WHICH DIRECTION?

These days, I find myself spending a lot of time wondering where I am going, at least in terms of the churches I have been called to pastor. Both the pastorates I work with have great people and lots of potential. While neither of them is actually rolling in money, they both have enough to ensure they have a future, especially since they have made the difficult decision to move to part-time ministry. Both are located in geographical settings where they are basically the only organized expression of the Christian faith. And although both settings don’t have as many people as they used to have, there are still a significant number of people living in the communities served by the congregations and a significant number of them have no real connection with our faith.

I am entering my third year of service with this somewhat unique ministry—and to be totally honest, I have much less idea of what I am supposed to be doing than I did when I began this work. When I began, the process was clear: lead worship and preach on Sunday, prepare and lead Bible study and get to know the people, as well as deal with things like weddings and funerals and so on. In the process of doing that basic stuff, I would work at developing a sense of the churches and communities and help develop an approach to ministry that would help the churches become more healthy.

I have been doing this for a lot of years and used to think that I was pretty good at this process. I listen, observe, ask questions, research and eventually, begin to get a sense not just of what is but of what can be. I work with the church and together, we do what we feel God is calling us to do in the way God is calling us to do it. Generally, by the two year mark, I am starting to develop a fairly well focused sense of the church and its needs.

But instead of having this developing focus, I find myself these days spending a lot of time wondering what I am doing, what I need to be doing, what is needed for the church and what directions we need to be moving in. Since my ministry involves a lot of time in the car, I find myself wondering what I am supposed to be doing a lot during the drives between home and church building. But I also catch myself worrying the question when I am sanding a piece of my woodworking project or preparing a preaching plan or waiting in the line up at the grocery store.

I spend a lot of time on the question because I don’t have an answer. We have a great spirit in both settings—but our numbers are not improving and our average age isn’t decreasing. We are doing some interesting and innovative things but so far, no matter how much we enjoy it, noting much has changed our overall reality. We hear through the grapevine that people in the communities are noticing us and are pleased at what they see, something that hasn’t always been the case in our communities but that hasn’t translated more people coming to worship or special programs.

As individuals, we are learning more and more about our faith and what it means to us and we are learning how to express that faith to each other in better ways. We have been experimenting with a lot of stuff and we are finding stuff that we enjoy and stuff that we don’t really need. Our worship tends to be a bit more worshipful, our Bible study tends to be a bit more significant, our churches seem a bit more churchy—but for all that, we are still small, rural churches caught in a long-term decline. I like to think that the rate of decline has slowed down since we began looking at ourselves but the truth is that the causes of our decline haven’t really changed—we are still basically the same people we were two years ago but we are all two years older.

So, I wonder. What are we supposed to do and where are we supposed to be going and most especially, what am I supposed to be doing as the pastor of these churches?

May the peace of God be with you.

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WHAT HAVE I ACCOMPLISHED?

At the beginning of the year, I began working on a project in my shop. We needed some more storage space and decided that the need would be met if I built a cabinet and shelf unit similar to the china cabinet and hutch I built a few years ago. The new unit needed to be slightly smaller and a bit different in design but they would match in terms of basic design, wood selection and finish. We got really lucky when the knotty pine I planned on using was on sale at a nearby building supply store.

The project has been moving along. It hasn’t been as fast as I would like. I still have to work and that limits my time for woodworking. I can’t do sawing or sanding in the house, which means those particular jobs can only be done with it is nice enough outside. The requirements for free time and relatively comfortable outside weather in Nova Scotia in the winter happening at the same time mean that I don’t get at the project as often as I would like and the finishing date keeps getting shifted forward.

But the project is moving along. The basic structures are formed, a lot of the sanding is done and there are just a few more assembly steps necessary before I can finish the whole thing. Even though I don’t care much for the final sanding and varnishing process, I can see that I will get the work done. I can also see just how much progress I have made along the way—I have moved from a pile of boards on the basement floor to a pretty much finished project that will soon become a finished and functional part of our household.

There are times when I wish the success of my ministry was as easy to evaluate. But the reality I live with is that much of what I do for ministry isn’t all that easy to evaluate, especially if I am looking at and for long term results. Sure, I can relatively easily gage how well a sermon went over—I just have to count the number of people awake when I finish. Evaluating a Bible study session is relatively simple—I look at how far I got or didn’t get in my lesson plan.

