Category: leadership

Sustainability: A Small Church Concern

Small churches are concerned about a lot of things including growth, finances, and ministry programs.  But one issue seems to cut across all of these small church concerns — sustainability. Small churches often do not ask the question, “How are we going to sustain this?” before launching a new program or ministry.

A quick glance at the typical small church’s schedule illustrates the importance of sustainability.  Most small churches have at least two weekly programs — worship and Sunday School.  Think about what it takes to sustain these efforts each week.

First, Sunday School.  If yours is like ours, we have classes for adults, teens, elementary children, and preschoolers.  Each of these classes needs a meeting space, some type of literature, supplies, and leaders.  Our church also maintains attendance records for Sunday School, so there are administrative functions that have to be attended to each week as well.

Our Sunday School spends about $4,000 a year on literature and supplies; has designated rooms for each group to meet in (which involves utility costs and furnishings); and, utilizes somewhere between 12 and 18 leaders each Sunday.  We have all of that infrastructure for an average Sunday School attendance of about 50 each week.

Then there’s worship.  Worship at our church involves the following:

  • a preacher (usually me);
  • a part-time accompanist;
  • a part-time choir director;
  • a choir of between 8 and 15 each week; and supplies like choir robes, hymnals, choir anthems and other special music;
  • meeting space (our sanctuary);
  • part-time custodial services to clean and prepare the space each week;
  • audio-visual equipment and volunteer operators;
  • ushers;
  • a group to prepare for communion and baptism each month;
  • administrative support for bulletins, envelopes, and other printed material;
  • worship participants who pray and read Scripture; and,
  • a flower committee for altar flowers and sanctuary decoration at special seasons of the year.

Each week we involve between 20 and 40 people just to provide worship for 80 to 100 people.

Given the above examples, what guidelines can you use to determine whether or not a ministry is sustainable?  A rule of thumb might be that a church needs 1 leader for every 3-5 participants.  This 20-33% ratio seems to hold true for other programs that we have, including our Wednesday night fellowship meal and the age-group programs that follow it. But remember: the younger the group, the more leaders per participants are needed.

What’s the point here?  Very simply, determine how many leaders and what resources your church needs to mount and sustain a new program.  Of course, specific programs will require different mixes of space, financial resources, supplies, and personnel.  But whatever programs your church is considering, these programs will need some combination of those elements.

As a pastor, don’t do what I have done too many times in the past — start a program by yourself, or one that is inadequately staffed or funded, hoping that others will help.  That approach seldom works.  Believe me, I know.

In my opinion, small churches function best when they realize that they cannot sustain more than a few weekly or monthly programs.  But small churches can supplement their weekly programs with one-time efforts such as special programs at Christmas and Easter; a once-a-year push to feed the hungry, or collect relief supplies; or, special outreach opportunities.  Small churches can rally higher percentages of their congregations for one-time events than for on-going weekly or monthly events.

In planning your church calendar for 2012, consider which programs you can sustain, and what other one-time events your church can orchestrate.  Sustainability is important for small churches.  When adequate consideration is given to what your programs will require to sustain them, your small church can avoid the disappointment of overloaded leaders and failed programs.

A Critique of the Film “Divided”

I recently was asked by a church publication in Taiwan to respond to the controversial film, Divided.  Here is my response. I would be interested in yours.  If you haven’t seen the film, here’s the link to the film’s website.

A Pastor Looks At the Film “Divided”

The recent film, Divided, has attracted national media attention for its critique of age-based church ministries, targeting youth ministry in particular.  But despite the film’s message that families should be more involved in faith development in their own children, the film makes questionable connections in its attempt to discredit any and all age-based church ministry, including Sunday School.

Despite its message that family is the basic unit of faith development, the film’s weaknesses overshadow its main point.  Apparently it isn’t enough to suggest that age-based ministries might not be effective.  The filmmakers not only attempt to discredit youth ministry, Sunday School, and other forms of age-based ministry, but they seek to demonize them as well.  By linking Plato, Rousseau, and Robert Raikes, the founder of Sunday School, into a “pagan” conspiracy to rip children from their parents’ influence, the film fails in intellectual and historic honesty.

