Friday, December 14, 2018

Finding New Definitions for Success

Learning to Look Beyond the Numbers

What does success mean in your small or rural church? Too often we adopt models that are better suited for the corporate world, rather than the body of Christ, and in the process we find that both our vision and our mission can frequently suffer. Part of the problem is that we consistently ask the wrong questions.

From our 21st century, North American point of view, we measure success with numbers.  How many members do you have? How many have you gained this year?  How many have you lost? Then we tend to compare those numbers with the standards set by other congregations.  Our measure of a successful church is one that is increasing in membership and consistently has more income than expenses.  Congregations that experience consistent declines in these categories are a source of concern, regardless of the type or quality of ministry that they practice.  We feel comfortable with this corporate model of assessment, because it is the same model that we use to assess the other aspects of our lives.

Many small and rural churches suffer from an identity crisis based on their perceived place in the comparative pecking order.  As pastors we feed that mindset in the ways we refer to our own ministry settings.  In talking to others about the work that we do, one of the first questions we frequently ask is, “How many members do you have?” as if that is the most important of all identifying factors.  Too often members of these smaller churches undervalue the work and ministry they do, simply because they are trapped in a system that puts more of a premium on the number of people in the seats and less of a value on the quality of their faith or the things they do in the name of the Gospel.  But what if we ignored the numbers and focused primarily on mission? What if we looked at the work that we do in our context through the lens of service to Jesus Christ, rather than quantifiable categories?

Smaller membership congregations have the opportunity to renew their own sense of spiritual well-being by intentionally thinking about the purpose of their faith community.  It goes without saying that worshiping and glorifying the Lord is our primary purpose, but what happens if attendance numbers are low or musical gifts are absent or the quality of worship is uninspiring for reasons that are unrelated to the gospel itself?  These factors can accelerate the sense that a church is in decline.  Worship is essential, but if worship is the only way the congregation expresses its life together or its presence in a community, then a decline in worship may be an indicator that the life of that congregation is coming to an end.

Vital churches, regardless of size, discover additional ways to express their mission to Jesus Christ.  While worship is generally an internal expression of a congregation’s calling, other means of outreach can feed the flames of their faith and assert the importance of the church in that community.  Let's be very clear - making disciples and providing pastoral care are essential functions of every faith community, regardless of size. And mere activity should never be mistaken for the real business of the church. But activity is the language that the church speaks in its effort to be visible to the larger community. Through visible activities the church is able to make inroads into larger circles, often filled with those who have a marginal, or even no faith commitment. This is an opportunity for mission and evangelism local-style, even if we never use those words.  A low-membership church, even one that has been in danger of closing, can experience a renewed sense of life and purpose, when its members rededicate themselves to a particular work that distinguishes them within that context.

Mission studies are common within most denominations, but unfortunately they most frequently occur when the church is in the process of seeking new pastoral leadership.  Too often that means that the study is seen as another hurdle that needs to be overcome so that we can get on with the process of finding the right person.  As a result, they often reaffirm the most common practices of a congregation and seldom lead to new ways of thinking or new directions for ministry. Therefore it is important for congregations seeking new vitality to think intentionally about their identity at a different time, when finding a pastor is not the primary concern.

Every small and rural church should ask this question  - If we did not exist in this community, what would be missed?

If the answer is nothing, then the writing is on the wall. That church is a good candidate for closing, since it contributes little to the cause of Christ or the community itself.  But if the answer reveals an aspect of ministry or service, then the conversation has a place to begin.  Vitality in any church, particularly a small congregation, is directly related to identity.  And identity is related to the ways our efforts to represent Jesus are perceived and received by ourselves and by those in the world around us.

Many churches still live in the shadow of their golden years. They look back on a time when the pews were full and the Sunday School rooms crowded and think that the same type of ministry is possible today. But with very different resources, the 30 member church cannot live the same life as the 200 or 300 member church that they used to be.  The question is not "How can we do what we used to do," but rather, "What can 30 people do well in this place to bring glory to God?"

