But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given to you as well.
— Matthew 6:33
What are the Most Pressing Issues facing Your Congregation?
Leaders help their congregation focus on what matters most.
One benefit of having coaches in our lives is that they bring out our very best. In fact, most of us already have at least two “coaches” in our lives whom we gladly pay to uncover our blind spots, give us a reality check, and direct our attention to the most pressing concerns. I see my dentist twice a year to make sure that I have healthy gums and no cavities. I see my financial planner who helps me save more, spend less, and invest wisely. A former colleague of mine and pastor checks in with me each month about my devotional life, asking “How is it with your soul?” These coaches help define reality for me and are willing to walk alongside me. I often wonder how Tiger Woods’s life might have been different if he had had a marriage coach in addition to a golfing coach.
This chapter will provide tools and approaches that pastors and lay leaders can use for identifying a congregation’s most pressing issues related to purpose, alignment, and execution. Specifically, this highlighting process focuses on a congregation’s purpose by assessing its mission and vision:
- Mission: What is the primary function of the congregation?
- Vision: Is there clarity about God’s preferred future for our congregation?
The highlighting process focuses on a congregation’s alignment by assessing its strategies, values, and beliefs:
Strategies: What are the primary pathways used to fulfill its mission and vision?
Values: What does the congregation deem most important?
Beliefs: What beliefs and assumptions frame its ministry perspective?
The highlighting process focuses on a congregation’s execution by assessing its trends and trajectory, life cycle, capacities, and readiness for change:
Trends and trajectory: What changes are occurring within the congregation and how are these changes influencing its capacity to execute its mission?
Life cycle: Where in the life cycle is the organization and how does that frame its ministry perspective?
Capacities: Does the congregation’s structure, staffing, resources, and language and programmatic pathways directly support the fulfillment of its mission and vision?
Readiness for change: Does the congregation’s governance have the will and leadership capacities to initiate change?
The results of the assessment of these critical themes will help reveal the most pressing issues facing the congregation and will set the stage for realignment and goal setting. If your congregation currently uses a Policy-Based Governance model, you most likely will already have clearly identified ends (missions and vision) and means. To learn more about this method of governance, download the Policy-Based Overview form found in the downloads section of surfacetosoul.org.
We find that most congregations we work with have mission and vision statements that address the following four questions:
- Who is Jesus?
- What does Jesus do for us?
- What is Jesus calling us to do for the sake of the gospel?
- How do we help each other live like Jesus every day, everywhere?
These questions get at the essence of what it means to experience Jesus and to be a lifelong follower of Christ.
Developing Strategic Pathways
In congregations, there often is a disconnect between their mission and vision statements and the programs, ministries, and activities they offer. These offerings should provide pathways for helping people fulfill their mission and address the four questions above, but we find that most programs and ministries are launched with little regard to how they align with helping fulfill the congregation’s mission and vision. For example, congregations could offer specific programs, ministries, and mentoring opportunities to introducing people to who Jesus is and what Jesus did and does for us. Congregations could help people discern what Jesus is calling them to do for the sake of the gospel by offering spiritual gifts courses, connecting people with spiritual directors, and providing books and online resources related to vocation. Congregations could help people live like Jesus by teaching them how to practice faith every day, everywhere.
Congregations that work with Vibrant Faith Ministries learn the Four Keys for practicing faith. They learn how to have caring conversations where life and faith stories are shared at home, at work, in our cars, and in our congregations. They are shown how to practice devotions, learning how to worship, pray, read, and reflect on the Scriptures and to share their faith story. They are equipped to deploy their gifts in service to their family, their congregation, and their communities. And finally, they learn how to celebrate the rituals and traditions in life through the lens of faith.
We also coach leaders to assess how these pathways honor the various settings in which a person might engage these core questions. For example,
- How does the congregation help people form faith and follow Jesus on their own? at home? in small groups? in large groups? in the congregation? in the community and the world?
It’s rare that we find a congregation that has determined strategic pathways for meeting people where they’re at in their faith journey and walking alongside them to become lifelong AAA Christians who have a mature and abiding faith.
One of the questions Vibrant Faith Ministries coaches usually ask pastors and lay leaders is, “What does a mature Christian look like? That is, what do they believe, value, and practice? Below is a list of indicators from Search Institute that suggest what spiritual maturity looks like for an individual.