Demonizing those who differ with us has become standard practice in politics in the United States, and now apparently it is standard practice in discussions about church ministry as well. The film seeks to equate age-based ministry with public education, the welfare state, and other public institutions that have fallen out of favor politically in the United States.

The film also speaks of “the church” as though the only expression of the church was in the United States of America.  And, despite the appearance of two African-American pastors as interviewees, the film seems to direct its critique of church ministry toward white, middle-class American church congregations.

Completely lacking in the film is acknowledgement that the church of Jesus Christ is a multi-faceted, multi-cultural body that finds unique expression within the cultural contexts in which it exists.

While there is no doubt that church attendance in the United States has been declining, the film Divided does not provide an answer to that decline.  Credible church historians and academics see multiple reasons for the decline in U.S. church attendance, and none have suggested that age-based programs are the reason.

The film and its producers could have done the church in the U. S. a great service.  Instead, they have produced a film that supports one questionable perspective on church life in white middle-class America, which will be largely irrelevant to other expressions of church in other nations and cultures.

Gather Your Online Congregation Now

Today I was talking to a friend, Jim Stovall, who teaches journalism at the University of Tennessee, and is a pioneer in developing and teaching web journalism.

In our conversation about how the internet is changing newspapers and journalism, Jim said, “I tell my students to start now, to become entrepreneur journalists, by using the internet to build an audience. Then, when they graduate, they’ll carry that audience with them wherever they work.”

Jim’s statement got me to thinking about churches and what seminary does to prepare you for ministry. While seminary does give students the opportunity to “try out” ministry through internships and “field work,” it usually ends there.

But, if Jim is right (and I know he is about journalism), why shouldn’t ministerial students begin to gather their congregations now, online?

Here’s what I believe an internet presence does for those preparing for vocational ministry:

  1. Provides valuable experience in writing, editing, and communicating. Pastors are primarily in the communication business. Okay, business may not be a good description, but what we do is communicate — well or poorly — the Gospel. We preach, teach, counsel, pray, encourage, and lead — all of those actions are types of communication. Maintaining a consistent, quality web presence is good training for anyone, but especially for communicators.
  2. Creates opportunities for handling both criticism and praise. Many of my conversations with pastors deal with pastors who have handled either criticism or praise inappropriately. Consistent bloggers learn to tone down the temptation to “flame” their critics, and also receive praise with humble restraint. Learning to handle both in real-life ministry situations is invaluable to successful ministry.
  3. Helps sharpen your message. Jim also said that people go to specific websites to find information they cannot find anywhere else. When you’re thinking about your online message, ask yourself, “What am I trying to convey to my audience, and how is that different from what’s out there now?” Obviously, my niche is small churches and small church leaders. Narrowing your focus to families, singles, parents, youth, music, and so on, and becoming an authority in your field will help sharpen your ministry, and focus your energy.
  4. Gathers your community. The big point is that now, before you graduate from seminary, take a church staff position, become a pastor, or plant a church, you can gather an online community. That community can help shape your ministry, and even lead to opportunities for ministry itself, such as a conference speaker, author, spiritual director, or consultant.

Of course, even those of us who are serving churches can enjoy the same benefits, and I have in the six years I have been writing Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor.

Both ministry and journalism are changing, and the internet is disrupting our notions of what a newspaper is, and what constitutes a congregation. We have never before lived in an age where anyone can have access to everyone. Not even Billy Graham, who has preached to more people in more countries than anyone in history had the opportunity for communication that we do today. Whether newspapers and ministers will seize this opportunity remains to be seen.

What do you think? Have you begun or expanded your ministry on the internet? And, if so, what does that look like? What are the criteria for an effective web ministry, in your opinion? Fire away in the comments. Thanks.

