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People would tell me it was my best sermon. It was the sermon they remembered the most. Except I never preached it as a sermon. I only mentioned it in the introduction to an appeal for help with a church function.

Once a month or so, the church would place red folders (like the kind some churches use to record attendance and visitors) at the end of each pew. Inside each folder was a sheet of paper listing some “opportunities to serve.” People are encouraged to read through the list, see if something interested or excited them, and then sign with their name and telephone number.

The tasks that were listed were usually short-term and very concrete. For example, we asked for people who were willing to bake a cake for some event, to help out in vacation Bible school, to help drive a new refugee family around, to help plan Advent worship services. You could sign up, help out, and then be done with it.

One Sunday, I introduced the red folders by saying that I had heard recently about a minister who said to his congregation, “Sometimes when we are asked to do something, we say `Yes’ even though we want to say `No.’ We say `Yes’ because we’re afraid that, if we say ‘No’ we’ll feel guilty. Instead, we say `Yes’ and feel angry because we’re too busy, we’re not really interested in doing the task, we’re feeling pressed into doing it. If the choice you’re facing is between saying `yes’ and feeling angry or saying ‘no’ and feeling guilty, I want to encourage you to go with the guilt. Say ‘no.’ ”

After sharing this story, I encouraged our congregation to take this same attitude toward the appeals for help in the red folders. “You should not sign up unless it is something you want to do,” I said. “Go with the guilt!”

The phrase caught on. Many of our most dedicated, faithful and over-worked folk received it with a tremendous sense of freedom and relief. Some worried that the important but less glamorous work of the church wouldn’t get done. They were afraid that everybody would take it as permission to be lazy, to avoid their responsibilities.

There was a possibility that people might react that way. But two factors worked against it. Firstly, the hardest workers in any church don’t usually work out of duty or obligation. They love their Lord and they love God’s Church. They believe in what their church is trying to do. Out of love, they give their time and money and energy with great generosity. They might wish that others would contribute more of their fair share. They may use words like “responsibility” and “duty” to describe it; however, they would probably admit that the work they do for the church isn’t mostly a matter of duty or obligation. It’s a matter of love.

The challenge is not to get people to work harder out of a sense of obligation. The challenge is to get people to love God more and to believe more passionately in the mission the Church is accomplishing.

Secondly, the “go with the guilt” message was part of a bigger shift in our congregation’s way of being the Church together. It developed out of a belief that the Holy Spirit is actively at work in the Body of Christ. The Spirit gives gifts to the church’s members. These gifts fit together for the well-being of the Body. Not everybody will enjoy doing the same things. Some people love crunching numbers; some people love pushing brooms. Some people love the time they spend in the kitchen, some people love the time they spend serving at the local mission.

The challenge is to trust that God knows the work that needs to be done to keep His Body functioning well, and that God is supplying the gifts among Christ’s people to do it.

We must believe that the Spirit is at work in people’s lives pushing, prodding, and pulling them to serve their Lord. The challenge for us is to create an atmosphere where people feel free to respond to that pushing, prodding and pulling in creative and daring ways. Because we’re all learning and growing together, it is all right to try something, even if it doesn’t work out the way we had expected or hoped. It is more important to have tried it.

I love telling the story about Daniel Brown who was pastor of a very large and busy church in California. When people ask him how the church got to be so successful, he tells them that they just kept trying so many things that, by the law of averages, some of them had to work! We all need to work on that “law of averages,” trusting in the Holy Spirit’s presence throughout.

Sometimes God leads people in directions they’re uncertain that they want to go. When people say that they aren’t sure of themselves, we need to encourage them not to let that stop them from moving ahead. If they are venturing into new territory, they can expect to feel uncomfortable. They can take things slowly, one step at a time, as God gives them the courage to move ahead.

One of the advantages of the red folders idea is that they allow people to try out new tasks in small chunks. Newcomers don’t have to jump in by volunteering to be the Chair of a committee. They can help set up tables and still feel they are contributing.

People who are exploring new directions in their lives can sign up for short-term experiences. They can be part of the worship planning team for six weeks and then be done with it. Those who are busy elsewhere and who cannot commit a large chunk of time can help out in short-term activities and still know that they are contributing.

