Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Evangelism and Vibrant Congregations

As someone who has been passionately committed to Evangelism in the Episcopal Church for almost 40 years, I am very pleased with our Presiding Bishop’s emphasis on The Jesus Movement and the need for more Evangelism in our community.  Many of our leadership signing on to this Jesus Movement idea, however, are quick to say that this is not about building churches or adding to our membership.  For them it is about proclaiming the good news of God’s Kingdom of Justice, equality, and inclusiveness of all people.  While I understand some of these comments, I want to underscore the important of healthy and vibrant congregations to the Jesus Movement and the work of Evangelism.

Put the Movement First

First, let me assert that I am 100% in agreement with the statement by Bishop Curry that we are the Episcopal/Anglican expression of the Jesus Movement.  I think it is extremely important to acknowledge that Christianity has and always will be about Jesus and it is a movement much more than an organization or institution.  The Church is essentially the Community of Christ, and Christianity is a transactional experience where one or more follows of Jesus communicate through the power of the Holy Spirit who the Resurrected Jesus is, what he has done, and what he is doing in our lives and in our world. 

As Richard Chartres the now retired Bishop of London said recently, “Christianity is first and foremost a way of life.”  To be a Christian is not just to hold to a set of theological positions and truths.  We have truth and we have theological beliefs – the content of the faith once received and passed on by the Apostles - but at the heart of Christianity is the way of life that Jesus has modeled for us and given to us by his Spirit.  This is why the Church talks about “formation” and not just teaching people.  As Paul insisted, Christ is in us and the fullness of Christ is being formed in us.  This is true both for individual Christians and for the Christian Community which we affirm is the living body of Christ.  To affirm these things is in no way to denigrate the place and role of the Church for Christians, it is merely to put first things first. 

We Have Thought About This Before 

Now the relationship between Evangelism and the Church is something that TEC has given serious consideration in the past. While many current leaders tend to speak negatively about the Decade of Evangelism, It is important to remember that one accomplishment of the emphasis on Evangelism during that time was the careful thought given by TEC to what evangelism is and what it is not.  Unfortunately, much of this work has been forgotten.  However, two things came out of that Decade. 

First was a thoughtful and comprehensive Episcopal definition of Evangelism that is still the official definition of our Church.  Building on Archbishop Temples’ definition, the official definition remains “Evangelism is the presentation of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit so that others are led to receive him as Savior and follow him as Lord within the fellowship of His Church.”  Some, especially English Evangelicals, seriously objected to the “within the fellowship of His Church” statement.  They contended that Evangelism is primarily about proclamation and had little to do with bringing people to the Church.  I sense that some of our Progressive leaders have come to this same conclusion when they state that “Evangelism is not about numbers or building churches.”  For example, the Rev. Michael Hunn speaking of current efforts toward evangelism said recently “The fundamental goal is to spread the good news, not to bring people into the church.”  While this may sound good, it really makes little sense in practice.  People do not just hear the good news and end up formed in Christ.  If it takes a village to raise a child, it no doubt takes a community to form a new soul in Christ. 

Second, during the Decade of Evangelism, we grew and expanded TEC.  In the last five years of the Decade of Evangelism, 1995 to 2000, we were the only mainline denomination in the United States that had increases in the number of baptisms, attendance, and membership.  It is important to recognize that this was the result of intentional efforts at Evangelism and intentional efforts at expanding membership in congregations.  Of course, other things have happened since then.  There were difficult and controversial decisions that divided the Church and led to losses in membership, but there was a time when the work of Evangelism was being done and was bearing fruit.  It is still being done in 15 to 20% of our congregations and they are still bearing fruit.  That fruit is new believers brought into Christ’s Church. 

And this is still being done in congregations despite the growing secularization of our society, the death of many out dated institutional structure of the church, and a huge number of congregations (dare I say even Dioceses) that are focused on institutional survival.  Let me say this even more plainly.  In many of the declining congregations that I have known and many I have tried to help, the current membership is singularly fixed on what the current members like and do not like.  They focus on what members want without ever asking the missional question of what the community around them and the people in these communities need.  So, numbers for numbers sake?  Many of these declining churches would love to have more people giving more money, but their inward focus makes getting new folks almost impossible. 

People Will Be Drawn by Our Good Works 

Lastly, I need to say something about another issue that is implied by many of our current leadership.  It goes something like this.  If our churches do right, just, and fully inclusive things, people will be drawn to our communities.  Of course, some of us remember the famous statement by one of our Bishops that “affirming homosexual persons and agreeing to marriage equality would lead to hundreds of thousands of new members joining our churches.”  Such hyperbole is misleading and worse, said often enough, people who say it come to believe it. 

In commenting on the potential that we have as a church, one leader said that if the Church were to take on human trafficking or sexual exploitation of Children that this would be an incredible opportunity for Evangelism.  People would see our work for justice and helping the marginalized and flock to our communities.  There are two reasons why this is mistaken.

