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Posts Tagged ‘Pastoral Leadership’

Analysis of Church Conflict Management

In my articleAnatomy of Church Conflict Management“, I suggested that there are some familiar mistakes that churches and their leadership tend to make in regards to conflict and crisis management.  I also quickly summarized what effective leadership before, during and after these events occur might look like.  It is to these leadership needs during conflict and crisis that I would like to return now.

It is necessary for every church to have a conflict and crisis management plan.  This plan needs to include:

  • Knowing the triggers or events that call for the plan to be engaged,
  • Working the crisis management and communication plan,
  • Communicating the unfolding development of these plans to those who need to know, and
  • Identifying the desired stages and outcomes of working these plans, and then, finally,
  • Evaluating how these plans worked and what needs to be adjusted to make it/them work better next time.

Identifying capable leadership to handle conflict and crisis is important.  Not everyone is emotionally and psychologically equipped to deal with them.  At the same time, leadership directly involved may not be good candidates because of conflict of interest or lack of objectivity.  A team of three to five people who are spiritually mature, skilled communicators, emotionally mature, and hold the respect of others in the organization make a great team.  For many churches, this group may be the Board of Elders.

Mt, Adams, Washington State

Clear Skies Over Mt. Adams, Washington State

If this is not possible, then working with a third-party dispute resolution or crisis management team is the best option.  This may come from a hired company, one of the many non-profit dispute resolution centers around the country, denominational leadership, or a team from another church in the community who has developed their own team.  The important point is to know who – what team – you are going to look to before the need arises.  Everyone in the organization needs to be informed of who this team is and what the “triggers” are that call for their involvement.

Not all conflict or crisis is the same.  Some involve only a couple people or a small group.  Others, however, involve a larger portion of the organization and have potential to cause a ripple effect that disturbs the whole organization.  It is important for every leader to know what level of disruption is being faced.  This will be an important trigger that sets in motion the work of a conflict and crisis team and the plan that has been established.

A carefully scripted plan for communication, handling confrontation, and identifying the small-step goals to reconciliation, restoration and peace must be established in the calm before the storm.  In the heat of a crisis is not the time to attempt to develop a plan.  The plan must be clear enough so that steps can clearly be taken to move toward progress.  Getting “stuck” in a conflicted crisis is not to anyone’s benefit.  Every plan must answer simple questions:

  • Who is involved?  Who needs to know?
  • What are the issues and how can they be discovered?
  • How can miscommunication and misunderstanding be avoided as much as possible from those who are on the fringes of the problem?
  • How will the process and its milestones to restoration be communicated to those who need to know?
  • How will “success” in terms of reconciliation and restoration be recognized?
  • What will be the terms in which irreconcilable differences and hurts are recognized and a “parting of ways” a recommendation for the organization to move forward?
  • When will the end of the process for the team be recognized?

Every conflict or crisis event must also involve a debriefing and evaluation time for the team.  This may also included key individuals involved who were not on the team.  This will not only allow the team members to take away “lessons learned” from the experience, but it will allow them to adjust the conflict resolution and crisis management plan in order to be more effective in the future.  Just as important, is the opportunity for the team members to sort through their own thoughts and feelings after handling such an emotionally charged situation.  This helps the team to make sure that as individuals they are not carrying away any unnecessary emotional or psychological baggage.

Low Clouds Surrounding Mt. Hood, Oregon

Cloud Skirted Mt. Hood, Oregon

Every event is different.  Then again, every event is similar.  Where the congregation and its leadership is immature and/or unhealthy, it almost always waits too long to seek intervention.  One thing is clear.  Conflict resolution involves as much art as it does science.  In twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, here are three things that I have come to realize about church conflicts:

  • The “problem” is almost never “the problem.”
  • Change and growth never come without problems (i.e. conflicts).
  • I can be my own worst enemy in that I cause most of the problems (i.e. conflicts) I experience.

Of all places, the faith community should be a place where the practice of our spiritual principles and precepts enable everyone to overcome fears, doubts, misunderstandings, chaos, conflicts, confusion and even anger.  Unfortunately, as I pointed out in my last article, there are myths about itself that the Church must overcome.  Don Bussart, associate professor of interpersonal ministries at The Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, identifies these as:

  • The Church must suppress conflict to maintain its image to as a loving community united in God’s service.
  • Conflict is bad because it threatens the unity of the church.
  • A loving person is always tranquil, stable and serene.
  • The administration, worship and programs of the church are fixed and established thus not subject to change.
  • Individuals and the church as whole should be “spiritual” — that is, should be “above” conflict.

The fact of the matter is that the pastor (lead or senior pastor) is most often the first line of defense in dealing with conflict and interpersonal crises in the congregation.  Marlin Thomas in Direction Journal astutely puts the pastors role in perspective:

“For pastors of troubled churches, ministry cannot be viewed as “business as usual.” One cannot relate to troubled people as fully rational beings, capable of making and keeping bona fide agreements. And troubled church systems cannot be led as if they were healthy systems. If they are so treated, they will only become less healthy, and the pastoral leader will ultimately be caught by painful surprise and sadly fail in his [or her] heavenly calling.  Pastors of churches under stress must think of themselves as specialists. They must care for people according to the special, “soulish” needs of their wounded pseuche, and not merely conduct “church as usual.”. . . The administrative leadership style of a pastor in a troubled church must be that of a loving but firm parent who presents clear outer boundaries to the children, while allowing them to develop slowly within the parameters of their own ability to grow. Disordered people can serve God, even if they can’t get along very well with each other or even with the pastor. But in such cases the pastor must be more than just a pastor; he must be skilled in the taming of hearts. It is true that only God can ultimately tame the heart, but it is also true that God desires to use sensitive, skilled human agents in that effort.”  [Bracketed italics added.]

