Fixing Church Archive

Tradition goes to the Scrapyard

One of the most famous paintings in the London National Gallery is Turner’s 1838, “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up.”  The bold, romantic, colors of this masterpiece makes it worth the long title. The back story, however, is relevant to the church today. The 98 gun, ship-of-the-line, Temeraire represented the height of war technology in 1805 when it played a significant role in Lord Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. Here, 32 years later, Turner shows it being towed to the scrapyard with the setting sun behind her.

Fundamentals

One key fundamental is ‘soul.’ Soul was there at the beginning of my journey with Jesus. Even now, forty years later, I know that the reason I became a Christian is because something deep, true, and beautiful, resonated with my soul. But, soul is difficult to define. I am attending the funeral today for an 84 year old man. The priest is sure to speak about John’s soul. I will nod as I am reminded how the soul provides a much needed continuity to life. Over his lifetime John’s body and mind underwent many changes.

A World-wide Church

The Pope has been saying some un-Catholic sounding things lately. Relating to gay priests, he has voiced a reluctance to continue any policy that ostracizes a whole class of people. He’s promoting practical and individualized, case by case, judgements about policy issues. Similarly, he’s opening the door to women in a ‘deacon order’ that may have priest-like functions. I’m translating that to the American church where the shortage of priests is leaving rural and small membership parishes critically underserved. The day will soon come when these folk rejoice, “Hey, we got our own priest again. She’s saying mass this week.”

A Flow Chart for Transition

Church transitions are like airplane crashes. When things go wrong, it’s good to look back and see what decisions were made when. A congregation is unhappy with their new pastor. It is tempting to say, “Oh, they just chose not to accept her.” But, if you pull out the little black box you can often find places where the group could have been taught to make better decisions. Good group decision making is a learned behavior. Congregations need to be better informed about the available options and how to make those decisions with transparency and an openness to the new future that the Holy Spirit is providing for them.

Chicken or the Egg?

Last week’s post on Pre-Evangelism has generated a “which came first...” type of question. Does a congregation spiral down and become incapable of gathering in new people because it lacks Spiritual Passion?  -- or -- Does the poorly led, non-evangelistic, and/or unattractive church naturally become less passionate about spiritual things?

 

Pre-Evangelism

There once was a town that was scheduled to be flooded when the new dam was built. Suits from the government came and explained why and how these people’s homes were to be bought (or taken by eminent domain) and there was nothing they could, or should, do about it. Watch now. Within days, there was a change. Some people stopped mowing their grass. Contractor's signs ceased to dot the yards and nobody was buying wallpaper. Within weeks, a rattier appearance had settled in. It rippled out, even influencing homes distant from the flood zone.

 

Call Me Radical, but...

For the last two weeks I have been writing on the impact that the repeal of DOMA will have on denominations that fail to recognize gay marriage, such as the United Methodist (see What Voice Will I Listen To? and DOMA and the UMC).

What Voice will I Listen to?

In last week’s blog I stated that the repeal of DOMA (DOMA and the UMC) is a game changer for clergy who are being asked to officiate at gay ceremonies. While individual clergy may still wish to set higher standards and restrict who they will unite in marriage, the denomination can’t exclude a whole class of people without good reason. It would be like the United Methodist Church saying to me that I couldn’t perform marriages for people over 70 years old because they were unlikely to procreate.

DOMA and the UMC

The Supreme Court’s action yesterday to rule Federal definitions of marriage unconstitutional has profound implications for every American congregation, and especially those who are small fellowships and/or members of the United Methodist Denomination. The United Methodist Church has a General Conference rule -- in a sense a “Federal act” -- threatening those clergy who officiate in gay marriages and civil unions with the defrocking. The word “officiate” is not too well defined and in local circumstances can be extended to mean participation or recognition. I found the wording that Justice Kennedy used to explain the court’s action profound:

What Church Shoppers Want

One of my favorite questions to ask lay people attending my workshops is, “What made you choose this church?” If the person has made a church change in the last few years, I will ask followup questions. I want to get into the mind of church shoppers. I also want the other people at the workshop to hear the factors that real people are weighing as they choose a place to worship. We live in a religious free market. People are no longer required to remain in their parent’s parish and most Christians have one or more occasions to truly church shop.