First, churches in the U.S. already do an incredible among of work for both justice and on behalf of marginalized people.  We do this because it is part of that whole “following him” perspective that we carry.  I have known a few folks over the years that were attracted to Episcopal churches because of such good work, but this has never been the primary thing that has drawn people to Christ and his Church. What draws most people is well, how should I say this without being offensive, something spiritual.

Second, who are all these people who are going to flock to us because we are taking on these important and worthwhile causes?  You see for people to want these issues corrected and are willing to labor, give, pray, and sacrifice to have them happen would in itself take a conversion. The problem is not that we have all these good people who want to join churches that are doing good and just things.  It is that we have huge numbers of self-centered, self-indulgent, and indifferent sinful people who do not care about these issues and the people caught up in them.  For them to care, would take quite frankly a transformation and conversion to another set of values.  In other words, we have this formula backwards. 

Evangelism and the Converted Life 

The Church’s own history teaches us this truth. Take Francis of Assisi’s conversion from smug and indulgent dandy, to Christ-centered revolutionary.  Contrast this to the babble on TMZ and the superficial folks they hold constantly before us.  Or take John Newton’s conversion from slave trader to evangelical preacher and reformer of English society.  Take Paul’s conversion from self-righteous persecutor of the early Christians to Apostle to the Gentiles.  Take John Wesley’s conversion from Anglican moralist to radical conversionary.  Take Simon Weil’s conversion from comfortable middle class bureaucrat to radical witness to Christian solidarity with Jews during the holocaust.  The list goes on and on.  In most of the Church’s history, radical justice and good works are the fruit of conversion to Christ; they are not the magnet that draws the indifferent human heart.  If you believe that most people are well intentioned and just looking for a Church making a difference in our world, you are either naive or diluted.  Our world needs what Jesus has given us, the compelling icon of self-sacrificial love and compassion. 

If our community wants to do Evangelism, it must move deeper and more closely to the Christ who is the good news for our broken world.  His cross is both a judgement on this world and its values and the cure to heal the human soul and society.  People who have discovered this truth have formed a Movement that has been converting, reforming, and healing our world for 2000 years.  We find these people in the Church, the Body of Christ, the Household of God, the Fellowship of the King, and the communion of the saints. 

If you think we can do Evangelism without such local vibrant communities, you will be sorely disappointed.  We cannot have vibrant Churches without Evangelism, and we cannot have Evangelism without vibrant congregations. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Interim Ministry, Why One Shoe Doesn’t Fit All

This blog is about Interim Ministry and what is wrong with the current approach made by many dioceses toward transition of leadership in congregations.  This leads me to the wider topic of what is wrong with policies and procedures being used in TEC especially given our on-going decline.  If you are a Bishop or diocesan staff person, you may find what I have to say challenging. I want to challenge all of us who have a leadership role in our Church to re-evaluate some of our assumptions about how we deal with congregations.

Before I get to those items that may challenge current thinking about Interims and Interim Ministry in TEC, let me start with this positive statement.  The well trained Interim can help a congregation in the transition from one Rector to another in positive and healthy ways that allow the leaders and congregation to move forward toward mission and ministry.  TEC has a network of trained interims and this is good, and I know some who are very good at what they do.  Having said this, there are issues with Interim ministries that need re-evaluating.  Among them, I would identify the following;

Studies of congregations continue to highlight that the size and culture of a congregation as well as its location and the length of the previous tenure are important ingredients in planning a healthy and good transition.

Transition in A Large Church

Recently I worked with a larger Episcopal Congregation that has started the transition to a new Rector after the retirement of their Rector of over 20 years.  The Diocese insisted that they take on an Interim Minister for two years to assist in the transition.  The congregation had a senior associate who had served the Church for over 10 years, and the Vestry believed this associate was in a better position to lead the transition because he understood the needs and because the congregation is doing well. The leadership naturally wanted continuity as they moved forward. There was no hidden agenda to promote the associate since he is near retirement.  The Diocese pushed their procedure and requirement, but the Vestry leadership persisted. 

When the Church leaders asked me to visit with them based on writings I have done on the issues of following a long-term Rector, I found the Vestry and Search Committee eager to hear what I had to share.  They were also quick to see how to avoid certain land mines and to guide the congregation through this time of some anxiety.  Being a larger church (80% of Episcopal Congregations are less than 150 Average Sunday Attendance or ASA) they were first concerned with continuing to sustain the health and momentum they have.  Naturally, the senior associate is in a unique position to support the leaders and to help with individuals who were concerned about the future and grieving the loss of the previous pastor.

Here is what I think is wrong in this situation.  Diocesan policies and procedure in almost all dioceses are based on a small church culture.  It is, of course, understandable that small church culture frames the diocesan response to transition and change, but it violates one of the major principles of church consultations, namely, the needs of churches are different based on size and whether the congregation is stable, declining, or growing. 