Frame This Starbucks Leadership Quote

“What leadership means is the courage it takes to talk about things that, in the past, perhaps we wouldn’t have, because I’m not right all the time.”  — Howard D. Schultz, Starbucks CEO in the NY Times

If you read Pour Your Heart Into It, as I did, you came away believing that Howard Schultz was one of the great entrepreneurs of the new millenium.  And he was.  Starbucks was his dream, even if he almost named it after the Pequod (the ship in Melville’s Moby Dick) rather than the first mate, Starbuck.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Schultz retired from Starbucks to live the life that he had worked so hard to enjoy.  The only problem was, Starbucks took a nose-dive.  They opened too many stores, stocked too much merchandise, lost their appeal to trendsetters, and became another mass-market retailer.  Schultz returned to turn around the company only to find it a much different company than when he left.

But Schultz learned to listen.  And he learned to listen even when his instinct told him differently.  The company’s recovery now appears to be on solid ground, and Howard Schultz is now more “humble” and collaborative than before.

While I realize that not all business leadership principles can be translated to church, this one can.  I’m talking to pastors here, because I’ve learned this lesson the hard way myself.  Learn to listen.  Because, as Howard Schultz says, you’re not right all the time.  Good advice.

Rob Bell’s hell book appearing here soon

Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived is already generating tons of controversy. Harper One is sending me a pre-publication copy to review. I also hope to snag an interview with Rob about the book. The book hits the stores on March 29 and I hope to have a review up before that. Until then, watch this promotional video and tell me what you think? Is Bell just teasing us, is he a heretic as some are saying, or is this just good PR for the book? Let me know what you think.

What Do Wisconsin and Egypt Teach Us About Leadership?

Update: BuildingChurchLeaders.com, a Christianity Today site,  cross-posted this on their Off The Agenda blog today.

The news from both the Middle East and the midwest has been interesting lately.  On the one hand, government leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, and now Libya are being challenged by their own people.  On the other hand, here in the heartland of the United States and the home of the Green Bay Packers another challenge is being played out as thousands of demonstrators oppose the budget cuts of a conservative governor.

Before anyone starts siding with or against Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, let me issue this disclaimer:  I am not interested in the politics of either Wisconsin or Libya for the purposes of this discussion.  What I am interested in is what both of these events teach us about leadership, especially church leadership.

Here’s my point:  Egypt’s struggle for relief from the oppression of the Mubarak regime could have ended very differently.  But it didn’t.  Egypt’s leaders realized that common, everyday people had legitimate grievances.  And when an attempt was made to crush the revolution by force, these same leaders were rebuked by world opinion.  In other words, the leaders of Egypt, however reluctantly, listened to the will of the people.

The result in Egypt was a change in direction, and a new future which is still being formed. Other countries followed Egypt’s example when royal regimes in Bahrain and Jordan pledged reforms in response to demonstrations there. Libya by contrast, is a study in the use of force, violence, and propaganda by Gaddafi against his own people.

Here in the United States, conservative governors like Scott Walker are standing firm, refusing to talk with their opposition.  Political intransigence has produced a legislative logjam, and it’s doubtful if either side will get what it wants.  Politics aside, what are the lessons about leadership that we should be learning from these events?

Here are three quick observations:

First, leadership depends upon the consent of followers. Once the majority of the Egyptian people turned on Mubarak, even he knew his days were numbered.  The same is true in churches.  Just because you have the title of pastor, doesn’t mean you can exercise power without regard to the opinions and feelings of your church members.  Leadership, by its very definition, depends upon the cooperation and support of those being led.

Secondly, force succeeds sometimes, but not all the time. China successfully suppressed the democracy movement by killing students in Tiannamen Square in 1989.  Gaddafi is holding off the opposition with force for now.  Pastors can push and cajole to get their way sometimes.  But the toll in both the political world and the faith community can be very high.  I have read that 1,000 pastors leave the ministry each month, and much of that has to be due to conflict.

Finally, how you get there is just as important as where you’re going. The journey is just as important as the destination, especially in churches.  While dictatorships are a sure way to keep things under control, eventually that kind of government becomes unbearable for its citizens.  The same is true for churches, and especially small churches.  How we deal with difficulty, how we treat each other, and the means we use to accomplish our goals are just as important as the final outcome.

