Yesterday I preached from 1 John 3:16-24 on the topic, “How We Know What Love Is.” John wrote the first letter that bears his name to a specific congregation of the first century. In that letter, he repeatedly encourages them to love God and to love others. As a matter of fact, John says that we can’t say we love God if we aren’t showing love to others in our actions. Here’s the audio:
Just a quick update on my health: after spending the past two days at doctor’s offices, I am both frustrated and determined. I am frustrated that no one seems to know what to expect about the regression of my symptoms, or how I’m to wean myself off the dozen medications I am now taking. The good news is that I am slowly improving. Today I am walking without my cane, albeit slowly.
This morning I determined that no one is in charge of my health but me. So I’m taking more control of my own recovery. I’ll start physical therapy next week, and that should help me recover my strength and balance. The doctors gave me some leeway in fooling with my medications, morphine being the big one I want to get rid of. If I get off the morphine, then I can also ditch a couple of others that counteract the effects of morphine on some body functions. Of course, I’m not going to do anything totally crazy, but I am determined to be more aggressive in asking questions and posing possible scenarios for my recovery to my doctors.
All of that leads me to this disclaimer: since I am not dying today (or hopefully anytime soon), this is the last post about my health that I’ll write. The rest of this journey is just going to be determination and some work on my part regarding diet, exercise, and regulating my medications. So, if you got on here during my illness, thank you for your prayers and concern.
Tomorrow this blog will return to the theme I have been pursuing over the past 7-years. Of course, that’s small church stuff, and I have some new insights, ideas, and articles that are churning around in my head. If you got on to keep up with my health and feel the need to cancel your subscription, I understand, and again thank you for your prayers and interest. I’m going to be fine, and the best way I know to be fine, is to get back to my life as it was 6 weeks ago and press ahead. For those of you who will be sticking around, I promise you won’t be disappointed. Thanks, again, for each expression of concern — now back to our regularly scheduled program!
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;
- 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.
The Tennessean, the daily newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee, featured an article today on small churches and when they should close. In the article, Short on Cash, People, Small Churches Consider Closing, reporter Bob Smietana profiles three Nashville area churches that had to face their own mortality. Bob was kind enough to quote me in the article, and I appreciate the approach he took in writing the piece.
The article also quoted Dr. Israel Galindo, author of The Hidden Lives of Congregations, which I think is the best book any pastor can read, especially pastors of small, established churches. Galindo helps pastors and church leaders identify what “style” their church reflects, and where their church might be in the life cycle of churches profile. I’ve written about this book before, but it’s worth mentioning again.
The article also points out that churches have taken as much as a 40% hit financially in the economic downturn that started in 2008. When he interviewed me for the article, Bob asked me what factors indicate that a small church might need to close. The three factors I identified were people, money, and mission. The loss of any one of those is like kicking one leg of a three-legged stool out from under it — without a significant balancing act, a two-legged stool isn’t going to stand very long.
So, when is it time for a church, usually a small church, to close? When the combination of people, money, and mission no longer works. Churches don’t exist just to exist; churches exist for the purpose of mission. When the mission is no longer viable because there are not enough people or financial resources to support it, then a small church ought to seriously consider how it might re-invent itself, or even plan its own funeral.
What do you think? Are there other factors that suggest when a church might close its doors? Or are people, money, and mission the big three?
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!
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?
“How can I get them to change?” As a small church pastor, I think I’ve asked myself that question at least once a day in every church I have pastored. Wanting the churches we pastor to change is part of our DNA. We see opportunities for improvement, expansion, growth, outreach, and progress, and we think everyone should see things the same way we do.
Of course, it doesn’t take long to realize everyone doesn’t see things the way we do, and that our members like things just like they are. How does a pastor, whose heart beats to the sound of change, lead his congregation to make the changes necessary for the future of that church?
Here are five keys to leading change in the small church that I’ve learned, mostly the hard way:
1. Listen to the stories of the past. Our church is 153 years old. Three years ago we celebrated our 150th anniversary in a 7-month long sesquicentennial emphasis. During that time I got to hear the stories of our past. Leaders, traditions, memories, and accomplishments were highlighted each month. I developed a new appreciation for the 150 years our church had existed before I arrived on the scene. Your church has a history B.Y. — before you. Listen to and celebrate the stories of the past with your people — that will go a long way toward leading them to change in the future.
2. Link the past to the future. The theme for our 150th anniversary was “Praise for the Past, Faith for the Future.” The steering committee came up with that theme, and I thought it was great. They sensed that the past was important, not just because it was history, but because it was a link to our future. Mark Lau Branson of Fuller Seminary has written a helpful book, Memories, Hopes and Conversations, about how his church built on the traditions of their past to find a way forward for the future.
3. Learn what type of church you have. By church type, I don’t mean “Baptist” or “cantankerous.” Israel Galindo’s book, The Hidden Lives of Congregations offers several clues to learning about church types. After reading Galindo’s book, I learned where our church was in the typical life cycle of churches, and I understood the particular challenges we faced more clearly. There are other church characteristics that Galindo covers that can be helpful in learning how to lead you particular type and style of church.
4. Love your people. This is advice everybody gives, but too few pastors follow. Loving people means spending time with them, getting to know their stories, learning what’s important to them, and genuinely caring about them. The old saying, “People don’t care what you know until they know you care” is still true. If you care, and your members know it, they’ll respond to your leadership enthusiastically.
5. Lead with patience. Change takes time in a small church. Actually, I think changing small churches is more difficult than changing large churches. Traditions and memories are the stuff of small churches, and change threatens both. I wrote a chapter in the LifeWay book, Deacons As Leaders, that tells the story of how one church I pastored changed our deacon structure to a more positive, servant ministry. Pastors that lead with gentle patience can look back years later to see progress that is steady and sustainable.
Change comes in fits and starts in small congregations. But it can come. In churches I’ve pastored, we built buildings, bought property, revised our by-laws, hired staff, altered schedules, moved classes, created new programs, and started new groups. Your leadership as pastor is the key to transformative change in your church. Take the time to listen, link, learn, love, and lead, and you’ll reap the rewards of positive changes in your church.