One of the biggest needs a pastor must fulfill is to help the congregants become grace-filled, permission-giving members.  This is outlined simply by Thomas as:

  • Give life permission to be the way it is, until Christ changes it.
  • Be who you are—responsibly.
  • Let others be who they are—caringly.
  • Be willing to say “where” you are—kindly.
  • Let others say “where” they are—acceptingly.
  • Care about your sister or brother—appropriately.

This character development doesn’t happen over night.  It is a long journey.  However, the benefit is growing into grace-filled individuals who have an internal agility (i.e. flexibility) to deal with different people and growth and changes that pose potential conflict.  The larger the capacity of a congregation to practice this in interpersonal relationships the better its ability to handle and recover from conflicts and interpersonal crises.

Mt. Rainier, Washington State

Mt. Rainier Behind Safeco Field

It is interesting to note that most statistics tell us the the majority of non-churchgoers in the U.S. consider themselves to be Christians.  Of these, four out of ten have dropped out of church due to a “painful” or “agonizing” ordeal in a church.  I have pastored Assembly of God churches for 25 years and can attest to many encounters with people who no longer attend church because it was simply too emotionally painful for them to return.  Either the people in the church or the building, or both, held such bad memories that even returning to the building proved impossible.

Today, I attend a Central United Protestant Church, which is a trans-denominational church left over from the protestant military chapel supplied by the U.S. government’s Hanford Project during the cold war.  It is under the leadership umbrella of the United Methodist Church but serves five other denominations.  Not surprising, I have discovered similar stories around the community concerning this church.  So, this issue goes beyond denomination labels, church sizes or community settings.

There are many resources for church leadership and their congregations to use.  A perusal of the world wide web will uncover a library of articles, papers and blogs for careful consideration.  Independent consultants and denominational resources are available to most every church.  In a couple of instances from my experience regarding small independent churches, calling in respected and recognized pastoral leadership from other churches to offer guidance and counsel is a possible alternative.

Where there are people there will be conflict.  Where there are people passionate about issues there will be passionate conflict that could lead to interpersonal and congregational crisis.  However, such occasions need not be a debilitating and defeating event.  Instead, they could be transforming events that help individuals grow in grace and help congregations grow in expressing mature Christ-like love and unity.  How we face it will be the determining factor.  The question is whether we will take the time to thoughtfully prepare for it before we face it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (October, 2011)

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Get any group of people together, no matter their moral platitudes, and there is bound to be conflict.  Sometimes this conflict can lead to a heightened crisis that threatens the health of the organization with loss of membership, customers and leadership.  If left unmanaged, the conflict-turned-crisis can have lasting, damaging effects: poor self-image, leadership demoralization, a scarred community image, organizational paralysis, and covered up interpersonal wounds.

Yellow Flower from Tri-Cities, Wa

Yellow Flower from Tri-Cities, Wa on Badger Mountain

One would hope that a church community would be better suited and equipped for managing conflict and dealing with crisis.  However, my experience has been that this is not true.  My work experience in other organizations has been a mixed bag.  After all, were all are human no matter where we work.

At the same time, some organizations I have worked in have had a proactive conflict management plan with proactive leaders.  Where these leaders have followed the conflict management plan, the conflict was dealt with quickly and decisively with little disruption to the organization.  Sometimes the issue was resolved without loss of employees and sometimes it was not.  However, everyone knew the steps carried out as well as the outcome and why it was arrived at in that way.

I have yet to find a church organization that deals with conflict so constructively.  And I have to ask why?  (I am not asserting that one does not exist, I am simply stating that my limited experience has yet to discover one through my encounters or of those friends that have shared their stories of church conflicts and crises with me.)  The answer to that question is complicated.

Unfortunately, our public news channels carry too many stories of the failure on the part of church organizations to deal with conflict and crises.  This should cause all church leaders, at whatever level, to sit up and take notice that if they do not practice proactive judgment concerning conflict and crisis in their faith community, then the larger surrounding community will for them.  This will come out as clearly as exposure in the news media outlets or as subtly as the community staying away – and warning all their friends and relatives to stay away.

So, why do church organizations fail at constructively and proactively handling conflict or crisis?  The answer varies…

  1. Church leaders and their followers tend to spiritualize the conflict.  Thus, it is just a matter of all parties concerned praying about it, reading Bible verses about peace keeping, not speaking evil and guarding their tongues.  While these are good spiritual disciplines, they do not actually deal with the problem at hand.  It is to treat spiritual disciplines as some kind of magic that will make the problem suddenly go away.  And if it doesn’t go away?  Then the problem is with our spirituality and not that we simply didn’t wisely handle to problem.
  2. Church leaders and their followers tend to bury the conflict.  The attitude is that Christians should not offend others.  Broadly taken, this inhibits any confrontation that needs to happen in a healthy organization.  Thus, hurt feelings and offenses get covered up in hopes that it will, after awhile, just go away and be forgotten.  Sometimes conflict is buried because everyone assumes that it is the pastor’s job or that the way the pastoral leadership is dealing with the conflict (even if it is to avoid dealing with it at all) is the best and only way.  This is connected to the idea that Christians should never offend.  It also means they do not question leadership actions (or inactions).  The unspoken cultural value in these church organizations is that a good Christian doesn’t question the process or its outcomes but trusts that, whatever the result, the church leadership did the right thing (or at least meant to do the right thing).
  3. Church leaders and their followers tend to misuse The Matthew 18 Principle.  The Matthew 18 Principle is taken from The Gospel According to Matthew 18:15 – 19.  The idea is that interpersonal conflict should be dealt with on a personal level and only escalated to the leadership level or the larger community level after that has failed.  This is a great model for interpersonal conflict and should be used more often.  However, it only deals with an interpersonal conflict.  What happens when that conflict, as often happens, involves a larger group of the faith community?  What should the steps be when the conflict involves a high profile leader?  What is the strategy when the conflict is witnessed or known by many individuals?  This is where The Matthew 18 Principle does not entirely help us.  It is limited in scope and application.
  4. Church leaders and their followers tend to attack and silence the messengers.  Often, in order to deal with the array of opinions, personal judgments, and purveyors of partial truths, church leadership will attempt to shut up or shout down such background noise.  This is often done under the guise of “trusting leadership to handle it” and “personal privacy issues” for those involved in the conflict.  Both of these are worthy considerations for all concerned.  However, they miss the larger need of communicating to all parties who have a vested interest in the process and the outcome.  By attempting to attack or silence those who want to give a message to one or both of the parties or to the leadership managing the conflict, the problem is only compounded not alleviated.
Badger Mountain, Tri-Cities, WA, Flowers

