It’s Not Your Fault

It’s Not Your Fault

I was working with a church in northern California, a church with a long history and many years of vibrant ministry.  But now it was struggling.  The church was down to its last 40 or so members, and most of them were older. The church was founded years ago as a downtown church.  More recently, it had moved into a then booming new neighborhood.  Now the neighborhood was in decline.  In fact, the whole city was experiencing depopulation. I met with some of the church’s leaders.  At one point I asked, “How long can you afford to keep going at the current rate you’re using your reserves?”  Two people said they thought the church could last for five years, another one guessed seven.  The church treasurer silently raised two fingers in the air.  They were only two years away from closure. The leaders asked if I would return a couple of weeks later to meet with “anyone in the congregation who might be interested” in this conversation.  When I came back, almost every single member of the congregation was present. I talked about what I had learned during my conversation with their leaders and how something different needed to happen … and happen soon. I invited them to imagine as many faithful options for going forward as they could.  They came up with everything from selling their property to relocating to a storefront back in downtown to merging or nesting with another congregation.  No one mentioned the possibility of closing. I asked them to assess how doable each option was.  “Do you have the financial resources for that option?”...
What are you hearing in the churches?

What are you hearing in the churches?

My colleague Bob Dale often asks me a simple question: “Bill, what are we hearing out there in the churches?” He knows that every week members of our team are fanning out across the country to work in dozens of churches of every size, shape, denomination, setting and orientation. We hear and see first-hand what many others only know second-hand. The news is usually a mix. Some churches and clergy are fully awake and leaning into the challenge of being a vibrant and thriving church in the 21st century.  Others are frustrated and bewildered by the challenges they face. They tend to want to revert back to what worked in an earlier programmatic era, rather than embrace the new. When that, inevitably, doesn’t work, the mood and tone of the church often turns dark. The halls are filled with anxious deacons or elders and worried finance committee members. During these rocky times, a familiar scenario seems to be playing out in many churches. Attendance is trending down. Offering plate receipts are sliding. Soon, budget adjustments have to be made and since the vast majority of a typical congregation’s budget is fixed (facilities and personnel), mission and ministry dollars are the ones that bear the heaviest cuts. Despite belt-tightening in increasingly creative ways, the bottom line remains troubling. Into this highly anxious mix a voice begins to be heard. The Bible calls it “murmuring”. It is a voice that seeks someone to blame for the metrics and economic ills that plague the congregation. Leviticus 16 describes a community blaming practice known as “scapegoating”. On the Day of Atonement, an innocent...
Courage to Become

Courage to Become

I’ll never forget August 3, 1995. The family and I were in Destin, Florida with good friends. We vacationed here regularly during the child-rearing years. We did the same thing every summer. We had our place to stay, our spot on the beach, and our list of restaurants we loved. The image has never left me—the water was literally “rocking” in the commode! I was searching for a “safe” place for us in the condominium. Hurricane Erin was making landfall on the Florida panhandle. For most of that week, we followed its route from its origin in the Atlantic Ocean across the Florida peninsula, projecting along with the “experts” the path it would take. All along, convincing ourselves that this year would be like every year. We could expect our experiences in the past would prove to be so again. The weather channels predicted a Texas coast event. However, all residents and tourists were encouraged by local authorities to evacuate. Despite the warning of Southeastern Conference basketball expert, Joe Dean, the night before at a local restaurant, we still decided to stay put and do nothing. At 2 a.m., Erin turned due north, straight toward Fort Walton Beach, leaving us just to the east of landfall at 8:30 a.m., August 3. We were scared, all day long. Hurricanes come early and stay late. They aren’t like tornadoes. Suffice it to say, though shaken, we were not hurt. A section of the roof from our condo struck our van. Thankfully, it was still drivable and we made it home. I will never make that mistake again. Today’s church finds itself...
Staffing for Survival

