Tag: church ministry

Reconciliation and the Ministry of the Local Church

I’ve been busy writing my Fuller DMin dissertation on the church as a reconciling community. Two things are becoming more apparent to me each day that I research and write on this topic. First, the church’s primary ministry is reconciliation. The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians:

 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (NIV/1984)

I believe that as part of the two great commandments that Jesus taught — love God, love others — reconciliation is between God and us, and between persons and groups. Reconciliation covers a lot of territory including forgiveness, repentance, apology, mediation, peace-making, restorative justice, race relations, class and gender issues, and so on.  Reconciliation is a big tent that needs further exploration by local churches.

Secondly, the Church is getting left behind in the search for the methods and means to reconciliation between persons and groups. We’re pretty good at proclaiming and teaching about the reconciliation God offers us as God’s creation, but we’re not so good at extending that reconciliation to others, both as individuals and as groups. For example, a recent study (which I’ll write about tomorrow) indicated that “marrying out is in.” In other words, interracial or cross-cultural marriages are increasing in our society. I have yet to see anyone address constructively this developing trend. I know in our community interracial couples (meaning black and white) are rarely part of anybody’s congregation.

I intend to write more about reconciliation, and how churches can develop an intentional and thoughtful ministry of reconciliation including consideration of multiculturalism, race relations, social and economic class, and gender issues.  Marriage is a hot topic right now, and part of the reason for the high level of both interest and hysteria is unreconciled differences between persons and groups of persons within our communities.

Finally, although I’ve used my two points, reconciliation practices open the door to masses of unreached people who are not like us in at least one way — color, country, faith, or class being four of the biggest categories that divide people. Of course, I realize that there are “irreconcilable differences” sometimes, but most of our differences are caused by a lack of understanding and intentionality about reconciliation and all its attendant corollaries. I hope you’ll stick around and comment on some of my thoughts in this area. Peace.

The Return of $4 Gas and Other Woes

It is obvious that gas prices are rising quickly again.  In 2007-8, I wrote several posts on the prospects of gasoline hitting $4-$5  per gallon – you can read those posts here, here, and here.  We were well on the way to those numbers in the United States, and then the bottom fell out of the economy on a global scale.  Gas prices fell quickly back to under $2 per gallon.

Now the trend is in the opposite direction again.  There is no gas shortage — we actually export gas and other petroleum products to other countries.  We have a surplus of gas in the United States, and yet gas prices are rising again.  I am not an economist or an energy expert, so I’ll skip the explanations for all of this, but the truth is, gas is going up again.

While I thought the impact on churches three years ago was going to be significant, I now believe the impact on churches may be catastrophic.  Here’s why I think this time the situation is worse.  In 2007-8, as gas prices rose driven by the futures market, the US and global economies were growing and stable.  The subprime mortgage securities crisis had not yet hit, despite rumblings from some investors and economists.  Employment was high, unemployment was low, jobs were being created, and the prospects for the future looked bright.  So what if gas hit $4, we’d just suck it up and keep going in our SUVs.

Of course, things were much worse than anyone imagined.  To prevent a global depression, Wall Street had to be bailed out, along with the world’s largest banks and financial insurers like AIG.  Add to that 2 of 3 US auto manufacturers, and you have  a recipe for difficult days financially.

What does this have to do with churches?  The rise of fuel prices will drive increases in the costs of other consumer goods and services.  With unemployment at 8.8% — although some economists estimate the “real” unemployment rate at close to 15% — more Americans are out of work, not counting the ones who are under-employed, or employed on a part-time basis.

There is no doubt the federal government is going to reduce spending beginning now, which will lead to the termination of many government programs, and further unemployment.  Fewer services will be provided by government in the near future, including (if Paul Ryan has his way) major overhauls of Medicare (medical care for the elderly), and Medicaid (medical care for the poor).  The Federal Reserve is also making noises about raising interest rates due to fears of inflation fueled by rising prices.

All of this will have the following impact on churches:

  1. Church members will have less discretionary income and will contribute less to charities, including churches.
  2. As gas prices rise, most of us will curtail our driving habits which includes multiple trips to church in separate family vehicles.
  3. More Americans will lose services that are now publicly available.  There will be increased need for churches to do more to feed, house, care for, and assist the elderly, the sick, and the poor.
  4. Church budgets will suffer from the double impact of falling contributions and rising needs.

