Failing to Succeed = Succeeding to Fail

Talk is cheap, and we talk – a lot!  We think and plan and discuss and debate and envision and meet… to think and plan and discuss and debate and envision.  We know there are problems, and we know there are solutions.  We just can’t seem to figure out what solutions go with what problems.  And so we meet some more.  And when we can’t work out our own solutions to our problems, we pay big bucks to consultants to figure it all out for us.  When they can’t figure it out, we pay them more money to meet with us…  to think and plan and discuss and debate and envision.  Is it any wonder we find ourselves essentially where we were 40+ years ago?  Wilderness then, wilderness now — and we are asking the same questions and pointing to the same problems today that we were then.  But simply staying in place is not a neutral state — failing to succeed = succeeding to fail.  If we are not getting closer to the Promised Land, we are simply wandering in the wilderness, and over time “normal” gets worse.  So, here are five observation-suggestions to move us toward something positive.  These are as relevant to a local church or annual conference as they are to a denomination.

  1. Focus on possibilities, not problems — okay, The United Methodist Church is in decline.  This has been its normative, steady state for almost a century.  Play with the numbers if you want to, and make it just the past fifty years, the basic premise is the same.  We know that we have been riding the downhill slope for quite a while.  So what?  The fact is essentially irrelevant if our mission truly is “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  The mission is not making 8,000,000 disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Our work and task and call and mission is primary qualitative, not quantitative.  If our energies were aimed toward effective disciple-development, nurture, equipping, and distribution we could develop a killer process that could actually change the world (for the better).  The amazing potential for positive impact is brushed up against occasionally (Change the World) but it is not systemic and therefore, not sustainable.  Change the World is a program we plug into a weekend annually — but we plug it into a system that is fundamentally interested in its own growth and survival.  We just want to survive the wilderness, not achieve the Promised Land.  Not good enough.  We need something great to move to, not something bad to escape from.  And being BIG is not nearly as compelling as being RELEVANT.  Those who noticed we suffer a crisis of relevancy are on to something — but launching 1,000 more struggling congregations is no solution.  The idiotic belief that the next million new members will be qualitatively better than the last million we lost will kill us.  Unless the system we have in place is creating vital, vibrant, Spirit-infused Christian life, all we can hope for is transforming newcomers into more of what we already have (and have lost).  Our future does not lie in our past.  We are more than our statistics.  We need a vision of hope, power, and light.  Enough with the doom and gloom.  Forget what we have NOT been in the past — what is God calling us to be in the future?  Forget the buildings and budgets and bloated structure for a minute.  As a body of Christ, what could we accomplish if we freed ourselves to do God’s work instead of relentlessly managing our own?  Problem solving is inadequate.  How to preserve the manna and whose turn it is to bang the rock for water won’t get us to the Promised Land.
  2. Don’t confuse outputs with outcomes — it drives me crazy when leaders (especially teachers and trainers) do this.  Or worse, they use the terms interchangeably — clear proof that they don’t understand the concepts.  Here is a simple illustration of the difference: a church leadership manual.  An author has an idea and begins to do the research and gather the materials for writing a book (inputs).  The author has a vision and a purpose for doing this — there is a perceived need and a desired outcome.  This book is intended to improve the leadership of the local congregation in particular ways (outcomes).  The author writes the book  (throughput) transforming ideas into copy, which is edited, processed, proofed, and printed.  The book (and the paper and ink and parts that didn’t make the final cut) is the output.  It is a physical thing.  But, it is not the outcome.  If 10,000 copies are printed, but never leave the warehouse and are destroyed, you still have the output, but it hasn’t made a bit of difference.  