HOW THE VISION DEVELOPS 1

I find myself getting upset these days whenever I read or hear something that puts “maintenance” ministry in a negative light. It has become almost the accepted standard that maintenance ministry is bad and vision driven ministry is good. The more I read and hear this, the more I realize just how wrong it really is.

Maintenance ministry needs to be seen for what it really is–the basic, day to day work of the church and pastor that actually builds and strengthens and protects the church. To downplay or ignore this vital part of ministry is to risk everything–without good maintenance, things fall apart.

When we owned a house, I was always doing something around the house–painting, repairing cracks, replacing windows, mowing lawns, replacing roofing, repairing plumbing leaks, clearing the driveway. All this activity took time and energy and most of it I enjoyed, except for mowing the lawn. But even if I hadn’t enjoyed the work, it still had to be done. Letting a leaky roof go would result in serious harm to the basic structure. Ignoring a dripping tap increased water and electricity bills. Putting off painting risks rotting wood or worse.

While the basic maintenance of a house kept it in good condition, it also had another benefit–I always knew the overall state of the house. There were very few surprises around the house because I was looking at things enough to know generally what to expect and often when to expect it. The surprises that did come tended to be in areas that I couldn’t look after, like the furnace or appliances.

In the church, the maintenance ministry does the same thing. The regular pastoral activity of connecting with people through visitation, casual conversations, talking about the weather, children, work, sports, gardens and so on provides the pastor with an overall picture of the state of the congregation. It is rarely a waste of effort to spend time with members of the congregation–not only does the time benefit the congregant but also it allows the pastor to develop and maintain a sense of the health and status of the congregation as well as prevent surprises from upsetting the ministry or the minister.

Pastors who don’t do the basic maintenance ministry don’t know their congregations–and they will face many surprises in their ministry. One of the big surprises is often the sudden realization that the congregation doesn’t agree with the pastor–and may not even like the pastor. Not doing effective maintenance ministry is a good way to ensure a short, painful ministry filled with surprises.

What does this have to do with vision? Well, the connection between maintenance ministry and vision is strong. In the small church, the awareness of the need for a vision grows out of the maintenance ministry of the church. It will often be the pastor who first becomes aware of the need for a vision because the pastor will (or should) have the clearest overall picture of the church because of the effective maintenance ministry.

This awareness doesn’t necessarily lead directly to the development of a vision. In fact, the pastoral awareness developed from the regular practise of ministry will sometimes assure the pastor that things are going well, ministry is being done and there is no need for anything more just yet.

However, the awareness of the congregation developed from the regular ministry may help the pastor see that there are issues and needs and possibilities that need to be addressed but which are beyond the regular scope of ministry. Developing a vision may be one of the possible solutions at times like this.

This pastoral awareness developed from good maintenance ministry isn’t an open invitation for the pastor to develop a vision for the church. While he/she may have a clearer picture of the church than anyone else in the church, the pastor’s awareness of the church is not infallible nor it is complete. Before the need for a vision can be established, there is a lot of work for both pastor and congregation to do. Because the small church works on the basis of relationships, the vision process has to be worked through in a way that involves as much of the congregation as possible–and that will be the focus of tomorrow’s blog.

May the peace of God be with you.

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WHEN THE SMALL CHURCH NEEDS A VISION

As I began thinking about this post, I realized that I had put myself in a bit of a difficult position. I planned on listing some times when a clear vision will benefit the small church but as I was thinking about the topic, I realized that it isn’t as easy to come up with a list of times when the small church needs a vision. One example came to me immediately but as we will see, it probably isn’t the greatest example of such a time.

Part of the difficulty comes from the fact that the small church doesn’t always have to have a vision. As long as ministry is going well and the church is responding to the needs it sees through the leading of the Holy Spirit, it probably doesn’t need to waste the time, energy and resources developing and implementing a vision requires.

