Friday, October 19, 2007

The Blessings and Challenges of Ministering in the Small Church (Part 6).

Blessing: Being able to “know” the people your church family.

Large church pastors cannot “know” the people of their church--there are just too many people for the pastor to be able to connect with. By “know” I do not mean in the biblical sense of having an intimate, sexual encounter. What I do mean is to be able to know most of the people of the church family in a fairly deep manner. Such knowledge builds a bridge between the congregation and the pastor and assists the pastor in preaching messages that will speak to the needs of the congregation.

Someone… somewhere… has decreed that October is Pastor Appreciation Month (It could have been a pastor with low self esteem!). I have received many cards and letters expressing thoughts of appreciation. A Bible study group invited me to have lunch with them the other day. They wanted to say “Thank you” to me. One man started by sharing a very personal experience he went through that involved the intensive care unit of the hospital and my daily visits to see him. A woman spoke of the time I was “late” to church because I stopped at her house because I had seen the ambulance was at her house. A woman spoke of the numerous times I had been at the emergency room and regular hospital rooms with her and her husband. A man told of the time his grandson (a young teenager) was experiencing a medical problem that could have ended his life. The doctors were able to identify the “syndrome” – but they have no idea what causes it and they have no tried and true way of treating it. He commented on how I had made it to the emergency room, late at night, before most of the family members could make it there. He knew that for the next several days I was with his grandson every day until he was better. The stories went on and on. To tell you the truth, it was a little embarrassing sitting around the table with the Bible study group as they shared those intimate details of their lives. Later that day I reflected on how fortunate I am to be a pastor of a smaller church in that I have the opportunity to experience the joys and difficulties of life with the people of my church. The pastor of a larger church can experience the same type of things, but they really have to work at it. (Steve Starr, Pastor of Sumner Presbyterian Church, is one such pastor.)

So… if you are the pastor of a smaller church please take advantage of the opportunities to get to know the people in your church. Be with people in their good times and in their difficult times.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Blessings and Challenges of Ministering in the Small Church (Part 5).

Challenge: Moving from a “closed” group to a “welcoming” group.

It is amazing how two different groups of people can experience the same “event” and feel totally different about it.

Most people who regularly attend a small church feel that their church is warm and friendly. They enjoy being with this group of friendly faces. They have shared common experiences. The church feels “comfortable” – like a favorite shirt or pair shoes.

Most visitors of small churches comment on how “cold” or “unfriendly” the church feels. They walk into the building, shake hands with a greeter and then take their seats. No one comes up to talk with them. It is as though no one knows they are there. They watch the members talk, laugh and connect with each other. These visitors feel like outsiders.

This has been, and continues to be, a huge issue at Evergreen. I have given up trying to get our long-time members to be open to visitors. It just isn’t going to happen. I have even spoken personally to some of these wonderful long-time members about the problem—and, I have been told that they have no intention of changing their ways! As a pastor it is EXTREMELY frustrating. These are my friends and brothers and sisters in Christ who are basically saying that they don’t give a dam about our visitors! Fortunately, this mind set is totally absent from our Saturday night service.

So what should we do? Do we give up? Absolutely not!!! We are enlisting four or five people to be our “unofficial” greeters. Their job is to recognize everyone who attends Evergreen so that they can spot a visitor when the visitor walks through the door. As the visitor takes his/her seat these “unofficial greeters” will go over and spend time talking to the newcomers—welcoming them to the church. These same “unofficial” folks will keep their eyes open during our coffee time to make sure that people are talking to the newcomers. They will quickly move in to “drink coffee” with the new folks if the newcomers are being ignored by the rest of the congregation. That very week a loaf of fresh, home-baked bread will be delivered to their home by one of our bread delivery team.

Who will make up this “unofficial” greeting team? The person who heads it up is a long-time member (and Elder) who has a heart for new people who walk through our church doors. The other people are some of the newer people to our church! They remember how uncomfortable they felt when first visiting the church. We are going to use our newer folks to help change the unfriendly culture experienced by our visitors.

Challenge: Stop thinking like a small church!