Purple Button Flowers on Badger Mountain, Tri-Cities, WA

Conflict and crisis is always unsettling.  It is like experiencing an earthquake.  When the whole earth is moving, you just want it to stop and feel solid, un-shaking ground under your feet again.  After the earthquake, everyone is talking about it.  It becomes a shared experience and also a process to assure each other that everything will be alright.  Conflict and crisis in an organization shakes the whole structure.  People are going to talk about their experience.  They need to talk about their fears, insecurities and reassure each other that they will survive the process and the outcome.

Unfortunately, few churches have a conflict/crisis management strategy that also includes a conflict/crisis management communication strategy.  If they do, it most often boils down to this:  “Don’t talk about it.  Trust your leadership.”  This almost always fails except in cult-like or personality driven faith communities.  Since conflict and crisis are a part of the human experience, wise leadership should use the “calm before the storm” to thoughtfully plan a conflict and crisis management strategy.

An often overlooked key to conflict and crisis management is communication.  Sometimes only dealing with the parties involved is not sufficient.  This is especially true when dealing with high-profile situations or prominent people in a church organization.  Often times, it is managed behind the scenes.  The next thing the congregation and other church employees know is that certain people are no long around.  Without explanation, they are left to create their own stories of the events and outcomes.

Part of a good strategy is managing the story that is being told, especially by the employees and core leaders of the organization.  This does not mean twisting the story’s events to make an organization and its leadership look good.  It means having an open, honest and truthful explanation of events.  The more transparent the communication – even with the admission of stumbles and failures on the part of leadership – the better.  Not everyone may like the outcomes, but they at least know the process was open and honest.  Most leadership, employees and customers can live with this process.

Badger Mountain Flowers in Tri-Cities, WA

Badger Mountain Flowers in Tri-Cities, WA

Another part of a healthy strategy is wisely deciding the scope of communication needed.  This involves answering the questions, “Who needs to know?” and “Who does this affect?”  Some one likened it to having a group of people standing around when someone spills a bucket of paint.  Who got paint on them?  They are the ones that need to be addressed and included in the communication even if they are not involved in the process.  Ignore them and they will tell the story from their point of view and experience.  Include them in the group experience and it becomes larger than just a their own personal story.  Now it involves a group experience that involves clean up and recovery from the accident or tragedy.

Conflict mediation is not new.  It has been around for as long as humankind has walked the earth.  Today, there are formal conflict or dispute resolution and mediation services in local communities.  Non-profit dispute resolution centers exist around the country and effectively help organizations and individuals work through conflict.  They can prevent costly court and lawyer fees and bring satisfaction to all parties involved.  Many large organizations establish their own dispute resolution teams.  This may be a model that could serve well most churches.
Using a third-party dispute resolution source or developing a team within the organization is for each organization to determine.  For churches, this may mean using a trusted faith-based group outside the organization such as trained denominational leadership.  I’ve worked cross-denominationally to help another church and its pastor navigate conflict and crisis.  The key is having a plan and engaging that at the earliest possible moment.  This is  when leadership is most needed.  Proactive leadership will…
  • Know the triggers or events that call for the plan to be engaged,
  • Work the plan,
  • Communicate how the plan is working to those who need to know, and
  • Identify the stages and outcomes of working the plan, and then, finally,
  • Evaluate how the plan worked and what needs to be adjusted to make it work better next time.
Every leader realizes that he or she may not be able to take everyone through the crisis and keep them in the organization.  For whatever reason, individuals will decide for themselves if they trust leadership and how it is working for everyone’s interest.  However, the goal of church leadership especially should be to help as many people navigate the turbulent waters of conflict and crisis and bring as many people as possible through the storm.  The church more than any other organization should be able to navigate these storms.  This will take a commitment to living out biblical principles of forgiveness and reconciliation along with proactive leaders who have a publicly recognized, transparent plan that is managed and communicated carefully during these times.  It may not prevent the storms from coming, but it will certainly help the church fellowship survive them.
©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr.  (September, 2011)

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Some of the best stories are the ones that no one ever hears. We all like success stories.  Everyone likes to vicariously live through the success of others.  Some may even aspire to be like those they hear about in the stories.  This is no less true for small churches and their leadership.

Leaders of small churches can get caught up into the success stories of larger sister congregations and think their means of successful ministry lies along a similar path. That may sometimes be the case.  However, I predict that more often it is not.

At the same time, because the successful stories of small congregations and their leaders have no platform to be told, there are countless success stories of successful small churches to go largely unshared. Theirs are the stories that no one ever hears.  No one writes a book about it.  Church leadership magazines do not feature them.  Their leadership is not taken on the church growth speaking circuit.  They are not highlighted at any national conferences.

Imagine a church that is reaching ten percent of its surrounding community. Some small churches are doing just that while many large churches in larger contexts cannot even come close to that kind of impact.  Or, imagine a church that plays a prominent role in virtually every young person’s life in its local community school.  Once again, this is a feat difficult to replicate in a larger urban or metroplex setting.

While this church may not ever run more than one hundred or a hundred and twenty-five, its budget barely reach six figures, and its lack of resources obvious in comparison with larger churches, it nevertheless has a big story to tell. It has a big imprint in its community.  The congregation is well known and well accepted by everyone.  Similarly, its leadership is welcomed and invited by the majority of the community.