As I continued to think about the need for vision, I realized that the time for vision in the small church depends not so much on the chronological time but on what the New Testament calls “kairos”. This kind of time describes a set of circumstances that come together and create the right setting for something to happen. God seems to work on this time rather that clock time.

There are then “kairos” times in the life of a small congregation when the vision process is a benefit and the resulting vision can help the congregation. The times I mention here are not a complete list and I would be really interested in hearing from you about your thoughts on the topic, either disagreeing with the things I have suggested or adding to the list.

A small church can benefit from the vision process when:

1. They have been static or in a plateau period for an extended period of time–probably more than a year or two. Such a period will also probably be accompanied by a small but noticeable decline in giving, attendance and ministry activity.

2. When there has been a crisis in the church. The crisis might be the result of a dispute in the congregation, loss or damage to the building, a leadership failure of some sort, a significant community event like the closing of a major employer or any one of a number of negative events that take the energy, resources and enthusiasm from the congregation.

3. After a long and successful or a short and disastrous pastoral tenure. Either of these can have a significant effect on the congregation that can disrupt their ability to minister well.

4. When the congregation has a sense that something more is needed in their congregational life. It might be a sense of dissatisfaction, a feeling that something in missing, a touch of boredom. This is a somewhat intangible item but wise pastors and congregations pay attention to it.

5. When there is a major new opportunity for ministry. If a major housing development is planned for the areas served by the congregation, that opportunity would require some planning and vision so that the congregation might make the best of the opportunity.

I haven’t forgotten the first example of a time for a vision that I mentioned earlier–I just didn’t want to include it in the main list because that situation comes about when the pastor is doing advanced education and requires congregational participation. I know several congregations that have developed a vision in response to the requirements of their pastor’s Doctor of Ministry studies–including my own D. Min. studies. These visions tend to do a great deal more for the pastor than the congregation although a well designed D. Min. project can greatly enhance the ministry of a congregation.

There are probably other times when it would benefit a small church to develop a vision and if you know of any, I would love to hear them.

Even when the “kairos” is right, good vision doesn’t just happen spontaneously. It requires work on the part of both pastor and congregation to develop and implement the vision. Some of the work required to discover if a vision is needed and then the develop and implement the vision is work that should already be taking place in the congregation. We will look at that work and the vision process beginning tomorrow.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE VISION TRAP

One of the more abused Scripture passages I have seen in recent years is the first half of Proverbs 29.18, which is often used to make a case that the church needs to have a vision. The passage reads “Where there is no vision, the people perish…”–in the KJV version. Unfortunately for those who use this as a proof text for their calls for vision, the intention behind this 500 year old translation of the original Hebrew is better expressed by many modern translations, such as the NIV, which reads “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint….”
The passage has important insights and can provide the basis for a great sermon but really has nothing to do with vision as we understand it today. The passage is looking at the need for people to have clear revelations from God to guide them in their lives. To use the passage as a proof text for the modern cultural need to have a clear vision driving the church is just poor exegesis, although the history of the church suggests that fear of doing a poor job of interpreting the Scripture hasn’t stopped a lot of preachers.
Many churches have been persuaded or pushed into thinking that vision is the driving force for the church–if we don’t have a vision, we are lost. Of course, to have a vision, there must be a visionary and the prevailing opinion is that the visionary needs to be the pastor. The pastor’s first task must be the vision: developing the vision, casting the vision and forcing the church to accept, follow and achieve the vision no matter what the cost.
For many small congregations, this call for vision-driven ministry has produced conflict, strife, demoralization and more. The basic problem is that small churches don’t always need an over-arching vision and when they do need one, there is a totally different process for developing that vision. Being pushed to adopt a vision that doesn’t develop in the proper way drops the congregation into the vision trap. Getting out of this trap is hard, painful and expensive and can result in the church splitting and/or dissolving. It can also lead to pastoral unemployment.
As I understand it, the purpose of a vision is to give the church a unifying direction and purpose. It seeks to bring all the people and all the ministry together to create a more effective and successful ministry. Another significant benefit of a good and successful vision is that it enhances the reputation of the visionary pastor, who gets to write books and lead seminars on his/her particular vision.
The small church already has a unifying direction and purpose. It is unified by its sense of community. Now, I know that that sense of community isn’t always healthy nor is it always particularly effective at enhancing the ministry of the congregation. But it is a unifying factor. The members do think about each other and their needs. They are concerned about those outside the church community–their family and friends who either don’t attend worship or who aren’t yet committed to the faith.
Out of this network of relationships comes ministry. I have pastored congregations that began nurseries for small children not because the nursery was part of some overall vision to reach the community but because Zeke and Zelda just had a baby and wouldn’t it be nice if the church had a nursery for them? The fact that the nursery also benefited others was a pleasant side-effect. The nursery developed because there was a need for it that was recognized by the community.
Small churches have functioned on this basis almost from the beginning of the church. When the early church found there were troubles with the program to care for widows, they developed the office of deacon–not as part of some great vision for administering the church but because some people needed something more. This story is told in Acts 6.1-7.
Ministry happens in small churches as the community responds to the needs it discovers among its members and in its wider community. Long before the North American church was calling for vision to get ministry going, the church was discovering and responding to the needs around it, not out of a great sense of vision but out of a desire to help the community in some way.
That is not to say that the small church doesn’t need vision–there are times when the small church needs a bigger sense of direction than responding to community needs can provide. We will look at when that need for vision becomes important and how to develop the necessary vision in future blogs.
May the peace of God be with you.