Dioceses seem to understand this in their smaller congregations where tenures tend to be short.  These congregations can hardly afford a full-time clergy person let alone a full-time 2 year Interim.  In these situations, it is likely that a 2 to 4 year interim is just exactly what the next rectorship is going to be.  In fact, many small churches experience one Interim after another.  This is one major reason why they stay small. 

So let me be frank.  The Interim process that is used in most dioceses is based on the following assumptions.  The “normal” congregation is pastoral (75 to 140 ASA) in size, located in a stable suburb or town, and has had a 7 year or longer tenure.  In such situations, a two year Interim ministry is beneficial.  But what if the congregation is larger or growing steadily?  What if a congregation has had less than 7 years with the previous Rector?  What if a congregation is located in a suburb with high turnover in the population?  In these situations, a two year Interim could easily stifle any momentum and even lead to decline.  Next, imagine the tenure was 3 years and the relationship between clergy and congregation went badly.  Many of us who work with congregations know that an appropriate “Acting Rector” is a much better transition for such congregations. I did this at the Cathedral in Dallas and it worked fine.

Xerox or Apple?

Let me push this to even a step further. If you are a Bishop or work for one, hold on to your seat.  What do such policies and procedures that are often held by dioceses with the authority of canons mean in a community and organization that continues to decline steadily?

One secular writer commenting on why so few companies that were on the Fortune 500 twenty years ago no longer are around speaks to this directly.  The old companies keep in place policies and procedure that served the company well in its past, but continued to cling to them when markets, circumstances, and leadership changed. 

One might point out that the current leadership of TEC has little or no track record of revitalization and growth of current congregations. Here I am not trying to be overly critical of our Bishops and leadership; I am trying to raise awareness.   Most importantly, I am arguing for creativity, experimentation, and flexibility to meet the challenges of today’s situations and those of individual congregations based on the exigencies of time and place.  Isn’t TEC a little like Xerox continuing to try to improve copy machines as Apple changes the entire world of work and communications?

Willingness to Learn from Others

Interestingly, there is help in doing this.  After my visit, the senior associate sent me a email and said that “you may find the following announcement from the Senior Pastor of a very largest Baptist church on their transition to a new Pastoral leadership interesting.”  Here is the link:

Notice that the pastor begins by mentioning the planned transition that the leadership and staff had prepared using the book Next as a guideline.  This book was written on the positive experiences of larger churches making a successful transition to new leadership.  If you read the Pastor’s comments, you will also be impressed, as I was, with the insight of that 30 year tenured Pastor about what will take place and his role in making it healthy and positive.  “His role?”  Unheard of, in the TEC, where the retiring or leaving Rector is banished from the congregation for at least one year and might not be allowed to return as a member of that congregation.  My point is that there is insight and help beyond our denomination if we would care to seek it out. 

Bottom line for me is that a single cookie cutter approach to our congregations in any area and especially in transitions is not helpful and often very short sighted.

Other Questions

Do you think the long time members of that large Baptist Church would work through their grieving process in two years?  Some older members of that congregation may never stop grieving for the predecessor.  I live in a retirement community with lots of long term married couples in it.  When there is a loss, do you really think the widow or widower gets over it after two years even with therapy?  No, they must learn to function with it. 

Do you think that if the staff of a large church all leave within a year of the new Rector’s arrival, the congregation will thrive?  Continuity is the desire of the large church doing well.  I would contend that the large church doing well is at risk in a system where declining small churches dominate.  I hope you get my point.

 Let me end with this thought.  I remain optimistic for the future of TEC under the guidance of our mission centered Presiding Bishop, however, do we really think that policies and procedures (as well as structures) that were created out of a Christendom view of the Church will serve us in a post-Christian secular society?  I hear many of our current leaders saying that the Church must change, but I see few of our current leaders willing to take the risks that such change demands. 

What do you think?    

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

What Time is Your 8 O'clock Service?

I often joke at conferences that the Episcopal Church is the only church in the world where people call us up and ask, “What time is your 8’o’clock service?” 

For some churches the answer may be 8 o’clock, and for others it could be 7:30 or 7:45, but we know what they mean.  Why we have 8 o’clock services and the problem they create for many of our churches is an important topic that I will address in a moment.  First, it makes for a great introduction to the subject of service times.  I was pulled into this topic recently when a friend asked if I had ever done a blog on service times.  I had not, but I do have a number of things to say on the topic.