A friend of mine from Alaska, who has pastored small churches his entire life, mentioned to me recently, “I have pastored in smaller towns my entire life and find great opportunities to have influence and access.  It is easier to use media, easier to find partners like Rotary, VFW, community leaders and community colleges. Longevity in the smaller community is another great asset. Longevity builds trust in a community” (James D. Duncan).  His encouragement to small churches and their pastors is not to be intimidated by larger churches and their leaders but “make your size work for you.”

The possibility to network and have influence in smaller communities is one of the big stories that go untold about smaller churches. Community, school, and social club leaders are often sitting in their congregations or available for a casual meeting at the local diner.  Instead of focusing upon what the church does not have, the most important thing a congregation can do is focus upon what it does have and use those strengths and relationships.

Tuck Lake, Wenatchee National Forest, Cascade Mountains, September 2010

Tuck Lake, Wenatchee National Forest, Cascade Mountains, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

When I pastored a small Assembly of God church in Quilcene, Washington, I made it a point of networking with the other pastors. This is sometimes difficult.  However, I have found more often than not that pastors of small communities are easier to get together than ones in larger towns and cities.  In this particular Pacific Northwest logging community, the pastors of the four local area churches gathered once or twice a month for coffee and prayer at the local store.

Out of these meetings there began a collaboration of ministries. No one congregation dominated the community.  However, we realized that when we put all of our congregations together that we represented almost one-third of the population of our community.  That was a pretty startling statistic for this area!  We realized that together the kingdom of God could have a big imprint upon this rural community.  That is precisely what happened for the next few years until pastoral changes began to take place.

One example was that the Presbyterian church in town, which was an aging congregation, had plenty of money but not many kids or young people. Our church, on the other hand, had plenty of kids and young people but lacked sufficient funds and workers.  So, for several years, we combined our resources to provide a week long Summer Vacation Bible School program that was outstanding.  We all impacted the kids and families of our community.  Plus, the Presbyterian church picked up a few younger families that had stopped attending quite some time before.  There was new excitement for what was being offered for their children.

A small church that seeks to use its strengths for God’s glory can end up having a big story to tell in its community. This is particularly true if it is willing to reach outside its own walls and find ways to network and collaborate with others.  For small communities, that lack of activities for kids and young people can be one such opportunity.  However, the opportunities may also be in a retirement center, food bank, or local school.

There is no replacing the hard work of prayer and meeting people. Prayer attunes the heart and soul to the Spirit of God’s direction.  However, just as important, is positioning one’s self in places to meet others so that one is available for “God appointments” and “God moments.”  In these times, opportunities arise or needs where the church may serve are made known.  Without being there, opportunities are wasted.  Without prayer, opportunities can be blindly missed.

There are many churches and their leaders who understand this simple strategy for success. It simply asks the questions, “What is God doing in our community?” and  “Where is God at work in our community?”  These two questions assume God is already at work by his Holy Spirit.  As his followers, we are the ones that must become attuned to it.  This is much different than “trying something” and praying that God will bless it or continuing to do the same old thing and praying that God will bless it like he did in the past.

This approach also asks the questions, “Where does God want to make a point of contact in our community?” and “Who does God want us to serve to reflect the light of his glory?”  These two questions are very missional.  They assume that the believers have already dedicated themselves “to go where you want me to go dear Lord.”  It also assumes that perhaps the work God really wants to accomplish is not inside the walls of the church building but out in the lives of those his Holy Spirit is already drawing to himself.

If any church – large, medium or small – is going to write a big story that glorifies God, it will require courage to sometimes try something not done before. It may require letting go of things always done before.  Often, when we say “Yes” to something, it also means we must say “No” to something else.  But when we say “No” to what is not of first priority, we get to say “Yes” to what is most important.  And, in this case, it just may have eternal consequences.

This may lead to some surprising results.

  • The church that invests itself in the families and kids of its community to put on a free Kids Festival just before school starts each year, which has given it influence in the lives of those families and kids the rest of the year.
  • The church that supports the local art festival, which has opened up relationships with community leaders.
  • The church that has committed to minister to a local nursing home by offering worship services and regular visitation followed-up with cards to family contacts of the nursing home patients, which has impressed not only the staff and leaders of the nursing home but immensely blessed the families and patients.
  • The church that has taken on the responsibility to make sure the local food bank is staffed and stuffed with goods, which has given it contacts with people it would never otherwise ever see or hear.
  • The church that offers after-school tutoring three days a week to help kids who need the extra time to succeed in school.
  • The church who has no kids in Sunday School and is made up of mostly older adults with no children at home but who offer free childcare two Fridays a month for a “Parents Night Out” and then use the time to reach and teach the children who come about Jesus.

Just as there is no “cookie cutter” ministry success model, neither is there a “cookie cutter” story template that can be laid from one community to the next. Each congregation’s profile is different.  Every community context is different.  However, God is at work everywhere and in every place.  It is up to each small church and its leadership to find the story God wants to tell that will bring him glory.  It may be a story of his glory that you have not heard before but the wonder of it all is that each of us can be a part of it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Every congregation and its leadership, if it is missionally minded at all, struggles with being relevant in its community context. It will ask the questions:  Do we communicate our message in a way so that people can hear it?  Do our ministries and programs really meet the real needs of real people?  Is our message getting outside our own “four walls” and to people who are spiritually far from God?  In the end, what these and other questions like these want to know is simply, “Are we making a difference in our community and the lives of those in our congregation?

In my last article about small churches called “Small Church Big Impact“, I tried to emphasize the need for the small church to discover its own God-given “spiritual DNA”: spiritual gifts, talents and resources. Focusing upon what it does have instead of what it does not have empowers the small church to fulfill its unique mission in God’s plan.  As I explain in my article, resisting the temptation to think that it must follow some other “successful” church model is key to this.

