We’re looking for a program that will turn things around. We’re ready for change, but we lack that one key piece. If we can just find the right model, we’re set! We’re taking 28 people to Leadership Institute in October. Our plan is to go take all the workshops we can, come back, put together a plan, then put it into action.
I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard a variation of this tired old song. And what makes it painful is that I often go back to the person a year or two later to find out how it worked. Once or twice, I hear a glowing report. Often I hear that nothing worked, nothing’s changed, and the church feel’s stuck. But the response I get most often is a replay of the earlier song. Hopelessly optimistic, the church is still looking for the magic potion and that they’re heading off to Willow Creek this time, and that once they receive the wisdom of the masters, they will have everything they need to achieve incredible success. I have visited churches that have sung this song six or seven times, never learning that it isn’t the right song. You see, they can point to the one or two times it has worked, and they live in unabashed hope that it is going to happen to them.
We really can’t blame our local churches and their leaders for this false hope. As a culture, we breed it into people. We build entire industries on peddling expertise-in-packages, with quick-fix promises and unrealistic expectations. Church growth/leadership development resources are the ecclesial equivalent of diet books — the only way the industry has a future is the extent to which current resources fail to deliver change. If these resources actually worked, there would be no need for further resources. The flaw in the logic that undergirds codependency industries like church resources, is the brilliant observation that Christian Schwarz makes in his Natural Church Development process — there is a huge difference between models and principles.
Models are static and they are second generation copies of something developed in a unique context. Principles are the underlying rules, guidelines, concepts, and disciplines that allow models to be developed. For example, a sculptor employs a variety of principles to create a statue. Understanding the tools, the medium, forms, amount of pressure to employ, etc., allows the person to create something. From that creation, a mold might be cast to create a model that anyone can put together. However, no one would call the model art, but merely a representation of art. There is a difference between painting and paint-by number, baking a cake from scratch and using a mix, carpentering a bookshelf and slapping together a kit. The same holds true in the church. Copying what someone else has already done is NOT a definition of “leadership.” Leaders don’t follow; leaders lead.
I am constantly amazed by the number of people I meet from successful, growing churches who tell me, “We didn’t follow anyone else’s plan. We realized that the only way we could become the church God needs us to be is to figure it out for ourselves!” Then, they try to package their success and pass it off to others with the toss-off line, “we did it! You can do it, too!” But they push a model, not the underlying principles that allowed them to see successful.
So, why don’t models work very well? I think there are seven key factors: context, resources, energy, passion, values, vision, and timing — all unique, all variable, all critical, and all impossible to replicate.
Context — where you are is unique. No one else occupies your location. No one else has exactly your mix of people and personalities. No one else has your history — both the glories and celebrations as well as the skeletons and baggage. No one else is you. Your future is your own. No one else has the solution that is right for you. Unless you do the hard work to “know thyself” any change work you do will be like wearing a costume to make you look like someone else. Be yourself.
Resources — the material and human resources you have is unique to you. Your community of faith has a unique gifts- and skill-set. Unique experience. Unique knowledge. Unique ideas. Unique facilities. You are like a relational jigsaw puzzle. If you try to pull pieces from another puzzle to complete your own, you won’t be better off for it. If what you have are all the key elements to play basketball, don’t waste time trying to be a baseball team — and don’t go study how great baseball teams play in order to be a better basketball team!
Energy — energy levels are different. Amounts of time people can give to various pursuits is different. The energy of a surrounding area is different. We often go to learn from churches in high-energy, high-change, high-growth areas ideas to take back to low-energy, static, stable or declining areas. The United Methodist Church draws most of its models of growth from the Southeast and South-Central Jurisdictions to show the rest of the church what it should be doing. This is not just disingenuous, but dishonest and destructive.
Passion — just as individuals care about different things, so do congregations. When we organize around what we care about, passion ensues. When we are passionate about what we do, we produce a whole different level of outcomes. In many of our greatest success stories in The United Methodist Church, it is the passion of key leaders and pastors that carry the whole church forward into the future. As the passion builds, the church increases. It is virtually impossible to package one individual’s or one group’s passion and pass it off to someone else. We don’t create passion, we discover it — and it is uniquely our own.
Values — intimately connected to passion are our values. Virtually no one is passionate about something that does not reflect his or her deepest values. What is it that we believe is our reason for being? What in our heart of hearts do we want to be as a church? Where do we believe God is calling us? What does it mean to us to be faithful? Is discipleship a high value? Is comfort a guiding value? Is size? Prestige? Service? Compassion? Security? Tradition? Reaching new people? What is most important to us? It might be what is important to others, but it might not be — and if you try to apply a model that doesn’t reflect your values, it is highly unlikely to succeed.
Vision — each of us pursues a unique future. The same is true for a congregation, though the future may hold wide open spaces for a wide variety of people. Yet, unless we have a vision — a picture of where we believe God is guiding us into the future — it is very hard to create a realistic and attainable plan. What is the Promised Land for our congregation? What would it look like were we to be living faithfully as the people God calls us to be? What is our definition of a vibrant, vital community of faith? Congregations are as individual as snowflakes. Trying to pursue someone else’s vision makes as much sense as trying to live someone else’s life. Adopting another church’s model for ministry is nothing short of congregational identity theft.
Timing — timing is everything. In story after story of church successes, someone always says, “yeah, we hit the perfect time…” Some churches struggle for years, then something changes. Some churches see an opportunity and seize it. Many churches admit, “we were simply in the right place at the right time.” All these are true, and all these are variables beyond the control of most of our congregations. Timing is important, and it is much more important for a church to learn how to be flexible and ready to respond when opportunities arise rather than to force changes at inopportune or inappropriate times.
In any equation where there are few constants and many variables, it is hard to apply hard and fast formulae. Models are severely limited at the outset. They fit where they fit… which is not too many places. Does this mean we can’t learn from one another? Does this mean we shouldn’t “go to school” on the success stories of others? Does it mean we are left completely to our own devices to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling?” No, not at all. Often the seeds of change are sown when we hear what someone else did. The caution is to make sure we feed any great idea or program through the rigorous filters of our own unique context. No one else has our solution. That doesn’t mean no one else has things from which we cannot learn.
Principles, not models. Process, not formula. Journey, not destinations. Context over content. We do have much to learn from each other, but perhaps there is nothing more important to learn than that we are all uniquely gifted and all uniquely called. Finding out who WE are is much more important than trying to be like someone else. Following is not leading, and copying is not innovation. By God’s grace and guidance, we can become who WE need to be.