Why are these things important? Why do we do things in this particular way? Why does any of this matter?
These are questions I’ve never a church, annual conference, or even The United Methodist Church as a whole ask before. Simon Sinek brilliantly points out that there are three circles of questions leaders must address and each circle (or question) goes deeper than the previous one. Most of us ask the first two questions all the time – What sorts of things are we to be about? How do we do these things? Church leaders know we have a purpose for existence. If you’re a United Methodist, then you definitely know we have a process to tell us how we are to do things (committees, structures, endless rules on procedure, etc.). But what struck me by this talk is the fact that we rarely get around to asking the deepest and most difficult question of all – Why should any of this matter?
At the local church level, most of us could answer the “what” question – What sorts of things are we to do? Some would say, “make disciples.” Others might say, “be the church.” Still others would say, “bring people to Christ” or “preach, teach, and serve.” Most churches would even answer the “how” question – How do we go about doing these important tasks? Maybe some would say, “baptize people and teach them the ways of Jesus.” Another answer might be, “engage people in spiritual disciplines or service.” As United Methodists, we have an entire Book of Discipline that tells us just about every way possible to go about being the church and local churches are expected to abide by these pre-prescribed procedures.
But why is any of this important?
This is the season where United Methodists everywhere gather for annual conferences across the Connection. And I can imagine that most gatherings would do a good job of telling us what our mission is (“to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world). Many are probably trying to get us excited about our mission by sharing ways we can accomplish it (different ways of being active in ministry).
But how many conferences are getting to the question of why this is important?
In his TED Talk, Simon Sinek notes that the circles order reflects the places in our brain where we comprehend what’s going on around us and learn. And it should come as no surprise that the “why” question correlates with the limbic system in the brain. We can talk about “what” and “how” because those questions touch on parts of the brain where language is easy to attach to brain activity. But the limbic system is different. This complex system of the brain deals with things like passion, motivation, impulses – the stuff we know is there but is really hard to put words on.
Maybe Simon Sinek is onto something here for we United Methodists – maybe we never get around to the “why” question because it’s hard to talk about? The only trouble is, by definition, the “what” or “how” of being a Christian motivates no one. In other words, the question of “why” is the only true motivator for new people to care about what the mission of the church is all about. This is the stuff we share in testimony. It’s the stuff that’s hard to put words on (transformation always is). It’s the stuff that brings us to tears and makes our hearts swell.
No one outside of the church cares about mission statements and bumper stickers.
No one outside of the church cares about structures and doing things a certain weird way for no better reason than, “we’ve always done it this way.”
No one cares that we need new members and more money to continue to survive as the church.
No one cares about any of this, that is, until they know WHY we exist in the first place. And by the way, we inside the church could stand to spend a little more time with the “why” question too. If all we do is talk about what we do and how we do it, then the only motivation for being the church is to take care of ourselves and those who agree with us or understand us. That’s a sad, and dare I say it unfaithful, reason to exist.
Why are we called to gather as the church? Maybe that answer begins in the fact that the God who calls us and saves us, says we can’t keep that gift – we have to live the sort of life where we give things like love, mercy, and forgiveness away to others. And as Simon Sinek would remind all good leaders – we have to begin with the “why” before we move on to the “how” or “what.”
So how does your church or conference address the question of “Why”?
Some “Why” Questions that might lead us to change:
The sentiment around the church today is a longing for some sort of renewal or, to put it in more churchy terms, a revival. As a Southerner born and raised just due east of the buckle of the Bible Belt, revival is a term I’m familiar with. I can remember my home church hosting revivals when I was a kid. It was a time where we had worship beginning on Sunday evenings (because back then we all came back to church on Sunday evenings anyways) and we met for 2-3 evenings in a row. We often brought in guest preachers and maybe even enjoyed some special music as part of our time together. But make no mistake, the purpose of a revival was to spark a sense of renewed fervor and vitality in the spiritual lives of all in attendance.
I’ve recently heard that word, “revival,” repeated again and again at Methodist gatherings and meetings. And it made me wonder: What does the revival (or renewal) we long for in The United Methodist Church look like?
At the heart of revival, of course, is change. The hopes of a revival is to provide space for a spiritual change to occur in someone’s life. But if being Christian teaches us anything, it’s that change must be BOTH internal AND external. In other words, if change is to take hold in our lives, then nothing remains the same.
So if we believe this applies to individuals, and that such a change is essential to live a faithful life, doesn’t it also apply to our churches and systems of being church? In other words, when we pray for revival in the church, do we take to heart the need for change to take hold in EVERY aspect of our lives together, including the very ways we go about being church?