WHO IS FEEDING THE SHEEP?

A lot of my thinking about the issue of leadership in the context of ministry comes out of a question that I have been asking for years. The question comes out of the story of Jesus and Peter in John 21.15-17. The story tells us that three times, Jesus asks Peter is he loves Jesus. Three times, Peter affirms his love. And three times, he is given some version of the command to feed Jesus sheep. I think that it is very significant that the command is to feed the sheep, not lead the sheep.

Again, I am not against leadership. I am, however, upset with the current emphasis on leadership that pushes pastoral care and pastoral work into the background. I think every church and every pastor needs to ask the question I have been asking myself for years. As you might have guessed, the question is the title of this post: Who is feeding the sheep?”

In the pastoral context, this is the first question to be asked and satisfactorily answered–satisfactorily answered from the perspective of the congregation, not the pastor. The congregation needs someone to do the feeding. This pastoral activity includes but is not limited to things like effective preaching, timely pastoral care, strong relationship building, pertinent teaching, pastoral contact and support during life’s crises and triumphs, proper access to the pastor and so on. If this feeding isn’t being provided, the church will suffer.

In most small churches, the congregation calls a pastor. There are no job descriptions, and often very little in the way of guidelines beyond showing up for worship. But there is generally a very powerful, unwritten expectation that the person the church pays to be their pastor will be heavily involved in feeding them and caring for them. There have always been pastors who have excelled at this and others who have done a terrible job at it–the old joke about ministers working one hour a week grew out of the fact that some who took pastoral pay didn’t do much more than that.

For me, this is a huge ethical and theological issue. It is an ethical issue because if the congregation calls the pastor and pays the pastor to be the pastor and the pastor takes the money but doesn’t do what the church is expecting, he/she is cheating the church. Someone has to feed the church and if the person taking the money to feed the church isn’t doing the work, it is unlikely to happen.

It is also a theological issue because of the great emphasis the Bible puts on the need to provide a pastor’s care. Both Old and New Testaments are filled with references to the pastoral role, looking at both what it should be and what happens when it isn’t fulfilled properly. John 10.1-17 is probably one of the best known but there are many others dealing with the need for good pastoral care.

I think small congregations suffer proportionally more than larger churches because of the current cultural emphasis of leadership over pastoral care. People come to them wanting to lead them but being asked (and paid) to feed them. Many pastors seem to think that leadership is the job of the paid professional–but members of small congregations are paying someone to feed them and love them. If you haven’t seen or been involved in such a mis-match, you haven’t been in the church or ministry for very long.