What does this look like in real life?  A sense of service in the name of Christ is unique to every faith community.  In one place I served it was our commitment to meals on wheels and the impact that had on the shut-ins around us.  In another, it was realized by renewing our commitment to the young people of the community, regardless of faith or denomination, and providing a place for them to gather a couple of nights a week. In other towns it might mean providing weekly volunteers at the local nursing home or sponsoring a food stand at the county fair with prices that enable even the poorest of families to enjoy a meal.  Some congregations have an annual meal or event that everyone looks forward to, like a chicken supper or a roast beef dinner.  On the outside they may seem like simple fundraisers, but in reality the ways that church members are drawn together to make the event a success and the perception in the community that this Christian church is doing something for others in the name of Jesus, makes the event a success in ways that reach far beyond the number of people served or the amount of money raised.

Even churches that have no distinguishing activities or types of outreach can gain a sense of vitality by asking a couple of different questions – what does our community need, how can our church fulfill that need, and how could such an outreach serve the cause of Christ?

Being a small church is not the same thing as being a dying church.  Because numbers only tell a part of the story.  The real key to finding vitality in small packages is in identifying our unique calling, putting it into action, and in realizing how that serves Jesus in this very special place.

Friday, September 21, 2018

New Opportunities from Unexpected Sources

Rural churches look different than they once did as our communities become home to a new wave of immigrants seeking a better life for their families.  It isn't happening everywhere, but it is a reality across the country. We have the option to ignore these new neighbors and continue to do business as we always have or we can recognize that the source of vitality that we have been seeking has actually moved into the neighborhood.

Read about "The Changing Face of Rural Ministry" in the October issue of Presbyterians Today Magazine.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Have You Become a Rural Pastor?

You know you are a rural pastor if…

You didn’t realize that most people actually buy sweet corn.

Your organist has had to leave the service because the cows were out.

You expect attendance to drop during planting, harvest, and deer season.

You learned that “a little lunch” is actually another meal served at 10:30 a.m. or 3:00 p.m.

You have prayed for it to rain – and for it to stop.

You realize that if someone offers you a doughnut, they are not asking if you are hungry.

You know that coffee is just a good excuse to visit.

Your car and your cell phone have taken the place of your office.

You have made a pastoral call with rubber boots on.

You have actually done counseling while riding in a combine.

You regularly drive 100 miles to the hospital, sometimes several times a week.

You have seen neighbors complete someone’s harvest in one day because they had a crisis.

Your church secretary knocks on your door at 6:30 a.m. because she let you sleep in.

You know the names of the dogs on every farm in your area.

You have had breakfast at the sale barn.

You know how to read a plat book.

You know that comments about green and red tractors are about loyalty, not just colors.

You can tell which of your members raise cattle and which raise pigs when they come in the room.

Local doctors are not afraid to call you when a patient needs your prayers.

It has taken you three hours to get the mail from the post office (because so many people wanted to visit).

You tell distance by minutes, not miles.

Pies, cakes and other baked goods regularly show up in your office.

You have received a grocery sack full of beef or pork for Christmas.

Memorial Day is a big deal at the local cemetery and you are expected to pray.

You get a Christmas gift every year from the local funeral home.

You know that scalloped potatoes and ham is its own food group.

You have done Christmas caroling while being pulled on a hay rack.

Your board meeting can’t start until 8:00 p.m. because several elders have to finish milking.

You have to lock your car doors in the summer or you will mysteriously get a sack of zucchini.

Your nativity scene has real sheep.

You have driven 20 miles for an ice cream cone.

You have eaten at least one meal that featured an animal with a name.

You regularly see four or five generations of a family in the same pew.

You know that a veggie burger is a hamburger with lettuce, tomatoes, and onions.

You are not surprised when your doorbell rings at 2:00 a.m. because someone needs to talk.

-         Skip Shaffer, 2018

Friday, June 15, 2018

More Than a Cup of Coffee

Nearly every small town has one.  Some have more than that. Look in any rural area and you are likely to find a gathering place, a location where men and women get together ostensibly for coffee, but actually for community. It might be a local café, or a convenience store, or even a small business, but in each case you will find more than simple greetings or conversations about the weather.  If you listen closely enough you will hear the perspectives and ruminations and worries and dreams of people who understand that a community is far more than a collection of buildings in a common place.