Most of the conferences and books available to churches and their leadership are geared toward large churches (350+ adherents).  Most of the popular stuff is produced by mega-churches (2,000+ adherents).  This leaves out the vast majority of churches, which are small and in rural contexts, though many are also in small cities and even suburban and rural settings.  The point is that the available resources for helping a small congregation and its leadership to succeed are almost non-existent.  The message to these churches is that they are not “successful” nor are they relevant.  However, nothing could be further from the truth!

My personal experience among small Assembly of God congregations, some of whom were “Home Missions” churches, is that they not only can be relevant but they can be very successful in their ministry context. They may not win the “fast growing church” award or the “largest church” award but they are uniquely position to have a very large ministry in a small community context.  If we were to measure impact by percentages, these small community churches would be much more successful and relevant than their mega-church metropolitan counterparts.

How is this possible? In my previous article, “Small Church Big Impact“, I outlined some critical thinking that makes this possible.  Let me now take this to a practical level and suggest some ways and give some examples of how this is possible.  Here are three simple steps:

  • First, clearly define what you are called to accomplish in and for God’s Kingdom.
  • Second, create a simple strategy of how you are going to accomplish it.
  • Third, do not let anything get in the way of these two things.

Sounds simple, right?  It is not. Anyone who has done church ministry for very long will tell you that there are a lot of things that will come along to distract a congregation and its leadership.  A new opportunity arises and, instead of asking how it fits with the first two steps above, there is immediate pressure to “do something.”  A new individual or family arrives and their ideas and past experiences push the limits of those two steps.  Someone comes back from a church conference or visiting another church and wants to push the church to do it just like them.

This is not to say that how a church thinks of itself and the strategies it uses will not change. They will change.  Hopefully, however, that change will take place intentionally with the previous things discussed in mind: spiritual gifts, talents, resources and sense of mission to accomplish.

When I arrived in West Richland, Washington, to begin pastoring a small congregation there, I found a congregation that was pushing the limits of what it could and was exhausted. Like many other small churches, they were attempting to keep up with the larger churches in the community.  Some of that was driven by a fear that if they did not attempt to do so they would lose people to those larger churches and their ministries.  Regardless, a number of leaders, especially in the children’s and youth ministries, were facing burnout.

Change even in a small congregation does not happen over night. It took some time to get everyone to on the same page as to what was the simple mission of the church.  We prayed and looked to Scripture and finally settled upon two simple things: make strong disciples and attempt to reach people far from God.  Next, we asked ourselves what were the simplest and most strategic ways to accomplish these two things.  Things changed for the better.

As a congregation we decided that attempting to do all of the children’s and youth programs were not possible without the required number of people. Many of our congregants were involved in two, three and four ministries.  That pace was not sustainable nor was it healthy.  So, we simplified.

We wanted to make sure we discipled our children and young adults.  Since most of our congregation was made up of young families, we gathered together to strategize. Soon, we settled upon the idea of moving all of our Christian Education or Discipleship to Wednesday evenings.  Wednesday evenings were to become our strategic discipleship nights for everyone.

The tough change was eliminating Sunday School. We lost one family because they could not see going to a church that did not have a traditional Sunday School (even though they did not regular attend it).  However, this made Sunday mornings much easier for our young families.  Sunday mornings were dedicated to worship experiences either together as a whole congregation or specifically for children.  We created children’s church worship teams that rotated monthly to provide worship experiences for our children.  Some of our youth were involved in helping to lead.

This whole process took about 18 months. We first decided that it was something we were going to experiment with to see how it worked.  We figured that we could always go back to what we were doing if it did not work.  However, it ended up being a huge success for those involved in these ministries as well as for our families.  We found that what we were able to provide was much more effective and meaningful.

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Canada, Spring 2008

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Canada, Spring 2008 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

When it came to reaching people far from God (the second part of our mission), we decided that the best way for us to do this as a congregation, outside of everyone’s personal relationships and circles of influence, was for our whole church to find a way to be “vocal and visible” in the community. So, we targeted a community event in which we wanted to be present.  We could not do every community event, but we could do one event really well.  We chose “West Richland Days” and provided a booth that served BBQ pork or pork sausage sandwiches.  Also, our youth set up a booth that served Italian Sodas.

We looked at these more than just fundraisers. They were a way for us to interact with people in our community.  People in our community could see us as a congregation and have a chance to know us.  We also prayed for the Lord to give us “God moments” in which we could share with someone who was feeling far from God.  We got to interact with community leaders and organizers.  We all saw friends from our community as they wandered by our booths.  Most importantly, we were together outside of our church walls and being present in our community as a witness to Christ.

Every community has these kinds of opportunities. A congregation of any size can figure out ways to be “vocal and visible” within its own community so that people know that it is there to glory God and offer hope to people.  The toughest sell as a church leader is often the people within one’s own congregation.  Inevitably, someone wants to know the cost, or whether it was worth the cost and time, or whether the effort actually resulted in someone coming to church.  However, spiritual life is more like sowing for a future harvest than a drive-up ATM machine.

If church leaders and their congregations want immediate “pay-backs” then they are going to be sorely disappointed. All of our spiritual lives are a journey.  We do not know the spiritual journey that someone else may be on.  All we can do is be in a place where we are available with the presence of God and God’s message.  Some people’s stories take years to develop.  Every congregation must determine to be in the race for the long haul.  In the business of changing lives and transforming communities, there is no race to the winner’s circle.  It’s a marathon.

There are churches and their leaders that are doing this very well.

