Thursday, March 13, 2008

Seven habits of highly ineffective churches—Post 4.

Saturday’s edition (March 8) of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (PI for short) carried an article by Anthony B. Robinson titled, “Seven habits of highly ineffective churches.” Robinson’s article is witty, thought provoking and TRUE! I am continuing to use Robinson’s article as the springboard for my blog postings.

Habit #6: “Make it clear to all that the job of the pastor(s) and staff is to keep everyone, meaning church members, happy.”

Let’s think for a moment…

  • Did Jesus work at keeping church people happy?
  • Did Moses work at keeping God’s people happy?
  • Did Hezekiah work at keeping God’s people happy?
  • Did the Apostle Paul work at keeping the church people happy?
  • Did Martin Luther work at keeping the church people happy?
  • Did John Calvin work at keeping the church people happy?
  • Did John Wesley work at keeping the church people happy?

The job of the pastor(s) is to do the will of God. There are many times when doing God’s work will make church people unhappy. There are times when doing God’s work will make church people angry. God never said that serving him would be easy.

We need to take a quick look at the concept of “church members.” There was a time in American culture where people joined clubs and various groups. Those days are behind us.

Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, said:

Next, we turn to evidence on membership in (and volunteering for) civic and fraternal organizations. These data show some striking patterns. First, membership in traditional women's groups has declined more or less steadily since the mid-1960s. For example, membership in the national Federation of Women's Clubs is down by more than half (59 percent) since 1964, while membership in the League of Women Voters (LWV) is off 42 percent since 1969.

Similar reductions are apparent in the numbers of volunteers for mainline civic organizations, such as the Boy Scouts (off by 26 percent since 1970) and the Red Cross (off by 61 percent since 1970). But what about the possibility that volunteers have simply switched their loyalties to other organizations? Evidence on "regular" (as opposed to occasional or "drop-by") volunteering is available from the Labor Department's Current Population Surveys of 1974 and 1989. These estimates suggest that serious volunteering declined by roughly one-sixth over these 15 years, from 24 percent of adults in 1974 to 20 percent in 1989. The multitudes of Red Cross aides and Boy Scout troop leaders now missing in action have apparently not been offset by equal numbers of new recruits elsewhere.

Fraternal organizations have also witnessed a substantial drop in membership during the 1980s and 1990s. Membership is down significantly in such groups as the Lions (off 12 percent since 1983), the Elks (off 18 percent since 1979), the Shriners (off 27 percent since 1979), the Jaycees (off 44 percent since 1979), and the Masons (down 39 percent since 1959). In sum, after expanding steadily throughout most of this century, many major civic organizations have experienced a sudden, substantial, and nearly simultaneous decline in membership over the last decade or two.

The most whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in contemporary America that I have discovered is this: more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the last decade or so. Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent. (Lest this be thought a wholly trivial example, I should note that nearly 80 million Americans went bowling at least once during 1993, nearly a third more than voted in the 1994 congressional elections and roughly the same number as claim to attend church regularly. Even after the 1980s' plunge in league bowling, nearly 3 percent of American adults regularly bowl in leagues.) The rise of solo bowling threatens the livelihood of bowling-lane proprietors because those who bowl as members of leagues consume three times as much beer and pizza as solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in the beer and pizza, not the balls and shoes. The broader social significance, however, lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo. Whether or not bowling beats balloting in the eyes of most Americans, bowling teams illustrate yet another vanishing form of social capital.”

Mainline churches (us Presbyterians are one of these) have been referred to as “sideline” churches. These churches have had catastrophic membership losses. “Home headquarters” (a phrase coined by a former Elder at Evergreen) tries to put a positive spin on our decline. We are losing members.

Some of the membership loss is due to people going to other denominations or to non-denominational churches. Some people are just dropping out of church all together. Some people worship regularly worship at a church but never become a “member” of the church.

Here at Evergreen I prefer the phrase “church family” to “church members.” The “church family” is composed of those folks who regularly attend worship and are active in the life and ministry of the church. A person does not have to be a “member” of Evergreen in order to be part of our church family!

We have the man and woman at our church that had a HORRIBLE experience with the Presbytery to the north of us. They have been at Evergreen for many years—in worship every week and leading one of our largest Bible studies. They are finally to the point where the damage done by that other Presbytery is fading to the point where they will most probably join our church. Then there are those people who do not believe in denominations. I find it hypocritical when denominational leaders say that those leaving the PCUSA are splitting the church when splitting the church is exactly what occurs when there are denominations! By the way, could a reader please remind me of the verse in scripture that tells us that we are to have denominations? As a Presbyterian Church I realize that there are “rules” to be followed—and we follow those rules.