Believing that the Holy Spirit has placed more than enough gifts among us, the congregation was always looking for ways to allow people to contribute their gifts in ways that take account of the realities of their lives and that will help them grow. Our energy was spent less and less on trying to convince people to do the very important work we thought needed doing. Over time, the congregational focus changed from “getting the programs done” to “growing the people.’

New questions became important: How can we help people discern the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives? How can we help them become conscious of the gifts they have and don’t have? How can we help them take down the blockages that keep them from responding to the Spirit’s work? How can we help them overcome their fears? How can we provide new opportunities for them to experience the wonder and privilege of being used by God in His work of healing the world?

The church can still get caught in worrying where it will find the people to meet the agenda which is already planned. But the direction it is moving in, is one where growing joyful servants of Jesus Christ is the focus.

0f course, there are some risks in moving in this new direction. What if the Holy Spirit doesn’t bring forward anyone to run a program that the leaders consider vitally important for the Church? What if nobody wants to teach Sunday school? What if nobody wants to be in charge of keeping the building in shape? The self-images of the minister and of the congregation are at stake. As clergy, we’re very used to trying to meet the expectations of the congregation. As congregations, we strive to offer the kinds of programmes that we think people want. What if the Holy Spirit doesn’t come through for us?

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing our church is learning to trust God instead of ourselves. If the Holy Spirit has not provided persons or gifts to run a particular programme, perhaps that programme doesn’t need to be run—at least not by us. If we don’t run it and people miss it enough, somebody will consider it important enough to commit time and energy to it—eventually. If we don’t run it and nobody misses it, then it wasn’t needed after all. Sometimes we can forget that we are not the only congregation that God is working in. Some work God will give to us to do. Some work God will give to another congregation to do. We don’t have to “do it all.” God asks us to be faithful to the call God places among us. That will keep us more than busy!

All of this means that we must, first and foremost, be a people of prayer. We have to stay close to God to hear what God is saying to us. If there is nobody to do something that we think needs doing, is it a sign that we aren’t hearing God’s call to us? Or are we trying to do it the wrong way? Or is there somebody who needs some growth and encouragement before being ready to take up the work? Or is this work given to another congregation to do? Prayer will help us find the answers. And even when we are sure that it is something we are called to do, we will still have to stay close to God. God is the One who will give us the courage and energy and joy to do what God asks us to do.

“Go with the guilt.” I didn’t know it when I said it, but it was a first step towards growing and serving our Lord with delight and joy.

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“Our mission to the world cannot make creation whole again, any more than we can create wholeness in ourselves or our churches. We offer the world only the grace of God, and that can never be confused with problem solving. It is high time we let go of all mission strategies that offer optimistic social agendas for the world. Instead, our mission is to live in the midst of brokenness that we cannot fix with a vision of God’s healing — healing from the damage people have wrought by playing god in the world”.
Craig Barnes in Yearning: Living Between How It Is And How It Ought To Bep. 174.

So often I hear or read advice to congregations about vision or mission statements that suggest that the church’s mission is about ‘meeting needs’. Congregations are to find a need in the neighbourhood that matches the interests, skills, and passion of their people. Then, they are to develop a programme or project that will meet that need.

I am troubled by that approach. It seems to me that it sets the church as one more provider of a product that others will consume.  How often have you heard someone suggest that one of the failings of the church is that it doesn’t advertise enough? That it needs better marketing?

I know that we are often not ‘on the radar’ for many people. Ask a stranger, “Could you direct me to  . . . Church?”  and there’s a good possibility that s/he won’t be able to do that, even if the church building is in sight. I also know that people often don’t know all that the church is doing in the community. Those are both indications that a congregation needs to get better connected with its neighbourhood.

However, I don’t think ‘church’ is a consumer product. I don’t believe that declines in participation will be fixed by better marketing. I don’t think that the mission of the church is about ‘meeting needs’ or fixing social problems.

