerge with a focus on being missional, there will be a need for other such experiments that are aimed at giving both individuals and local churches a new imagination and capacity to engage their neighbourhoods.

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The report of the United Church’s Comprehensive Review Task Group, “United in God’s Work” recommended that the United Church “make a commitment to supporting new ministries and new forms of ministry through an initiative that tentatively would be called Chasing the Spirit” . It frames the purpose of this initiative in terms that come from the Missional Church conversation: “The task group believes the challenge, risk, and hope for the church lie in joining what God is already bringing to life”(p. 13).

The language of the missional church conversation is being heard in many places in the United Church. There is lots of talk about engaging the neighbourhoods around church buildings. However, the term ‘missional’ is often applied to congregational mission projects rather than connoting a genuine shift in identity: mission is seen as something the church does rather than what the church is.

The Missional Church conversation recognizes that the the Church does not have a mission; rather, it participates in God’s mission in the world. That mission does not just happen in distant places; the Holy Spirit is at work everywhere, including the neighbourhoods in which congregations exist. God works through the everyday, ordinary lives of the people of the church and through the congregation as a local expression of the Body of Christ. Baptism is a person’s ordination into ministry and mission. The church is not a ‘place’ where spiritual consumers come to get their needs met. It is an outpost of the reign of God from which disciples of Jesus are sent into the world. It understands itself to be both gathered and sent for the sake of God’s mission of reconciliation and grace. The conversation is not about, “What can we do to get more people into our church”; it is about, “Where is God already at work and in what ways are we being called to participate in that work?” As congregations make this shift in identity, the role of the ordered ministry personnel shifts from being “the minister” to being a leader who equips disciples of Jesus for their ministries in the world and who cultivates a congregational environment that “nourishes this work of discernment, experimentation, learning and engagement with God at work in their neighbourhoods” (The Missional Network website).

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