SABBATH

One of the interesting but often unspoken realities of any form of ministry is that it can be very hazardous to one’s spiritual health.  On the surface, that seems like it shouldn’t be true–and maybe even less true for me than for others.  To start with, while I am pastor of two separate church settings, I am 40% at each, which even with my shaky math works out to 80%, leaving me lots of free time to do a variety of other things, including spiritual development.

In practise, though, ministry of any kind and any temporal duration has a tendency to expand.  Last week, my 40% position at one church expanded to well above 50%.  Fortunately, the other position was pretty much “normal” last week but there have been times when both have had expansionary weeks and “free” time consisted of trying to stay awake while I watched the evening news.

And there is a deeper, more significant side of this ministry expansion.  I work hard at having an approach to spiritual growth that takes into account my particular needs and personality, which involves a lot of reading since my primary approach to spiritual development involves study and contemplation.  But reading takes energy–or rather, reading in a way that allows me to understand and process what I am reading so that I can use it as the basis of a contemplative spiritual development process takes energy.

But as the ministry week expands and grows and fills in spaces set aside for other things, it also fills in the space I set aside for reading–and at the same time, taps into the energy I need to effectively use the time I have.  And that means that after a short time of battling ministry expansion and resulting fatigue, I find myself approaching my reading time with the realization that no matter what I read, I am not going to take much in because I am tired physically, emotionally and spiritually.

I could, I suppose, summon up vast amounts of spiritual discipline (or guilt) and read anyway.  Having tried that approach, I can assure you that it doesn’t work for.  If I am reading while on the exercise bike, I realize my mind is drifting and I am taking in nothing.  If I am sitting in the living room, I eventually realize that I have been asleep for the past 15 minutes and so haven’t taken in anything.  At least for me, forcing myself really doesn’t help.

Ministry expands and the expansion threatens to fill every part of life.  And whether a person is a pastor like I am or a lay person, ministry is always expanding.  No matter what the ministry is, there is always potential for expansion and when we commit to ministry and crank up our gifts and openness to the Spirit, we have a tendency to follow the expansion wherever it goes.

That might sound faithful and might look faithful but in the end, it is spiritually unwise and will lead to burnout, depression, anxiety, anger, and a decreased ability to relate lovingly to ourselves, others and God.  Our faith and our concern for the ministry God has given us come together and produce an unhealthy minister.

That is why the Biblical idea of Sabbath is so important.  Technically, the Sabbath was the one day out of seven when the people were supposed to rest and reconnect.  Most of the Christian church has moved from Sabbath observation (Saturday) to keeping the Lord’s Day (Sunday) but many of the Sabbath ideas were transferred to Sunday.

Taking one day out of seven to rest and reconnect with ourselves, others and God is good theology and good psychology.  And the idea of Sabbath can be expanded.  We can have Sabbath moments during our day–on Sundays, I have about an hour between worship services, which provides me with a mini-Sabbath.  During that hour, I have some lunch, read some news and take a power nap.  I do read over my notes for the next service but the other components of the mini-Sabbath are much more important.

We need Sabbaths during the year as well.  The longer I go without a break from ministry, the more I need a break.  Fortunately, a short vacation is coming up soon.

Ministry, whether paid or not expands with inexorable force.  We need to work hard at countering the negative effects of that expansion with the powerful antidote of the Sabbath.

May the peace of God be with you.

EVALUATING THE SMALL CHURCH 4

I have been involved in ministry in a variety of ways for more years than I want to count. That means, among other things, that I have been involved with committees, working groups and studies of various kinds, most of which ended up producing some sort of report with recommendations and suggestions. To my great frustration, these reports have ended up collecting dust somewhere. So, I have learned to discover who is going to do what when with the results of a study before I get involved with it.

That applies to the evaluation process that we have been looking at these last few days. Unless there is a willingness to actually use the results of the ministry evaluation to help the church develop, there is no point in wasting the time and effort to do the evaluation. The evaluation process described here is designed to give the congregation ideas and directions for a healthier church with better ministry.

When this evaluation process is finished, the church will have a clear picture of its ministry. It will not only know what it is doing is each of the functional areas but also how well it is doing in that area. With these results, the church can easily discover its direction.

Take the function where the average score is the lowest. This is the weakest area of the church’s ministry. This is the area that needs immediate attention and work. I know that there are schools of thought that suggest we strengthen our strengths and move away from our weak areas but that doesn’t apply to this analysis of the church functions.

The weakest area of the four functions in the congregation can be viewed as a flat tire on a car. The other three might be brand new, well inflated, properly mounted and balanced–but they cannot function properly as long as there is a flat. Even with three good tired, fixing the flat is the priority.

So, beginning with the weakest function, the church looks not just at what is being done but what could be done, what could be strengthened, and even what no longer helps the church do its ministry effectively. Many congregations waste a lot of time and energy trying to keep things going that once were effective and important but which are now a waste of time and energy.

