Time for Change

I was on the phone recently with a pastor lamenting that his church wasn’t growing.  Beginning his fifth year, he confessed that he thought there would be better signs of vitality.  We talked about what he was doing and he told me that in his relatively short stint as appointed leader, his congregation had “done” 40 Days of Purpose, Natural Church Development, Incubator, a church-wide spiritual gifts discovery process, and was currently working on Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations!  He concluded his litany with a disgusted, “None of these things work.”

Well, none of these things are working for him, but that doesn’t mean none of them work.  While none is a magical answer to all our problems, each has merits — when used properly.  But many development processes function like antibiotics — it takes time to get them in the system, and you need to run the whole course of antibiotics before you can judge their effectiveness.  Many programs fail to yield positive results for no other reason than we don’t give them enough time.  And if this is true of resources, it is doubly true of pastoral leaders.

Change takes time.  In our healthiest United Methodist Churches, leaders report a minimum of seven years to begin to see substantial positive change.  For the majority, it took ten to thirteen years for a church to get where they feel God wanted them to be.  And even at the end of the ten to thirteen years, congregational leaders report that they still have a lot to do — but that they are better prepared to do it!  When we move pastors around every few years, and when those pastors bring new programs, visions, and processes with them, congregations are continuously in “reset” mode — starting over every few years, never generating much momentum, and rarely experiencing positive change.

One reason for this is we wait too long to act.  Many churches make decisions in “panic” mode — needing to find immediate solutions to deeply rooted problems that finally come to a crisis point.  The one thing we feel we don’t have is time.  But when the urgency increases, calm, intentional, careful decision-making becomes all the more important.  Sadly, many of our current decision-making processes have less to do with positive results than with lessening and managing damage.  The reality is: if it takes us thirty years to get to the wrong place, it will take us more than six weeks to get somewhere better.

People are always asking me my opinion on a variety of programs and processes.  Often the question is framed as “what is the best” or “what is the right” resource?  There is no general answer to this.  Each context is unique.  Each congregation possesses unique gifts and resources, as well as unique opportunities to serve.  That means the best we can do is find a good fit, an “appropriate” resource, that can help us do what we need to do.  Even the most excellent program is merely a tool, not a solution.  WE are the solution.  WE have to put all the pieces together to create good results.  I have yet to find any church that is using Bishop Schnase’s, Five Practices as is — the best application is radical modification.  Not long ago one pastor reported that his Church Council realized that the “five practices” are nothing more than a relabeling of the old focus of the Board of Discipleship: worship, stewardship, education, evangelism, and missions.  When they realized that it was the same-old, same old, they realized that the core practices of an effective church really don’t change.  The pastor said, “The Bible says not to put new wine in old skins; it doesn’t say anything about putting old wine in new skins!”  For this congregation, Five Practices helped them remember who they were and what was important to do.  Whether it works for this church now has more to do with how diligently they pursue their plan instead of looking for the next best thing.

I have seen congregations have great results with Natural Church Development and I have seen congregations with horrible results to NCD.  NCD is a good resource, but it really doesn’t have the power to change the congregational context in which it is used.  A dysfunctional church exerts more influence to undermine a good resource than a good resource has a chance to turn around a dysfunctional church.  My favorite analogy is a wood-chipper.  A wood chipper is designed to chew things up and spit things out — no matter what you feed in.  Putting fine china through a wood chipper won’t improve the wood chipper; it will merely destroy the china.  If a congregation is designed to chew things up and spit things out, that is exactly what will happen no matter how great a resource is.  If we want our resources to work better, most of our churches need to do the hard work of changing the congregational system first — and this takes time.  How people relate to one another, how decisions are made, how conflict is navigated, how people understand their responsibility to the congregation — these are the meta-issues that define the system.  If all of these things are healthy and positive, church development programs will yield much more positive results.  But note: even these few systemic issues require time and consistency.  Relationships take time.  Creating open and fluid processes of communication and decision-making take time.  Learning to engage conflict well takes time.  And establishing clear expectations for all the members of a community of faith requires time for them to develop.  We are not just leading change in our congregations; we are changing culture.

Our hurry-up, quick-fix mentality will never take us where we need to go.  As the urgency to make good decisions increases, the necessity to slow down increases as well.