When we pray for revival or renewal in the church, are we willing to hear God’s voice calling us to change, even if it means radically changing the ways we organize, build and use buildings, and relate to each other and the world around us? Organizational management and change consultant, Margaret Wheatley, reminds us, “Change always involves a dark night when everything falls apart. Yet if this period of dissolution is used to create new meaning, then chaos ends and new order emerges.” If you’re an active leader in the church, I think you’d probably agree we’re experiencing a “dark night” as membership and attendance continues to decline. And we can mourn the loss of “the good ‘ol days” when people just magically showed up at our churches and everyone organized their lives around a Sunday that included worship and three meetings, bible studies, or circle gatherings throughout the week or we can offer ourselves to the change God is calling us to even if that means relinquishing those idols of how we’ve been church for so long now.
What sort of change is God calling your church or district or annual conference to embark on? How are you being called to do things differently for the sake of God’s mission? Margaret Wheatley offers us more wisdom: “In spite of current ads and slogans, the world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible.”
Maybe God is calling us yet again to articulate a common vision. If you’re a United Methodist, then you’re probably already shouting at your computer screen, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!” Yeah, but how? The creation of a mission statement does not ensure that mission happens, even if people memorize the phrasing. The how question is the true kicker for churches and our denomination – How will we go about being a faithful church to the mission of connecting people to the good news of Jesus Christ in such a way that lives are changed on an ongoing and continual basis? And maybe the how question also leads us to an important distinction – Are we about the business of living into God’s mission or are we about the business of building and playing church?
A couple things should jump out:
First, in order to go about this mission in a 21st Century world we can NOT use 19th or 20th Century methods. For example, building buildings as a sign of success is something the church has done for centuries. And now as we experience a season of decline, we’re saddled with the burdens of buildings that are way too big and way too expensive to keep up. If a 21st Century world is more migratory less tied to buildings, then why do we insist on continuing to build buildings or do everything in our power to fill the ones we have?
Secondly, the very nature of mission insists that we move – move out of our buildings, move out of our aging ways of doing things, move out of our comfort zones. If mission calls us to move out, why do we spend so much time and energy trying to get people to come in to where we already are? The act of counting weekly attendance and membership might have something to say about the affect worship has on the life of a local church, but it says very little about what people do after they leave the worship service. Why not spend more time connecting with the community around us instead of just supplanting and sequestering people off into our buildings. God is doing amazing things outside of our churches and we really ought to take notice.
I guess maybe I’m trying to ask this: If we pray for the revival of the church, are we praying for a season of change in EVERY sense of the word, or are we just praying for things to go back to the way they once were when we had more butts in seats, dollars in the bank, and people who centered their lives on the well being preserving our buildings and programs?
Needless to say, that’s a question that I hope will continue to haunt us at every turn.
2015 began as the year I made some lifestyle changes. I say “lifestyle changes” because I no longer believe in going on diets. Diets are made to be broken. I read an amazing book to start the new year that said a major factor in making good decisions about your diet (and other things in life) come from establishing good habits. So at age 32 and about 15-20 pounds heavier than I want to be (I’m a short guy who carries weight very badly), I decided to just take the leap and make some lifestyle changes. My diet changed in big ways. I eat less. And I exercise a lot more (from 2-3 a month before to 4-5 times a week now).
This was all going great until Holy Week came along. You see, as a pastor this is one of the busiest weeks of the calendar year. You’re working on multiple sermons. Preparing for multiple worship services. All the while you’re trying to keep up with the normal demands of checking on people who are sick, etc.
In other words, my new lifestyle changes met a week where I am very tired, a little stressed, and don’t have enough hours in the day. Since I know I’m not the only pastor who probably struggles with making good dietary decisions during weeks like this, I thought I would share some advice I’ve been reminding myself of all week (and it’s worked…mostly)
I probably should have posted this earlier in the week. I might have made better decisions as a result. But we’ve got the rest of the weekend. May we experience the miracle of resurrection fully and may we offer our bodies to God as holy temples as we lead others through this weekend.
Lent is the time of year where we look at our lives and do the hard work of being honest about things that might be keeping us from growing deeper in our relationship with God. Now many use it as an excuse to deprive themselves of chocolate or caffeine or dessert. I say that’s fine so long as those things are hindering your faith life. If they’re not and you still want to give them up as an act of endurance for the next 40 days, then fine, at least add something new to your life that will help you grow deeper in your faith journey.
It occurs to me that while the church asks individuals to do this critical and honest work, maybe we should spend some time as the church doing it too. In other words, how can the church practice what it preaches about self-denial and transformation?
Below are 5 things the Church should think about giving up for Lent. Maybe you can read these and add a few of your own:
Bonus: A practice churches could take on during the season of Lent
What items would you add to this list?
Church leadership has long held a bent toward the “bigger is better” mantra of capitalistic America. We franchise new church plants. We structure our institutions to favor the larger churches. The United Methodist Church itself has long been geared toward starting pastors off in smaller churches to get their feet wet in leadership only to move them to bigger (and often higher paying) churches once they prove themselves as capable leaders.
