Archive for January 2014

He only gets it right about half the time

This week, a ground hog will be pulled out of his hole and see, or not see, his shadow. People from as far south as Atlanta, will want to know if Phil predicts an early spring or six more weeks of winter. The ground hog’s statistics were in the paper today and they were dismal. Over the last ten years, you could spit on a rock and toss it in the air and have a better predictor of the upcoming weather. Fortunately, ground hogs are only good eating when they are young, so there isn’t much interest in shooting old Punxsutawney Phil. I have come to believe that most pastors are equally lousy at predicting the particular  missional calling of the church they serve.


God may be calling St. Paul’s Church to be in serious mission and lead transformation in a particular area of need in the community. The new pastor, however, has decided that the church needs to focus on bringing in new people and improving its metrics (statistics). Another pastor may have a heart for mission, but be serving a dying congregation that needs to transition gracefully into closure. This pastor can’t grasp the vision of how his church could give its building and resources as a legacy gift for mission under his leadership. Another church has both the enthusiasm and flexibility to bridge over the generations and minister to the postmodern world, but the pastor wants to ‘stay the course’ and continue doing what worked in the past. Fortunately pastors, like ground hogs, aren’t good eating when they get old and tough.


The lessons to be learned are:

  1. Pastors and laity need to learn together how to do spiritual discernment. Prayer will reveal, through healthy group process, the primary mission of your congregation. The pastor’s role is to support the shared vision, not to create it. Clergy need to learn how to listen and how to teach listening skills (Reality Check 101 deals with this process).
  2. In the United Methodist Church (this is also true of other denominations) the clergy itinerate, which means they go from location to location telling people what all churches in general are called to do. The laity, on the other hand, locate. They are called to live in the community and discern what is needed in this particular place. God gives half of the local church’s mission and vision to each party and expects us to put the pieces together.
  3. Don’t be afraid to let the facts shoot down your cherished myths. I did the math on Ground Hog’s Day and found that it didn’t connect with reality. If we compare what a church says its doing with what it is doing, we may realize that our current mission statement is a myth. Fixing this involves going back into small groups and prayerfully seeking God’s will for this particular church.
Matthew 5:1-12
1 Corinthians 1:18-31

In a newspaper this week I read that employment has improved so much that by the end of the year some American cites will have a labor shortage and see workers demanding higher wages. This unfortunate situation will be bad for the economy. The above is representative of the wisdom of the world. Those who understand the first two sentences of this blog, will have a hard time accepting the wisdom of the cross or what Jesus was doing when he blessed the poor, those who mourn, the meek, etc. Jesus’ wisdom involved knowing suffering, being willing to serve others, and having a pure love for truth and beauty. The world’s wisdom involves avoiding failure, demanding concessions from those who serve, limiting the truth we tell ourselves or others, and believing that cost determines value (beauty).

I was struck this week by the way the opening of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians parallels Jesus’ opening message to the people of Galilee in the Sermon on the Mount (there is a three fold chord if you look at Luke 4:16-19, Jesus’ sermon in his synagogue). Paul notes that the Gospel of Jesus is understood and received with joy by those of no account in the eyes of the world. It is those who have never had authority in this world, whom Jesus and Paul appoint as the first leaders of the church. Lifting the burdens of the poor and outcast becomes primary for the early church, because it was a task that they understood from experience. The capacity of the first Christians to understand their mission field, be compassionate, and be transparent about what Jesus had done in their own lives, made them effective at evangelism. Jesus and Paul understood the difference between doing things for the poor and doing mission with the poor.

See the Papal document: “The Joy of the Gospel”
Epiphany 4
Kirk (church) Leaders boldly engage the world

Whenever Captain Kirk takes the starship Enterprise out to explore the cosmos he issues a single command, “Engage.”  What follows next is always an adventure. In some episodes frightening alien creatures take over the ship shutting down propulsion and life-support. The captain and crew struggle not only to get essential systems back online, but also to understand what these strangers want and how to reason with them. The captain seeks to open a channel of communication so that he can tell them that mission of the ship is peaceful. If he can engage this alien culture, then perhaps he can build a level of trust which will spare the Enterprise from further attacks and perhaps even initiate a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge. 


Kirk’s name in German means “Church.” I think that church leaders today need to be more like Captain Kirk. What makes Captain Kirk such a good leader is that he really wants to understand the universe. His posture is receptive, not defensive and his inner vision leads him to look beyond the current crisis. Not only is his science officer and communications technician standing near him on the bridge, but the entire ship’s crew is organized with exploration in mind. Further, the physical vessel is outfitted with a wide variety of sensors and probes. “Engage” is not just a command, it is a state of mind.


The church is called by Jesus to engage the world. He says that we are to be in the world, even if we are not to be of it (John 17:15-18). He also tells Peter that the keys to the kingdom are such that the gates of Hell itself will not stand fast against the church (Matthew 16:18-190. The attacks that the church experiences in the world will sometime lead us to think that we need to pull apart and emphasize the disparity between Christian values and those held by the largely non-church-going public. The Bible, however, frames the church’s mission in terms of engagement. We are told, “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." The book of Acts describes how the early church leadership captained a costly program of active engagement with a sometimes hostile culture. Their mission was not simply to survive, but to explore and to witness. 


Paul famously expresses the scope of his willingness to engage the culture with these words:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.

            (I Corinthians 9:19-22)

Are you underserving and overdressed?