You sell 9,995 of the 10,000 copies — a successful book… output-wise.  What if nobody reads the book once they buy it?  Did it fulfill its intended purpose?  No way.  Why would an author write a book that she knew no one would ever read?  Unless the ideas enter the hearts and minds of readers and result in new thinking, acting and relating, the outcome has not been achieved, no matter the outputs.  This is why counting bodies in pews (outputs) is not helpful as a metric for disciple-making (outcomes).  Surely they are related, but simply increasing the output has no automatic impact on achieving outcomes.  This is why the more we focus on growth, the smaller we get.  We aren’t using our resources to produce outcomes.  We are using them to increase output.
  3. Understand the difference between activity and productivity — being busy is not the same thing as being effective.  I was part of a team — perhaps the worst I have ever endured — where for four years we met regularly, filled long days full of activities and conversations, that produced virtually no results.  The last meeting we ever had before the team was dissolved was a mirror of the first — still asking why are we here, who do we serve, what is our purpose, what are our tasks after four long, uneventful years.  Part of the problem was poor leadership — a person gifted at management who lacked vision and creativity.  If this person were given a jigsaw puzzle with the picture to follow, she could organize a group to put it together.  However, when the task was to create a jigsaw puzzle, she was totally stumped.  The questions of what picture, what size, how many pieces, what shapes were simply too abstract for her to grasp — so we struggled.  In the absence of a clear goal (Promised Land) she kept us moving in place.  We were very busy — we just didn’t ever produce anything.  And after four years our irrelevancy was clear to everyone.  If you don’t know where you’re going, just wandering around probably won’t take you anywhere you want to go.  How often do we confuse activity with productivity in the local church.  If we are busy enough, we never have time to step back and ask, “but what difference does all this activity make?”  Effective leaders continuously work to define clear outcomes — priorities, goals and objectives that allow people to measure progress and results.  Doing a Disciple Bible Study simply to get twelve people through the 34 weeks is activity.  Doing a Disciple Bible Study to equip people to grow in their faith and use and live their gifts within and beyond the congregation is productivity.
  4. Look inward, not outward — United Methodism is one of the greatest “gifted and talented” programs in the world.  We have physicists, doctors, teachers, systems-thinkers, organizational development experts, philosophers, theologians, marketers, broadcasters, musicians, and on and on.  So, when our task is to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,” what do we do?  We hire outsiders to do it for us.  For crying out loud.  How long do we have to waste before we realize that no one else owns our solutions?  Our problems?  Our solutions?  Our opportunities?  Our Vision!  God has given us EVERYTHING we need to be an effective, faithful church.  Hiring secular culture to remake us in its own image is a loser’s game.  Congregations that have turned the corner and now thrive all report the same thing — we needed to stop looking outside for someone else to tell us what to do.  We had to engage in the hard, but deeply satisfying, work of prayerful discernment, faithful obedience, shared leadership, and deep contemplation about God’s will.  There is no magic bullet — no “7 Keys, 12 Steps, 40 Days” formula or “one-size-fits-all” panacea.  Each context is different, each organization is unique.  What is constant is the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.  We need to spend more time looking inward, and less chasing after the next new thing that promises salvation, but delivers same-old/same-old.
  5. Make sure actions have consequences — what are the consequences for the following behaviors?
    • a person takes membership vows in a local congregation then only attends worship once or twice a year
    • an ordained pastor doesn’t attend annual conference
    • a church refuses to pay apportionments
    • a pastor fails to complete continuing education requirements
    • a person agrees to serve on a church committee but misses almost every meeting