The spiritually mature person
- seeks spiritual growth. Alone and with others, he pursues questions, guidance, and commitment through conversation, study of faith, reading the Bible, prayer, small groups, and retreats.
- possesses a vital faith. She is keenly aware of God being present and active in her own life and the lives of others.
- practices faith. He actively practices faith in Jesus Christ, privately and publicly, through regular attendance at worship, participation in ministry, and leadership in the congregation.
- makes the Christian faith a way of life. She recognizes God’s call and integrates her beliefs into the conversation, decisions, and actions of daily life.
- lives a life of service. He is involved in activities that care for others and address injustice and immorality.
- reaches out to others. She reaches out to others who are different or in need through prayer, hospitality, conversation, and support.
- exercises moral responsibility. He lives with integrity, utilizing faith in making considered moral decisions.
- speaks publicly about faith. She speaks openly about Jesus Christ and God’s participation in her own life and the life of the world.
- possesses a positive spirit. He reflects loving and hopeful attitudes toward others and life.
What’s your scorecard for measuring mature faith in Jesus Christ? What criteria do you use to determine how well people in your congregation are forming faith and following Jesus? To measure spiritual vitality in a congregation, a faith formation or ministry scorecard is needed. Consider using Tool 8, “Indicators of a Mature Faith,” to help people assess their spiritual vitality and explore next steps in their faith journey.
Being Missional Is a Strategic Element of Discipleship
“He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.” (Col. 1:28-29, NIV)
Congregations, with their goals of participation, tend to focus more on helping people develop the disciplines of worship attendance and giving and serving the church and less on private spiritual practices such as prayer, fasting, and Scripture reading. If our intent as congregational leaders is to develop people who are increasingly identifiable as followers of Jesus, we must tend to both individual and corporate practices that lead to generosity, service, authenticity, compassion, and grace.
I would argue that congregations need to place less emphasis on being gathered and more emphasis on being scattered. The scattered emphasis suggests that the congregation is on a mission that is largely being played out away from church gatherings and where everyone is on assignment to be a blessing to the world. This emphasis implies that the congregation becomes a spiritual gym where members are equipped to live their faith 24/7. One of the primary roles of a pastor is to become a personal trainer, meeting people where they’re at, helping them take the next step in their faith journey; helping disciples tone their spiritual muscles, and then holding them accountable for living and growing in their faith.
Over the years, I’ve led numerous youth and young adult mission trips. During the last few trips I led, we began giving participants handmade crosses on necklaces during our final worship service together at the end of the experience. When we’d present the necklaces, we’d say to them, “Marked with the cross of Christ, may you live your life as a mission trip where you are a blessing to every person you encounter.” The closing message was that our mission trip experience doesn’t end — but rather gets lived out every day, everywhere as we seek to be modern-day missionaries.
Being a blessing everywhere requires conscious, intentional effort. Research shows that, in the United States, the longer a person is a Christian, the less time he or she spends interacting with non-Christians. How can we be “salt” in the world if we’re not engaging with it? Unfortunately, congregations have become extremely good at socializing its people away from the very mission field where God placed them. We can’t change the world if we retreat from it! The assessment process seeks to discover if the congregation is focused more on mission than on maintenance.
To highlight and identify the most pressing issues, pastors and lay leaders must pay attention to how plans get carried out in the context of congregational trends, where the congregation is on the life cycle, and the culture, language, and capacities of the organization to implement change.
Paying Attention to Trends and Trajectories
Paying Attention to the Life Cycle of the Congregation
Most congregations follow a typical pattern of church growth and decline that progresses one stage at a time. The diagram of a congregation’s life cycle, listed below, illustrates the pattern. In the past, the cycle of growth lasted for twenty-five to thirty years before a congregation would begin to decline, providing congregations with advanced warning and time to make needed changes. Given the accelerating pace of societal change, however, congregational consultant Gil Rendle suggests that the window of opportunity for making needed changes has greatly decreased.