I am just trying to say that the “member” tag means less and less to today’s culture.

Habit #7: “Spend as little money as possible.”

I am sure that there is a scripture verse that says, “Thriftiness is next to godliness.” Churches like to do things “on the cheap.” And, this has nothing to do with stewardship! Generally speaking, you get what you pay for. Things that are cheap tend to fall apart. I have known church folks (long-time Presbyterians) who don’t want the church to spend a dime and yet they drive around in a $35,000 car. It drives me nuts when I go to a Presbytery meeting and find single-ply (third world quality) toilet paper in the bathroom stall--that just rubs me the wrong way! Poor quality sound systems make it hard for the elderly to hear. Poor lighting makes it impossible for people to see the facial expression of people leading worship.

The Presbyterian Church in Shelton, Washington, is building their first building (they have been meeting in the Nazarene Church). They HIRED an architect. They HIRED a general contractor and carpenters. They HIRED a firm to design their sound, projection and lighting. The Shelton church is adding additional conduit throughout the building so they can adapt to changing technologies and emerging needs. They are not able to get everything they would like in a church building; however, the things that they are getting are planned and installed by professionals and will serve the church for decades to come.

A church needs to model the concept of “good stewardship.” Church leaders need to be wise, and prayerful, in how they spend God’s money.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Seven habits of highly ineffective churches—Post 3.

Saturday’s edition (March 8) of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (PI for short) carried an article by Anthony B. Robinson titled, “Seven habits of highly ineffective churches. Robinson’s article is witty, thought provoking and TRUE! I am continuing to use Robinson’s article as the springboard for my blog postings.

Habit #3: “Practice the following evangelism strategy: ‘If they want us, they know where to find us.’”

The “E” word makes Presbyterian squirm.

Evangelism implies that there are people who are lost. Evangelism implies that there is only one way for a person to come to a saving knowledge and relationship with God. Evangelism implies that those who have not been “born again” will not be in the Kingdom of God for all eternity.

The “E” word makes Presbyterians squirm.

Evangelism implies that as followers of Christ we will need to leave our comfortable pews (or chairs, in Evergreen’s case) and talk to people about Jesus. Evangelism implies that we have something to say about Jesus and our relationship with him. Evangelism implies that we will have to go out into a “messy” society (we might even hear a cuss word—oh #@x*$#!

The “E” word makes Presbyterians squirm. Evangelism implies that feeding the poor is good, but it is not enough. Evangelism implies that fixing social injustice is good, but it is not good enough. Evangelism implies that building relationships with other faith groups is good, but it is not good enough. Evangelism implies that ecumenical relationships are good, but they are not good enough.

The “E” word makes Presbyterians squirm.

Evangelism implies that we look at our church through the eyes of a visitor. Evangelism implies that we find a way to let people know where our church is located. Evangelism implies that we think about relocating our church if we are in a location that is difficult to find. Evangelism implies that we look at the signs we use to direct people to our church. Evangelism implies that people may not know where our church is located.

The “E” word makes Presbyterians squirm.

Evangelism implies that we look closely at the word “Presbyterian” and realize that unless you are one that you do not know what the word means. Evangelism implies that we think seriously about the name of our church.

The “E” word makes Presbyterians squirm.

Habit #4: “Blame early and often. Maintaining dysfunction in a congregation is made easier if scapegoats are regularly identified.”

An attitude that seems to reside in most churches is, “Failure is not an option.” Most churches do not give “permission” for people to fail; therefore, when a failure occurs we must blame someone. Anyone—except “me!”

Pastor’s are great at assigning blame to other people (I can criticize pastors because I am one). Pastors are in a position of power in the congregation. Many people will take what we say as “gospel truth.” If we blame “someone” for “something” then it must be true.

Habit #5: “Always be prepared to make an account of the excuses that are within you.”