 These are just a few examples of things that happen all the time — and the reason they happen all the time is because we allow them to.  We do not hold people accountable to their promises, commitments, vows and responsibilities.  We do not punish bad behavior, nor do we tend to recognize and reward good behavior.  We simply drift, allowing everyone to do what they please.  This is a recipe for mediocrity at best, disaster at worst.  Christianity in general, and church leadership specifically, needs to mean something.  There should be some basic standards that we hold one another to.  Without clear expectations and consequences (accountability simply defined) there is no baseline for continuous improvement and development.  If there is no true accountability, discipleship is an impossibility.  (Reflect on this: without accountability, discipleship is impossible)  If prayer, study of scripture, fellowship, worship, service to others, and our sacramental life are truly essential to our spirituality and discipleship, we CANNOT allow them to continue to be treated as options.  Low standards + low expectations – accountability = what we have now.

The current cliché is: this ain’t rocket science.  But the problem is, too many people are scared — and fear rarely produces good, rational, productive results.  When leaders don’t know what to do, they do whatever they can think of.  Mass hypnosis seems a better alternative than mass hysteria, so whole groups begin chanting the same mantra, and before you know it a bad idea becomes conventional wisdom.  But ours is a faith that defies the conventional and seeks transformation.  We are not to be driven by fear, but by faith.  And God has given us everything we need to be faithful, relevant and effective.  Success is within our reach, but only if we stop worrying so much about failing.

12 replies

  1. Right on, Dan! You’re the star over the stable.

    How long will it take? I’m reminded of the bumper sticker “God’s not done with me, yet.” Presumably, when God is done with us, when he has finished another masterpiece, we graduate to the the Shining City. So, how long will it take to get any one congregation or a whole denomination “done”? As long as it takes; maybe almost eternity. they can tell when they graduate. They get promoted to the Shining City, and they’re no longer seen on earth. (So maybe we should celebrate more when a church closes, the implication being that God finished his work.)

    This ain’t rocket science. No, but look what managerial politics did to Challenger.

    See you Sunday!

  2. You do realize this makes too much sense, don’t you? No one is going to take this seriously. How could we possibly justify all the waste and poor results if we took such simple, logical steps forward?

  3. i like your five “observation-suggestions”! Among a number of things, i really appreciate your emphasis on God having provided all we need and each situation is unique. We do suffer from the perceived need to look busy–either Jesus or the DS is coming, and so often how we evaluate success or “failure” is via numbers, when in fact something transformational may have happened. We may even KNOW this as leader or pastor, but the final accounting is often numbers-based.

    i do wonder (read: “have concerns”) about how a pastor can function while acting on your five points. Since so much of what we are being told lately does in fact seem to have a lot to do with the survival of the institution and the structure, how does a pastor interested in possibilities, outcomes, productivity, accountable discipleship, and “working out one’s salvation with fear and trembling” find support from superiors and congregation to work on these things? MUST we “pay the rent” before we start on these things? Have we lost a sense of what makes “church” different from “business”?

    In the Wisconsin Conference, i suppose circuit meetings could (and may) provide the sort of encouragement and wisdom needed. That wasn’t working so well in my experience as i drew nigh unto retirement. i do recall with deep appreciation the superintendents who called clergy together on a regular basis (as a district group or a smaller grouping) and left the agenda largely up to those who gathered. Part of that turned into “How is it with your soul?” and part of it became a practical give and take of what was working and what was not. A large part of my satisfaction was simply the opportunity to converse with my colleagues.

    The Woman with Whom i Love and i were on Skype last evening for the first time. Makes me wonder if even something like that could help connect or re-connect pastors…. This from a fellow with no cell phone….

  4. One comment regarding point #5, “Make sure actions have consequences….” I absolutely agree that ordained pastors that don’t attend Annual Conference, complete CEU’s, engage in regular intervals of retreat and self reflection, etc. should be held accountable.

    I am in a rather unique situation where I am serving in one AC while retaining my membership in a far-away AC. I elected, after conversation with my Bishop, to attend the AC where I am serving. It was an interesting experience. Since I knew very few people, plus I had no voting privilege, I essentially was a nearly “invisible” observer. I noted behaviors that would confirm your point–cliques, insider conversations, not to mention a very tired, “glazed” look among many…and that was just among pastors! The laity appeared frustrated by the process, bored, tired, and disconnected. This of course was not true among every person that I observed. I am speaking in generalities.

    But…these observations were consistent enough to lead me to believe that an “outsider” might have trouble understanding why this is relevant, necessary…not to mention applicable to quality growth in Christ. Conference shouldn’t be this way. It should be our stand-alone event that demonstrates to the outside world why we exist, that we are different because Christ called us to a different sort of life, that we do care about others (the outside world) more than ourselves, that we set a tone that inspires others to inquire further about being a Christian in the tradition of the UMC!

    Thanks for another great post.

  5. My father died in February. Right before he died he showed me something that most people will never see-an original Methodist Society book. It was virtually a who’s who of the town founders of my home town. It made me wonder why my family chose to be Methodists. Some did not but my family not only chose to stick with it, but also chose to help build the church. To be truthful, if I wasn’t a Methodist by default, I’m not sure that I would have picked it myself based on what I see happening in the church today.