Church members in too many cases are like deep sea divers, encased in the suits designed for many fathoms deep, marching bravely to pull out plugs in bath tubs - Peter Marshal.  When Marshal wrote these words he was addressing the problem of do-nothing-pew-sitting Christians. Now, six decades later, the time has come to apply the overdressed deep sea diver concept to whole congregations. Maybe a third of the churches in America have developed protective policies and resource management skills to the point that they fail to do much good. They have, quite simply, forgotten why Christianity matters. The reason Jesus wants us to make disciples is so that the church can transform the world. Many churches are rich in assets and poor in community transforming mission work. 

    You can have good leadership, functional buildings, and a theologically articulate congregation and still be underemployed for God. This is why periods of critical visioning and asset management are important for churches. The outcome of visioning and asset management is a redesigned church that does real and permanent good. 

    Consider these asset management questions:

  1. Is your congregation now at the place in its spiritual journey where it needs to relocate or build a new addition? Perhaps, like the hermit crab, you have outgrown your shell. Some congregations have grown spiritually to the place that they feel God calling them to leave their inefficient buildings and either rent more flexible space or split worship in to house-sized cell groups. 
  2. Is your congregation is passionately committed to an outreach project or ministry that has outgrown its space? Renovating or building a new place for that mission will dramatically change the way your church budget is organized. 
  3. Do you need a different staff configuration? Now may be the time to do careful and wise changes to the church’s staff, committee structure, and core leadership.


The Asset Management is likely to include most of the following tasks:

  • Restructuring church committees into teams and networked (non-hierarchical) workgroups
  • Improving the ‘curb appeal’ of church buildings (making them look friendlier to the unchurched)
  • Realigning the church’s use of space to match its mission
  • Building or renting whatever new facilities today’s ministry needs
  • Making better use of volunteers while reducing staff overhead
  • Exploration of new partnerships with other churches and nonprofits
  • Growth in stewardship and sacrificial giving
  • Modernizing communication (social media)
  • Improving the church’s visibility and reputation in the community (web advertisement)
  • Whatever else is needed to keep the church serving its community
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
John 6

I have a check list of ‘Things to Pack’ on my iPhone for when I go on trips. Too often, I’ve boarded a plane to realize that I didn’t have something essential, like my speaking notes, my charger for my phone, or any spare underwear. Being equipped is an important part of being successful. Paul writes to the church at Corinth and tells them that they have been fully equipped by God. They have everything that they need (check it out in 1 Corinthians 1:5 & 7). Now, having said that, I’m not going to list any exceptions or buts. The church and the faithful must hear that they already have what they need to be successful.

    This passage connects with Epiphany’s overall message of our being called, or given a vocation, from God. I believe this true on three levels; 1) that God has a life-plan for each of us and gives us exactly what we each need to live by faith 2)that every Christian has spiritual gifts and a spiritually enabled vocation, 3) That every congregation has a calling. The leadership you have and the resources the church currently own are related to what God wants to do with you. It’s time to stop blaming God for making us the way that we are.

    If we are dying, either as individuals or as a local church, perhaps we should prayerfully discern what resources God has placed within our reach for hospice care. End of life decisions are important. ‘Putting your affairs in order,’ is a positive thing when done with the support of good biblical theology and faith. Pastors that can lead people through this process are a rare breed. They teach that closure and death can be forms of success.

    When we are financially strapped or under-employed, when need to learn again how to pray. Can we release resentment, regret, and self-pity? Can we accept that God still has a calling for our individual lives, and for our congregation? Is there a biblical story that will help us to thing of our selves as gifted, even when materially strapped? I like the story of the Loaves and Fishes ( John 6:4-14).

    When we are over worked and beset by things undone, we need to ask God for wisdom and clarity in our vision. The local church needs to know that it can not be all things for all people. It can’t even fulfill every mandate given to it by its denomination. Where are your spiritual assets? What are you passionate about? What gives you joy? It is here that God is calling you.

    If the new year is bringing new transitions, how can we live as people open to the will of God? My list of things to pack when I go on a trip reminds me that I have traveled before. It is a list of things learned from previous mistakes. Life always had new lessons for us. But we have to be open to the God who challenges and deepens our faith through our transitions. How does the confidence that Paul has for the Corinthians translate to the confidence we should have for life? Is there a change ahead that God hasn’t already equipped us to handle?

Your church is already equipped to move in 2014
Epiphany 2
No matter how good the past was...

Recently, a wonderful family run restaurant near us went out of business. Even though they had great food, friendly service, and reasonable prices, they didn’t seem to have the wisdom or energy to adapt to how people were dining today. They sat on a side street with limited parking, they had an outdated but comfortable seating area, and an aging cliental of old friends. Obviously the deck was stacked against them. Or was it? One block over was a large hospital, filled with hungry workers and visitors who were tired of the cafeteria’s offerings. This restaurant, however, didn’t offer lunch or take out. I am convinced that a new business model that focused on meeting the needs of those in the neighborhood would have saved the restaurant. But that would have required dying to the way they always did things and redefining their self-identity to include providing good meals for people who are on the go. 


  • In what ways is your church like this family restaurant?
  • In what ways is it different?


In the secular world, stores and restaurants talk about having a business model. This is an overall plan that details the following:


  1. A target audience - The plan must speak in detail about people that we hope to engage as customers or regular members. Saying “we hope to reach everyone,” is a guaranteed way to fail. Today, you must specialize.
  2. An understanding of the target audiences needs - What products and/or services will you provide more conveniently, more affordably, and at a better quality than your competitors. Congregation’s don’t like to think of themselves as having competitors, but they do. Not just other churches, but also, the multitude of options that society presents for living nominal Christianity.
  3. A plan for advertising your mission (product) and location. Also, an ongoing plan for inviting new people to stop by and sample your wares. 
  4. A process for converting occasional users to committed fans.


Try the above with your church leaders. This exercise relates to Reality Check 101’s visioning process (see the section on Radical Rebirth under the Spiral Rule).