First, let’s establish the norm for our Pastoral Size (ASA 75 to 150) congregations.  These churches, the norm from the American Revolution till around 2000, tended after World War I to have a two service format.  First, the main service was usually at 10 or 10:30am.  This varied by region and the time was based on how long it took farmers to take care of the livestock and then load their families onto wagons and get to church.  In the West where we have larger spreads, it was normally 10:30 to allow for the wider distances.  Of course, almost no Episcopalians work on farms now, but this long-standing pattern established the principle that “Prime Time” for most churches was between 9am and noon.  I will return to the issue of Prime Time in a moment, but what about 8 o’clock services.

When I ask clergy why we have an eight o’clock tradition, most respond with either “People like a quieter more traditional service without music” or “Some people prefer the earlier time to allow them to get off to the golf course or wherever.”  These are some of the reasons we have these services NOW, but they are not why we have an 8 o'clock tradition.  The origin lies in a historical fact that almost no current Episcopal Clergy would ever understand.

You see before the liturgical revisions brought about by the Oxford Movement, the typical service on a Sunday in TEC was Morning Prayer.  The two most common patterns were Communion once a month for higher church folks and Communion four times a year for broad church folks.  When more clergy and laity wanted to have more frequent opportunity to receive Holy Communion (they never would have called it the Eucharist) then a good alternative was to institute an 8 o’clock alternative.  It was an effective strategy because it meant change without having to disrupt the tradition of most members.  By the way, attendance was always lower on Communion Sundays because non-confirmed people could not receive communion (a fact that most Episcopalians have completely forgotten!)

Once the radical idea emerged in Prayer Book Revision that Holy Communion or the Eucharist was the standard for churches on Sundays, the Oxford Movement had reached one of its most profound influences in TEC.  With the 79 Prayer Book, we moved on to this now normative formula, but alas the 8 o’clock remained and became for most folks the refuge for those who love traditional English.  Now, of course, it is about golf, breakfast, shopping or whatever.  I say “alas” because this eight o’clock tradition (what time is your 8 o’clock service?) often gets in the way of growing congregations.

This brings me back to the issue of ideal service times.  Given that this depends some on geographical locations and time zones, the NFL plays on Sunday mornings on the West Coast, here are some important points to ponder.

For most churches, Prime Time remains between 9am and 10:45.   Starting before 9am is just too early for families with younger children and impossible for families with teenagers.  10:45 is the earliest you can start a main service and end near noon.  This isn’t so much for the popular idea that if you go beyond noon, the Baptist will beat us to the restaurants, but rather that noon marks a significant shift in the day and families with younger children will find it much harder to keep the hungry critters quiet.

Most Pastoral Size congregations, as I pointed out above, have a 10/10:30 main service and an 8 o’clock format.  It would be far better for them to have a 9 or 9:30 service aimed at families with younger children.  It is not, of course, simply to have it for these families, but to find creative ways to keep all generations engaged in the service.

Imagine you are planting a new Episcopal Church that will start by sending a church planter to a community.  One would start with one service at say 10am and when the congregation gets large enough than shift to a two service format say 9 and 10:30 and largely use the same liturgy, music, and sermon for both.  This is the typical pattern used by Lutheran and many Methodist plants and it works well in allowing the congregation to grow to over 150 ASA.  Remember Lutherans and Methodists don’t have an 8 o’clock tradition! 

Now even though this works and many Episcopal Churches of Pastoral Size would greatly benefit from such a Sunday morning schedule, two problems immediately arise.

First, what to do with the already existing 8’oclock service?  This is sensitive because in many churches the early attenders give a much higher percentage than their later service time attenders.  One church I worked with recently told me that 70% of the income comes from 12 regularly attending members at the 8’oclock service.  All this makes creating space for the newer Family Service very hard. Warning, do not try to combine both into an 8:30 service, neither group will be happy!

Second, what do we do with Christian Education?  If you have a 10 or 10:30 service, chances are that you have Church School just before the main service and you cannot figure out how to fit Christian Education between two major services on Sunday without moving the later service into starting too late.  11am is too late! 

The answer to this second issue is a bit complex, but let’s turns to our Baptist friends for the clue.  Most Baptists have a Bible School at 10am (for all ages based on age, gender, or school grades) followed by a 1 hour service with hymns, sermon, offering, and altar call set to 16 verses of “Just as I am” but ending by noon.  Why do they do this?  Because Baptists give Prime Time (10am) to what is most important for them, the class format study of the Bible.   For Episcopalians, it is simple.  Our Prime Time should be given to Liturgy.  It is our “thing” after all! 

The more important issue for churches wanting to appeal to younger families at an earlier service is not what time the Church School will be, but rather can we get volunteers to cook up a breakfast before the 9 o’clock service.  This takes a tremendous burden off parents and especially single parents. At the Cathedral in Dallas, we found that kids can even help prepare and serve the breakfast. 

So, here is the consultant question.  You can send me a check if you use it.  “If we could start from scratch, how would we structure our Sunday morning, especially in Prime Time, to appeal to a wider group of individuals and families?” 

What about Christian Education and the present 8’oclock service?  See my next blog!