Habit #5 is quite similar to #4. Habit #4 is about deflecting blame to other people; when that fails it is time to quickly shift to Habit #5. Here are some excuses that work well in Western Washington:

  • Winter excuses—
    • I couldn’t do it because of the snow. This is the only place I have lived where the whole world comes to a stand still when there is 0.05” of snow on the ground.
    • The roads were too icy. (see explanation above)
    • A tree was blown down across the road.
    • The power was out.
    • I have seasonal effective disorder.
  • Spring excuses—
    • The glare from the sun was too great.
    • It was raining so hard that it was not safe to drive on the highway.
    • I forgot to set my clock forward for daylight savings time.
  • Summer excuses—
    • I was on vacation.
    • You were on vacation.
    • Everyone was on vacation.
    • The sun was too bright and I couldn’t find my sun glasses.
    • I was at the doctor’s office to make sure that my lily-white skin was not getting skin cancer.
    • The road was closed due to all of the summer time construction.
  • Fall excuses—
    • See spring excuses—except that I forgot to set my clock back for standard time.
    • It was hunting season.
  • Geographic excuses—
    • I thought that there might be another earth quake.
    • I thought that Mt. Rainier might erupt.
    • The tides were too high that day.
    • I couldn’t find a Starbucks with a half-of-a-block.
    • I found the Starbucks but they were closed for three hours for the re-training of their staff.
    • They didn’t have the makings for my extra hot, non-fat, half soy/half milk, grande, white chocolate hazelnut/blackberry mocha with extra foam, chocolate sprinkles, cinnamon, nutmeg and “walking” room.
  • Theological excuses—
    • It was predestined.
    • It was free choice.
    • I thought that the rapture would happen on Thursday morning.
    • I had to spend twenty hours in prayer.
    • My sermon wasn’t done.
    • I had to memorize the Book of Numbers.
    • I was too weak from my twenty-two day fast.
    • I was waiting for there to be no dew on the fleece.
  • Technological excuses—
    • My computer crashed.
    • A hacker wiped out my hard drive.
    • Microsoft is to blame.
    • It wasn’t on Google.
    • The web site was down.
    • I couldn’t find a Wifi hotspot.
    • The battery in my wireless mouse died.
    • The dog ate my flash drive.
    • My LCD monitor broke (this actually happened to my last laptop).
    • My PDA went PDAbsent.
    • My trio became a duo.
    • My blackberry was eaten by a bluebird.
    • I was mugged when a group of thugs jumped me to steal my iPod.

I hope that these excuses are helpful for you. The theological and technological excuses are the best because people will just nod in agreement; after all, no one wants to admit that they don’t understand theology and technology.

Please share with me (and the rest of the readers) any excuses that have been particularly effective for you. And may the farce be with you.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Seven habits of highly ineffective churches—Post 2.

Saturday’s edition (March 8) of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (PI for short) carried an article by Anthony B. Robinson titled, “Seven habits of highly ineffective churches.” Robinson’s article is witty, thought provoking and TRUE! I am continuing to use Robinson’s article as the springboard for my blog postings. Be sure to check Anthony Robinson out here, and here, and here, and here, and here.

Habit #2: “Take no risks. A successful practice of risk avoidance is often best achieved by sending any and all new ideas to a minimum of four boards or committees who understand it’s their role to say no to any new ideas”

Risk? Change? Something new? Help!!!

Have you ever asked yourself, “Why is it that committees are so resistant to taking risks and bringing about change?” Early in my ministry I thought that the answer to that question had to do with the ineffectiveness of committees. Through the years I have found that my initial thoughts on the subject were only partly true and that the main reason why committees avoid risk and change has to do with power issues. Power! Power issues in a congregation? Absolutely! Most people who go to committee meetings are long time church members who have vested interests in keeping things just the way they are. Consciously, or sub-consciously (for some churches it may be unconscious J), these long-time church members feel that they are the gate keepers of the congregation.

Pastors can get conditioned to avoid taking risks—especially early in their ministry. I am guilty of avoiding “risks” in many situations—I think of it as risk management. Risk vs. reward. It seems as though I weigh the possible reward (positive outcome) with the risk and the possible ramifications. Fortunately, as I get older I do this less and less.

Evergreen Presbyterian Church is a church where we/I can take risks. To be sure, this makes some of our older folks uncomfortable. The main reason for this uneasiness is change. Think for a moment about the ways in which the world as changed during the lifetime of some of our church folks:

  • Some people grew up without indoor plumbing and now we there are bathrooms with televisions, telephones and the candles are now for ambience instead of light.
  • Some people grew up without a telephone and if you did have a phone it was probably on a party line. Today, young kids have a cell phone so that their parents can keep in constant contact with them. The cell phone takes pictures, movies, is used for text messaging and can hook up to the internet so that they can check the e-mail. People sailing around the world take a satellite phone with them to be used during emergencies.
  • There was life with computers, the internet, satellite television, MRIs, CT scans, etc.