For me, the bottom line is that churches need pastors who will feed the sheep. It is true that leadership is a spiritual gift and that the church needs leaders. It is true that pastors can be and probably should be among the leadership of the church. But when a church calls an individual to be a pastor and supports that calling with money, the called one has an ethical and theological obligation to put the care and feeding of the congregation first. This loving, caring, patient and understanding pastoral care is what the church craves and what pastors are called to do.

When both church and congregation are satisfied with the answer to the question “Who is feeding the sheep?”, the church can begin to move towards health and the pastor can explore with the church the deployment of other gifts the pastor and congregation may have.

This might look like a call to what is often called “maintenance” ministry because it actually is a call to this ministry. But as I will look at in a later post, maintenance ministry isn’t the terrible thing it is often seen to be.

May the peace of God be with you.

PASTORS (AND, OR, AND/OR) LEADERS–PART 2

There seems to be the perception among some pastors that when faced with the established leadership in a congregation, there are only two options:

1. Give up and let the established leaders continue to run the show.
2. Fight and defeat the established leaders to win the right to lead the congregation.

Unfortunately, neither option does much for either church or congregation. In the first option, the pastor generally becomes an ineffective spectator in the life of the church, unable to do much more than bless the newborn, marry the couples and bury the dead. Unless the established leadership has a strong desire to move the church in God’s way, the congregation will stagnate because it isn’t able to assimilate and act on any insights the pastor might have.

In the second scenario, the church and pastor also lose. Pastors tend to forget that they are outsiders and in the vast majority of situations, the congregation will follow the established leadership, no matter what. Remember, the small church is built on relationships and the relationship web is stronger than theology or the pastor’s insights. Basically, when the pastor fights the established leadership, the pastor will lose. The church will also lose because it will continue in its established path, which probably isn’t helping it all that much.

But even if the pastor wins the battle, the church suffers because the causalities of the battle will include: members dropping out of church completely; members going to other congregations; a serious loss of credibility in the wider community; the possibility of a church split–none of the results of the pastor winning the battle are positive.

But there is a third way:

3. Develop a strong relationship with the established leaders that will lead to sharing the leadership of the congregation.

I know that many will dismiss this third way as a wasteful fairy tale option but in the end, it just makes sense. Neither of the first two options will work. This option will work–maybe not always but it will at least do less harm to the pastor and the congregation than the first two options. It will take a serious commitment of time and a willingness to compromise but it can be done.

Developing the kind of relationship that will lead to shared leadership will take at least a couple of years work–getting to know the people, letting them get to know the pastor, proving the pastoral commitment to the congregation, learning to understand and appreciate the history of the congregation and so on. It will also require that the pastor surrender ideas and plans that he/she arrived with. Congregations are like people in that each one is different and it is only as we pastors learn to see them as individuals that we can really know them. Ideas and plans conceived before the pastor sees the real congregation must be changed in the face of real congregations.

In this slower third way process, the pastor, the established leadership and the rest of the congregation have an opportunity to get to know and appreciate each other in ways that bring the pastor into the relationship web in a positive way. As part of the relationship web, the pastor will hear and be heard and out of that hearing and being heard will develop the ability to share in the leadership of the congregation.

This process will not always work–there will always be some congregations whose established leadership will want to go in ways the pastor cannot support. But since both the other options are bound to do serious harm to both pastor and congregation and the third option will do some good even if it doesn’t work, it seems to me that it is always the best option. It also has a certain inbuilt integrity–we were called to be a pastor to the congregation, not a combatant or leader so this option is actually allowing us to do what we were called to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

PASTORS (AND, OR, AND/OR) LEADERS–PART 1

Leadership seems to be a major issue in church circles these days. It seems like everyone working in a church needs to be or wants to be a leader. There are books and articles and seminars on how to be better leaders, how to lead the church, how to deal with roadblocks to leadership–all designed to make us better at leading the church.