Monday, June 19, 2017

More on Tenures

In my last blog, I discussed the issue of tenure.  I mentioned that I thought 7 to 15 years was a good tenure for Rectors, but that after 15 years dynamics begin that often make the transition to the next Rector difficult.   I shared material that I give to Vestries following such a long tenure with the land mines highlighted.  I want to continue this topic and share a collection of thoughts about issues with tenure, long and short ones.

First, I want to start with an observation that will probably get me in trouble with a whole network of people, namely issues related to interim clergy.  

I have found that our Bishops put too much emphasis on the place of interims.  This doesn’t mean that I think they are not important. I just believe they are limited in what they can accomplish.  Of course, a well-trained and intentional interim can be a great help to congregations in transition.  But many if not most Dioceses have made one to two year interims almost mandatory for every congregation.  This is intended mainly to allow the congregations to grieve the loss of the past Rector before taking on a new one.

Two observations seem important at this point.  First, how much grief is there in a suburban congregation for a Rector who has been in place for five or less years.  Suburban churches have constant turnover of people.  This is very different from the town church losing a Rector who has served for 20 years.  However, in the former suburban situation, a two year interim is much too long.  In the latter, two years is way too short to deal with the dynamics of grief and loss.

In conflictual and problem congregations, a much better solution is the appointment of an “Acting Rector” who should continue to act with the support of the Bishop until signs of health and healing are apparent and the congregation is moving toward mission and vitality.  I inherited just such a situation as Acting Dean at St. Matthew’s in Dallas.  Under the right circumstances an Acting Rector could make a good future Rector for the congregation. 

We learned this in the Diocese of Texas under Bishop Payne.  There are times when the Bishop is better suited to select a new ordained leader than a wounded or dysfunctional congregation.  We did this four times during my 9 years there and each congregation went on with their appointed person to flourish and grow. 

And finally on the topic of Interims let me observe this, a clergy person who has failed in leadership in several congregations will probably not succeed as an effective interim NO MATTER HOW MUCH INTERIM TRAINING YOU GIVE THAT PERSON!   

Now that I have probably riled up a bunch of people including some Bishops, let me move on to other tenure Issues.

Tenure isn’t everything.  What one learns is often more important. 

An assistant principle who had been in place for 18 years once lost out for a position to another assistant principle who had served for only three years.  The first applicant complained.  The head of the School board gave this terse but telling reply.  We felt that you had 18 years of repeating the same experience year after year while the other candidate had 3 years of varied experience. 

My point is that Tenure can lead to stability, but it doesn’t demonstrate leadership.  For this, one needs to look at other issues.  So just being able to stay in place and tread water for 7 to 15 years means little.  Actually, it portends congregational decline and often leads to congregational dysfunction. 

I have over the years met certain Anglo-Catholic clergy who content that their job is to celebrate the Mass and carry out other liturgical and sacramental ministries and that is the only true work of clergy.  Not only are such clergy wrong, but they often function as more or less chaplains to fairly dysfunctional families who dominate small congregations.  In addition, such a contention about the role of Rectors is not what the Canons or the Ordination Service says. 

My observation is that healthy congregations have BOTH effective and capable ordained and lay leadership.  I would content that Anglican Polity assumes that both are essential.

Four years is now the average tenure 

I have met several clergy including one Bishop who assured me that “a Rector should move every 5 years because after that you have used up all your good ideas.”  (By the way, the Bishop served as Bishop for 15 years and probably did use up all his good ideas in his first five.)  But ordained leadership isn’t merely about having good ideas. 

One of the truths we used to share at the Leadership Training Institute in Evergreen, Colorado was this; “Most clergy greatly over-estimate what they can accomplish in the first five years and vastly under-estimate what they can accomplish in the second five years. 

What I have often taught clergy at conferences is that in the third to four year of a Rector’s tenure a kind o power shift takes place where the Rector moves from being one of the leaders to being the leader of the leaders.  One factor is that after the third anniversary, the Rector becomes the tenured member of the Vestry.  There are other factors, but that is for another blog.  The point is that at this moment there is often tension and sometimes conflict.  More clergy should persevere through this period, but alas many find another congregation.  The average tenure for Episcopal Clergy is around 4 years which says volumes about the importance of this period in establishing one’s leadership and how many clergy fail to do this. 

So, should I stay or should I go? 

So how should Rectors know when to leave or when to stay?  My first answer to this is to pray and to seek guidance from a Bishop or some other mature Christian mentor.  If through this prayerful discernment God tells you to leave then leave.  If God tells you to stay, then stay! 

One helpful tool when things are not that clear can be answered by studying the written history of congregations.  Here we find that chapters in such books often begin or end with the transition to a new Rector.  (Only those chapters titled “The Great Fire” take greater precedence over tenures!)  So I have often asked clergy trying to discern these three questions.