But figuring out how that sermon fits into the long term health of the individuals and the church or seeing how that Bible study session affects the church three years from now—that is much more difficult. In fact, it actually might be pretty much impossible. When I cut a board in the workshop, I can pretty much tell immediately if it will work or not. But when I finish a sermon, who really knows what the effects will be?

Even the traditional measures of evaluating ministry really don’t give a lot of insight into the effectiveness of ministry. Traditionally, churches and leadership have used the numerical growth of the congregation and the increase in giving as measuring sticks—what some call the “nickels and noses” evaluation. But all that says in the end is that we have more or less people and money that when we started.

I believe in evaluation processes and have lots of measuring tools that I use in my ministry but I have realized that in the end, most of what I do will ultimately be evaluated by God, not me or the church or the denomination. Without sounding too whatever, I think that the real value of the ministry I do here and now will be evaluated by God himself. I base that partly on Paul’s comments in I Corinthians 2.10-15, where he suggests that only when God calls “time” will the final word on anyone’s ministry by spoken.

That doesn’t really bother me, all that much. While I can and do use all sorts of evaluation processes and tools to help make my ministry as effective as I can make it, I recognize that God has the final say and I am responsible for doing the best I can with the tools I have and the time I have—and am also responsible for making sure that I keep open to his leading because he knows where it all needs to go much better than I do.

It’s probably good that I like woodworking because that means there is at least some place where I can see clearly what I am accomplishing.

May the peace of God be with you.

YEAR END REVIEWS

One of my Christmas gifts every year for the past few years is a subscription to a science magazine.  I think it was a desperation gift when our son first gave it but it was and is a deeply appreciated part of my Christmas and the rest of the year.  And, because of the way magazines get published, I had the January issue in early December.

I look forward to that issue because it summarizes the top scientific stories and issues for the past year.  When I read through the issue, I am reminded of some things I knew of, I discover some things that I didn’t hear about and I end up feeling like I know something more than before I read the magazine.

And the magazine publishers are not alone–almost everyone does a year end review.  News programs review the top stories; various musical styles do their top 100 for the year; movies get rated  from best to worst–everyone seems to want to review the year.

So, I sometimes think I should review my year–but what should I include in the review?  What parts of my life do I want to look over and rate?  I suppose I could do a top ten sermons list–but truthfully, when I finish a sermon, I am pretty much done with it, except for the occasional discussion that it sparks at the following week’s Bible study.  Going back and re-reading them to rate them isn’t all that appealing to me.

I do have to do something of a work review for the churchs’ annual meetings but that tends to be a statistical report with some ideas and suggestions and is sometimes hard to do because a lot of what I do in the church is in process and can’t really be measured or evaluated on a chronological basis.

I could do some personal review but that sometimes takes on a negative slant:  the weight I didn’t lose, the bike rides I didn’t  take; the people I didn’t get to spend time with; the books that are still waiting to be read.  The things I accomplished, well, sometimes they don’t seem all that significant–the naps I really needed to take or the coffee I really wanted to drink or the hour of YouTube that I couldn’t pass up.

I decided a while ago that my life and my work don’t actually lend themselves to an annual evaluation.   I believe in and practice self and professional evaluation but have realized that the process works a lot better if I allow the evaluation to fit into the natural and intrinsic patterns and cycles of whatever I am evaluating.

My personal life doesn’t cycle around the January date.  My professional life doesn’t fit the New Year evaluation pattern.  Trying to do a year end review or a best of the year process ends up being frustrating and somewhat pointless.   My professional cycle, for example, actually runs from September to May, with a short and needed break at the end of December.  It makes much more sense to do work evaluations in June or July than it does in December.

Likewise, my personal life follows a cycle that is intertwined with my professional life, the seasons and when the next Star Wars or Star Trek movie will come out.  Most of those cycles don’t lend themselves well to a December 31 evaluation process.  They can be evaluated and some of them need to be evaluated but evaluating them based on the cycles they follow is better and more effective.

So, I am going to anticipate and enjoy the science magazine’s year in review.  I might listen to some of the top 100 music of the past year.  I will summarize the past year for the church annual report.  I will try to avoid looking too closely at the bathroom scales report on my after Christmas personal expansion.  But I won’t do a year end review and best of report.  I won’t make resolutions to do things better next year.

I will evaluate and plan and make changes as they are appropriate and necessary and fit in the patterns and cycles of my life because that works better for me than using an artificial and arbitrary date as a reason for evaluation and review.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.