The flip side of the “bigger is always better” way of viewing our churches is the reality that the vast majority of churches in America (and even around the world) are, in fact, small. Historically this has also been the case. Go back and read Paul’s letters to various churches. They weren’t worshiping 1,000+ on Sundays in a concert hall or amphitheater — they small, tightly-knit communities worshiping in homes.
Now I’m not a hater of the larger church — I’ve actually served in two different large, vibrant, downtown churches. I know the strength of larger churches from their ability to support more diverse ministry to the beauty of worshiping with a large, corporate body. But now that I’m serving a smaller church, I want to point out the unique beauty of small churches. Sometimes we need to be reminded that small churches are, in fact, beautiful and they should spend less time dealing with an inferiority complex because they aren’t as large as other churches.
Instead of trying to mimmick what the large churches in your area are doing (only to come up short of their quality because you don’t have the money or resources to duplicate it), here are 5 things I believe small churches can uniquely offer the world right where they are:
It’s the new year. It’s that time of year when we worry about making lists of all the ways we pledge to become new and better people in the coming year. Never mind that a 2007 study from University of Bristol says close to 88% of resolutions made are not upheld for the year. This is a time of hope — we can, in fact, do what we say we’re going to do in the coming year.
While everyone works to make lofty personal resolutions for the coming year, I thought it would be a good idea to begin a list of resolutions pastors can make as leaders in the coming year. After all, it’s what we’re called to do. So below is a list (not nearly exhaustive) of resolutions for pastors in 2015. Maybe you can take a couple of these and make them personal goals of your own? Maybe you can add to this list?
[And if you don’t need any of these suggestions, please leave your name and contact information so the rest of us can contact you to meet the world’s first perfect pastor]
1. I resolve…to complain less and find more joy in pastoral ministry. Being a pastor isn’t about being a martyr no matter how much we feel like one sometimes.
2. I resolve…to study more. Fancy book-learning isn’t just for seminarians. I know I need to be more disciplined about learning, growing, and honing my skills.
3. I resolve…to waste less time. While being a pastor can feel like you’re moving in 20 different directions at a time, I know I need to focus and be more organized. Efficiency is a fruit of effectiveness.
4. I resolve…to worry less about attendance and worry more about fruitfulness and discipleship. It’s easy to become obsessed with weekly worship attendance. And it’s even easier to get together with other pastors and compare numbers like we’re some sort of competition. But numbers mean nothing if people aren’t growing in their discipleship.
5. I resolve…to encourage others to focus more on mission, and less on numerical decline in my local church. It’s easy to get lost in the wailing and moaning about the numerical decline of our local churches. We always wish we could be bigger whether we’re talking about attendance, membership, or bank accounts. But bigger doesn’t always mean better. And more than likely all of our local churches could stand to focus less on ourselves and more on the community and world around us.
6. I resolve…to make friends with and enjoy conversation with someone who sees the world differently from me. Pastors are bad about surrounding ourselves with people who think, act, talk, and believe just like we do. The worst kept secret among pastors is just how political and divisive we are with one another. We need friends who are different. We need friends who will stretch and challenge us. And we especially need friends who remind us that we’re not always right — no matter how much our ego wants us to believe otherwise.
7. I resolve…to carve more time out for my family. We don’t earn extra stars in our crown for working 80-hour weeks. Being a pastor is about being a healthy example of how to live our faith and balance our lives faithfully. We need to work hard AND play hard. After all, the greatest work of evangelism and faith formation that we’ll ever be responsible for is in our very own homes.
8. I resolve…to encourage someone younger or less experienced than me. Too often we pastors go through the ringer of ordination and serving the local church only to offer others coming behind us tough love. The most self-aware and secure pastors I know have been those who go out of their way to encourage and support me. So I resolve to pay that gift of grace forward to others.
9. I resolve…to be fully present right where I am. It’s easy to look on to the next appointment or ministry opportunity. Things get tough or stagnant or even frustrating and we begin to daydream about better days and greener pastures in the future. We all need to be more incarnational in our ministry — and that means being fully present right where we are.
10. I resolve…to be more generous with my money. Too often we pastors can write off the time we spend at the church and in ministry as the bulk of our giving. Maybe it even feels awkward that we’re called to give to the very entity that writes our paycheck. However as an act of personal discipleship, we should make sure we are being generous not only with our time, but also with our money. You’d be surprised how many lay people wonder if the pastor even gives at all to the local church.
11. I resolve…to take a deep breath and remember God is God, and I am not. Sometimes (heck, most times) our ego will get in our way. We begin to believe it’s up to us to make something happen. We believe it’s up to us to make the church grow. And we believe it’s up to us to bring change in people’s lives. Thank God it’s actually not up to us in the end. Otherwise we’d really screw things up. I resolve in the coming year to live and grow in the light of that reality.