                  First, what chapter are you writing in your own ministry?

                  Second, what chapter is the congregation writing at this time?
                 Third, are you the leader to best help them write this current chapter?  If so, stay. 
                If not, let another take you place.

One last observation on tenure and congregational vitality
With many congregations in decline, the numbers of full-time clergy positions are also in decline.  This means many congregations especially in towns end up with part-time, bi-vocational or retired clergy.  This can be a good thing, but many in the Church are claiming that this is a general trend that should be seen as a positive opportunity for lay leadership and so-called “total ministry.”  They are generally wrong.  This is shown when we ask the question that most Episcopal Leaders seem unable to ask; “What would it take to develop such a smaller or declining congregation into a larger and growing one? “  Putting a part-time ordained leader in place (and especially several in a row with short tenures) will almost never develop a small church into a larger one.  What Kirk Hadaway once observed about the tenure of clergy is still true.  “The presence of a full-time, dedicated, and capable clergy person in a church is statistically been shown to be beneficial to a congregation’s health and vitality.”  To this observation, I would enthusiastically add “AMEN!” 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Congregational Development Issues Following the Long-Term Pastorate

 I am a big fan of long-term pastorates.  By this I mean 10 to 15 years.  However, after 15 years, there are some predictable issues that occur and because of these, congregations tend to make bad decisions in calling a new Rector.  Often new Rectors become unintentional interims.  So, what should congregations leaders and clergy know about the congregational dynamics following the long-term Pastorate?  Over the years, I've used the following info help congregations face the transition to a new Rector. 

I.                   The congregation is normally in decline and is most likely to continue this pattern.

A.    There will be a predictable drop in membership especially during the second year of the new Rector.

B.     A large number of “marginal members” will use the leaving of the old Rector as a time to change church attachment.

C.    A number of “historically rooted” members will feel disconnected by the old Rector’s departure.

II.                The departure of the former Rector will create a void which cannot be filled by a new person.

A.    The older the age of the former Rector, the more that person functioned as a “Patriarch or Matriarch” and less as a leader.

B.     The earned esteem, respect and emotional attachment, which the years provided, have little carry over to the new Rector.

C.    The former Rector has almost always been seen as a person of religious authority “older and more mature than us”.

III.             Congregations tend to make poor decisions due to the emotional attachment to the former Rector.

A.    Most write job descriptions based on “the skills not found in our former Rector.”  This only accentuates the differences a new Rector brings.

B.     The longer the pastorate, the more novelty seems like a good idea.  This could include such areas as age, theological orientation, personal characteristics and skills. ( i.e. An INFP followed by an ESTJ)

C.    The grieving process for a congregation – even when people believe the former Rector has stayed too long – is three to five years.  (Some long time members may never successfully work through their grief!)

D.    50% of all clergy who follow a tenure of longer than 15 years are forcefully removed before 5 years!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Leading Revitalization: What to Look For in the Next Rector

 Continuing my blogs on Congregational Revitalization, I want to return to the subject of leadership and particularly what a church should look for in the Rector selected to lead this change. 

In my many years of working with congregations, I have had the great privilege of working with many remarkable clergy.  I have found that it takes a significant combination of personality and skills for clergy who have successfully lead efforts of congregational revitalization.  What are these?

First, let me remind you that in my previous blogs on this topic I have outlined some important pre-conditions that help a congregation in this task.  It is important to remember that leadership is NOT just about leaders, but also about a congregation’s readiness for change and the context of the community surrounding the congregation.  Too many congregations especially in the Episcopal Church have lived with the illusion that “if we just got the right Rector this time” then everything would go well for them.  Often the image of this “right Rector” is that of a past beloved Rector of the 50s or 60s.

Having reminded my readers of this, I now want to suggest what a congregation should look for in the new Rector to lead Revitalization.

1.      I would look for a candidate with a proven track record.  Past performance is the BEST indicator of future behavior.  I would look for a leader who has demonstrated an ability to inspire church members and to attract new and especially unchurched people.  As fundamental as this may seem, it is amazing to me the number of search committees that fail to do their research on this.  Often they based their impressions on one or two of the following. 

a.     Their Bishop’s recommendation

b.     The physical attractiveness of the candidate

c.      The ability of a candidate to answer a few selective questions with no connection as to whether the candidate has ever done what they have written

d.     One example of a sermon by a candidate

e.     How a particular candidate stacks up against the other 4 candidates they have seen so far 

2.     I would look for a leader that has an infectious spirituality.  This leader is able to draw people to her or his vision of the church and its mission and who is able to communicate an image of God and of Christ that is inspirational and attractive.

3.     I would look for a candidate who is an effective communicator of the Gospel.  Here I put the emphasis on “communicator.”  Most Episcopal Clergy are intelligent and thoughtful people who share a certain intellectual ability assured by their seminary training and confirmed by the examination of a Commission on Ministry.  This does not mean that they are effective as communicators. 