  • The church in Walhalla, ND, that serves the snowmobilers every year during the annual snowmobile run.
  • The church in Quilcene, WA, that provides after school homework help for students a few days a week.
  • The church near Lake of the Woods, MN, that serves anglers during the annual ice fishing tournament.
  • The church in Pasco, WA, that supplements the local food bank with donated items of their own to families in need.
  • The church in Richland, WA, that holds a week-long annual “Raise Your Tents” awareness for the homeless event that includes staying in tents in January, donating food to the food bank, and donating monies raise to the local homeless shelter.

There are many, many more examples that I am not even aware of myself. Whatever their chosen mission, these churches have chosen to keep it simple, targeted and sustainable.  This has also made these churches, despite size, very relevant to their communities.  It has given them a voice in their communities and earned them the right to be heard.  Nothing could be more relevant than that.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Small Church Big Impact

After leading churches for twenty-five years, I still find the landscape of evangelicalism in America disorienting and disconcerting. Our schizophrenic identity causes us all manner of agony as we attempt to come to grips with the reality that lies somewhere between what we want to be and what we really are.  Voices pull us in a myriad of directions.  “You should be doing this.”  “This is what successful churches do.”  “Growth is healthy.  How is it that this church is not bigger?

As a result, church leaders consume themselves with reading the next “cutting edge” ministry book, running to conferences sponsored by growing churches, and constantly searching for the missing ingredient their church lacks so that it can be like all the other apparently successful churches. I know.  I’ve been there, done that, and have the books, conference notes and congregational studies to prove it.

It was not until my last few years of ministry that the “light” came on and I came to realize that God has wired his church for diversity. Not every church must become the next Lakewood, Saddleback, Willow Creek, LifeChurch.tv, North Point, North Coast, Fellowship Church, Mars Hill, Seacoast, Mosaic, Potter’s House, Granger Community, Hillsong, Phoenix First Assembly, Crystal Cathedral, Brooklyn Tabernacle, Perimeter, or National Community.  The list could go on and on.  Every possible church model and denomination flavor could be added to the list.

This is not to suggest that these churches and their leaders think that every other church should be like them or do what they are doing to be “successful”. It is perhaps their unwitting followers and seekers of easy answers who push that impossible weight upon them.  Get close enough to them and one realizes that they, too, have their own problems and obstacles to continued health and growth.  No.  Looking to them is not the answer.

This is particular true for 80+ percent of the congregations in America. The vast majority of churches in America are still small.  They are most likely in rural or small town and small city settings.  The measure of church growth and congregational health must be much different than their counter parts in larger urban, suburban or metropolitan settings.  What would that measurement be?  What would successful ministry in that setting look like?

Unfortunately, there are no conferences to ask and answer such questions. At least, there are none that I am aware of at present.  Most of the pastors of these small congregations are bi-vocational and have neither the time nor the finances to traipse off to a conference at an upscale motel somewhere far away.  At least, when I was leading small Assembly of God congregations, I didn’t.

Nevertheless, small churches can have a huge impact upon the communities in which they are set. Even ones within large city and metropolitan areas can play a world-changing part in God’s mission to glorify his name.  It will mean, however, abandoning many (but not necessarily all) of the unrealistic ideas learned in the above mentioned books and seminars.  The good news is that it will mean a simpler and more missional approach to doing ministry.

Mother Goose, Winnipeg, Spring 2008

Mother Goose, Winnipeg, Spring 2008

First, instead of wrestling with what the small church does not have, it is good to begin with taking an inventory of what the church does have by way of spiritual gifts, talents and resources. Since we are taught that it is God himself who has put together the body of Christ in all its various forms and settings (1 Corinthians 12:7,11,18,24b,27), stewardship of ministry must begin with clearly seeing what God has given and put together in the local body.  This goes far beyond only what the pastor does or can do.  Each person is a minister with grace-gifts to share with others.

Second, instead of focusing upon what the small church cannot do, it is good to celebrate the things it can do. Employing the small church’s resources through its people to serve real needs is the greatest way to honor what God has given to his church by his grace.  To do otherwise is to despise what God has given.  It is useless for the clay pot to say to the potter, “Why did you make me this way?”  (Isaiah 29:16; 45:9; Romans 9:20).

Third, instead of attempting to do everything, it is good to concentrate on the few things that can be done well. Someone wisely said, “You can’t boil the ocean, but you can boil a pot of water.”  Attempting to do too much is often the problem many small churches face.  They want to think that they can do all of the programs and ministries that larger churches are doing.  Therefore, they go through great pains to maintain services on Sunday mornings, evenings and mid-week as well as all of the accompany children’s programs.  This simply is not a reality nor a good stewardship of the talents, energies and resources the Lord has given to the congregation (Ephesian 4:7, 16).  It is also all very exhausting.  Instead of rejoicing in what is done well to glorify God’s name, a congregation becomes disillusioned and disheartened by poorly executed programs.

Finding its own identity and discovering its unique calling in the world is the task of every congregation and its leadership regardless of its size. However, I believe this is especially true of the small church.  Size does not limit kingdom impact.  Faithfulness and stewardship to God’s gifting and calling does.  A small church is positioned in many communities to be much more adept at serving the individual, family and homogeneous community.  It can do many things that a larger church is not able to do if it recognizes its gifting, calling and context.  Thus, it serves in a unique place in God’s mission to the world and can leave a big spiritual impact in its community and upon the lives it touches.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Ecclesiatical Darwinianism

Many churches and denominations depend upon an entrepreneurial spirit in its leadership to grow. This has its strong points and its weak points.  These types of leaders provide innovation, creativity and are more likely to start church ventures.  They are not adverse to risk and often lead congregations and their churches through transformations.  Unfortunately, these leaders and their churches also tend to become personality driven around the dynamic leader.  This has its own challenges for churches and denominations.

On the other hand, these types of leaders are rare and successful ones not all that common. Many who answer the call to ministry operate with much different personalities and giftings.  In these churches and denominations, they do not usually fair too well since their support is dependent upon how well they can grow their own congregation.  There is no denominational or broader church support.  This is not always a bad thing, particularly when the church and its leadership are in a community context where growth is a possibility.  However, this is not the case for the vast majority of churches in medium to small size communities.