Happy New Year! What other resolutions can you add to this list?
I want to begin a new annual post on my blog. As anyone who knows me personally can attest to, I’m a big reader. Reading has always come fairly easy and I consider it a joy. I also consider reading vital to being an effective pastor. The pastor who fails to study is a pastor who fails to learn and grow. There’s no way around it — you must read if you want to effectively lead people in their faith and grow personally in your own.
Below is my 1st Annual Favorite Books of the Year list. These are in no particular order at all, but rather they are grouped by category. There are 11 in all (just couldn’t drop one more). Not every book I read was list-worthy, and some were good but I had to make a final cut. I’ve included Amazon links if you want to learn more about the books or purchase them for yourself.
- Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley. I read this in preparation for my pastoral move this June. Wheatley is a phenomenal thinker on the art of leadership from a systems standpoint. Science geeks will love how she uses some of the new sciences to describe how leaders don’t come in and fix anything — they learn the system(s) at play and how relationships that create and sustain them.
- The Fifth Discipline the Art and Practice The Learning Organization by Peter Senge. Another read for my pastoral transition. Senge uses modern corporate examples of organizations that proved their effectiveness by staying ahead of the learning curve. In other words, the successful organizations are the organizations that know how to grow and adapt to new circumstances (something churches are often terrible at). He stresses the need for organizations to grow into a shared vision by doing the slow work of learning through a systems approach.
- Good to Great by Jim Collins. Another great book on leadership.. The three biggest lessons I got (although others come to mind depending on the leadership situation): 1) First rule of leadership is to get the right people on the bus; 2) The second rule of leadership is to get the wrong people off the bus; 3) The Level 5 leader builds enduring effectiveness through a blend of humility and professional drive — they give others credit and take blame for themselves when appropriate.
- My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman. This is actually a beautiful book on doubt and mystery in how it relates to faith. I can’t recommend this more for the reader looking to be challenged in going deeper and captivated by Wiman’s beautiful way of writing.
- Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. I’ve been in love with most everything Barbara Brown Taylor writes. Her prose reads like poetry and I often find myself not only wishing I could write like her, but I wish I could think and even struggle with my faith like she does. Her latest book lifts the beauty of darkness and how important it is in relationship to light. We can’t be a people of the light if we’re afraid to embrace the darkness.
- The Joy of the Gospel by Pope Francis. My admiration for Pope Francis knows no bounds. I mean a Jesuit Pope who has rid the office of many of the luxuries it has enjoyed while reaching out to the poor, untouchable, and disenfranchised to offer them the love of Christ — who wouldn’t admire him. He’s a Jesuit which means growing in faith is gaining freedom from the things that hold us back. This first papal treatise is a case for the love of God offering us the joy to be free from things that hinder our faith. Simple and beautiful read.
- Life and Holiness by Thomas Merton. As many of my friends know, I’m a big Thomas Merton fan. Combining his work on contemplation with the leadership material mentioned above has opened doors for me that I never imagined. As Christian leaders, we often need an added element of contemplation to free ourselves of living for the expectations and praises of others. It also puts us more in tune with the One we want to lead others to live more like. In this book, Merton does an amazing job of unpacking what holiness is — more about growing in our sense of love for God and others and not so much the rigid view of a moral code. While moral actions are important for faithful living, love frees us from our bondage and judgmental ways of viewing rigid moral laws. Merton was a Trappist monk but he sure sounds Wesleyan here if you ask me.
- A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash. As a big fan of Flannery O’Connor and other Southern, gothic fiction writers, I couldn’t have been more pleased in finding the work of Wiley Cash. This book offers Southern tragedy, morality being turned on its head, and God’s grace coming as violently as the tragic events themselves.
- The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom. For some reason I never read this book in high school. I could kick myself for that. Corrie ten Boom writes a beautifully tragic and grace-filled account of heroism, loss, and how the power of love and forgiveness can triumph in the worst of circumstances.
- Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. Another book I can’t believe it took me so long to read. Wendell Berry is one of my favorite poets and he’s also a wonderful fiction writer. This is an incredible novel that depicts the depth of faith and the struggle of a man’s calling to be a preacher in an imperfect world. If nothing else, this book is worth it’s cover price for the following exchange between the young ministerial student and one of his seminary professors:
- “You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”
- Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup. The movie was great, but the book is even better. It’s a story of a freeman being sold into slavery and the pain it takes to endure the hardship of slave life. The struggle is enormous but that only adds to the beauty of this book.
There were many that did not make this list, sadly. But I hope this offers you some ideas for good reads as you begin 2015…maybe with a resolution to read more. Happy reading!!