The Rev. Dr. John Haberlin (former G.A. New Church Development guru and church planter) was talking about the founding of Central Kitsap Presbyterian Church. John was the organizing pastor of Central Kitsap. He told me that they had determined to never think or act like a small church because it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Central Kitsap started small but soon began to experience growth. They never planned or acted like a small church!

How does a church keep from thinking and acting like a small church? There will be a different specific answer for each church. I believe that the common thread is changing from an inward focus to a dual focus of being inward and outward focused. We have to realize that those apart from Christ will not be in heaven! God is going to hold us accountable for failing to reach out to those who do not know Christ. Remember that Jesus said that not every one says “Lord, Lord” to him will be allowed to enter into the Kingdom of God! We have Good News that needs to be shared. Having such a view will make it impossible for a church to think like a small church. Larger churches have great a great web site—get a great web site that will appeal to a target audience. Larger churches us technology—use today’s technology to enhance your church’s programs. Large churches offer multiple programs—create new programs! Large churches have great looking and informative brochures to visitors—create a new welcome brochure. Large churches make sure their building and grounds appeal to the eye—paint the church if necessary and make the church look welcoming from the outside. Large churches serve GOOD coffee—throw away the cheap, horrible church coffee and serve the good stuff!

Stop thinking and acting small!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Blessings and Challenges of Ministering in the Small Church (Part 4).

Challenge: Moving from a budget driven church to a vision driven church.

People don’t give to “budgets” anymore. Those days are long gone! (Would someone please tell the PCUSA this tidbit of information, please!). People give to ministries that they believe are going to make a difference in the lives of people.

When I came to Evergreen eleven years ago the focus of our fall fundraising efforts (“stewardship campaign” in church lingo) was “budget” based. Our session would come up with a budget for the following year. That budget had nothing to do with reality! It would be $50,000 or $60,000 more than we expected to collect. So… every year the session and its committees would have to be as frugal as possible so that their spending was in line with how much was collected.

We used to give thousands and thousands of $$$ to the mission budget of our Presbytery. Several years ago our Presbytery combined the per capita giving (“membership tax” for the non-Presbyterians out there) with the mission giving. More of the budget went to paying for the operation of the Presbytery and less to “mission” as giving to the Presbytery dropped. It has gotten to the point where very little of the mission $$$ that go to the Presbytery actually goes to mission. A funny thing happened when Evergreen’s session decided to only give our “fair share” to the mission side of the Presbytery budget—Evergreen’s financial situation changed. We couldn’t “afford” to do anything because we were giving over $18,000 in “mission money” to fund the running of the Presbytery. We have since adopted a missionary in Chile. Evergreen has formed a sister-church relationship with a small Presbyterian congregation in an Alaskan native village. We have assisted them many times over the few years that our partnership has been in effect. We have tripled the number of families that we help during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Our number of “shoe box presents” for Operation Christmas Child has shot through the roof! We recently gave $2000 to cover one month’s expenses for the new Presbyterian ministry in Tacoma. We will be sending a group to worship with them on November 4th. Our youth group is going to begin doing things with some of their youth. We are in the process of becoming an emergency shelter in our area. All of these things began when we stopped fundraising based on a projected budget! We are the one church in our area where LOVE, INC (“Love in the name of Christ” is a clearing house we use to assisting those in need outside of our congregation. LOVE, INC makes sure that the need is legitimate and finds churches to help meet those needs.). We are the one church in our area that they can count on to help meet financial needs. Most churches are willing to help with $20 or $30 for someone’s $200 electrical bill. They know that Evergreen will step up to the plate and meet almost any unmet financial need. We are probably the smallest church that they work with in our area but we meet the bulk of the big ticket needs. Just a few minutes ago I received a call from LOVE INC about a need in our area. They were only able to find one church that was willing to help. It was a fairly large church and it is giving $30. Evergreen in meeting the rest of the need! Our “fund” that covers such needs has never run dry! We teach about tithing and proportionate giving. We have been running in the “black” for a couple of years.

