What’s Right with the Church?

What’s Right with the Church?

Sometimes a book ends up in your hands at just the right time with just the right words.  Reading that kind of book is like meeting with a mentor or friend.  You read a bit and think. Maybe you write something in the margin.  It becomes a conversation.    A book like this ended up on my desk about 30 years ago. I had served enough churches that I had faced some challenges and some discouragement. I was coming to grips with my own limitations.  I had even had a conversation with a trusted counselor about doing some coursework to prepare to take the MCAT to apply to medical school.  I wondered if I really should continue being a Minister of Music.   Fortunately, there were many voices that encouraged me to find a way to do more than survive, but to thrive in local church ministry.  Among those voices was a book by William Willimon, What’s Right with the Church? [1]  You see, part of my struggle was I had been taught to love the church in theory but I didn’t have much practice in loving the church in practice.  My error:  loving everyone but not every one.   Willimon’s book helped me to begin to reframe some of the resistance I had experienced from church folk.  (I’m sure it had nothing to do with my “I-have-a-graduate-degree-in-music-and-we’re-only-doing-great-music-here” attitude.)  There was much to appreciate, to value and to love about particular people and places.  To quote Robert Webber, “All worship is local.”  Yes, I could honor the gifts and callings bestowed on me but when I was at my best...
Pastor: A Unique, Contextual Calling

Pastor: A Unique, Contextual Calling

While searching for a particular volume in my library, another book caught my attention. The Pastor: A Memoir, by Eugene Peterson, is an inspiring autobiographical account of what it means to be called to pastoral ministry and to live out that vocation in a unique community. This book has inspired me to reaffirm my calling with fresh perspective. While Peterson is known to many primarily for his popular Bible translation called The Message, his most significant contribution to my world has been his writings about pastoral work.  Years ago I read three of Peterson’s books about pastoral ministry:  Five Smooth Stones of Pastoral Work, The Contemplative Pastor, and Under the Unpredictable Plant.  In a church world that looks to the pastor to be the CEO, a chaplain-on-demand, or an ecclesial entrepreneur, Peterson reminds ministers and churches that a pastor is more like a spiritual director, a “soul friend” who walks alongside others pointing out what God is doing in their life. In a fast paced world, where a competitive consumerist culture has invaded the church, pastors are often expected to be an idealistic combination of captivating motivational speaker, savvy executive/administrator, and extraordinary counselor.  But the call to be a pastor is unique.  There is no other vocation like it. Veteran pastor Hardy Clemons reminds us that the church is to be “more family than corporation.”  Clemons reminds pastors and churches of their peculiar mission: Our goal is to minister: it is not to show a profit, amass a larger financial corpus or grow bigger for our own security. The ultimate goals are to accept God’s grace, share the good...
A New Year’s Revolution

A New Year’s Revolution

Recently I read the best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo.  ­I’m a neat and well-organized person, so I mostly wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I thought I might glean a new tip or two, but I didn’t expect any major revelations.  I am happy to report that I was wrong. For Kondo, tidying and organizing is the way to restore balance among people, their possessions, and the places that they live.  Her premise is that, with very few exceptions (like essential documents), we should only own things that bring us joy. Period.  She asserts, and I agree, that our homes and lives are often cluttered with things that we “might use some day” like clothes that don’t quite fit, books and gadgets, or things that we feel obligated to keep such as gifts, souvenirs, and mementos. She instructs readers to gather all similar items (such as all your books or all of clothes) in one place, pick each item up, and determine if it brings you joy.  If so, you keep it.  If not, you toss it or give it away.  Hesitancy or uncertainty over an item indicates that it should go. I decided to try her method on my clothes. My closets were not over-full, but I was amazed at how much I could easily part with, how practical it was to organize per her instructions, and how freeing the process was.  I was delighted to discover that I felt better with fewer things I truly enjoyed in a (more) organized space....
Is Your Church Enlarging Its Bandwidth?

Is Your Church Enlarging Its Bandwidth?

It was a simple question from a CHC colleague: “Larry, do you have enough bandwidth to help me with a church staff analysis?” Initially, I had no idea what he was asking. “Bandwidth?” I had to catch up with the twenty year cycle of change in language. A central technology of the information revolution was being applied to my “energy or capacity to deal with a situation.” That is personal bandwidth. Think about the explosion in the past decade alone of technological bandwidth that has allowed for the dissemination of information. My wife, Sue, and I spent several days in the car recently visiting family. As we drove the interstates, we accessed the internet, read the news, texted our children, and answered telephone calls from a pastor wanting a recommendation for a youth minister—all on our 4G cell phones. The church office of the twenty-first century is wherever the staff have their cell phones on! Expanding bandwidth enlarges the capacity for digital signals, expands the amount of information available in less time, and overwhelms us with its impact. It is a question of CAPACITY. Every congregation has a certain amount of bandwidth in fulfilling its dreams for the future. The challenge of most of the congregations I know is that they have not adequately engaged in the hard work of discerning the fullness of their inherent potential in the settings in which they minister. I have been unable to escape the question for congregations. The voices I hear from current research and conversations with church leaders is the language of limitations—we are too busy, we are aging, we have...

The Shredding Machine

It was a very impressive group of church leaders. Clergy and laity alike, they were successful and savvy men and women who had been patiently listening to me make repeated invitations to engage in a spiritual discernment process rather than a more traditional strategic planning process. They were polite and had made a token effort to pray and invite God into their conversations. However, it was thin and shallow and not very sincere prayer they offered. What they really wanted to do was move past all the God-talk and get to the main event: the session when they could finally roll out their brilliant ideas about the direction they thought their church should go. Despite my appeals, they were determined to get their agendas on the table and then start a campaign to convince others to follow their lead. They had a fine-sounding purpose statement and multiple proof-texts ready to roll out. In other words, they wanted to continue what they and most other church leaders think is the task of leadership in the 21st century church: come up with great ideas and run with them. As we approached a pivotal planning day, I decided to let them have their way. Right out of the gate, I invited them to “spend the next 10 minutes writing down your very best ideas for your church to pursue in the near and mid-future.” The race was on, with each person scribbling a laundry list of impressive ideas. One even pulled out a pre-printed copy of ideas he had been harboring for just such a moment as this. After 10 minutes I...

Confession from a Consultant

Time for a confession. Let me tell you a consultant’s dirty little secret: congregational strategic planning is frequently a waste of time and can be counterproductive. There, it’s out. Now, it’s time to explain.   Many congregations, for a variety of reasons, choose to engage in strategic planning. Some opt to conduct the process internally, while others hire an outsider to help. Denominations and judicatories are getting in on the action, selling scads of books, workbooks, assessment tools to help the process.   Since consulting with congregations is all the rage, there are many variations on this theme. Most take some form of corporate planning and apply a thin veneer of spirituality to a secular model. Behind these plans is a paint-by-number approach to your future that, if followed, promises to produce a set of core values, a mission statement, SWOT analyses, strategic initiatives, SMART goals and the like.   Some vary the theme and design a process that produces the same thing in every church that uses the plan. This sort of prescriptive planning is used by those who know what your future should be and have a not-so-subtle agenda of turning your church in a direction that they have predetermined. If you get hooked into one of those plans, expect unnecessary conflict and unhealthy upheaval.   The truth is, far too many of these generic plans are a waste of time and energy because they give only lip service to the question of divine guidance. Oh, there is the obligatory prayer emphasis, but what is lacking is genuine spiritual discernment. Without this, the planning becomes an exercise...