What Could This Church Leader Do?

Case learning about church leadership can help deacons, elders, or seminarians, to develop a strategic ministry mindset. Many boards want to initiate a phase of imagining their church’s future – by looking into identity, by wondering about ministry priorities, or even in the process of searching for a pastor. Image

The case below is inspired by a seminary experience. As part of seminary training, I attended a church not of my denomination for a semester. With a partner, I turned in a report to both pastor and professor. As one of a series of presentations, we presented the report as part of  “Introduction to Pastoral Ministry.” The pastor came and talked to the class about the church’s potential. The presentations enabled seminarians to think about pastoral strategies in a variety of settings, with varying congregational compositions, sociological constraints, and, not least, theological beliefs.

Church leaders need to think about issues facing churches, to see contexts and the nature of pastoral leadership. To develop a strategic mind, case studies as used in management training will be as helpful as presentations of church visits. In discussions of case problems, seminarians, deacons, and elders can learn to think through church problems and issues together by close examination of real-life snapshots. They learn to think of churches as having varying potentials constrained by their social setting, appealing to a certain sociological grouping of possible attenders, etc.

This case, and others to follow, asks you to consider: What is possible for a pastoral agent in this setting? How could a board be creative in this church/social setting? This case is a draft, and if interest develops, it could be one of a series of at least five cases that a board or seminary class could consider together to build understanding of church strategy.

Case 1: Building Bridges of Hope

Phase I

John was the 38-year-old solo pastor of Jared Evangelical Church, a rural congregation in a less-developed but deeply traditional area in North America. The church included 120 adherents, mainly middle-aged or older, few young adults, a dozen or more children. Sixty to eighty persons attended on any given Sunday morning. Young people tended to leave the area for work opportunities, and church attenders were those who had stayed and loved the area. The economic base had not developed in the two centuries that the area was settled. Agriculture remained the direct or indirect source of livelihoods, and pensions were an even larger source. Members tended to be related to other members. With the completion of a new highway, however, people not born in the area were buying property and moving in. The new residents were visible at farmer’s markets and community socials. Though they tended to remain in their work and social circles, as often as not they had children or teens who attended the local all-grades school and who might be directed toward church programming.

Potential new attenders and members of the church were in a ten-kilometer (six mile) half-circle, bounded by a wide river on the west and extending inland. The potential field had a population of 13,000 persons in the early 2000’s, including active and inactive adherents of three other churches. Active church participants who attended at least one time per month, including children, totaled about 2,000 persons. The potential field also included non-attenders for whom any church – especially a long-established church like Jared – was loaded with historical meanings and significances, either unfortunate experiences of disruption with a relative or friend in a past generation or just a negative association with the sometimes rigid Christians of years past.

Jared Church was the first church to which John had given leadership after five years as minister for church education at a medium-sized city church. The city church had members who were evangelical or soft charismatic as well as liberal. At Jared Church, John enjoyed a supportive group of deacons who looked to him for guidance and initiatives and to whom John listened carefully in their monthly meetings. The deacons were four middle-aged family men – sons of the area – plus a retired banker who had passed his career in another province. Church programming was not extensive – perhaps a little less than a neighboring church of the same denomination. However, it included a Sunday morning child-care scheme; Sunday School; a Junior Church program for young children during the service; a midweek program for youth that ran during the school year; and a week-long Vacation Bible School. The church always represented itself in frequent community fundraisers for a neighbor’s illness or anniversary. In times past, when more vacationers attended, the church hosted an outdoor Sunday evangelistic service.

John had been the pastor for three good years. Attenders disaffected after a previous pastorate had returned. Much of his time still went to house visits, plus organization for Sunday morning worship, regular hospital visitation in a distant city, and a midweek prayer-study meeting. Now, from two to five visiting worshippers could be expected on any Sunday.

  • As John sat down to plan for the next year, what should he be considering?
  • Would this church be able to welcome all newco?

Phase II

In his previous pastoral experience John had developed resistance to church growth approaches. These approaches generally emphasized removing roadblocks to church attendance such as inadequate nursery facilities. They boosted community contacts. However, they said relatively little about the beliefs of the faith. John took two deacons to a Sonlife seminar at the two-year mark. The seminar first advocated deep discipleship and then, in a sudden move, equated deep discipleship with evangelism, especially having members work together to fill the pews. John was disappointed. He looked around for other approaches and was also unhappy with Christian Schwartz’s Natural Church Development. NCD was based on empirical assessment of a dozen key aspects of church life, so that churches could try to improve their lowest performing aspects. John knew that value assessments underlie all charts full of numbers. Why did Mr. Schwartz think the churches of the empirical study that founded NCD were healthy? The church John had served as associate was written up nationally for its ministry effectiveness, yet a survey of church members which formed part of the research, available to pastoral staff, told him that 47% of attenders disagreed or were not sure that Jesus is the only way to God. It seemed that theological (or Christological) beliefs are separate from church effectiveness to some analysts. But could a church be called “effective” if the manifestations were disconnected from their shared faith? Would active social work warrant the label “effective”? Lively worship? Being a welcoming congregation? Similar criteria could be applied to a variety of social groups. A church’s life must show the virtues of its beliefs, John thought.

After some digging, John found a program from a group in England called “Building Bridges of Hope.” “BBH” looked for church renewal and effectiveness but did not ignore the theological or faith of the churches. For implementation, BBH required a partnership with a church of another denomination. A team from each partnering church would visit, observe, and report on the other’s church. With fresh eyes, the team would take into account the kind of church they were visiting; if visiting a Pentecostal church, then distinctives of Pentecostalism would be factored into their assessment and recommendations. If Anglican, the same sensitivity would come into play. John does not remember if he presented the BBH method and his intentions to the deacons.

As a way to launch a vision-casting phase early in his third year, John arranged for a denominational leader to lead a generic vision-casting workshop on a Saturday morning. The workshop asked general questions and raised awareness of the future of a church that were not connected to BBH specifically. John needed attenders and members to attend so that a genuine sense of need would propel vision-casting phase in the new year. From the pulpit, he asked all members and attenders to make the particular Saturday morning a high priority. He placed the snappy graphic of “BBH” in the bulletin – especially appropriate because the church was located next to a huge new bridge over a wide river. The bridge had been in construction all the time John pastored there and was then nearing completion.

On the day, only the long-term members of the church appeared, with no exception. John felt he had failed. He was so discouraged that further initiatives were held in abeyance until assessment could be made. John left the church eighteen months later, and new leadership pursued new priorities.

Possibly no one else knew how much John believed was riding on the initiative. No area minister or friend coached John in the lead-up or debriefed me him on the failure. It is striking that in the ten years since that initiative, John has never thought about what went wrong – other than that he should have phoned and buttonholed attenders and members more persistently.

  • Can you suggest advantages and disadvantages of any “packaged” approach to church development such as NCD, Sonlife, or BBH?
  • Do you agree that theology needs to be connected to church effectiveness?
  • Is “growing” always a sign of a church doing what a church should do? From what you read here, is Jared Church living out the Good News as well as it can?
  • Is the Good News sufficient for a church to grow?
  • Why did John think he had failed? Were any oversights due to lack of experience? What could he have done to resume the visioning process?
  • Were board members able to see what was going on, do you think?
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