When I evaluate sermons, I look at two important skills in preaching.  Fred Craddock called these simply “having something to say” and “saying it effectively.”  I can almost always give an Episcopal Clergy person high marks on have something intelligent to say, but I give few good grades on saying it effectively.  Unfortunately, most clergy use the same form for a sermon over and over again.  We wear the hearer out in our predictability of what we will say and how we will say it. 

4.     I would look for a candidate that loves people, accepts people where they are and yet is ready to challenge them to grow deeper into discipleship and into Christ’s mission.  I would look for an encourager and someone able to affirm lay leadership.  If a larger congregation, I would look for someone who can build a strong team of staff members and effectively delegate.

5.     I would look for someone who values and loves the Church even the local congregation.  Many Episcopal Clergy communicate a certain disdain for ordinary parish life.  We make fun of the Altar Guild or we are cynical about the annual Parish Fair.  We often fail to simply thank volunteers for their contributions.  We frequently chastise those who loyally show up and do the regular routine things that make a community work.

6.     I would look for a candidate who knows what she or he does well and who knows their own limitations.  An effective leader focuses on what that leader does best and delegates what that leader does not do well. 

I once told a search committed that “if you are looking for an inspirational leader who can communicate a vision in a passionate way, than I am your guy.  If you are looking for someone who is focused on details and repetitive tasks, look for someone else.”  Was I a good administrator?  Yes, if you mean by that visionary leader, team oriented, and problem solver.  No, if you mean by that someone who can organize the next parish supper.  I learned often the hard way that I worked best as a Rector when I had a strong administrative assistant on my right hand. 

7.     I would look for a person who models, as a leader, what it means to be a follower of Christ.  I would want a person who can admit a mistake. I would want a person who is able to forgive.  I would desire a leader who is generous in financial matters, tithes to the parish, and gives to other important ministries and organizations.  I have never found a parish where stewardship is strong where the Rector does not tithe.


8.     I would look for a Rector who is connected to other leaders.  I would want a full participant in the Diocese.  I would want a leader who has good relationships with colleagues.  I would want a leader who takes good counsel from other leaders.  I have learned that in the long run there is only one illness in a leader or a church and it is isolation. 

Narcissistic leaders stand alone.  They only have admirers or fans.  They do not live in relationships where they are help accountable.  I remind us that clergy are members of an “order” and not Lone Rangers.  These relationships help a leader remember that he or she is not the Messiah and that the Church exists apart from them, and they apart for their role.  In other words, I would want a healthy person and healthy people exist in relationship to other healthy people.

9.     Finally, I would want a person who is dependent on God’s Grace.  I once heard a clergy spouse respond to a question about the clergy family being “models” to the congregation.  “Yes,” She said, “we are to be models to the congregation.  We are not, however, models of perfection because we aren’t perfect and such an expectation is always destructive.  We are to be models of people who live our lives as if we are dependent on God’s Grace.” No matter what situation a leader or leaders find themselves facing, we can always model that we are dependent upon the Grace of God. 

Notice that I haven’t said anything about programs, or systems, or theories of parish organization.  Certainly these can be important, but without the above, they are of little use. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Declining Congregations Need to Use the Appropriate Strategy

In my last two blogs, I began a series on Re-vitalization.  I started with an emphasis on leadership.  In my second one, I shared my concerns about assessing a congregation’s readiness for the task. In this blog, I want to explore the three types of strategy that our declining congregations need to be healthy and vital.  
I have always found The Congregational Life Cycle to be a helpful tool in teaching Congregational Development and in understanding what a declining congregation needs.  Many of my readers would be familiar with this model.  A congregation is birthed.  It grows and, at some point in its initial history 15 to 20 years it reaches a stage of stability.  If leaders do nothing at this stage, a congregation will begin to decline.  This decline points to three necessary responses.

First is “Re-Visioning”
 This is what congregational leaders need to do during the initial turn down at the end of the stabilization period.  It is often hard to do, because in many ways the congregation is operating at its best in most areas of congregational life.  It takes gifted and dedicated and mission minded leadership to challenge others to think ahead and push forward. 

I learned some time ago by studying larger congregations that their history is often seen in as a series of growth spirts followed by plateaus that lead to a new time of further growth and greater vitality.  In other words, just as growth in the natural world is seldom a straight line, growth in a human community isn’t either.  Those who study such things now think that these moments of stabilization reflect the organism’s need to integrate the proceeding development and prepare for the future.  Failure to do this, leads to decline.  The scientific term is “atrophy” – things left to their own devices tend to run down.