I like Craig Barnes’ reminder that the church’s work is be a witness to and a foretaste of the healing and redeeming work that God is doing in the world. And, I am challenged by his comments that “our mission is to live in the midst of brokenness that we cannot fix with a vision of God’s healing”. That sets the church within mystery, within relationships, within a deep respect for the holiness of life. It seems to me that that is a better description of what we are about.

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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 have been re-reading two books recently written by Alan Roxburgh: Structured for Mission: Renewing the Culture of the Church and Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The New Shape of the Church in our Time. Both books provide some very helpful insights into the process of the ways churches respond to the changed context in which they find themselves.

Structured for Mission is heavier reading than the very practical Joining God. It provides a more theoretical approach to the ways in which change happens in organizations. Organizations in crisis tend to respond by trying to make changes in their structures. However, says Roxburgh, what they should attend to are the underlying stories which are embodied in the structures. These are what are really driving and shaping the structures and the organization.

He calls these underlying stories ‘legitimating narratives’ — “an overarching story that provides a group . . . with a way to express its underlying values, beliefs and commitments about who they are and how life is to be lived. It’s a story that tells a group who they are, what is acceptable and what is a proper way to live” (p. 32) Organizations and groups lose the capacity to hold the attention and loyalty of people when increasing numbers of people no longer find that the legitimating narrative  helps them make sense of their lives.

The churches that are part of what used to be called mainline denominations are operating with a legitimating narrative that values the capacity to control and manage their life. “Strategic planning [is] one of its primary tools. In this way of planning, experts gathered data, studied the various elements of a situation, and identified the gap between where they were and where they wanted to be at a point in the future. On this basis a plan was developed to get from one point to the next.” (p. 43) This narrative assumes that we are the most critical agents acting in the situation. The choices we make are the actions that determine the future.

Part of the problem that churches encounter is that the situations in which they find themselves no longer are ones that can be managed and controlled. Too much around them is changing too quickly and too drastically. The legitimating narrative no longer works:  we find ourselves in “a place where [our] explanations no longer explain and [our] actions no longer fix.” (p. 116) Churches are having to find new ways to navigate into the future.

Roxburgh directs us to our original stories to find a legitimating narrative that will help us develop the capacity to continue in our journey. In those stories — the stories of the Bible — the most critical agent in any situation is not us but God. We are certainly involved but it is God who is at the centre of what is happening. It is God’s actions that are decisive.

The first work of the churches in this place and time is to learn again how to pay attention to God: to what the Holy Spirit is doing among us and in our neighbourhoods. We do that by learning to
1) engage the scriptures more deeply,
2) listen to each other more carefully especially our stories of where God is working in each other’s lives, and
3) re-engage the neighbourhoods and communities in which our church buildings are located.
One of the tools Roxburgh uses is “Dwelling in the Word”, a modified form of lectio divina that also involves careful listening to each other.

I find that it is hard to convince congregations to adopt Roxburgh’s approach. For one this, this is slow work. It will not give an immediate appearance that something is being done to fix the problems a congregation is facing. It is also soul work — something, ironically, many people in our churches are generally not too enthused about.

In a few months, I’ll be working with some congregations that are willing to try this out. We are embarking on a journey together where we do not know exactly where we are going but we are willing to trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us. It will be an adventure — something much more interesting and compelling to me than the attempt to restructure the ‘courts of the church’ on which my denomination is currently expending great time and energy.

 

 

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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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Almighty God,
You govern the nations with justice and mercy.
Your Son shows us the path of sacrifice that leads to Life.
Your Holy Spirit creates order out of chaos.
For these, and all your blessings,
we praise your holy name.

We have wandered far from you, God of grace,
and from the communion with you for which we were made.
It has grown dark
and we cannot find our way home.

You are rich in mercy:
come to find us
and lead us home to yourself.

Then, Prince of Peace,
liberate your Church from visions that are too small
from mean and unworthy purposes
from the selfishness that seeks only its own comfort,
from giving up too easily and too soon.

Move us to truth and goodness and beauty.
Then, grant us courage and faithfulness and perseverance
when we face any power that denies your love.

We ask these things in Jesus’ name,
by whose sacrifice we live
and by whose resurrection we are set free.

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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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