Staffing for Survival

What is the most important staff position at your church? Of course, as a former pastor, I must declare that we cannot function without a pastor. But then what would we do without a music/worship leader? We cannot live without leadership for children or youth can we? What about Christian formation? Outreach? Pastoral Care? Missions? Administration? Singles? Recreation? While all these traditional positions are obviously important, let me suggest another role that every healthy congregation with a viable future must pay close attention to. Whether it is a solitary assignment to one person or a front-burner focus for every staff positions, the role of Missional Strategist is indispensible. Don’t like that title? How about Coordinator of Mission/Vision Implementation? Maybe Congregation-World Intersection Specialist? Minister of Mission (no S at the end of this title!). I like Passion Coordinator, though I suspect that might invite some misunderstanding. One more: Call Commander! While the titles may be confusing or cumbersome, the task I am addressing is emerging as an essential ingredient in the congregational mix of the 21st century. The era of staffing a church based solely on the attractional model of congregational life is drawing to a close. The attractional model, which has defined us for nearly 50 years, suggests that the main arena of ministry are programs offered at the site of the church. Build it large, staff it fully, offer high quality programs and events, and stand back waiting for the crowds to show up. For years they did. Churches became synonymous with programs and facilities. Large numbers of people showed up at church on a regular schedule to...
STOP/LOOK/LISTEN

STOP/LOOK/LISTEN

Our recent CHC column on the future of denominational entities engendered a wide range of responses. This one is from Bob Dale, noted church/denominational strategist and thought-leader.  It’s no secret.  America’s denominational structures are steadily losing momentum:  Downsizing missionary staffs, shrinking giving levels, selling properties, and disappearing financial reserves are common.  These challenges aren’t new, and they’re consistent across America’s faith families. Religious leaders are anxiously looking for practical solutions; but, our structural silos are empty. May I offer a modest “Stop/Look/Listen” approach for finding fresh futures? STOP For starters, our theological anchors hold.  The Gospel is powerful, God’s kingdom continues to unfold, and ministry is still needed.  Albert Einstein wisely observed that we can’t solve today’s problems with the same thinking that first created those problems.  Our future demands that we adopt new ways of thinking and ask new questions. LOOK:  Focus “Living” Eyes Discovery is often a matter of having our eyes see what’s already before us.  Remember the encounter on the Emmaus Road?  Over the journey, the disciples finally developed insight and saw the Living Lord (Luke 24:31). Traditionally, our Baptist structure has mirrored the Industrial Age that invented it a century ago.  Our structure is centralized, compartmentalized, and specialized–essentially a mechanical assembly line.  As a friend once observed, “They put a gumball in the pipeline in Nashville, and it rolls all the way across the country to my church.”  Baptists built a machine that produced organizations, programs, and church rhythms.  Now, the machines are rusting out. Actually, this pervasive mechanical way of thinking began to wane late last century, and it’s too late for superficial...
Are denominational bodies doomed?

Are denominational bodies doomed?

The recent news stories describing the massive layoffs at the International Mission Board of Southern Baptists, the nearly 50% downsizing of the Florida Baptist Convention staff, the continued erosion of financial support for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and the sell-off by state conventions of facilities now too large for shrunken staff, all confirm what is becoming obvious. We are witnessing the beginning of the end for Baptist denominational entities, as we have known them. Following the lead of mainline judicatories, Baptist bodies, local, state, regional and national, are in free-fall. Not surprisingly, the primary culprit is a decline in funding from local churches. As traditional churches have struggled to attract attenders and funds in the 21st century, more and more of their resources are kept at home to pay bills, employ staff, do local ministry, etc. The ensuing reduction of funds to local, state and national bodies has led to a funding crisis unlike anything these entities have ever known. In Southern Baptist life, many local Associations no longer can afford staff, and those who do are operating at a minimal level. Consolidation and mergers with neighboring groups are the norm. Declining receipts from churches and increasing pressure from the national body to forward a larger percentage of receipts up-stream are squeezing state conventions and associations. The result is massive “reorganizations” and huge reductions in staff and services. Most state conventions/associations have reduced their staff by 33-50% since 2000. As reserves are exhausted, those contractions will only increase. The national SBC similarly reports discouraging numbers, with last year seeing the lowest receipts since 1990, and the largest decline in...