Unfortunately, many congregations never move to this new level because the status quo is seldom challenged.  A typical pattern is a new plant grows until it can afford a full time Rector and then clusters around the Pastoral Size with an average Sunday attendance between 75 to 140.  This remains standard until either a crisis or the inevitable aging of the congregation starts the church toward decline.  Sometimes a new Rector brings new energy and new growth, but the congregation never moves beyond the Pastoral size and its limitations. 

What I am saying is this; Re-Visioning is the best time to re-evaluate and create a renewed vision, but satisfaction with the status quo keeps this from happening. Often Re-Visioning involves clarifying or refining the current sense of mission.  Writing a mission statement can be a helpful tool especially if new and expanded ministries are planned and executed.

Once decline is clearly evident, the congregation needs “Re-vitalization.” 
This is a harder and more costly process because it demands change that is not congruent with what has gone before.  The Leaders often feel that the problem is simply a need for a few newer families with children rather than realize that this is merely aimed at maintaining what is known.  So let me say this as clear as I can.  The almost universal suggestion by Dioceses that congregations write a mission statement is almost useless in a congregation needing Re-Vitalization.  When the leaders write one, it will mostly be a maintenance statement disguised as a mission statement. 

Re-Vitalization takes place best when a clergy leader with skills in congregational transformation in in place.  Many will not like to hear this, but the leaders who got the congregation to the stage of needing Re-Vitalization are not the ones to get you out of it.  In my next blog, I will discuss some of the skills and characteristics of such clergy and lay leadership, but for now I want to focus on the process needed.

When we did intentional Re-Vitalization in the Diocese of Texas during Bishop Payne’s tenure, we would do some or all of the following.

1.      We would take an active role in recruiting the right kind of ordained leader for this work.  Declining congregations make very poor choices in a search process.

2.      We brought new resources in both capital and operating assistance usually for a period long enough to make a difference – 3 to 5 years.

3.      We reduced the size of the vestry to 5 to 7 leaders.  Our request to the congregation was simple and direct, “Put your A Team -best leaders - on the field."

4.      We would keep that Vestry in place for the 3 to 5 years of the partnership.

5.      We often kept the same Senior Warden in place during this time too. 

6.      We expected the clergy and lay leadership to review current ministries and stop those that were no longer viable. 

7.      We provided training in Leadership, Congregational Development, and Stewardship.  (For example: Congregations in the Re-Vitalization process were required to send a majority of Vestry Members to the Annual Diocesan Stewardship Conference.)

8.      We trained lay leaders in New Member Ministry (the genesis of Mary Palmer’s “Invite, Welcome and Connect” seminars.  And we shared best practices from similar sized congregations.

9.       We would ask the leadership to prepare a series of goals and timelines and made clear that continued funding was dependent on meeting them.

Of course, we were a large Diocese with plenty of staff to assist making these things happen.  Did these strategies work? In my 9 years with the Diocese, it worked in every intentional Re-Vitalization.

Once decline has reached a critical point, what is now needed is “Re-Birth” or frankly Resurrection.
A dying English speaking congregation of 15 folks becoming a growing Hispanic congregation is Rebirth, it is not revitalization.  Hence a dying English speaking congregation that starts a Spanish speaking service in hopes it will bring about revitalization to the English speaking side of a congregation is headed for trouble. 

In my experience, almost all Re-Birth events in congregations involved finding a new target for the future.  Sometimes this is ethnic.  Often times it is generational.  In dynamic places it often involves both.   I am also convinced that congregation Re-Birth is almost always a God thing and looks very much like a miracle.  I guess Resurrection is like that.  However, it is also important to remember that for a Resurrection to take place, something has to die.  And, of course, some congregations will simple die. 

Now with these three terms in front of us, Re-visioning, Re-Vitalization, and Re-Birth, I can now make a couple of final observations.

First, most congregational leaders wait too long to take initiative in each of these stages and often act in reactionary ways. 

Second, being in denial, the leaders often underestimate which stage they are really in.  Hence the congregation needing Re-Visioning just focuses on operations.  The congregation needing Re-Vitalization focuses on writing a new Mission Statement.  A congregation moving toward death believes a new Rector and new programs will turn things around.  And finally, a congregation in the throes of death believes that “Jesus will never let his Church die.”  As is often said, Denial is not a river in Egypt!

And third, Diocesan Leadership seldom intervenes with the right strategy at the right time even though they actual know better than local leaders the true state of the congregation. 

Now in my opinion, most of the 70 to 80% of our congregations in decline in TEC are in the Re-Vitalization stage and we need to train both clergy and lay leaders in the necessary steps to bring about this Re-Vitalization.  I would love to put together a two week continuing education at one of our seminaries on this and invite folks to attend.  I am still awaiting an invitation. 

In summary; A congregation in decline needs to understand what stage they are in and apply the appropriate strategy to meet it.  This often involves new leadership, especially clergy, and new information by way of training.  Re-Visioning can be done largely on the local level.  Re-Vitalization and Re-Birth need intentional Diocesan support.