I do understand that churches need to change, that new people ought to be reached, and that sometimes the process is painful.  But world events offer us a ringside seat on lessons of leadership.  Listening and learning gets my vote.  How about you?

CAIRO, EGYPT - FEBRUARY 11: An anti-government demonstrator weeps with joy upon hearing the news of the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. After 18 days of widespread protests, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has now left Cairo for his home in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheik, announced that he would step down. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

NOC2010 is here!

Wednesday I head off to San Diego for my fourth year at the National Outreach Convention, known affectionately as NOC.  I hope you’ll be there for all of the workshops, discussion forums, worship sessions, major speakers, and more.  One of the really great things about NOC is the wealth of information, resources, and people that you encounter — all focused on outreach.

I’ll be leading a breakout workshop titled, Outreach in the Crises of Life. If you’re at NOC, drop in on Friday afternoon at 2:30 PM for 90-minutes of sharing about reaching out to those who are experiencing the most difficult situations in life.  On Friday morning at 7:15 AM (bring coffee!) I am facilitating the Small Church Ideas Exchange.

Of course, I’ll see my friends at Outreach magazine, which I hope you subscribe to.  Outreach publishes an annual small church issue, plus I write the “Small Church, Big Idea” column in each regular issue.  Lots of small church stuff including good ideas that real people have used in real churches.  I’ll be live blogging, and Facebooking some NOC events, so stay tuned!

God’s Timing Is Important Even For Programs

God’s timing is important.  It’s so important that the writers of the New Testament distinguished between chronological time, chronos;  and, the right time, kairos.  Of course, there is much more to it than that, but you get the point.  The biblical writers knew the difference between the time of day, and the opportune time.

At our small church we’re experiencing a Kairos Moment.  Not a Kodak moment, but an it’s-the-right-time moment.  For over 3 years we’ve been trying to get something going for children’s ministry.  We tried several approaches, special events, and none of it worked.  Attendance was poor, enthusiasm was in short supply, and it just didn’t happen.

But this month we’ve seen a sudden resurgence in our children’s ministry.  Last fall we created a Family Ministry Team composed of young adults who were all new members of our church.  Some have children, some don’t, but all of them are interested in enhancing our outreach and ministry to families.

Their recommendations were presented to, and adopted by our church this summer.  This month the first of those recommendations began to take shape.  They recommended a change in our Sunday School curriculum, and the addition of a younger children’s teaching time during the worship service.  And on Wednesday nights, we now have children’s missions groups for all ages from preschool through elementary school.

Our Sunday School class, which we started 3 years ago for younger adults has also grown.  Sunday we had a new family with three children attend both Sunday School and worship.  At our annual church picnic yesterday, most of these newer members and their kids were present.  They enjoyed fishing, playing with each other, riding the 4-wheelers around the farm, and just being outdoors on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.

On the way back to the church on the church bus, a couple of us commented that “this is God’s timing” because all of our efforts to get children’s ministry cranking had failed previously.  Our plan is to “grow up” our own teen group by starting with the children we have who in a few years will themselves be teenagers.  It’s a long-term plan, but one that I can see taking shape now.

My point in all of this is that God’s timing is important.  Too often we see God’s timing only in big events.  But even a program like Sunday School and children’s church, or children’s mission groups, is in the Father’s hands, too.  At the right time, the right people will come forward, the children will appear, and God’s providence will prove infallible again.

If you’re struggling to get a program going, don’t despair.  Keep praying, keep hoping, keep dreaming of the day that God will raise up the right leaders, and things will begin to take shape.  Have you had that experience?  If so, share something in the comments to encourage others.  Thanks.

A Small Church Causing Big Problems

Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center, leads a congregation of 50 people in Gainesville, Florida.  Normally, churches with 50 members are not featured on CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC, the NY Times, Washington Post, and every other media outlet in existence.  But, Terry and his flock, like Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, have thrust themselves onto the world stage.  All because Pastor Terry, who wears a .40 caliber handgun on his hip, decided to burn Korans on September 11.