Like many who call the church home I love coffee. And I know that I’m not alone.  In fact, I have heard some suggest that coffee may actually be our hidden sacrament.  I don’t know about that, but we certainly consume enough of it. And for many of us, morning would not be the same without it. But the real value of coffee is not found in the cup itself, but in the opportunities that it presents. You see, coffee is not our reason for being together, but an excuse to do so. How often do we suggest to others that we “get together for coffee?” If drinking the beverage itself was the most important thing, we could easily do that in the comfort of our own homes. But coffee gives us an excuse to gather with others, often in regular settings, and to share the news of the day. In the midst of those gatherings we are reminded that we are not alone in the difficulties and rigors of life. We talk about many things, sometimes important, often trivial. But the value is in the development of a kind of community that we come to depend on.

The church building is a place for community, but in a rural area it is not the only place. And if we are faithful to our task, we quickly realize that the presence of the church, or at least the faith that we share, can show up in a variety of different settings. Where do people gather in your community? Those places often have unique and interesting names – The Breadbox Café, The Feedbunk, Sparky’s, The Chrome. Sometimes they have a more commercial feel, like HyVee or Caseys or Cenex. More often than not that sense of community happens organically, over time, and not because we decide to create it. One thing is certain – whether you are aware of it or not, many of the people in your congregation are gathering somewhere during the week, and often with others from outside the church.  Discovering where can be an incredible asset in our efforts to serve God in a particular place.

Most often these informal gatherings happen in public places and usually at predictable times. Are you welcome there, have you been invited by someone to join the conversation, or have you simply stumbled upon a group of people by accident? All of those things have happened to me and more. Most pastors feel a bit awkward about simply showing up and inserting themselves into the midst of the conversation. But the smart pastor knows that there are tools available and is not afraid to make good use of them. Is coffee available? Buy some. Are doughnuts on the menu? How about offering to share some with your “friends”? Experienced pastors know that hospitality is the language of rural life and food is the way it is most often expressed. Drinking coffee or eating doughnuts is never an end in itself, but a socially acceptable way of entering the conversation. Many things have been shared over a piece of pie or a cup of coffee that would never come up in a brief casual conversation on the street. Even pastors find themselves welcomed when they appear as just another neighbor looking for their morning coffee and a newspaper.

Remember, it is our job to listen and be present. To hear what our friends and neighbors are saying and what they feel the needs are in our particular community. It is not to try to lead the conversation or to convert the others or to be the resident expert. We represent Christ through our presence, but this is not the place to teach or preach, but to listen and learn.

Why is this important? Three basic reasons come to mind. First, if we are going to be an active part of the community, we need to know what is on the minds of our members and neighbors around us. Successful pastors of vital rural churches know that their work is not confined to the sanctuary, but requires that we take a role in helping to revitalize and even transform the community that we call home. Those ideas do not come from our own minds, but from understanding the concerns being expressed by those around us.

Second, relevant preaching requires that we also exegete the context in which we serve. That means developing an understanding of the community, the people who call it home, and the problems that they face. Karl Barth was famous for saying that good preaching happened with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  I would take that a step further and add a third element – with an ear to conversation within a community.

Finally, the rural church is only effective if it exists outside the church building. Every pastor should ask this question – are we providing the tools that our members need in order to be an effective person of faith throughout the week? Helping them to understand that faith is not a Sunday thing, but a guiding principle of our lives prepares our members to approach every situation, every conversation as a disciple of Jesus.  It is not about preaching or evangelizing in the coffee shop, but about bringing a Jesus attitude with them wherever they go. If we are able to do that, then the church will be present in amazing and unexpected places.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Courage to Be Contagious

There is one question that every church leader needs to ask – if you were not serving as the pastor of your congregation, would you still attend that church? If the answer is yes, what is it that you find so appealing? If the answer is no, then what needs to change, and more importantly why do you continue to perpetuate something that just doesn’t work?

It doesn’t matter where you are, there are things happening in vital churches that seem to draw people in. Interesting ministry invites people to come and see what the excitement is all about. In many ways, vitality is contagious. People talk about what interests them and what is important in their lives, and that is just as true about the churches we attend as anything else. 