And is some ways, I don’t have a problem with leadership–well, truthfully, I do have a problem with some types of leadership but that is another blog post someday. People in groups seem to have a need for leadership and churches, being groups of people therefore need leadership.

However, as a pastor, I have seen many leadership failures and have been called at times to help clean up the results of such failures in congregations. My experience in churches is that poor leadership causes much more pain and suffering in the church and community than any lack of leadership. Lack of leadership causes the church to drift–but poor leadership causes the church to sink.

But I don’t think we can simply ignore leadership issues. Churches need leaders–but it seems to me that different church contexts need different approaches to leadership. And one of the major problems is that many people are bringing the wrong approach to smaller churches, which is where I have seen most of the leadership problems.

I am going to take a risk and over-simplify what I know to be a complex problem by suggesting that small churches need different leadership than bigger churches. Essentially, the small church needs a pastor with some skills in leadership while a bigger church likely needs a leader with some skills as a pastor. Unfortunately, the prevailing theories I see and hear these days downplay pastoral skills in favour of leadership skills.

Small churches by their nature tend to be organized around relationships. There are within the small church people who are accorded leadership status by virtue of family history, wisdom, education, economic status or other reasons. In general, every small congregation has its already present natural leaders as well as a somewhat confusing but nonetheless clear authority structure. By that, I mean that people in the congregation if pressed can say who gets to do what but outsiders generally find it very confusing.

The basic reality we miss is that a pastor is always an outsider when he/she arrives. The pastor is respected, appreciated and given an opportunity to “tryout” for membership in the church community. As time passes, they may even be given some of the leadership burden–or they may be frozen out of the leadership and eventually the congregation.

That is because the small church doesn’t call the pastor to be a leader–they call the pastor to be a pastor. They want someone to love them, care for them when they hurt, feed them with God’s word, help them grow in faith at their pace, help them connect with the God they believe in but are somewhat afraid of. All this can only be done as the called person enters into relationship with the people and lets the people enter into relationship with him/her. It is also a process that takes time

After the new pastor has proven he/she is capable of doing the pastoral tasks well, then he/she is given some limited leadership tasks. If these are done well in a manner that maintains the good relationships developed in the early stages, more authority is loaned to the pastor. But all the authority still belongs to the congregation and is only loaned to the pastor because the pastor, no matter how loved and appreciated, is an outsider who will eventually leave.

Pastors who understand this process do well in small churches. Pastors who don’t understand this process or who want to rush it don’t do well–and as a result, neither do the congregations they serve (or don’t serve, depending on how you look at service). Pastors don’t really lead small congregations. Instead, they love and are loved and out of that relationship, things happen. Rather than being the leader of the congregation, the pastor in a small congregation is involved in a shared leadership with people whom he/she loves and is loved by. The relationship comes first and is the important thing–the shared leadership is a by-product of the relationship.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE TWO HUNDRED BARRIER

Our Kenyan church family
Our Kenyan church family

The last time we worked in Kenya (2012-2014), we began worshipping in a large town church. The church has both an English and a Kiswahili worship service, both of which were generally packed. The sanctuary could hold perhaps 400-500 and there were always people sitting outside. As Kenyan churches go, they were well set up: lots of leadership; an excellent choir; some well off members and good facilities. We were welcomed and began to feel a part of both English and Kiswahili congregations.

But after a few weeks, we end up settling in with a different congregation a few kilometers away. This group had one worship service that on its best Sunday would include 50 people, if we included the kids who wandered in and out. They were lead by a senior church leader who was also heavily involved in denominational affairs so a lot of the pastoral work fell on two lay people who lead services, preached and administered the church.