The change in our financial picture occurred at the time we were becoming a Purpose Driven Presbyterian Church. Our church has a compelling vision of what it means to be a church. We focus on the five areas of a Purpose Driven Church: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry & mission/evangelism. We are thinking “outside” the normal Presbyterian box.

Moving from a budget based church to a vision based church has not been easy and it is not totally completed. However, it has energized our church and its people.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Blessings and Challenges of Ministering in the Small Church (Part 3).

Challenge: To Move from a “Survival” Mentality into a “Growth” or “Missional” Mentality.

We humans seem to have a built in desire to survive. Our bodies are even wired for survival. “Shock” is one of the body’s responses to trauma—it is designed to aid in our survival. Blood flow is restricted in the body’s extremities to keep all available blood at the vital organs. “Hypothermia” is another of the body’s self-protection mechanisms. The body begins to shiver as its temperature drops. The shivering is involuntary muscle movement designed to generate heat. Bodily functions slow as the body’s temperature continues to drop. These involuntary actions are designed to help the body survive.

Smaller churches tend to operate in survival mode. All but the most vital functions cease to happen. The focus turns inward—rather than focusing outward. Worship will continue to happen each week. “Committees” will still meet monthly. Morale will be low. Some churches may appear to be dead when there actually is a spark of life remaining.

Last television season I watched the last three episodes of the Discovery Channel’s Everest: Beyond the Limit. On the final push to the summit there are numerous bodies that the climbers must walk by. The problem was that one “body” was not dead! One group of climbers had left this person to die so that the rest of their group could live. Lack of oxygen, hypothermia and exhaustion had caused the person’s body to effectively shut down. Without oxygen the person had no chance of survival—even with oxygen the chances were almost nil. The television audience got to hear the turmoil in the voice of two persons of the climbing group being documented. One person was the leader of the group who was at the highest base camp. The other person was a climber coming down from summiting the mountain. The climber was almost out of oxygen. As he walked passed the climber who had been left behind he realized that the person was still alive. He wanted to help the traumatized climber. The problems were many:

  • He was on his last canister of oxygen.
  • He barely had enough oxygen left to get himself down (the ascent had taken WAY longer than planned.).
  • Even if he gave up his own oxygen the other person was too weak to even stand up. He would have had to carry the climber down the treacherous mountain.

The audience listened as the team leader pleaded with him to head down immediately or else he would die. The climber cried as he left the traumatized climber on the mountain to die.

Many of our smaller churches have a spark of life. The members of these churches are in survival/life-saving mode. They want their church to live. Yet, people drive by these smaller churches every weekend on their way to attend larger, vibrant churches.

Congregational redevelopment efforts by our Presbytery and “Home Headquarters” have been quite unsuccessful. The only chance that these churches have is to move from the survival mode to an outreach/missional mode. It may take all of the churches monetary reserves and strength for such an effort. Failure may mean closing the church doors. Yet, I believe that it is worth the risk! The vast majority of the church folks must be “on board” with the idea. They must know the risks. All or nothing. Sounds like the first century church, doesn’t it?!?

So what would it look like for a small church to begin to live out an outreach/missional existence? Good question! It will be different for every congregation.

There is a small Lutheran congregation on the other side of our county that is a good example of changing to become missional. The church is in a very rural area of the county. Every winter there are power outages—sometimes lasting 7 to 10 days. This church decided to become an emergency shelter during those times. They upgraded their facilities with a generator to be able to function during power outages. They keep enough food on hand to feed 150 people for 4 – 5 days. They were faced with two challenges—how to get the word out that they were an emergency shelter and how to keep the food fresh. The church decided to host a free community dinner every month. They use the dinner as a way to get rid of last month’s stored food and to advertise that they are a shelter. Just before the dinner they buy a new stock of food. The dinners started out small. Within a year there were over 100 community members regularly attending the dinners. During last winter’s major power outage they fed over 100 people every day. Since becoming an emergency shelter and hosting the free community dinner their congregation has doubled Sunday morning worship attendance! Church membership has also grown. That small church was revitalized through transforming into a missional/outreach-oriented church!