How about in your community? Are your members talking about the church in ways that will encourage and invite others to come and see what is happening there? Simple things matter, from worship services that move our spirits, to Vacation Bible School programs that are open to every child in the community, to youth groups that seem to be on fire, to fellowship and mission activities that show the love of Christ.

Those are the kind of things that represent what it means to be the Body of Christ. And being the Body of Christ is essential to becoming a vital congregation. When you ignite an excitement in your members, you can be sure that they will share that message with their friends and neighbors, in both intentional and unintentional ways.

So is your church contagious? What is happening in your midst that will encourage others to want to come and see for themselves? It is our task to share the love and message of Christ with the world around us. But there is nothing wrong with doing that in a way that is appealing and inviting. If we are satisfied with simply providing three hymns and a sermon every week, if that is our standard, then one can reasonably ask why a visitor would bother to get out of bed and spend an hour with us on Sunday morning.

How can we begin to make our congregation contagious? While the answer to that question is wide and varied, there are a few things that good leaders can do to encourage the spread of enthusiasm and excitement in your community:

See opportunities, not limitations. Small and rural congregations are well aware of the dynamics that work against us. We know that demographics are not usually in our favor and that a decline in population usually means fewer members, lower attendance, and limited financial resources. The key is to stop worrying about what we don’t have and focus on what resources and opportunities are available to us now. We are not asked to do ministry with the gifts we had twenty years ago, but with the gifts we have here today.

Let mission take the lead. Worship is often synonymous with church, and is the most visible aspect of our ministry. But mission is our connection with the world around us. Non-members may never see the inside of our sanctuary, but they are often exposed to the work of the church in the community. Finding ways to express the love of Christ outside the church building sends a powerful message, both about the Lord and about your congregation. What needs are present in our community and how can we dedicate our membership and our resources toward strategies that will enable us to respond to those needs?

Be authentic. It is interesting to note that most rural pastors don’t come from rural backgrounds. But that does not mean that you cannot be effective. Leadership in a vital congregation means understanding what you know and admitting what you don’t know. No matter what your background, be yourself. People can smell a phony a mile away and once you lose credibility it is hard to regain it. Don’t be afraid to let others know that you want to understand who they are and what they do. And that you want to be a part of their community – and their lives. There is a reason God brought you to this church and this community – be inspired to use your gifts to  respond to that call in vibrant and enthusiastic ways.

Speak Jesus fluently. As leaders we come into a community not just as a helper, but as an ambassador for Jesus. It is our calling to talk about Jesus wherever we go and whatever we do.  In some new leaders there is a tendency to tone down the faith aspect of our work until we gain the people’s confidence. But that is so unnecessary because everyone knows why we are there.  And it is confusing to others if we don’t intentionally express and live the faith that we represent. If we don’t, who will? The unintended benefit is that our willingness to speak about Jesus frequently and fluently gives permission to others to be more open about their own faith. In the process, the church develops a reputation for being excited and unashamed about what we believe, opening the door for others to join the conversation.

Model leadership. Pastors are expected to model what it means to be a person of character and to be the de facto leader of the congregation. But if we limit that expectation to our called clergy then we miss a great opportunity.  We cannot do it all alone and we should not try. When we allow the elders, deacons, teachers, and others in the church to share in leadership and service we demonstrate that faith and service are valued in everyone and not just those who are paid to do so. Modeling leadership does not just mean sharing the work, but also extends to the sharing of ideas and initiative as well.

Do you have the courage to be contagious? Like it or not, as pastors we set the tone in everything we do.  We establish the standard for the attitude of any gathering by the attitude we present.  We play a large role in developing a sense of excitement and enthusiasm and wonder about the faith and community experienced in our congregation. Vital churches have pastors who are inspired about their faith and are not afraid to share those feelings in all that they do. Most of all, they are not afraid to encourage their members to do the same!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Looking for the Signs of Life

One of our primary responsibilities as pastors and church leaders is to find ways to inspire and ignite life within our congregations. For some this is simply a matter of finding ways to engage a body of believers who are ready to be led. In other cases, it may feel like a slow and arduous process as you try to re-energize a congregation that has grown tired and stagnant.