The church building was solid but unfinished–the windows were wire screen not glass, a fact all the worshippers were very aware of on cloudy, windy mornings during the cold part of the year. The choir sang enthusiastically, when enough of them arrived in time for the special. Money was a problem because the congregation was mainly older people, widows and assorted unemployed. We were accepted in the congregation and were a part of it until we left to return to Canada. More than that, though, we were at home in the congregation–to say this congregation became our spiritual home in Kenya wouldn’t be an overstatement.

This decision to worship with a small struggling church rather than a large thriving one says a great deal about us personally. But it seems to me that it provides a good starting place for looking at an issue that I have been thinking about a lot over the years–church size.

Statistically, small churches abound–I have seen stats that say something like 80% of congregations have less than 100 members. Often, this statistic is quoted in the context of a concept called the “200 Barrier”. The “200 Barrier” refers to the fact that moving a congregation to grow beyond 200 members seems to be a difficult and complicated process that most congregations will never accomplish.

Unfortunately, it seems like all the information pastors and church leaders receive is produced by the leadership of the congregations that have passed that barrier. There is the unspoken but very real sense that churches that don’t pass that barrier are not as faithful or as dynamic and their leadership isn’t as capable or as good. Some of the stuff being produced seems to suggest that every congregation can break the 200 barrier if they just follow the right path and have the right leadership.

I am not against large congregations but drawing on my experience in small congregations, I don’t think that breaking the 200 barrier is necessarily the goal or measuring stick for a congregation. Small congregations are not large congregations in waiting and large congregations are not small congregations that have fulfilled their destiny. Both are being used by God and both have an important place in the Kingdom.

I am a confirmed small church fan and because of that, this blog will generally look at things from that perspective. I might refer to large (200+) churches now and then but I don’t have the experience or the background to say much definitive about them. That isn’t a problem for me because there are lots of people writing and speaking about those churches. But as we did in Kenya, I am going to settle in on the under 200 side and look at ministry from that perspective. I hope to provide some insight and food for thought for others on the same side of the barrier.

The peace of God be with you.

I Was Wondering About

I have been involved in Christian ministry since the summer of 1973, when I became pastor of two small churches in rural Nova Scotia, Canada. Although I had done a bit of preaching before that, this was the beginning of my career in ministry. Since that beginning, I have been involved in some form of paid ministry almost continuously, except for brief periods between various ministries. In those years, I have been a pastor (both full and part time), a missionary, a prison chaplain and a professor at both Canadian and Kenyan theological schools. I am currently in one of the in-between situations. I am providing Sunday worship for a couple of small struggling congregations while I wait for the next stage of my ministry.

In all these years of practising, studying and teaching ministry, I have discovered a few things about ministry that have become bedrock foundational truths about ministry. I have discovered a lot of things that seem like such bedrock foundational truths but really aren’t. I have also discovered a lot of things that help and hinder ministry, depending on the specifics of the setting. Overall, the list of things that are solid, bedrock foundational truths is very small but very important and the list of things that fit in the other categories is very big. But just which category a particular ministry approach or idea or theory is put in can be very controversial and confusing.

All this means I have spent a lot of time in ministry wondering about stuff. Sometimes, I have shared the wonderings with others; sometimes, I have written about the wonderings; sometimes, I have used them as the basis for preaching and sometimes, I really haven’t done much with the wonderings. I hope to use this blog to share some of these wonderings. If you connect with anything you read here, great–it doesn’t matter if you agree on not because the truth is that some of these things I may change my mind on as I continue wondering. I would be very interested in your comments and thoughts on my wonderings.

In order to help contextualize my thoughts, it might help to know that I am an ordained pastor in a Baptist denomination. Baptists on the whole are fairly conservative but I tend to be in the centre or a bit to the left of the Baptist theological spectrum. I have primarily ministered as a pastor in small rural congregations and have spend a lot of time studying and working with such congregations. While I have been both a full time and part time pastor, I have spent more time as a part time pastor and have even written a small book on part-time ministry.

I am not sure where this blog will go or how long it will continue but right now, it seems like the right thing to do. I look forward to your comments.

May God’s peace be with you.