The effect upon the church, then, is that small-town churches often become training grounds for pastors hoping to one day lead a church that can be self-supporting, which includes a livable wage for him and his family. Some pastors are able to make the transition to larger churches; others are not.  Some are given an opportunity to “move up” to larger churches; many are not.  After all, about 80% of American churches are congregation under 100 people and that vast majority of them are in rural settings.

More to the point is the pressure this places upon the individual pastor and his family. For example, I pastored Assembly of God churches for many years.  This denomination fits this scenario well.  Its churches are governed congregationally and considered to be a part of a “cooperative fellowship” with other Assembly of God churches.  (I would always joke that while this is true, our independent nature made it so that we did not cooperate very well with others.)  While Assembly of God pastors are governed by a presbyterium – church elders – at the denominational level, each church governs itself.

I like to call this method of church governance “Ecclesiastical Darwinianism.” It is simply the approach to churches and pastors that says, “If you are called of God, then you will succeed.  However, if you fail and do not survive, then you were not called of God in the first place.”  In a theologically Arminian denomination like the Assemblies of God, it is a very Calvinistic approach to the call of God concerning churches and pastoral leadership.  At its core is “the survival of the fittest” or most able.

At the same time, the Assemblies of God in particular, is able to send missionaries fully funded and supported to the farthest reaches of the earth. The same care and concern is not provided for those planting or pastoring churches in their own soil in the United States.  This is changing today with a more proactive approach on the denominations part in planting churches and equipping church planters.  However, for the vast majority of pastors who go to their small and usually rural churches, they are largely left on their own with congregations and churches buildings that are aging.  It is no wonder, then, that their pastoral candidates who come out of their Bible schools or seminary training are unable or unwilling to go to these locations.

I started out in ministry in what the Assemblies of God called a “Home Missions” church. This is a church that is being planted in a community, may receive very limited temporary support and is not yet fully independent in its governance.  As a bright-eyed and optimistic young pastor, I expected the church to grow and do well even though it was located in a small Pacific Northwest logging community of only about 1,200 people.  In retrospect, while the years there were extremely tough for my family financially, they were some of the most rewarding times of ministry.

Imagine my surprise and dismay, then, when other pastors congratulated on small spiritual victories I would share with them with something like,Boy, that’s great, Ron.  I can see that someday the Lord is going to place you in a thriving, larger church.”  Maybe I am wrong, but it always came across to me as, “Someday the Lord will reward you with a real church!”  However, as my young family grew, it became more and more evident that I would not be able to support my family in that community despite my several attempts at earning other income: working at the local hardware store, coaching at the school, chopping and delivering firewood, picking oysters, digging clams, etc.

Cool Desert Nights Antique Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Cool Desert Nights Antique Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One day, the Presbyterian Church in town had a pastoral change. The 100 year-old congregation was looking for a pastor.  Imagine my surprise to find out that the pastor was guaranteed a salary, with benefits, and a parsonage.  The starting salary then was $36,000.  I contemplated the idea of switching denominations to stay in the community and pastor…well, only for a brief moment.

I remained loyal to my denomination and local congregation. However, as my pastoral experience has broadened over the last 25 years, I have had an opportunity to look at numerous church governance models.  I came to a conviction that the “Ecclesiastical Darwinian” model is not the most successful or most healthy.  I see other denominations that do a much better job at helping a congregation match a pastor with a congregation, rather than leave it up to the “luck of the draw” or a weekend pastoral song-and-dance routine.  I also see other denominations that do a much better job at supporting the local church pastor, not just financial but also spiritually.

When I was involved in the ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism’ model, I rarely heard from district or national leadership unless it was initiated by me or unless there was church trouble. Other than demanding my tithes and desiring my attendance at their sponsored events, I did not have much support.  Any spiritual support I had while in ministry came for friends in ministry, some who were other Assembly of God ministers but most who were not.

Congregations in the ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism’ model do not fare much better. They are expected to ‘make it on their own.’  Many of them, particularly in rural areas, are surviving just above life support.  Their pastors are bi-vocational and their facilities decaying and outdated.  When it comes time to select a new pastor, the best they can expect from district leadership is a list of available pastors or pastors seeking changes.  Otherwise, they must sort through the resumes they receive, pray about it and pick one.  They may as well tack them to a wall and throw a dart at them blindfolded.  If they choose well, then they and their new pastor are congratulated.  However, if they choose badly, well, they either did not pray enough or the pastor wasn’t called of God to go there in the first place.

For churches and denominations stuck in this model, change will be difficult; perhaps impossible. However, speaking personally for myself and my experience, I believe that a much better job can be done.  The same care we take to match a missionary to an overseas calling and assignment, ensure that they are fully supported and cared for, and given accountability and spiritual support, could and should be applied to the mission field we know as the United States of America.  How that transition in involvement takes place is another issue.  All I know is that there has got to be something better than ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism.’

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Disabling the Spiritual Default Setting

A while ago someone gave me a new laptop computer. Even though a computer is a complicated piece of machinery, I did not have to go to school or a special class to learn how to use it.  I simply turned it on.  I did not have to learn how all the hardware pieces work and communicate with the motherboard.  Neither did I have to learn the computer’s programming language that runs the system so smoothly.

The operating system was already familiar and so I was able to navigate around pretty simply. I was able to pull up and run the programs I needed plus add a couple I use that did not come with the computer.  There were a few things that I did to the computer to personalize it to suit my needs, but most of the settings I left in the default position.

The default setting is set by the manufacturer or maker of the hardware or software. It usually is the setting that fits most applications or users’ needs.  These can be changed at the user’s discretion or desires.  Most people just leave them alone and do not play with them.  It is a real frustration to use someone else’s computer when they have dramatically changed many of the settings.  Suddenly, what was supposed to be familiar becomes very unfamiliar.