7 replies

  1. When pastors and lay people decide that the solution to their declining church is YAP (Yet Another Program), what they are really doing is an avoidance behavior that gets them off the hook of each living fuller lives of discipleship. You’re right – the basics have not changed, really since the time of the Church Fathers. But YAP puts the (presumed) solution somewhere else: the Program has to work, but I don’t have to.

    As for “turning the UMC around,” I personally have simply given up. As a very devoted lay leader of a church told me, “We [the UMC] have decided to lose at all costs.” Commenter Melton (#5) wrote, “The building is burning down and we are debating whether or not to call the fire department.”

    Nope. We have already decided not to call the fire department. At best, then, all I can do is try to get my own congregation to live according to Christ better as time goes by. That is more than enough of a challenge since the people who do not want to change, who do not want to grow (either spiritually or numerically), will oppose such movement with far greater energy and, frankly, viciousness, than the people who have the desire to transform. As long as those people are permitted to get their way – and they are always allowed to get their way – the decline will continue.

    We no longer have a passion for Christ. We have a passion for the status quo. I am compelled to remember what Voltaire said, “It is difficult to free people from chains they revere.”

  2. How much time does the United Methodist denomination have? How long will we wait until we are willing to address the reality of the culture in which we exist? By time I don’t mean the number of years we have before we cease to exist but the time we have before we lose all traction within the culture. The building is burning down and we are debating whether or not to call the fire department.

    As far as programs go, programs don’t work. People or more accurately, communities work (or wreck!) programs. The challenge is not to do the same things better but to recognize that we are in a missionary environment. We must discover new ways to proclaim the Ancient Gospel with clarity and power in an environment that is in many ways, hostile to vital, culture changing spirituality.

    God will move among us to affect the transformation He seeks. Whether or not the denomination called “United Methodist” is a part of that transformation remains to be seen.

    Methodist has been good to me. It has nurtured me all my life. It has blessed me in every many ways. It has a glorious history. Methodism has been a powerful force for redemption in this world. There are some very positive signs. UMVIM, and the current Rethink Church movement and the presence of a number of vital and growing United Methodist congregations are signs of renewal. I believe if we remain prayerful, calm, courageous, faithful and active, God will use our denomination to accomplish to accomplish His purpose.

  3. As a lay pastor just completing his fifth year in two ultra-small rural churches, I concur completely with your assessment of growth “programs”. We have found that when we stop focusing on numbers and start focusing on what we are called to do, other folks seem to want to join the parade. One of our churches found it easier to move towards new challenges while the other has been slower. Both are just now looking back to see how much has been accomplished which gives them renewed excitement about the future. The most often expressed fear at this time is my leaving them in the lurch to return to retirement. When I first came to the churches, the greatest fear was the threat of the conference to close the doors. Survival is no longer an issue. What kind of future we will have in God’s kingdom is now our primary aim.

  4. “Many churches make decisions in “panic” mode — needing to find immediate solutions to deeply rooted problems that finally come to a crisis point….But when the urgency increases, calm, intentional, careful decision-making becomes all the more important.”

    This reminds me of Peter Steinke’s Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What. The title pretty much sums up his argument.

    It appears essential that the pastor offers a “non anxious presence” and replicates/encourages the same among the other leadership. Many other articles/research would support a similar conclusion–that this sort of presence is vital before any process can be implemented.

    From a larger “systems” perspective, it would appear that our Conference and/or denominational leadership runs the risk of presenting as “anxious” when church vitality, change, growth and so forth are brought up. I say this based on the large amount of energy that’s being generated around these issues. The News Service publishes articles about these topics on a regular basis, and most bishops are *encouraging* these conversations as well. I think this is very exciting and positive on the one hand, but I also worry about too much being presented in too short an order.

    At any rate, there surely is much to be said about timing and non-anxious presence when it comes to leadership at the local church level…

  5. Good coaching includes John Wooden’s insight, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” For me that means preparation to be quick to take advantage of opportunities, but to know they come in their own time (silly old spirit continues to work on its own schedule) and be willing to wait for both opportunity and results. I expect this is a variation on Martin Luther’s wisdom that the busier he got the longer he had to pray. I appreciate your continuing attempt to clarify faithful action from cultural action.

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