Smaller, dieing churches are faced with a choice—keep doing the same things and the church will eventually close. This type of transformation requires pastoral and congregational leadership with vision, strength and courage. It requires much prayer and discernment. The change will take time, energy, commitment and $$$.

The transformation will not be easy—but it is possible.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Blessings and Challenges of Ministering in the Small Church (Part 2).

Challenge: Too few people give too much of the churches money.

Smaller churches generally have one or two families that give the vast majority of the money to the church. This can be very unhealthy for the church.

What can happen when too few people give a bulk of the church’s money? Here are the things I have seen, experienced or heard direct accounts of:

  • The people who give the money can (and do) throw their financial weight around. They feel that their giving entitles them to “call the shots.” They know that the church will be in a dire financial position if they withhold their money. Such an attitude can have horrible consequences for the entire congregation. People can resent the person who throws their financial weight around.
  • Individuals can feel that they do not need to step up their giving because “what’s his name” will cover any shortfall. Individuals lose a sense of responsibility and ownership of the church’s financial condition when too few people give the greatest percentage of the church budget. The congregation will never learn the blessing and joy of sacrificial giving.
  • The people giving so much money want to have a huge voice in the selection of the pastor—when a pastor comes or goes. This is much like the first item in this list but it is so important that it must be listed separately! A PNC (pastor nominating committee) is to represent the congregation—all of the congregation. One person or family is not entitled to the ultimate “for” or “against” a possible pastor or in the leaving of the current pastor.
  • The missional view of a congregation is negatively impacted when too few people give most of the $$$. The church tends to move into “survival” mode—trying to stay afloat. The ministry and mission of a church have costs: financial, time, talents, effort and opportunity costs. Absence of a missional view of the church comes when the church members do not have ownership in the church and its ministries and missions.
  • The church lives in fear of losing the person who gives all the $$$$. Church members are afraid that they will not be able to pay the insurance and the electrical bill. FEAR!! Not faith! I am convinced that the best thing that could happen to a church in this situation would be to lose the big contributor.

I have personally seen the devastating effects of one person contributing too much of the churches financial capital. I had that church elder tell me that it was time for me to look for another church. His best friend went to our church and was the session state clerk. The stated clerk’s wife had mental issues. She started acting them out against me by refusing to talk to me. The stated clerk came to me and assured me that I had done nothing wrong. She had a history of doing this very thing! I went and apologized to her. Nothing would change the way she acted towards me. The wife of the guy who gave all the $$$ to the church came and talked to me. She told me that this lady did the same thing to her. For five years the lady refused to talk to the wife of her husband’s best friend—even at church! Church members were becoming openly frustrated with the way this lady was treating me. It was in that context that I was told to leave. The deep pockets guy would give me a few months to find a new church, and if not, he would stop giving to the church. His actions caused half of the session to resign and leave the church! Fortunately, I was already in the final stages of seeking a new call and accepted an invitation to candidate at another church.

Challenge: Too many older folks.

Most smaller churches are filled with older folks. I know that this statement will rub some people the wrong way, but I believe that it is true. I cannot remember seeing a single small church (other than a new church plant) that was primarily made up of younger families or individuals. Please don’t take this the wrong way! Evergreen Presbyterian Church is a smaller church with LOTS of older folks. These folks are wonderful. They faithfully attend church and go to Bible study. Still, there is a problem. These wonderful folks like the church “comfortable” – they want it to stay the way it is. To be sure, most would say that they would like to see the church grow but they are unwilling to change anything to bring about that growth. The idea seems to “the church was good enough for me when I was younger so it will be good enough for my children and grandchildren.” Such an attitude kills a church!

What is a church or presbytery to do in such a situation? There aren’t any simple answers. Unfortunately, it is easier and cheaper to start and new church than it is to turn around a dying, older congregation. We need to increase our emphasis on church planting! Hire energetic, enthusiastic folks to start new churches. Let those older, small churches become “hospice” churches and staff them accordingly.

Check back tomorrow for more thoughts on smaller churches.