This got me thinking about many of the changes we see taking place in the church today. Change is always a part of remaining tuned to cultural needs to work and communicate the good news about God’s Kingdom.  However, in today’s world, change is coming at us more and more quickly.  It is like someone has gone into the world’s operating system and changed all the settings.  For many people, this can be very disorienting.  It is even more disorienting when the spiritual default settings have been changed and the once familiar church is no longer familiar.

As a former church leader, I witnessed this take place over the last 25 years. Some changes that took place during that time were good.  Others have yet to tell us what the long term effects will be upon the church and the followers of Jesus.  There is a heartfelt search going on in many Christian communities of faith for a genuine, authentic spirituality that impacts the individual believer as well as his or her world.  Of course, this is not something with which only our generation just recently came to grips.  It’s been around a long, long time; almost like it is a part of the Church’s spiritual DNA.

One thing that I have noticed is the blending and generalization of evangelical Christianity. At the grass roots level anyway, denomination distinctives in faith and practice are largely ignored, denominational and doctrinal differences are played down, and a pluralism of Christian belief and practice is broadly accepted.  I realize that this is not true for every sector of American evangelicalism, but on a broad basis I believe it is accurate.  Still, it changes the spiritual default setting that many people are used to when they are a part of a church or denomination.

For instance, one can attend any number of conservative evangelical churches and witness the same type of worship that focuses upon modern music styles, personal expression in worship such as raising hands, and preaching that seeks to emulate the style and messages of larger church models and their leaders.  While each individual congregation retains its own distinct character and nature, in a broad overview they are all starting to sound and look alike.

Some of this has to do with what could be called the ‘cross-pollination’ of churches. More and more, believers across denominations with all their doctrinal and faith practice differences are gathering together for conferences, seminars, worship, missions and outreach events, as well as prayer.  Likewise, in many communities across the U.S.A., church leadership and denominational leadership is gathering to pray, worship and strategize together for Kingdom building.  There are still many places where this is not happening, but the tide is quickly shifting in America away from exclusivity to inclusivity.  This is a good thing, I believe.

Of course, some churches and denominations may fair better in this cultural shift than others. I have no prophetic insight or spiritual crystal ball to foretell how this will all turn out.  However, it is an unavoidable outcome.  There is already some indication that non-denomination and independent churches are growing faster than denominational ones.  However, it is still too early to tell what the American evangelical church will look like in another 25 years.  How this will affect individual believers will vary.

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I can only speak from my personal experience. Having been involved in Assemblies of God churches all my life, I now find myself attending and becoming increasingly involved in an United Methodist Church that is part of the Confessing Movement in its denomination.  The contemporary worship service is the same as what anyone would experience in most Assembly of God churches.  I have found in this congregation many practicing Charismatics/Pentecostals.  There is a healthy discussion of spiritual gifts and following the leading of the Holy Spirit.  One Bible class I attended had a robust theology of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology).

When people discover my background, they invariably ask, “How did you end up at a Methodist church?”  There are a lot of different reasons, but the main one is my own discovery and acknowledgment of how big God’s House is and the wide variety of theologies and spiritual practices he tolerates.  Yes, there are certain doctrinal truths that cannot be deviated from and sin that he deals with and asks his Church to deal with among its members.  Outside of these things, the boundaries of God’s tent are pretty wide.

Another thing that has struck me in recent years as a leader in Assembly of God churches is how quickly we were willing to abandon our “Pentecostal distinctive” to be included in the broader evangelical movement and accepted in the larger American Christian culture.  By this, I am specifically referring to the Assemblies of God stance on the baptism of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues.  Not only is this largely not taught but it is also not practiced.  More revealing is the broader elimination of the use of prophetic verbal gifts in the congregational setting all together.

Whether out of a desire to not appear the ‘weird uncle’ in the evangelical circles or because teaching and facilitating spiritual gifts in a congregation is necessary but hard work, most Assembly of God pastoral leaders that I associated with opted to avoid their use completely.  The recent ‘seeker sensitive’ movement has also put pressure on Assembly of God churches to do away with any expression of spiritual gifts that might scare off seekers.  This, in essence, disables the spiritual default setting for long-time Assembly of God members.

I came to the conclusion that if I was simply going to be a part of an evangelical church, it would probably not be an Assembly of God church.  Besides the issue of having integrity between doctrinal faith and practice, I desire to be a part of a congregation that recognizes the wide range of places that people may be on in their spiritual journeys and not demand that they all be on the same page or in the same place spiritually.  Having led in Assembly of God churches, I am not a fan of their church polity or congregational governance.  I think there are better accountability and support systems out there for church and pastoral leaders.  I will grant, however, that there are no perfect ones.

All that being said, I found myself in Assembly of God churches that seemed familiar to me but felt like someone had changed the default settings. The denomination label may be there somewhere, overtly on the signage or covertly hidden in internal papers, but the practice of using Spirit-led prophetic verbal gifts is gone.  Spirit baptism for Spirit empowerment to take the Gospel to all the world is missing in many places.  This may be a good thing, I suppose.  Abuse and triumphalism of its doctrinal emphasis on Spirit baptism and glossolalia has done much damage.

At the same time, if denominations are going to disable their spiritual default setting, then they should expect a shift and movement among their congregants. For instance, in my case, if the church I am attending is not really going to preach and practice its stated theology and rather move toward being just like any other evangelical church, then I have to ask myself, “Is this the type of evangelical church I want to attend or is there another model out there I would rather be a part of?”  My answer led me to another church model.

I suppose that there will be many like me who will choose to use their own personal spiritual settings to navigate around the changing landscape of the American evangelical church.  On the other hand, many will also stay because they cannot dream of going to a different building or location.  Let’s just hope that some do not simply get frustrated and turn the church setting off completely.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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