Experts have put forth numerous and varied explanations as to why congregations in the United States are struggling. The sigmoid, or S curve, which is the “Birth to Maturity” portion of the life cycle diagram, serves as a reminder of how virtually everything in life begins, grows, plateaus, and then ultimately dies. Like people and other organizations, churches have a life cycle that begins with birth, experiences significant growth, eventually reaches a plateau, and if nothing is done to move it off that plateau, it begins to decline. If nothing interrupts the decline, it will die. Each stage represents a growth challenge for a congregation, and if these challenges are not met, the congregation typically becomes increasingly rigid and unresponsive. Ceasing to fulfill its primary mission, it eventually dies. The further a congregation moves down the decline phase of the life cycle, the harder it will be for the faith community to be revitalized.
To avoid decline, a congregation must first be aware of where it is in its life cycle and then explore options for starting new projects and efforts that spur a new S curve of growth that reinvigorates its mission. For some congregations, this involves starting new ministries and outreach opportunities. For others, it may require a complete rethinking of their mission and vision. Leaders coaching the CHANGE process assess this aspect of ministry by asking the following questions:
- What new programs, ministries, or strategies were launched last year?
- What programs, ministries, or strategies were terminated last year?
- How permission giving is the congregation, allowing members to launch ministries as they see ministry needs and opportunities?
- Are the majority of your members aware of the congregation’s vision?
- What’s your congregation’s strategy for building the future before the present declines?
Paying Attention to Congregational Culture
One cannot define a congregation’s identity without making note of its culture. Cultures can be difficult to describe and some liken it to a congregation’s personality. Filmmaker Ellen Wallach states that “Organizational culture is like pornography; it is hard to define, but you know it when you see it.” It usually goes unnoticed, unspoken, and unexamined, but leaders would be wise to spend at least as much time analyzing and investing in their culture as they do crafting their new vision, strategy, and marketing plans. For the purpose of this workbook, I define a congregation’s culture as the sum total of its past and current assumptions, experiences, philosophy, and values that hold it together, and that are expressed through shared beliefs, attitudes, rules, and behaviors.
To get a handle on a congregation’s culture before an on-site visit, here are some of the questions I ask members during a phone interview or through an e-mail survey:
- Who are the heroes of your congregation? What makes them heroes? Who determines who the heroes are?
- How much input do members have into the direction and strategy of the congregation?
- Who has the ear of the top leaders? How did these people win a hearing with the leaders?
- Who is rewarded, and for what accomplishments?
- What is the level of loyalty up and down the organizational chart? What factors build loyalty?
- What is the level of creativity and enthusiasm throughout the organization?
- How are decisions made, deferred, or delayed?
- What happens when deadlines are missed? Projects are dropped?
- What happens when expectations among staff and leaders are not met?
- How is conflict managed? Is conflict dealt with in a timely fashion?
- Is there any confusion related to people’s roles and responsibilities?
- Who are the nonpositional power brokers? Who gives them power?
- Where are control problems and power struggles most evident?
- How is “turf” defined and protected?
The following are a few of the questions I’m seeking answers to when I do an on-site visit with a congregation:
- What is the mood and energy level of staff members? Congregational members?
- Is there a culture of ongoing regard among staff and congregational leaders?
- Is authority decentralized, or is it concentrated among just a few people?
- Is there a sense that people gather for a cause bigger than themselves?
- Do staff and leaders set goals and hold each other accountable for results?
- Is creativity rewarded? Are failures viewed as learning opportunities and stepping stones for growth?
- How much time do leaders spend with each other? How is that time spent?
- Are there any taboo topics? Is there any unresolved tension among people?
- Do leaders seem to enjoy spending time with each other? Do they encourage one another? Do they pray for one another?
- How much time is spent evaluating? Planning? Brainstorming and visioning?
- Are there staff members who tend to be complainers? Play the victim role?
- Are conversations focused on fulfilling the congregation’s mission?
Two features of all healthy organizational cultures are trust and respect. They turbocharge an organization’s capacity to change. Assessing congregational culture should be an ongoing process. Do not underestimate the importance of culture. It trumps strategy and will profoundly influence your ministry effectiveness.