The only thing that has stayed the same for many of these folks is their church experience! It is almost as if they are saying, “Everything else in my life has changed so please don’t change my church!”

I enjoy watching the television show called Numb3ers. This television dram is about using math to help solve crimes. One of the characters on the show has published a book on how to use math to help select a mate. Following his lead, I am going to apply math to churches, risk and change. Here goes:

  • Risk = change.
  • Change = Risk.
  • Lack of risk = status quo.
  • Risk = possibility of failure.
  • Risk = possibility of success.
  • Status quo = comfortableness.
  • Lack of change = death.
  • Lack of risk = death.
  • Status quo = death.
  • Comfortableness = lukewarm = getting vomited out of Christ’s mouth.

You do the math. What do you think?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Seven habits of highly ineffective churches--Part 1.

Saturday’s edition (March 8) of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (PI for short) carried an article by Anthony B. Robinson titled, “Seven habits of highly ineffective churches.” Robinson’s article is witty, thought provoking and TRUE! It was written for his denomination, the United Church of Christ. Robinson’s thoughts are so good that I am going to dedicate the next few blog postings to the points he makes. Remember… we need to be able to laugh at ourselves and the church we lead or attend; we also need to recognize when we exhibit the very traits that Robinson talks about.

Habit #1: “Elevate mediocrity to a spiritual discipline.”

Evergreen Presbyterian Church (the church I serve as pastor) has traditionally had a large cadre of folks who serve as “lay leader” during Sunday morning worship. When I came to Evergreen almost twelve years ago the lay leader began the worship service with a welcome and announcements, led the Call to Worship, Confession of Sin (we call it Admission of Failure) and Assurance of Pardon (we call it Assurance of God’s Constant Love). These are wonderful people; however, there was a problem. The problem was that at least half of these people were not good communicators in front of a group of people. The opening of worship was boring at best and embarrassing at its worst. At times it was painful to watch people struggle so much in front of the congregation. Once a person was on the lay leader list it would take an act of God to remove them from the list. Some influential people on the worship committee loved the “folksy” feel that it brought to the church. Within a few months I began leading the opening of worship. In the interest of not wanting to offend anyone we have continued to have almost anyone serve as a lay leader. We had elevated the lay leader position to a position of mediocrity. That has now changed.

My dad worked for the Federal government until his retirement many years ago. Over and over again I heard him say, “People get promoted to their highest level of incompetence.” We have all seen it happen—a person is good at one job so they get “promoted” to a new job that they are not equipped to fill. The problem is even greater in churches. The average church has lots of positions that need to be “staffed” by volunteers: Sunday school teachers, elders, deacons, Bible study leaders, ushers, greeters, kitchen help, committee leaders and members, maintenance and upkeep of the building and grounds—to name a few. Wonderful people are willing to volunteer to help out—even when they are not gifted in that area. “It is better to have someone, rather than no one,” is often the way a church feels. Once again mediocrity gets elevated to a spiritual discipline.

I remember an event that happened many years ago. I met with another pastor every week for prayer and accountability. One day he asked me to pray for him because he needed to have a talk with a person who was in their choir. You see there was a problem, the person couldn’t carry a tune or sing on key. The choir tried to cover up the voice that was always off key but their best efforts failed miserably. The choir sounded horrible because of the person who sang off key. The choir director didn’t want to “talk” with the person. The pastor told me that he believed in spiritual gifts and this person was gifted in many ways—just not in singing. John had a conversation with the choir member, and it was not an easy conversation. In the end, the person left the choir and continued to work in other ministries in the church.

Through the years I have shared this story with many pastors. Not a single pastor I have talked to would have had the conversation with such a choir member. Not one! Mediocrity again gets elevated.

Please do not think that I am being tough on the laity. There are many incompetent pastors! Too many pastors think that their M. Div. or D. Min. signals their arrival at being a competent pastor. I know several lay pastors that are significantly more skilled than most of their ordained counterparts. I am a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It is almost impossible to fire an ordained pastor. My heart goes out to those churches that have a pastor that is unskilled and strives for mediocrity. Most of those pastors are “nice” people, they just aren’t gifted to be a pastor.

It is very easy for mediocrity to creep into the church. When a church (or pastor) aims for excellence there is the possibility that the church (or pastor) will fail. We can set our sights on being mediocre and achieve that goal almost every time. No one has to fail. No one has to get their feelings hurt.

But wait… I thought that we are suppose to give the very best we have to God. Mediocre just isn’t good enough when it comes to the Kingdom of God.