Sometimes, the congregation can ask the leadership to come up with some ideas and suggestions. As long as the leadership spends time consulting with the congregation, letting them see the work in progress, this works. If the committee simply meets privately and presents a finished plan for approval, it will likely be rejected because people were not consulted.

Planning for change in the functional area needs to think in terms of 1 to 2 years–quick fixes tend not to have much in the way of valuable long-term results. The weakness in the function didn’t originate overnight and won’t go away overnight.

Planning should also be done with the awareness that not everything suggested will work–failure is always a possibility. It is not a problem to try something and have is fail to do what was planned or needed. Learn from the failure and try something else.

As one functional area is improved, it will have an effect on the others–generally positive but occasionally negative. For that reason, once the congregation feels the functional area has improved, it is likely wise to do another ministry review, since everything will likely have changed and the old results are no longer valid. If the ministry review process is done every couple of years, that shouldn’t be a major problem.

I realize that this is a somewhat brief and perhaps confusing description of the whole process. I have found it to work well for small churches and really isn’t overly complicated. However, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, I am available for further discussion with churches and individuals who are interested–just contact me through the comments section if you don’t already know my contact information.

May the peace of God be with you.

EVALUATING THE SMALL CHURCH 3

When it comes to evaluating the church, small churches have a definite advantage because of their small size. It is easier to involve a significant percentage of the congregation in the process when there aren’t that many people. As well, the relationships in the small church mean that even those who choose not to take part in the evaluation process have some input through the relationship net.

For a church choosing to use the four functions as the basis for an evaluation, the process needs to begin with some teaching on the four functions. This should be done to reach as much of the church as possible. A suggestion is to preach a series of sermons on the functions to expose everyone to the ideas while doing a deeper study of the functions in a Bible Study or other group within the congregation.

When the teaching is done, bring as many of the church together as possible and review the functions. Have those attending write down everything the church is doing and place it in an appropriate category. If there is a debate about which category something belongs to, list it in all that seem appropriate. Sermons, for example, can fit in both education and worship.

If the group doing the evaluating is larger than 8-10, consider breaking into smaller groups to give everyone a chance to speak. Try to arrange the groups so that no one person dominates a group.

If the process has been done using small groups, bring everyone together and create a master list that all agree on, remembering that items can be listed in more than one category. If there was one group, their results are the master list.

Once a master list has been created, the next task is to rank the effectiveness. If small groups were used, break into the same groups. The process is simple–items are ranked on a scale of 1-5, with one being poor and being perfect. If there is disagreement on an item, average the score suggested for that item–avoid situations where people want to win support for their number. This is a subjective evaluation and people will have different views.

When this is done, create a master list again and average the scores within the functional categories. This average becomes the effectiveness rating for that category for the church. Since no church is perfect, there probably won’t be any function ranked at 5.

While this process is subjective, it is based on the reality that a group of people can rate themselves, if they are given the opportunity. They are the participants and they know how the activity affects them and can be trusted to develop a fair evaluation as a group.

I have been doing this process for a long time and it sounds simple and easy for me–the hardest parts are scheduling the teaching and finding a time to get people together. However, I am aware that people just starting the process might find it confusing, complicated or intimidating, especially if the church has never done an evaluation. I would be willing to answer questions or help out in the process if a church wants to know more–contact me through the comments section of this blog.

Once the evaluation is done, the church needs to decide what to do with the information it had obtained–there is really no point in doing the evaluation is it is just going to sit on a shelf. Tomorrow’s blog will look at what can be done with the results.

May the peace of God be with you.

EVALUATING THE SMALL CHURCH 2

There are many options when it comes to doing an evaluation of the ministry of a small congregation. Many denominations offer assistance with this. Others have found the process developed by NCD (Natural Church Development) has been helpful. Some congregations have involved outside consultants in the process. Any of these options can be very helpful to a congregation, especially if it is the first time the congregation has done a ministry evaluation.

I think congregations should consider doing a ministry review every couple of years–but if that sounds like too much work, every five years could be considered. The advantage of more frequent evaluations is that everyone has a better, more up to date sense of the congregation and its state. If the congregation opts for a more frequent evaluation process, it is helpful for them to have a review process that they can do on their own without too much trouble.

For many years, I have used an evaluation approach based on Acts 2.42-47. When I was introduced to this passage as a seminary student, we were taught that the passage showed four basic functions of the church. The church to be healthy needs to engage in worship, fellowship, education and service. I will look at each of these briefly in this blog and look at how they can form the basis of an evaluation process tomorrow.

1. The worship function of the church seeks to put God first and give him the praise and adoration that is rightly his. Worship seeks to remind us of the true order of the universe: there is God, the supreme being, creator of all, sustainer of life, source of grace shown in Jesus Christ and guidance through the Holy Spirit–and there is everything and everyone else subservient to God. True worship seeks to recognize this reality.

Worship becomes disordered when the focus moves away from the wonder of God to the order of service, the feelings of the worshippers, the amount of time taken or any one of a number of other distractions.