What point am I trying to make?  Get ready.  Begin now to prioritize your church budget.  Decide what your church is really going to be about.  Prepare mock budgets based on different scenarios which emphasize different ministry priorities.

I believe that we will see single cause churches, much like we have single cause non-profits.  There will be churches that focus on senior adults, or single parent families, or families with special needs children.  Why?  Because smaller churches especially will be unable to “be all things to all people.”

We are on the front end of this economic realignment.  Churches, I believe, have an obligation theologically to make the tough choices to minister to the most vulnerable in society, even if the popular political position is the opposite.  We will soon face those choices, and because we are approaching another presidential election cycle, do not expect solutions from either major political party until at least 2013.  What do you think?  Will rising gas prices and other factors impact churches? Why or why not?

Promoting Marriage As Community Care

Churches can care for their communities by providing resources to encourage and strengthen marriage.

The Brookings Institute’s Ron Haskins writes — “Higher marriage rates among the poor would benefit poor adults themselves, their children, and the nation.”  Haskins believes that churches and other non-profits should encourage marriage by offering courses on marriage, parenting, money management, anger management, and other family-related issues.

Out-of-wedlock births continue to increase in this country, as marriage rates continue the decline begun in 1972.  Haskins contends that —

“According to the U.S. Census Bureau, children living in single-parent families are about five times as likely to live in poverty. There’s also a high probability they’ll drop out of school, get arrested, be involved in teen pregnancy themselves, have more mental health problems, and be less likely to be employed or in school as young adults. Indeed, parents themselves are physically and psychologically better off when married than single.”

But churches will also have to address the reasons that some choose not to marry.  According to Amanda Drew’s article, Declining Marriage Rates, young adults are choosing not to marry for a variety of reasons:

  • Couples choose to live together before marrying;
  • College graduates are taking a year off after graduation to travel before settling down;
  • The expense of a full-blown wedding is not appealing to some;
  • The decline in church attendance and the moral values that come from practicing one’s faith;
  • Fear of divorce.

I am convinced that the task of the church for the decade of the 2010’s is going to be a reimagined “care of souls.”  Churches can have a positive impact on their own communities by providing nurture and care for marriage and its attendant benefits.  Because the poor have a disproportionately lower rate of marriage, churches could find themselves caring for the “least of these” within their own communities in this vital area.  What is your church doing to encourage marriage and the advantages marriage brings in your community?

Seminarians Opt Out of Church and What We Can Do To Change That

“Students don’t want to serve in the local church when they graduate; they want to do something more exciting.”Southern Baptist seminary administrator

A prominent seminary administrator made that comment to me several weeks ago.  I’ve been rolling it around in my head since then, disturbed and challenged by its implications.  If his comment had been the first I had heard, I might not be so concerned.  But several months ago, another seminary leader expressed the same sentiment — seminary students are not planning to serve local churches.

Of course, this might be their perception because they did not conduct a scientific survey.  But, let’s assume it’s true — that seminary students see themselves serving in more exciting settings than the local church.  If that is the case, then we have some serious work to do.

First, those of us in local churches have to ask ourselves, What signals are we sending that turn off seminarians? Some answers come to mind very quickly:

  • churches can be slow to change;
  • established congregations are typically older and certainly not cool;
  • most churches are single staff settings;
  • pastoral ministry isn’t viewed as cutting edge;
  • most church programs are inward-focused; and
  • denominational politics turns young adults off.

Those are the answers that popped in my head immediately.  I’m sure you and I could think of more if we really tried.

Second, the more pressing question is, How can we help seminarians in their quest for meaningful ministry? Here the answers come more slowly, but I have a few thoughts:

  • Embrace the age of change. I’ve written before that church as we know it is going to change dramatically and soon.  Those of us in churches need to recognize that trend and dialogue with seminarians about where they see church heading. After all, whatever future the church has is in their hands.
  • Underwrite experiments in ministry. Most of us in mid-life are not going to start a coffee shop church, or an arts enclave, or a neomonastic order.  But seminarians might, and they could try out those ideas under the sponsorship of existing churches who have the funds and resources to help make those ministry experiments happen.
  • Participate in reverse-mentoring. Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, had all his senior management reverse-mentored by younger employees.  The younger employees understood the value of the internet, mobile computing, and social networking and Welch wanted his senior managers to learn from them.  Churches and current church leaders need to do the same.  Seminaries could create space for reverse-mentoring workshops where local church pastors and denominational leaders could sit and listen and learn from the emerging generation of church leaders.
  • Provide seminarians opportunities for service. Seminarians need hands-on opportunities to minister at the local church level.  Most seminaries require field work, but I’m talking about a real position with real ministry responsibility.  The Lilly Endowment has offered grants for new seminary graduates to work full-time in a local church setting. While this is an encouraging approach, too few grants are available.  Churches and seminaries could figure out how to do this in a way that gives seminarians good church experiences, allowing them room for innovation in their area of responsibility.

