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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.