Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Organizing the Small Church

Earlier today, I dropped a long e-mail about this subject to a small group of like-minded friends... and I figure I'd share some of the meatier tidbits with y'all & add a few thoughts to connect it back together.

"Hi, my name is Mark & I'm the pastor of a small church."

"Hi, Mark!"

Your average small church pastor (there is no such thing, really, but let me wax rhetorical for a minute) is a little like the guy who used to show up on the Ed Sullivan show & spin plates on long slender poles. He looks calm & collected as he starts spinning the first few... but soon he's running around like a chicken with his head cut off (ooo - bad metaphor based on some Personnel Committee meetings I've been in) trying to keep anything from falling.

Chances are excellent that he was given sub-standard training in church administration in seminary (I certainly was)... and that the lay folks (that's pastorspeak for "congregation members who aren't paid for their services") in his church have even less training/gifting in that area than he does. Now, no pastor worth his salt is going to argue (seriously) that the church shouldn't be organized - and if he is, direct him to Jethro & Moses and/or Paul's pastoral letters. What they are likely to do is drag their feet in creating or revising the organization of the church because
  • they aren't good at it
  • they don't know how to fix it
  • and they're threatened by what could/might happen if they did.
The problems at the church we're discussing:
  • money being tight
  • ministries w/inadequate publicity that flop w/out sustained leadership
  • a small core of people (20%?) doing most of the work (80%?)
are common to small churches. It is my personal experience that smaller churches must decide what God has gifted them to do & then do it... rather than attempt to be a mom'n'pop version of the "big box" church across town. (Let me flesh that out a bit - small churches don't have the resources to do a lot of things well; so instead, they should spend their resources on the things that are strong in order to make them God-honoringly excellent... instead of trying to offer as much and/or more than the church down the street.)

That involves a really tough shift in thinking, esp. for older SBC churches who were trained to do what was called "five star" church (ask around - some of your older members will be able to quote this stuff right back to you - they put it in the water like fluoride):
  • a great church has a great Sunday School program (age-graded w/teachers, secretaries, class leaders, etc.)
  • a great church has a great music program (age-graded choirs & ensembles)
  • a great church has a great Discipleship Training program (again, age-graded - this was not small groups but another teaching time to deal with doctrine & practice)
  • a great church has a great Brotherhood ministry (this was an age-graded program for boys [Royal Ambassadors] to men [Brotherhood] that was missions focused - Brotherhood, btw, is completely defunct as a SBC program organization)
  • a great church has a great WMU ministry (this is the Women's Missionary Union - also age-graded [from Mission Friends to G.A.'s to Acteens to W.M.U] women's program that was, for many years, the backbone of missions support in the SBC)
Think about it - if you grew up thinking that the above five points were what made a successful church, you ingested a serious case of "programitis" - believing that the Kingdom of God advanced through the creation of programs for all ages. And if you believe that, then regardless of the size of the church, you had 4 hours of "class time" per person to support with money, leaders & church space - because if you didn't, you weren't being all that the church could be.

And now, even though most of those things don't/can't happen in the average small church, the church feels the pull to do that kind of thing. Couple that with the drumbeat of "why don't we have a Beth Moore study?" or "why don't our men have a prayer breakfast?" or "our teenagers should have small groups in addition to their weekly meeting!" or "we should have as good a children's church program as the Methodists" or "why don't we have Awanas here?" and it is nearly impossible for churches not to do the binge & purge method of creating/killing programs:

  1. hear the need (which, please understand, I believe are real - youth do need small groups; adults need deeper Bible study; kids programs should be excellent)
  2. flail about looking for someone to lead this new ministry/program
  3. grab someone who is already overworked but easily feels guilt
  4. do a horrific job of planning for the ministry and/or recruiting other leaders
  5. launch without doing good publicity to the community or the congregation
  6. initial success is followed almost immediately by decline in attendance, rationalizing about why it's not working, and a vow to continue despite obvious problems (which are ignored for "spiritual" reasons)
  7. depending on the church, either a staff person or a prominent lay person comes in to take over leadership as the program falters
  8. the program becomes dependent on artificial life support from the key leadership person - if they step out, the program dies
  9. due to the key leadership person and a fear of killing programs/hurting people's feelings, the program continues on LONG beyond its useful lifespan
No, I'm not cynical. I've just watched this cycle happen over & over & over in my own ministry and in churches I've served. Breaking the cycle requires smaller churches to realistically assess what they're good at/what their lay leadership is passionate about... and then pour their resources (financial, people, building space, staff time, etc.) into those things. Then the tough part - the church (and particularly the pastor) has to learn to say "No" or "Wait" to very good ministries that don't fit their gifts & strengths.

Not letting the good get in the way of the best is difficult if you don't have some kind of way to evaluate the effectiveness of your plans & programs. BTW, a business meeting is a lousy forum for this. In fact, chances are pretty good there isn't a good forum for this - most church people are afraid to say "this isn't working" because you're going to hurt someones feelings. (In some cases, you're going to besmirch the good name of Sister So-and-So, who started the program years ago & did such a great job & HAS BEEN FACE TO FACE WITH JESUS FOR TEN PLUS YEARS and is hollering from Heaven to "kill it already and get on with building the Kingdom, for crying out loud!") You need to carefully & prayerfully figure out what the best venue is for healthy evaluation of where the church is... and then get the pastor's buy-in to be supportive of that evaluation.

A reminder: evaluation isn't magic. You can evaluate the heck out of something yet choose not to deal with what you learn - and now you've wasted the time you spent evaluating as well as the resources necessary to continue the program in a crippled state. Blech. Evaluation that doesn't lead to change/improvement will quickly teach people to sit down & shut up.

This isn't going to happen because you copy another church's set of documents or you plot the perfect path to organizational health. A pastor can't preach wise administration into existence any more than he can preach 100% of the church into tithing. Anything that happens in the structure of a church (large or small) happens because we trust God with it - because we talk to Him about it (prayer), look at Biblical examples (Bible study), and talk to others who've made the same kinds of changes (wise counsel).


Anonymous said...

I love it. Keep it coming. Lots of truth in what you are saying. Pastor Ray.

Love's Church said...

I am a Pastor of a small congregation in New York (I thank you in advance for your continual prayer) I really appreciated all that was written . We are haveing our annual meeting tonight and reading your article has made it easier for me too clearly see things that need to be weeded out and or sown in. Sometimes you just need something to jar your spirit and allow God to come in and rearrange some of the furniture, send you upstairs to clean out the attic , then back down to the basement so we can be exalted .....Thank you.. Pastor Clark Love's Church Queens Village New York

Mark (aka pastor guy) said...

Pastor Clark,

Thanks for the note.

I'm praying for your annual meeting tonight.

in Christ,
aka pastor guy