Model Students

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.

18 replies

  1. our church is going through a missional transformation process right now… and it’s just that, a process NOT a program. We take some basic structural pieces and then adapt them and contextualize them and we are asking what God wants us to do in our county seat town in Iowa. I’m excited about the opportunities because I do feel like this is the right time and we have the right people and we are working on finding the passions we need – I think your list is spot on!!!

  2. Dan, if you would use your energy and influence to try to help us be a better church instead of constantly belittling those who are doing a good job you would have much more credibility. There is a reason big churches are big churches and that is they know what they are doing. There is a reason why United Methodist Communications is leading our denomination in real transformation. The leaders there know what they are doing. The reason our Connectional Table has decided to measure what it has chosen to measure is because they are the best things to measure to help us be the church we need to be. Your constant criticism of the good leadership of our church is not only tiresome but it shows how little you know about your own church. Or perhaps you are still bitter that the church decided that what you had to say wasn’t really that helpful and let you go.

    • I really enjoy when someone hides behind “anonymous.” Makes me think they just want to have a say, but aren’t really invested in the stand they take.

      United Methodist Communications leading real change? I haven’t seen it. We certainly aren’t “Open minds, open hearts, open doors.” And “Rethink Church?” What’s up with that?

      And, as was indicated in your previous post, we are still trying to measure the same things expecting different results – definition of insanity?!?!

      Sometimes the best voices to lead real change are those that stir up the pot and cause us to think deeply about what we are doing. I think that’s what you’re doing, Dan. If I’m right, keep it up! Thanks!

  3. I do so love how people are willing to condemn but don’t identify who they are (I hope Anon. was speaking tongue in cheek). As a life long Methodist (55 yrs. now) I’ve never seen my church more disorganized and leadership void than now. It seems like every “new idea” that comes down the road is tried and quickly discarded when the next “new idea” comes along.

    Example- The local church where I serve has, in the last 3 years, done 4 different programs trying to turn the church around. Each was worthy of effort in its own right, but time wasn’t allotted for it to take root before they tossed it aside to try the next one. As a result the congregation is confused and has no focus on anything and the lay leadership, who’ve been the movers and shakers on these concepts, can’t understand why we have angry folks in the pews. The pastor is ignored when he tries to direct them on what our vision should be (and on most other things as well), and members of the various committees are often at each others throats about the direction of the church. I can’t imagine what it may be like at higher levels of church government. Father John must be spinning in his grave over what’s happened to the denomination he’s given credit for founding.

  4. I could certainly see how someone could be hurt by some of Dan’s descriptions. Saying that people who sell “church resources” are engaging in a kind of scam or that those who offer the successes in parts of the country are disingenuous and destructive certainly would feel like attacks to me if I were one of those people.

    So, while I don’t condone anonymous attacks, I understand why some people react defensively to what Dan writes.

    That said, I think the points he makes about principles vs. models are extremely helpful reminders. The list of factors seems right on. I even think the point he makes about the Southeast not representing the entire denomination is right on.

    I would be more careful in my language than Dan, but I always find his observations fascinating and greatly admire his empirical foundation. I think Methodism is better off for his consistent and persistent commentary.

  5. Yes! One of the most helpful things anyone ever shared with me was the encouragement to discover where God was moving/what God was up to in the church I was serving. Up to that point, I tried the “model” approach. The former is incredibly difficult, filled with considerable toil, is often what keeps me up at night…but is also accompanied by moments of unspeakable joy. There’s nothing like seeing someone have a divine “aha” moment…much better than the temporary “high” one gets from a “model” conference. NCD has helped further cure me of my addiction to models, seminars, big-time conferences, etc. I would much rather coach someone toward understanding their own vision than regurgitating another person’s model. At the same time, I have learned to study models with the intention of better understanding self and context. I believe the difference in my studying models is a commitment to the values of evaluating, interpreting, and reflecting, accompanied with a major dose of patience. All the more reason that average appointments should be much longer, under-girded by Conference leadership that holds these values in high esteem.

  6. I like the diet book analogy. I think it fits in many ways. The thing is, though, in my experience the best diets (the overall model) are founded on sound principles (e.g, eat less, exercise more).

    There’s no trick to them, just hard work and long-term discipline. The reason they fail isn’t that the diet was unsound, but rather that the dieter was lazy and inconsistent in applying the model and its accompanying principles.

    I think the same is true for many of the models taught by some churches and their pastors. The best models also highlight the principles that made them work in that specific context. And, usually, the pastors I’ve met are fairly honest that this won’t work just anywhere. It’s why they quickly point to the principles behind what they did.

    Perhaps that’s the minority of “diet books” out there, but that’s all the more reason to be mindful of the relationship between model and principle that you highlight. In the end, I guess I just put less of the burden of responsibility on the “diet books” and more on the faddish “dieters.”

    • There is wisdom in what you say. One of the best diet books I ever say was about 200 pages long. On every odd numbered page was written “Eat Less,” and on every even numbered page was written “Exercise More” — that’s all the 200 pages contained. If people will follow those two simple principles, most will indeed lose weight.

      The only other comment I would make is that there are more than two possible outcomes. With churches as with diets there are those who follow the regimen and get good results, and those who fail to follow the regimen and get poor results. But there are a whole lot of churches that follow a program to the letter of the law and get terrible results, while some are sloppy, lazy and lucky and they get good results. When I did the Vital Signs research, I looked only at the churches that followed models with integrity. 1-in-5 had measurably positive results that could be atrributed directly to the model; 3-in-5 reported some improvement, but generally because they were trying SOMETHING and were working on it. It was the decision to try to improve that led to improvement more than the tool used.

      In every case, though, your point about sticking with it is a good one. There are no short-term cures to long-term ills.

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