People need to be fed spiritually. I know that sounds so obvious, but many congregations don’t tend to the basic need of parishioners. Most parishioners need some basic preaching, teaching and nurture to handle the life situations they are in. Some are struggling with addiction, others with spiritual crisis, still others around family issues of relationship and finance. Whatever the situation people need practical help of how the Gospel applies to their lives so that they can find the strength and courage to persevere and hopefully flourish again. Does your worship address such basic human issues? Are there support teams and groups to assist people? Is there a vibrancy in the church that constantly speaks to the hope and new life possible through the love of God in Jesus Christ? Churches that address these issues grow, because people are fed and their lives are changed. Changed lives and transformed communities are what the work of the church is all about.
I am not a Transaction!
When I was a banker, I used to train my tellers to get to know their customers so when they came in the teller could have a conversation about that person. In other words, I wanted the bank employees to build a relationship with the customer. Similarly, when I went to the grocery store, I knew the employees and they knew me and we would talk about our families, jobs, etc.
Today, in most retail places, there is no relationship building. We are merely “business transactions”; I don’t know the store clerk and he or she doesn’t know me. There is no relationship and it is a cold as a hockey rink. As a result, people are starving for places where they can actually have relationships. As one writer put it: “In a high-tech world, the church is one of the last high-touch places”. We church people are the ones who can provide genuine warmth in an often cold world. So, church-folk, show your community how it can be different. When you go into stores, banks, schools, whatever, get to the know the staff, make an effort, initiate the conversation; in other words, show the love of Christ by treating people like human beings and not transactions. It is a very simple way we can begin to impact the communities around us.
As I travel around the country, I often ask church folk if “I were a new person in your community, tell me why I should come to your church?” The usual response is “we are a nice group of people” or “we are friendly”. While most church people are “nice and friendly”, is that really all we have to offer the world? As we come to Holy Week and Easter, I hope you will take a moment to remember that we offer the greatest news this world has ever heard: that the Tomb is empty and even death no longer has the final word. The Apostle Paul reminds us that we are not mere “peddlers” but that we have a “treasure” of Good News. So this Holy Week, remember again what we have to offer our community; yes, we are friendly, but we also offer a way of new life, healing and hope. Do someone you know a favor; invite them to a Holy Week service and let the Spirit of the Resurrection do the rest. We are in a church today because the light of the empty Tomb still shines! Go shine that Light into your neighborhoods and communities. Have a blessed Easter.
For Turnaround Pastors….
I have learned so much from Paul Borden, who is the Executive Minister of Growing Healthy Churches, and his quote below struck me as profoundly true:
“The work of leading an established congregation through systematic transformation is probably the most difficult ministry task in our nation”. (From Make or Break your Church)
In coaching congregations all over the country I get to experience up close the courageous work so many pastors are doing to turn congregations around after years, and in some cases, decades of decline. This work requires faith, hard work and a bull-dog determination. If you are in the midst of such a ministry setting or about to start such a venture, I would suggest the following:
- Get the training you need to lead this ministry. We don’t learn how to turnaround churches in seminary, so learn from those who have traveled this route.
- Get a good coach; it is critical to have a person outside your church system to walk with you.
- Find the most faithful people who have the gift of prayer and meet with them regularly to surround this effort with the Spirit.
- Work hard and stay focused on how God is going to change lives and transform the very fabric of your community.
There are so many people, many of whom you have not met yet, who will be blessed by your efforts to get your congregation refocused on sharing the incredible Good News of Jesus Christ. May God bless your efforts.
On Budgets and such….
This time of year many churches are finishing their budget for the next year and having Annual Meetings. I often hear, particularly from Trustee-type folk, comments that make it sound as if a balanced budget is the mission of the church. Sorry, but the mission of any church is to change lives and transform the community around it. A budget is only a tool to help us plan how to use our resources to live out our primary mission; a budget is a means to an end, not the end itself. There are thousands of churches that close every year with a nicely balanced budget but no changed lives! Way too much energy is spent debating small budget items and cutting out the life of the church all in the name of a “balanced budget”. I am not advocating financial irresponsibility, I am naming a “golden calf” that is worshipped in too many churches; the time and energy spent drafting, arguing and passing a budget which at best is only an estimate. Let’s spend half of that energy reaching new people, disciple them and teaching them how to give generously. Then our biggest discussion points will be around how to impact more lives and how to improve the fabric of our towns and cities.