    So I started doing some digging-reading Wesley’s sermons and reading through the Christian Library which Wesley put together for use by his lay ministers. The old language is a bit of tough sledding but once you get past that I can sum it up in one word-WOW!

    Wesley did not shy away from sin, hell or grace. We talk grace but it’s hard to put it in context if you don’t realize the value of it-if you don’t understand what you were saved from! He also understood that mission was not about doing something just because-it came from a changed heart.

    I believe the UMC has gotten too dependent on statistics and numbers and consultants with the “magic bullet”. You’re right, if we don’t change hearts it doesn’t matter what the latest catchy ad campaign is-it will not be effective over the long run! The inward change has to come first.

    You have said what I have discovered over the last few months.

    • Thank you Trudy!!!! I too am Methodist by default but started having serious issues with the way things were going. January 2009 I immersed myself in Methodist history and John Wesley’s writings–did I receive ashock–but it felt like I had come home from the wilderness! I knew then we needed to return to our roots. Last night I think I may have experienced “true church” for the first time in my 50+ years–seven people from my congregation, gathered around my dining tableafter a no-fuss supper, with Bibles open navigating questions posed by Max Lucado on Ephesians–which is about “church”–and is another whole other story. No major programming, simple announcement in the bulletin, me, untrained, stepping out of my comfort zone, randomly selecting this “easily done book”–lots of discussion and sharing–clock not running–if two of the people had not needed to get home to attend to animals, I don’t know how long we would have sat there–absolutely amazing. Can not wait for next Thursday.

      • Betsy, how exciting! Blessings upon blessings upon you for having the courage to lead!

        I know what you mean about shock. I’m slowly beginning to grasp why my ancestors chose Methodism. When I read Wesley’s sermons there are things that just jump off the page and I’m like “wow, I see it, I get it, I understand!”

    • In 1998, I released the FaithQuest Bible Study which looked at congregational development through a Biblical/theological lens — Luke, Acts, Ephesians and the writings of John Wesley. For years I received thanks for including the Wesley sermons and letters. Many lifelong Methodists had never read anything by Wesley and they were amazed at how impressive Mr. Wesley truly can be. I often write about the importance of knowing who we are and why we are here, and that it is tragic that we don’t know our own story. Our history serves as a foundation upon which to build a future — but we cannot do that if we live in ignorance of it.

      • Dan, I like the premise that studying our history is helpful for congregational development. I have to say though that I have found this to be very personal (studying our history) and profoundly life changing.

        It’s hard to explain or put in to words. It’s like stripping away all of the fancy froo froo and seeing what the core really truly looks like and discovering that it is more beautiful than all of the shellac used to cover it up in the first place! It’s like finding the genuine article.

        Again, the best word I can come up with to describe it is WOW!

      • Dan,
        I bought a copy of this book years ago and yes, it did help me understand our heritage better.
        However, if I wanted to study or read more on Wesley’s sermons, I find it difficult to understand (English is my second language). Do you know of any book that “translates” these writings to modern English?
        Thanks.

  6. Trudy, good description on stripping off the fancy froo. In the same vein, A friend and I are putting together a book describing the ministries offered by the church. Initially it was going to be categorized along the lines of “Reach, Teach, Serve”, part of our catchy slogan but it kept getting bogged down. When, after reading Dan’s writings, it dawned on me to present them in the context of our membership vows–it has added a whole new dimension to the project and has been like a breath of fresh air in many ways. When I told my 26 year old daughter about it, she was a little more to the point–she said “How can you go wrong with that, you are cutting through all the crap!”
    As far as me “leading”, right now I am at the bottom of the heap in many ways–including working on the ministry book–but one day after I said that to a friend, the light came on, water begins boiling from the bottom up–a transformation can occur from the bottom. I fully expected resistance to structuring the ministry book based on the vows, but the next layer of heirarchy OK’d the concept–so we will see–only about two more layers to go. The teaching opportunities are phenomenal!
    One thing about Wesley–he is so practical and down to earth–when I read a lot of his teachings, the light came on and I knew I could do that. I think the older English is the biggest deterrent. But once you get into it and spend some time, it falls into place. But so many people are afraid to try.

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