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.