Churches of all denominations are facing three converging crises — clergy shortage, declining church attendance, and aging congregations.  No wonder the current crop of seminary students wants to work any place but the local church.  Time will tell if current church leaders will engage with this new generation of church leaders to forge new expressions of church ministry.  That would be exciting.

For the latest in church news, ideas, and information visit NewChurchReport.com.

Ministry to high-needs members

Every church I have served has had some high-needs members.  These are the folks who have personality disorders, mental-challenges, or barriers to living that require the help of others regularly.  Your church probably has some of these folks who are made in God’s image, and yet for whom life is extremely difficult.

High-needs members deserve our patient loving-care.  Yet they also need a support group around them so that the burden of caring for them does not fall on one person.

Dr. David Augsburger suggests that it takes 25 church members to “buffer” 1 high-needs church member.  With a ministry ratio of 25:1, the responsibility for arranging transportation, trips to the doctor, or just being a listening ear does not fall on the pastor alone.

Having a wide ministry support group for a high-needs members assures that no one individual gets burned out with the persistent demands on time, energy, and resources.  “Sharing the caring” for someone with high-needs spreads both the burden and the joy of loving-care throughout the congregation.

As a pastor, I have mistakenly taken on ministry to high-needs members single-handedly in the past.  In each instance, both the care receiver and I, the caregiver, wound up frustrated.  I disappointed the high-needs members, not because I did not care, but because I did not invite others to join with me in caring for them.

High-needs members can be served by a combination of pastoral care, church member support, and outside resources such as counselors, mental health therapists, medical personnel, and local helping agencies.  By maintaining a ratio of 25-to-1, the church shares ministry, supports the neediest members, and does not overload the church’s own caring system.   Exceptions to this 25:1 ratio might include intentional ministries such as structured classes for the mentally-challenged if they are staffed properly.

What is your experience with high-need members?  Did you find that others shared their care, or did you do it alone?  Does your church have a model for ministry to high-needs individuals and families, and if so, would you share that with us?  Thanks.

Powerpoint: Small Churches Make Good Neighbors

Here’s the powerpoint I used in my NOC2008 workshop, Small Churches Make Good Neighbors.   I’m using the abbey church model, and discussing the 10 aspects of the ancient celtic abbeys applied to churches today.  The ppt is on SlideShare, so you can view and download the presentation, if you find it helpful.  I am going to edit and add to the notes, but I think you’ll get the thrust of the presentation as it is.  Let me know if you have questions or comments.

You feed them

“You feed them.”  Those were the words of Jesus to the disciples.  A big hungry crowd needed to be fed, and the disciples had come to Jesus for a solution.  Jesus challenged the disciples to feed the crowd themselves, but they protested they were not able to.  Now, we might get that opportunity, again, in the current economic crisis.  

A friend of mine heads a large social services agency in our area.  He and I were discussing the economy tonight, and he remarked, “Get ready for budget cuts.”  He went on to explain that programs for the elderly will be the first to be cut, as the federal  and state governments cut social program funds to local helping organizations.  Then he paused and said, “Actually, I’m not sure anything is safe.”  He meant any program that helps others including food, children’s programs, and more.  

As the federal government wrestles with a solution to the immediate economic crisis, local governments are already cutting budgets.  Contrary to popular belief, those who need financial aid are limited to a very small amount of financial help, and only for a limited period of time.  Food stamps provide only $1 per meal — $21 per week per person.  Try eating on $21 per week.  

Churches will have tremendous opportunities to help, because government will do less and less in the months and years ahead.  Small churches can band together, as we do here in Chatham, to create emergency relief funds.  But, churches will also need to develop more creative approaches to helping those in their communities.  What is your church doing to prepare to care for those who need help?  Many churches observe October as World Hunger Month.  It might not come at a better time.