 

After winnowing out the family and friends factors in church choice, I’ve come down to three questions that I think church shoppers are serious about:

Grief and Church Renewal

Is your church grieving? Recently, I heard a clergy person describe the depressed and change resistant state of her church as a form of grief. It made sense to me. From time to time, congregations become overwhelmed by the loss of  a specific individual or family. I also know of churches that for years have mourned their loss of status in the community. Loss happens. Both individuals and congregations go through periods of grief.

 

Are Pastors and Churches Interchangeable?

It is the season of the year when one quarter of all United Methodist clergy will be packing their books, pianos, exercise equipment, etc., and moving to greener pastorates.  A similar percentage of Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc., move each summer, and anxiously enroll their children in a new school district. We all wish that pastorates were longer. There is a high cost to moving; not just to those who pay the bills and those who mourn the loss of a favorite pastor, friend, or healthcare provider, but also, in the lost momentum of congregations that are feeling their way in a changing religious marketplace.

Do Clergy People Age Like Fine Wine?

In last week’s blog I speculated on how productivity varies over the thirty odd year career of the average clergy person. Let us be blunt; the United Methodist church, and other mainline denominations, are moving towards a system that reduces professional productivity down to one factor, the capacity to add members or grow a church (sometimes called ‘metrics’). Elsewhere I have cautioned that we need to read this as an institutional concern, which may have little correlation to God’s calling on a particular pastor’s life or the God-given vocation of the church that they are serving.

 

Age Appropriate?

The life cycle of a congregation is often described a bell curve, mapping out membership growth over time. Martin F. Saarinen (The Life Cycle of a Congregation -Alban.org), and others, chart how a congregation is born with enthusiasm, has significant yearly growth for a decade or so, enters into a long period of stability, then falls into decline, leading in time to death. My first response to seeing this curve was to ask, what about Canterbury Cathedral? Obviously there are outliers, that is churches whose lifespan is so unexpected that it skews the chart.

Consider the Lilies

Jesus said, “Consider the lilies...” (Matthew 6:28) Why?  Please note that these flowers have three strikes against them:

Understanding precedes action

Most things that fail in the church, do not fail for lack of trying. They fail because the groundwork was not done to prove the project worthy of the required effort.  Here is how it goes; one or two leaders become excited about a new program for their church. They work hard to get the votes needed to initiate it. There are stories told about how well this program worked elsewhere. It sounds like fun, and perhaps a little mysterious. The vote passes through council and money is set aside for it. The innovators wipe their brows, thinking the hard part is over. The new program now requires broader support. The various church leaders who ‘liked the idea’ before, back away. They didn’t think this thing would require anything from them. Who understands the next step?

The Desires of a Congregation's Heart

An important promise in the Bible reads, "Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart." - Psalm 37:4  But, where do the desires of my heart come from? I suspect the significant ones come from God. When He promises to give me my desires, He is not agreeing to buy me a Porsche. He is instead agreeing to fulfill the very impulses that He has already wired into my being. Something has to change in me so that I delight in God, however, before I discover the deeper desires of my heart. I have found in my own life that there is a circularity to what is being promised here. God is glad to give me the things he already wants me to want. If my deepest desire is to communicate, God helps me to learn how to write.

Packing for a New Reality

This week my new Reality Check 101 book became available. The back cover reads:

As a tightrope walker alone on her path, so each church must discern a way forward. Reality Check 101 provides a process for congregational dialogue and a dozen exercises for implementing change. Five years in the making, this workbook follows Bill Kemp’s Ezekiel’s Bones and The Church Transition Workbook as a practical guide for lay and clergy leaders.

 

Tightrope walker by Segal

Tightrope Walking

You may have noticed that problems in the church have a tendency to cascade. An idea that someone has seen working elsewhere is tried here. It falls flat. The initiator(s) is then criticized for wasting church resources. The initiator(s) comes away from this experience wounded and more hesitant about sticking their neck out in the future. The council and/or clergy leadership also wants to prevent future failures and protect church resources. So, they renew their commitment to micromanaging and the rigid enforcement of standing policies. Without realizing it, they stifle creativity. This leads to less enthusiasm in the church. Young people depart. Stewardship falls and budgets go unmet.

Money and Church Planning

Paul warns Timothy about the dangers of loving money: 

“If we have food and clothing we should be content with that” 

                            - I Timothy 6:8 

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