When Gil Rendle speaks, I listen. He’s been a pastor, author, and consultant. Now retired, his work has inspired me and given voice to much of what I see and feel is happening in congregations. He “gets it”, in a way that too many experts do not. His book, Doing the Math of Missionought to be required reading for every congregational leader in America.

In a recent interview he describes his work this way: “we need to be adamant about pushing people to purpose. What’s the purpose that is behind that which you are trying to do? And if you can align yourself with that purpose, we’re really convinced that there is so much energy there.”

“Pushing people to purpose” may well be the best description of local church leadership that I have heard in a long time. It is how Jesus started his teaching ministry in Matthew 6 when he declared to the crowds that pursuing temporal things and activities would blind them to the real reason God created them. Only when we “seek first the kingdom and his righteousness” will we discover the divine ordering of things in life.

Our team of consultants/coaches calls this the “Why question”. Nearly all of our invitations into a congregation or minister’s life begin with a “what” or a “how” question.

“What do we do about this staff vacancy?”
“What is the best method for planning, or teaching, or worship music, etc.?”
“How do we budget?”
“How do we call a pastor?”
“What should I/we do about this opportunity?”

We constantly push a staff, congregation, or leadership group toward the “why” question first. Echoing the insights of Simon Sinek, we push hard toward purpose. In essence, we say: “first tell us the reason or the long-term goal you envision, and then we can help you evaluate methods, candidates, processes, metrics, and all the various routes you can take to arrive at your destination.”

Sadly, most are unable to offer a clear purpose that is shared and embraced with passion by a sizable number of people. Many of us are playing out scripts that other people wrote for us. We have lost the personal connection with the core reasons or purposes for our church or organization’s existence.  While many of us can recite the two Great Commandments and the Great Commission, the truth is we have wandered far from those purposes and gotten lost in the weeds of methods and routines.

Thus, pushing people to purpose is a necessary and invaluable process.

I’m reminded of how people take vacations with regard to being clear about “why, how and what” we will do.

I’ve heard of people gathering the family or group together, piling into the vehicle, pulling onto the highway and then asking: “Where do you want to go?” Immediately, opinions and suggestions flow and arguments erupt. After vigorous and prolonged debate, they proceed and the ensuing journey is one extended and heated conversation. The result is usually a blend of chaos, frustration, and weariness.

On the other end of the spectrum are those trips in which someone plans, meticulously, every detail of the journey ahead of time. The Vacation Director rules with an iron fist. I’ve heard of families who take a week-long trip in which every stop is scheduled, every restaurant booked, and every movement preplanned. Any disruptions or diversions from the trip script are met with exasperation and a stern rebuke.

These two extremes actually portray how many congregations go about their life together.

A much more appealing approach to vacations and congregational life would seem to be one that is grounded in purpose and supported by appropriate how’s and what’s.

The first order of business is to establish a destination or purpose for the journey.
“We’re going to Canada to enjoy the snow.”
“We’re going to Florida to enjoy the sun.”

Those are two very different trips if you are thinking about transportation, clothing, packing, etc. Knowing our ultimate destination matters.

Once we are clear and in agreement about where we are going, we can begin the conversation about how we will get there and what we will do along the way. They are many choices along the way. Ideally, the purpose of the trip will dictate how we respond to the what’s and how’s that we encounter. We cannot anticipate everything (weather, detours, providential happenings), be we can set our compass and evaluate our opportunities along the way in light of what we have agreed is our ultimate destination.

Having that initial conversation and establishing a shared destination is pivotal for the success of the journey.

Pushing people to purpose is at the heart of what healthy ministry is about. Having thoughtful and deliberate conversations about why we exist and establishing a shared purpose prior to making critical “how and what” decisions is essential for church health.  The more we learn to do it, the more likely we are to have an enjoyable and meaningful journey together.

Bill Wilson
Dr. William “Bill” Wilson founded The Center for Healthy Churches in January of 2014. This followed his service as President of the Center for Congregational Health at Wake Forest Baptist Health since 2009. Previously he was Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dalton, Georgia, where he served since 2003. He brings over 33 years of local church ministry experience to CHC, having served as pastor in two churches in Virginia (Farmville BC and FBC Waynesboro) and on a church staff in South Carolina. Bill has led each of the churches he has served into a time of significant growth and expansion of ministry. He is the director of CHC.