The Obvious Truth Nobody Seems to Know

Okay, here it is — the answer to all our problems in The United Methodist Church.  It is so simple, you probably won’t believe/accept it.  It comes in two parts — the first part is fundamental conventional wisdom, the second part, not so much.  It answers the question: “what is the key to successful, effective ministry in The United Methodist Church?”  Part one of the answer is “pastoral leadership,” but the second part is not “who is a stellar preacher, theologian, celebrity, visionary, organizer, fund-raiser, entrepreneur, or administrator.”  No, the second part of the statement is “that spends at least 50% of their time developing lay people.”  Scanning my own research and the research results of three other studies, the strongest correlation between congregational vitality and pastoral leadership is in empowering and equipping lay people to live their discipleship out in the world in their daily lives.  Who would have guessed?

Oh, sure, there are very high-profile exceptions, and in the 20-30 year short-term a shiny, perky celebrity pastor can carry the façade of health and vitality for a church, but for deep impact and lasting value, it is pastors who seek to work themselves out of a job who benefit the church the most.  To work with laity — to help them discern gifts and talents, then to work with them through training, practice and engagement to transform those gifts and talents into lived strengths?  That is the true key to congregational vitality.

But too many of our pastoral leaders have confused their ministry with the ministry of the church.  The laos — the whole people of God — are clergy and laity working together to discern and do the will of God.  “Pastor” means “shepherd,” and pastors who remember and embrace this are the very best pastors.  The laity are the church in the world.  Pastors stand in a unique, and critically important, position to equip, empower, and enable laity to be in ministry to all the world.  Pastors don’t do ministry for the church or for the congregation.  Good pastors enable the congregation to be in ministry — and not just a handful of representatives.  When you look at real “vital” congregations, the number one indicator (more important than worship attendance or small groups) is the percentage of participants actively engaged in service to others.  Some of our touted “vital congregations” struggle to get 1/3 of their membership to church on a Sunday morning.  However, we have hundreds of congregations where not only do 80% percent attend on a regular basis, but 80%+ are engaged in some form of leadership or ministry engagement.  This is the true definition of vitality — changed lives impacting the world in transforming ways.  Interesting that our denomination doesn’t see this metric as important as numbers and dollars…

This shouldn’t be an unfamiliar model.  If you want the textbook example I would highly recommend this great set of books on the subject — the gospels.  Jesus provides an intensive example of lay empowerment.  And his story is one worth studying for those of us hoping to produce fantastic results quickly with a minimum of effort.  (It doesn’t work that way…)  Jesus didn’t just teach it or preach it; he lived it.  Disciple-shaping is time-consuming and heavily interactive.  It isn’t information based, but relational/formation based.  It isn’t a “program,” but an unfolding.  It isn’t linear, but looping and erratic.  It isn’t about destination, so much as journey; not about being so much as becoming.

The day of the superstar pastor leading a church to glory is thankfully and mercifully coming to an end.  The myth of the mega-church as the Promised Land has been debunked.  Our future is not in materialistic commercialism and market strategies.  The hope for our future is in relational community geared toward shared service and gift-based fruit-producing living.  The institutional preservationist’s mindset is beginning to crack and crumble — even a few of our more spiritual and insightful bishops are beginning to say so.

I often hear people lament about the poor preaching or lack of charismatic leadership in the church.  Yet, I see some churches with mediocre preachers and milquetoast leaders motivating whole congregations of people to love, give, serve and grow in transformative ways.  What’s the difference?  These leaders understand they aren’t there to perform for the masses or build a business.  They get it that they are servant leaders — present in the community of faith to enable all to reach their fullest potential.  When pastors focus on developing gifted laity to be the church for the world, amazing things happen.

13 replies

  1. Hello Dan & others. This is a good insight to our struggle but the way forward will require that the current process of training pastors change radically. We weren’t trained to train others, we aren’t expected to train others either. Every time I’ve tried to move in that direction, the backlash is that we pay you to pastor this church, keep the money coming in, keep the building functioning, etc. So two things need working on, how do we become developers of the laity, specifics, how to do that, what to preach on,& how do you overcome the huge expectation that this is wrong, that we don’t accept the Bible as a model, why should we function like Eph. 4:11 or Acts 6? And when will the supervisors allow us to work through the change over and back us, if we see a big dip in the worship at least primarily, and the loss of apportionments when we can’t pay or need to redirect to find the trainers for the laity? I’m not a superstar by any means, but I was taught to do the ministry and pretty well, not train others for it. That was never mentioned and I haven’t found any resources that will help with this process, except people say we ought to.


  2. OK, I’ve been thinking about what you have written here a great deal. Of course, you are absolutely right. BUT, this looks like a call for much smaller church communities–really more of a house-church type movement.