2. Many congregations talk a lot about fellowship but often use it as a code word for coffee and sweets before, during or after worship. Certainly, this can be fellowship but this function involves far more. Believers are called to love one another as Jesus loved us (John 13.34-35); we are told that the truth of our faith in Gods is shown in our love for each other (I John 4.20-21) and believers are often referred to as the household or family of God in the New Testament. The church becomes the place where the depth of relationships between believers is worked out.

Dysfunctional fellowship denies or ignores the essential bond between believers and takes many forms, many of which are shown in the letters to the Corinthians and are still visible in congregations today.

3. Deciding to follow Christ is referred to as being “born again” (John 3.3). Part of the purpose of that image is to show us that we are entering a new way of life which is totally foreign to us. We need to learn everything again from the beginning–all of life is touched by the problems associated with human sin and as believers, we need to start over in everything. The educational function of the church is the provision of appropriate ways for believers of all ages and stages to continue learning about the faith.

Often, congregations see education as a process of providing Sunday School or some other program for kids and ignores the rest of the congregation, all of whom need to be involved in some form of education to learn the reality of their new life in Christ.

4. The service function of the church involves the work the church does to make the world aware of the love of God. Some chose to divide the function into two categories: evangelism and social action. It is probably not to make the division and see the church’s service requirements more in the light of Jesus’ example. He provided love and grace in the appropriate form for all people and settings, with the understanding that the more people are exposed to the love of God, the more opportunities they have to become reconciled with God.

The service function is compromised when the congregation is unable or unwilling to see beyond its own internal needs.

Understanding these four functions enables the church to be an active and effective participant in the activity of the kingdom. The functions also provide a way of evaluating the overall ministry of the church, which we will look at tomorrow.

May the peace of God be with you.

EVALUATING THE SMALL CHURCH 1

When I wrote yesterday’s blog and started working on this one, I realized there was an important question that needed to be asked before looking at effective ways to evaluate the small church. The question is simple: “Why bother to evaluate or measure at all?”

There seems to be something of a tension in Western culture between those who love to measure things and those who want to experience things. There are many who feel that if you begin to measure, you lose the fullness of the experience. The small church is one of those things that seems to be more concerned with experience–and to try to measure the experience and the relationships that make the small church experience what it is probably can’t capture the fullness of the experience and may cause harm in the process.

While I have some sympathy with this view, I have been blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with a fairly scientific mindset that makes measurement and evaluation a part of the experience. But I learned long ago that measuring and evaluating are most effective when they enhance the experience.

I actually learned this in high school English class during the poetry sections of the course. We had a very technical approach to poetry: we learned the various rhyming patterns, the different ways to scan lines, how the various types of poetry were constructed and on and on. But I never really learned how to read and enjoy poetry–either it wasn’t there or I missed it doing the measuring of all the variables. Good poetry had good measurable stuff–but the real strength of poetry is its emotional content which for me tends to get lost in the measuring of rhyme and meter and stuff like that. To this day, I can analyse the structure of a poem but don’t enjoy reading poetry.

So, when I approach the small church, I want to measure and evaluate–but I not only don’t want to cause any harm to the small church but also I want to measure and evaluate in a way that enhances the strength of the small church.

I want to measure and evaluate because the church, being made up of imperfect people, is imperfect. Like the people who make it, the church will never be perfect but that shouldn’t stop either people or churches from seeking to improve and become more what they were meant to be.

In small churches, people tend to develop patterns and habits and rituals that meet their needs and they become comfortable. Certain hymns regularly appear in the worship; certain themes keep coming up in the preaching; certain events are a part of the church year; certain people always get certain positions; certain budget items are always included; certain things are always avoided. All these provide a comfortable, safe, predictable experience that is exactly what those present want and need.

But over time, the culture of the congregation diverges from the culture of the community. The ministry of the church may be fulfilling to those who are there but those outside the church see nothing that interests them so the outreach ministry of the church becomes less and less effective. At the same time, members of the congregation have difficulty with the overall ministry. While it may be familiar and comfortable, it has also lost its ability to challenge those present and enable them to grow in faith. Those present may not feel a great need to change things but neither are they as deeply involved in the activity of the congregation as they were in the past. The church begins to drift, living on the past.

One way to avoid this drifting is to have a periodic evaluation of the ministry of the congregation. If such an evaluation of the church done well, it can help the congregation and its leadership develop a better picture of the congregation and develop better and more effective ministry as well as catch potential problems at an early stage.

As well, it can help the church combat the slow decline that is often the norm in small churches. The decline comes about because although comfortable, the habitual ministry of the church is less and less effective. Because people, churches and communities do not stay the same, the ministry of the church can’t afford to stay the same. Going through a periodic ministry review or evaluation can help redefine and redirect the overall ministry of the church.

Just how to do that evaluation will be the subject of future blogs.

May the peace of God be with you.