Pastors: Develop a “Thick-skin”
Every pastor has to develop a protective layer from the criticism of people who are not healthy and who menacingly want to destroy the confidence of leaders. All of us as pastors seem to have this natural inclination to want to nurture everyone; its part of the reason we went to seminary in the first place. We naively think that everyone is going to feel the same way about us. So I find most pastors are caught off-guard and deeply bruised when someone in the church comes gunning for them. We are almost incredulous that a supposed Christian man or woman would talk behind our backs, spread false rumors and do under-handed deeds to send the church off the tracks. So let me say it plainly: if you are going to lead a church toward new life, there will be those who will hurt you. It happened to Jesus and it has happened to every Christian leader since. The key is to remember that they are attacking your position as pastor; but they can’t hurt you as person if you do not let them. You have to develop the ability to say, “They are mad at Rev. __________, but they don’t even know me as person”. In other words separate the criticism of your position from taking the nasty words personally and letting people begin to chip away at your self-esteem. Nasty folks can attack your work, but they can’t have your soul unless you let them. Guard that soul with prayer, remember you are loved by Jesus, lean on close friends and develop a thick skin as you redevelop your congregation.
Surround it with Prayer
If you would like your congregation to reach new people then begin by praying through your neighborhood. Organize prayer walks in your community and send people out in pairs to “see” with fresh eyes and a fresh heart all the people around the church. Put together the best intercessory prayer people in your church and have them pray for the community that it will be open to an invitation and that the church will be open to reaching out; connections with new people begins with prayer. I am coaching one congregation that got permission from their local school to go into the building before the beginning of the new school year and teams prayed over each classroom, asking for a blessing for teachers, students and families. This kind of prayer work opens our hearts with compassion to the hopes, hurts, dreams and needs of our neighbors. Such a base (rather than we want new members to balance our budget or fill our pews) is a healthy start to connecting with new people.
In our congregations we need to treat adults like adults, particularly when it comes to those who say they want to leave our churches. Those of us who are active in our churches somehow have embraced the screwy idea that we are responsible for those who have chosen to become inactive. We think we have to constantly pursue them, asking them why they stopped attending. We are loathe to write them a letter stating that they will be removed from the membership roles if they continue to not support the church with their time, talent and treasures. What is wrong with simply saying that some members have made the adult decision that they will no longer participate and let them go? We infantilize inactive folk by clinging to them like flypaper. We embarrass healthy leadership by running after folk who have made it clear they no longer have any interest in our church (I don’t see anywhere in the Gospel when Jesus chases people who are not interested in his message). Let them go! Move on and spend your energy reaching new people who don’t have a church home, which today is the great majority of people in our communities.
Get Out into your Community!
: Recently, I spent at day with 7 United Methodist Churches in North Carolina that I have been coaching for the past six months. I was struck by how wonderfully the pastors have really been getting out of the office and networking in the community, meeting new people. From going regularly to coffee shops and local restaurants, to attending parishioner’s kids games, to introducing themselves to local school principals, these pastors are investing themselves in the community they serve. All of this work takes time, energy and dedication. But the bottom line is that such an investment changes lives. First, the pastor’s lives are changed because they get re-energized in the faith; they remember why they went into ministry in the first place. And most importantly, through the Spirit, they change other people’s lives. Hope, healing and new life occur. The Disciples were afraid to come out of the Upper Room and hit the road with Jesus. Often pastors turn their offices into an Upper Room. But I was inspired and encouraged by a group of pastors who are going out and making a difference. May it be so for you.
School Is Starting
From mid-August through early September most public schools begin a new year. As a congregation, what are you doing to honor that transition in families’ lives? Here are a few suggestions:
Ø Some churches will have a “blessing of the backpacks” in a neighborhood to bless families as they begin the new school year.
Ø Others will supply backpacks filled with school supplies for families in need.
Ø Other congregations will review their Vacation Bible School registration and personally invite families who don’t have a church home to join the beginning of the church school year.
Ø Still other churches will have a special celebration Sunday and have church members invite families from their neighborhoods to come and join them.
Ø And still other congregations will offer a fall program that targets family needs, whether that be a financial education class for parents, a special mission project that all family members can participate in, or any other need the church has identified that families desire.
The start of the school year is a major transition for both children and their parents. How are you reaching families at this critical juncture?