    I just retired as a UM pastor, and have wondered several times at my relief at retirement when I genuinely loved being a pastor. It dawned on me a couple of weeks ago that I no longer have to do the things I am not any good at. Things like endless conference meetings and reports, dealing with physical plant issues, supervising debt renegotiation and planning for capital funds drives and looking at expansion of facilities.

    What did I love? Just what you are calling for here: the opportunities to pour myself into the lives of others; to listen to those struggling and to be midwife to those being birthed into new life in Jesus; to send the flock out after times of teaching and worship as salt and light to the world; the hours I spent with the youth in the midst of their teen-age mental and spiritual challenges; the development of those who would teach others and take leadership in our communal moments of worship and also move into leadership roles in the community in which the church resided.

    If pastors are to actually be faithful to the real call on our lives, there will no longer be massively funded General Boards and Agencies, unbelievable payroll loads for Conference staff and offices, “celebrity” clergy whose compensation packages sit in the mid to high six figure ranges, or DS’s who are promoted to those spots because they messed up as clergy in local churches.

    The current structure of the UMC would have to be dismantled (which, of course, is not really a bad idea) and started afresh, as lean and flexible and with expectations that pastors come to this work preparing to sacrifice themselves as Jesus did.

    It right but it is not going to sell.

    My oldest son, a consultant for multi-billion dollar businesses world-wide, has recently insisted I read a book called “The Blue :Line Imperative.” This is a tough read for someone without extensive business background, but I am starting to get the gist of it: any organization that manages for red-line needs (“We MUST get the numbers up in worship and in contributions no matter how much we will pay for our decisions in the long run) is doomed to fail. The Blue Line consists of decisions that will pay off for the long run, and organizations that focus on them will stay alive and healthy. The author also reminds the reader that what is measured is where the employees (i.e. clergy) will put their energy. And what is measured in the UMC? Nickels and noses. NOT discipleship. It is nearly impossible to quantify and therefore nearly impossible to reward by a climb up the clergy career ladder.

    As I said, what you write is correct, but it is not going to sell.

  3. So, what would your church do without its pastor? who could step up? we spent about a year without a pastor. We did all the bits ourselves. It took a lot of us. (most of us work elsewhere) We discovered there were parts of church we liked doing that we’d never done ourselves before. We also strongly desired and set a committee to finding us a pastor (we aren’t Methodist, more of a diverse group). At first, to keep things running, a dozen or so met and divided jobs and then recruited more to help each part. We needed to meet weekly for about 6 months and then bi-weekly, finally got it to once a month after a year. We encouraged the freedom to try and fail and learn from that and try again…..we felt that public failure met with grace encouraged others to try. We looked at other churches and took bits that we wanted. We asked others and listened. We reached out to our community and to other churches to see what the needs were that we could help with and how we could be of use. We invited guest preachers, musicians, those that had missions….
    And when we called a pastor, we explained that we wanted to keep on working but we needed his mentoring, education, and experience. We wanted him to partner with us. We offered more vacation but less pay (based on what we thought we could afford).
    He agreed to come help us. He has said it was the hardest job he’s ever had. (we don’t always just follow)
    But, although none of us have the gifts our pastor has, we are all encouraged—empowered to use our gifts….to find our gifts….to try things out. We visit the sick, the lonely, the new people. We have people willing to do all the parts of Sunday morning or Wednesday eve. We go out in the community. We maintain and some of us helped remodel the building we are using. Pastor has ideas he shares with us, we have ideas we share with him. We would not be the church we are without all of us. It is a little like having a parade where those parading and those watching take turns, and invite all the passersby to join in.
    BUT……we started without a pastor and without “how things have always been done here”……and I think turning the ship around is a much bigger task. Can you try to empower a few willing folks, and then a few more? Probably the “willing to fail and try again” is very important. and grace for all.

    • I’m not sure I understand your opening question. You don’t read anywhere in my blog a suggestion that we don’t need pastors, do you? The point I am making is that pastors exist to serve a vital and critical role — one that many pastors abdicate and ignore.

      • no, the church needs a pastor as a shepherd…..but sometimes looking at that question or being forced to do without, can show what us regular people can do besides sit in the pews. To empower lay people, they need to feel like they are needed and allowed to do meaningful things.

  4. Based on what I have observed in our local church is that the Nominations and Leadership Development Committee meets only during a certain “season” in our church calendar – and that is before the scheduled Charge Conference. The said meeting has only one purpose – to make sure they can nominate new set of officers for during the Charge.

  5. Thanks, Dan. I’m trying to think about what 50% of stuff I am doing now that I should set aside in the interests of what you suggest here. And I need to get a clear handle on what it means to develop lay people.

  6. All I can say, is “hello?”……where and how did these simple concepts get buried and why? We may be overeducated when we miss and leave the basic tenets of our faith. Amen.

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