I’m sure I’m not the only one this has happened to: You see a friend you haven’t seen in a while, and they have lost a good deal of weight. So, when you have a quiet moment, you ask how they did it. Diet and exercise is the response. If you are me, you then think to yourself, “I really wish you had said something else.”
A billion dollar industry is churning all the time because most people respond as I do. They want an easier answer.
Unfortunately, for lasting change, there is none.
Sorry, raspberry ketones are bunk.
Interestingly, when people ask me how we turned around my last church, my response is usually, “prayer and a lot of hard work.” In their heads I bet they are thinking, “I really wish you had said something else.”
My wife and I joke that there was no honeymoon phase in my last church. From the moment I hit the ground, the urgency was palpable. Things needed to get better, fast. Desperation can be a good motivator, but too much desperation can kill the spirit. When I arrived, we were right at that tipping point. So, I got to work.
I was very popular with some, and very unpopular with others, for quite a while. When people would ask for private time to chat with me about the church, I never knew if it was to praise or scream. I got both in equal measure. For 18 months it was hard, dirty, prayerful, humbling work.
Then something happened.
Not one thing, but several things. It was if the seeds planted for the first 18 months all started sprouting at once. Our FreeStore opened. We had the first confirmation class in years. We used a drum in worship and no one had a heart attack!
Desperation faded. We were no longer a church to be pitied. People actually spoke well of us. We were even lifted up in the local paper.
That began two of the most fulfilling years I’ve had in my rather short career in ministry.
We were not without our challenges, mind you. This was also about the time the church got sued, twice, because the roofer we contracted went bankrupt and left bills unpaid. Yet we didn’t tear ourselves apart. We didn’t blame each other. We didn’t roll over and die. We had something we wanted to preserve and we fought for it.
Now that I have this new job, it has given me a lot of time to think about how the work of church transformation is actually done. The church equivalent of the fad diet doesn’t work. There is no book study you can do that will turn your church around. However, that is not to say there is nothing you can do. Far from it.
You just need to be prepared for it to be hard work.
Most church leaders I’ve encountered aren’t afraid of hard work. That goes for laity and clergy. They just want to know that what they are doing will be effective. Of course, no one can guarantee anything, but there are some things that tip the scales.
First, you need a focus on disciple making. The point of the church is to make disciples, period. Now disciples, in turn, do all the things we love the church for doing. They work in homeless shelters, advocate for the voiceless, visit the sick, and sing off key. To often though we forget that it is the person, with a strong relationship with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit, that is the do’er of all the good things. That strong relationship doesn’t happen by accident. It takes intentional, guided, ongoing work.
Second, it takes a team. If you hope the right pastor will just come in and fix everything, I fear all you will do is wear out and demoralize an otherwise capable leader. Sure, pastors have a large role to play, but they cannot be the only ones laboring. It takes a team of clergy and lay people working together. And no, this doesn’t mean the Ad Council. In my church, my team was everyone who had completed the lay servant training. This was not a formal group, it did not show up on any official paperwork, but we met weekly for prayer, study, and discernment.
Third, you need an opportunity to learn from others. I stole every good idea we used at my last church (with permission of course). When we ran into a question, I would poll my friends, post to Facebook, or call my old seminary professors. Someone had faced the question before and had guidance; we just needed to find it.
Forth, you (the pastor) need a sounding board. About a year into working at my church, I had a chance encounter with someone who happened to be a professional ministry coach doing research for the denomination. Somehow, because she’s a very nice person, I talked her into taking me on as a pro-bono coaching client. It made a world of difference. Finally, I had someone to talk to who would help me sort through the mess of praise and yelling. It was a game changer.
Finally, you need some accountability. It is impossible for most people to stay self-motivated for long periods of time. Your energy will eventually give out, especially when you are in the drudgery of making change before the fruit begins to show itself. Having a program, a system, something that helps you move to the next step even when you don’t want to is critical.
This is the diet and exercise of church transformation. It’s not glamorous, but it works. It really is the only thing that works if you want the change to last. Six months after my departure, the good work and good attitude of my previous church remains. I have little doubt it will continue for the foreseeable future. And that, really, is the measure of my success with them. Not what we were doing while I was there, but what keeps happening even without me.
A big part of my job now is to help other congregations find their way through this rather cumbersome process. To aid in that, we have come up with a couple things that offer the type of critical support listed above.
First, the Whole Church Initiative is a yearlong process that provides coaching, accountability, peer learning, and, most importantly, permission to experiment and try new things. This is an intensive and expensive process that we endeavor to keep free to the local church. You can read more about it by exploring this website. Space in this process is limited, so contact your district superintendent if you are interested.
Secondly, I offer some daylong workshops. I will have one in each state of the Mountain Sky Area in the first quarter of 2015 (date and locations here). If you have been paying attention so far, you should be asking yourself, “is a one time training going to help?” To which I would answer, no, it’s not. Which is why we are also offering an opportunity for continued support through monthly, online, meet-ups. The daylong training is to prime the pump and get you heading in a new, hopefully fruitful, direction. The monthly meetings provide the peer sharing and accountability needed for lasting change.
Of course, other opportunities abound as well. Seminaries, professionals, and other organizations offer their own opportunities for church transformation. As you look at the options I would highly encourage you to make sure it offers all of the attributes above.
There really is no short changing this process if you want it to be effective. Joining the gym isn’t enough, you have to actually go. Similarly, the hard work cannot be avoided. Yet, if you are willing to do it, I have personally witnessed the amazing things God can do when his children are prepared to labor.
About the author. Jeremy Scott, a former software engineer, brings a thoughtful and well-researched approach to developing vital churches. With success in reigniting passionate ministry in his appointments as a local church pastor, he now brings that experience and his relaxed style to you