Is part of our problem that we make things too hard? Maybe the key to congregational health, strength, and vitality is well within our grasp, but we keep looking for some grand answer because the truth seems much to simple and easy. Over the weekend I went through some files and found a set of interviews with church leaders in congregations of under 100 active members. Though “small” in category, each of these churches (numbering 33 in my file) is doing exceptional ministry — all because they found one single thing to focus on and excel at. These churches are all in different cities, towns, or rural areas — all unique in some ways, but quite similar in others. Here are three quotes, one from a church in Ohio, on from Oregon, and one from Texas —
Ohio — “we were dying and didn’t have the good sense to lie down. Finally, our (district) superintendent told us we had one year to figure out if we wanted to live or not. We could get going or we could close, and he said it was our choice — that the conference wasn’t doing this to us, we were doing it to or for ourselves. We had a meeting that started out like every other meeting — with everyone complaining and talking about how rotten everything was. Then one of our stalwarts stood up and said, “We don’t have to do everything, but we need to do something.” This started us asking the question what can we do? And from that came our answer — we could aid and serve the old and infirm in our town. We’re now in ministry to over two hundred people in this community — delivering medicine, Meals on Wheels, taking people shopping and to the doctor, and such — and we have more people coming to our church than we have had in years.”
Oregon — “We were doing great, then there was a split over ministry to the homeless. Our top donors left the church, and one of them said, “Okay, you wanted the homeless, now you’ve got the homeless… but you don’t have us!” It put us in a financial crisis and left us with only half our members. I was devastated and depressed. We had a church conference to discuss our options and I was ready to give up. Then one of the people stood up and said, “The homeless are still homeless and they need our help. It’s up to us to do something. Nothing has changed!” I remember thinking ‘Wow, she’s right. The need is still there and we haven’t really changed. All we did was get rid of the people who didn’t really want to be in ministry anyway.’ That meeting turned us around and got us going again.
Texas — “we was in trouble. I think the youngest of us was about seventy-five. Money wasn’t our problem. We was ranchers and oilmen and we’d dealt with our troubles for years by buying a solution. We kept pumping money into the building and paying a pastor, even though they’s just about twenty of us left. I met with the pastor and said, “We gotta do something.” He says, “What ‘something’ did you have in mind?” I just looked at him. If he didn’t have any idea, well I certainly didn’t either. I said, “Let’s open ‘er up to the congregation.” So we did, and it wasn’t five minutes into the meeting that one of our older members said that her grandson and granddaughter had moved back into the area and were looking for a church and that if we hired a young associate pastor with a family we could focus on family ministry and become a real different kind of church. So that became our something.”
I raise these three illustrations not as models for what others should do, but for the common thread running through them — three churches motivated by the simple desire to “do something.” One of the problems we face in the church today is trying to do a lot of things and doing many of them poorly. These churches found redemption and revitalization through a very narrow, clear, single-focus. Each began to rebuild on a specific ‘something’ that gave them clarity of purpose and a renewed sense of identity. The ‘something’ had such power that the whole church could support and engage in it. Certainly another common thread is that each church found itself at a crisis crossroads: change or die, but in each case it was the clarification of a particular ministry or mission that provided the tipping point to new life.
In a connectional system (even one not working very well) we should find space to allow struggling congregations to refocus and specialize. One church may not have the resources to provide adequate ministry to children — but the church five miles away does. Music a struggle? Don’t waste resources trying to bolster it when there is another United Methodist church in the next town has a fantastic music program. Instead, channel your resources to what you do best and help people looking for good music to find the church the next town over. Let them send people to you for the ministries in which you excel. Our healthiest churches are not those that offer a wide variety of mediocre ministries — they are the ones that do one or two or three things with excellence. In times of diminishing resources but unlimited need, we should do everything in our power to set good priorities and align our energy, efforts, and resources to those things that will yield the greatest positive results for the greatest number of people. The key is not to figure out a way to do everything, but to be very clear about doing something… and doing it better than anything else.