Unless your ministry is a new church development, your congregation will come with a history and a tradition. Sometimes those can be used as a catalyst for engaging in new and exciting ways of being the church in the world.  And sometimes they serve as an anchor around our necks that hold us back and become a barrier to any kind of meaningful change. Learning to discern what can be used and what needs to be discarded is an important skill for any leader interested in true revitalization.

Transformation is something that we all want for our congregations, but our results are often mixed. There is no secret formula to achieve it and there is no single strategy that will ensure success.  And very often achieving that sense of vibrancy and vitality depends on different factors in each congregational context.

What gives a church that special aura of vitality? How do we recognize the signs of life? While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are a number of factors that seem to be common to the churches that we would consider the most appealing.

Vitality requires a purpose – Churches that have an extra sense of life are motivated by more than just the desire to be together.  Sometimes it happens though worship, but often we find ourselves living out that purpose through a variety of activities, some social, some educational, some missional. Churches that exude a sense of excitement understand that there is a reason for everything we do together, and that ultimately reaching out to others in Jesus’ name is an important thing.  It is what motivates and encourages us and it is inviting to others who want to join our cause. 

Vitality focuses on mission – Our Christian walk compels us to reach out beyond ourselves. Mission can be realized in many different programs and approaches, but a sense that we are serving Jesus in the world, in ways that make a difference, is key to a sense of fulfillment within the congregation. Churches that are self-focused, where the primary attention is on the care of the building or making the budget or having meetings for their own sake do not share that sense of purpose.

Vitality is welcoming – Being a welcoming congregation is more than just greeting visitors at the door.  It also requires a sense that those in a congregation value and enjoy being together. Vital churches find the time to be in fellowship together, not out of obligation, but because they value the gifts and friendship of the body. That is why so often we find ourselves sharing together around the table, whether for a meal, a cup of coffee, or even to experience the love of God through the Lord’s Supper. The signs of life are realized as often over a piece of pie as they are in a service of worship.

Vitality depends on sharing – Churches are the strongest when their members join together to share the work and the responsibility of being the church. Life is most often found in those places where the people are engaged in ministry and don’t just assume that it is the job of the staff or pastors. I have yet to see a congregation, large or small, where there was not enough work to go around, but the big question is in how the work is distributed. Cultivating spiritual and administrative gifts and then allowing the freedom for our members to exercise those gifts, is one of the primary things we can do to encourage life in our churches. With that sense of confidence and responsibility comes an attitude of shared ownership in the mission and a motivation to serve God through the church.

Vitality values authenticity – Be yourself – it is the first rule of success in our life together. Vital churches do not need experts – they need servants who understand two things: 1) that we are all in need of God’s grace, and 2) that we can learn from each other. Successful ministry never results from telling others what to do, but rather by sharing together in this journey of faith. When pastors take the time to get to know the members of their congregation, and show that they are truly interested in understanding their lives and their gifts, then we set the stage for a ministry of mutual trust and service.

Vitality reflects our worship – Our worship begins in the sanctuary, but it doesn’t stay there. The way we express our lives together in Christ is one of the most important signs of life in any congregation. Our spiritual lives are encouraged and fed by the time we spend together in that place, but they are nurtured and nourished when we take what we receive there and apply it to what we do each and every day.  Worship takes many forms….in our prayers….in our devotions…in our scripture reading…in our service out in the community…and in the way we demonstrate that we are people of God. Vitality happens when worship becomes an irresistible expression of our faith and not just an activity that happens every Sunday at 10:00.

What are the signs of life in your church? It comes from different places and in different forms.  It also comes from both the pastors and leaders of the church as well as the everyday members who make up the family of faith. As you get to know them in their own contexts, take note of what seems to give them energy or the areas in which they demonstrate a passion for their faith. In this new era in the life of the Church, it is important that each of us has our eyes on ways that we can effectively cultivate vitality in our work together.  It doesn’t matter whether your church is large or small. We cannot afford to be complacent, inflexible, or worse yet, boring. But we must also be faithful to the leading of the Spirit and to the Word of God.  We are given a mandate to share the good news from the God who loves us. Let us find ways to accomplish that responsibility by encouraging those around us, while also reaching out to a world that is still waiting.