But, according to Der Spiegel, a popular German magazine and website, Pastor Terry was tossed out of his Cologne, Germany congregation a couple of years ago because of the atmosphere of “fear and terror.”  Also, he was accused of allegedly misappropriating funds, and failing to abide by German wage laws.  Terry Jones apparently made church members perform hours of free labor to benefit the church’s bottom-line.  We haven’t seen this trick since Tony Alamo made rhinestone denim jackets famous in Nashville where he sold them to country music stars for a fortune, but failed to pay his workers adequately, if at all.

But back to Terry Jones.  Jones embodies the very fundamentalism he seeks to destroy.  Except, of course, he thinks he’s right and Muslims are wrong (actually, Jones said they were more than wrong, they were of the devil).  In Terry Jones’ very small universe, of which he is the center, he is the arbiter and protector of truth, justice and the American way.  And, he insists he is going to burn Korans on Saturday.

What do we do with abusers of religion like Jones, who masquerade as Christians while saying “it’s time to hit back?”  (I think Jesus took “hitting back” off the list of things we as his followers get to do, but Jones seems to have skipped over the Sermon on the Mount in the race to his 15-minutes of fame.)  We speak out against him, and Fred Phelps, and Tony Alamo, and all of the other charlatans, megalomaniacs, and delusional leaders who gather a handful of people and call them a church.

Jones is not exemplifying Christian values, and is certainly not the model of Christian ministry.  And don’t bother to take me to task for “judging a brother.”  Two reasons:  1) he is not my brother in the faith but an impostor who gives us all a bad name; and, 2) I am not judging him because his actions are self-evident.  It takes no discernment, which is implied in judging,  to see through his ego-centered antics.  If you think I’m too harsh, re-read the New Testament letters of Paul when he talks about charlatans like Jones.  The tragedy is that he will put at-risk Americans and American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all the Middle East, and he will further inflame the animosity between religions by his actions.

On a more positive note, EthicsDaily.com has an excellent resource for starting a Christian-Muslim discussion.  The DVD is titled Different Books, Common Word, and the film tells the story of how Christians and Muslims in America work together for the common good.  This film was shown on ABC affiliates last year, and is a high-quality, helpful resource in focusing the conversation about religious pluralism on positive examples.

Normally, I write about small churches that are solving big problems.  Sadly today we have the example of a small church that is creating big problems.  Speak out against this abuse, and then be an example of peace to others, even others of different faiths.

Lead, Care, Proclaim

Years ago, LifeWay’s focus on pastoral ministry was contained in three words — lead, care, proclaim.  Lead included church administration with its committee meetings, planning sessions, and member training.  Care involved pastoral care of the congregation, and the pastor’s training of and relationship with caregivers such as deacons.  Proclaim covered the pastor’s preaching and teaching ministry both at Sunday morning worship, and in smaller group settings such as Wednesday Bible study.

To support these tasks, LifeWay (then called The Baptist Sunday School Board) produced periodicals like Church Administration and Proclaim magazine.  I don’t recall a pastoral care magazine, but maybe there was one. My point is these three words summed up the pastor’s work then.  I still find myself involved in these same areas — leading, caring, and proclaiming.

My week seems to be spent in sermon preparation, pastoral care ministry, and administrative matters.  I try to keep a balance of spending an equal amount of time on each.  My office hours are 9 AM to 12 noon Monday through Thursday (I take Fridays off).  I usually spend my office time on the phone, chatting with folks who drop by the office, or working on administrative projects.  That’s my leading time, although leadership happens all the time and in casual settings, too.

Most of my care ministry takes place in the afternoons when I visit the hospitals, nursing and rehab centers, and our members at home.  I can make most of my pastoral care visits in the afternoons, but in other churches I served those took at least two evenings a week.  Evening visits now are usually with prospective members, most of whom have daytime jobs.

In the proclaim area, I do most of my sermon preparation and study at home, but that wasn’t the case when our kids were small.  Changing life circumstances meaning changing our work, study, and leisure routines as well.

I think LifeWay captured the small church pastor’s ministry well in those three words — lead, care, proclaim.  That’s still what I’m about, and I imagine you are, too.  What does your ministry routine involve and how do you allocate your time?