Paying Attention to Language
Congregations tend to underestimate the power of language to shape mission and ministry. Pay close attention to the language and stories that are shared at congregational meetings and gatherings. For me, red flags go up when I hear people talk more about
fixing programs rather than creating new avenues for serving others
their needs rather than the needs of the community
growing membership rather than growing disciples
mission programs rather than the congregation’s mission
attending worship rather than worshiping God
managing the ministries rather than making disciples
recruiting volunteers rather than inviting people into ministry
deciding by consensus or majority vote rather than discerning God’s desire
inviting people to their congregation rather than sharing their faith
The language I’m listening for is missional in nature rather than focused on a maintenance mindset. I’m also seeking to understand what language is being used to describe the importance of faith formation and the process used for growing as a disciple, as reflected in these statements:
Home is church, too!
Faith is caught more than it’s taught.
Faith formation is a lifelong process.
Every member is a missionary.
I pay close attention to the language that pastors, program staff, and congregational leaders use, because they are the ones who will influence what others talk about within the congregation. If there’s little conversation about their mission, vision, and core values and who Jesus is, and how one practices faith, I know that the change process will be more challenging.
Assessing Leadership Capacities
A pastor I coached a few years ago mentioned that they were using Vibrant Faith Ministries’ coaching services to become unstuck. He stated, “We had a clear vision and a well-thought-out plan for moving forward. What we didn’t have were the skills and practices that allowed us to implement our plan.” The pastor went on to say that they spent little time developing trust, they didn’t know how to deal with conflict in a healthy manner, and they had a history of not following through on previous commitments.
Warren Bennis, an American scholar, organizational consultant, and best-selling business author, observes that “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Pastors often remark that their seminary training has not adequately prepared them to provide the leadership needed for effectively navigating the changes they currently face. The roles and skills that served them well thirty years ago are not necessarily the ones needed today— and may in fact be counterproductive to their congregation at this time. As one pastor put it, “I need to unlearn some old habits, assumptions, and beliefs if I’m going to provide leadership in the post-Christendom, postmodern world.”
Effective leadership enables ministry to move forward. Effective leaders create opportunities for people to make a difference by successfully integrating their gifts and talents into projects that help fulfill the congregation’s mission.
One of the most important roles of a leader is making decisions that influence the long-term health and sustainability of the organization. When a leader makes a decision, he or she intentionally kills off options that distract the organization from its primary mission. An effective leader is like a tree pruner who clips off the dead wood and errant branches so that there are sufficient resources to develop the branches that remain.
Leadership is not coming into a situation with all the answers or the vision. Rather, leadership is about mobilizing people to engage and make progress on their deepest challenges. In his book Leadership without Easy Answers, Ron Heifetz, leadership scholar and cofounder of the Center for Public Leadership, states that one of the most important tasks a leader does is to determine if a pressing issue requires a “technical change,” or an “adaptive change.” A technical change is the application of current knowledge, skills, and tools to resolve a situation. An adaptive change is called for when the problem cannot be solved with one’s existing knowledge and skills but rather requires people to make a shift in their values, expectations, attitudes, or habits of behavior.
Most congregational leaders address their organization’s challenges using technical approaches rather than adaptive ones because they are most familiar to us and more easy to implement. Rarely, however, do they deal with the causal factors that created the distress in the first place and rarely does that make things better in the long term. Congregations caught in this trap will simply try harder to fix the problem or attempt a slightly modified version of previous tried-and-true responses from the past. As mentioned earlier, effective leaders focus their time, energy, and resources on the most pressing issues, and these are almost always adaptive challenges that require an adaptive response.
Effective leaders realize that their power lies in their presence rather than their knowledge or techniques. In congregations, these leaders are forward thinking, spending time discerning God’s preferred future for themselves and their congregation and community. They lead people out their comfort zones and direct their energies toward fulfilling the organization’s purpose. They focus on strength not pathology; on challenge not comfort; on self-differentiation not herding together. They also expect to be sabotaged by others simply as a result of providing effective leadership.
Effective leaders avoid getting enmeshed in triangles that are the plaque in the arteries of communication, and they avoid becoming viral in a toxic system. They avoid spending energy on people who are unmotivated to change, and they avoid trying to be reasonable with those who choose not to be.
When working with pastors focused on developing their leadership capacities, I typically ask them to read The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, which outlines the five most important practices a leadership must master:
Model the way.
- Inspire a shared vision.
- Challenge the process.
- Enable others to act.
- Encourage the heart.
On occasion, I’ll have pastors take Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Practices Inventory (www.lpionline.com) to gain insights about the practices they might need to attend to more intentionally. Another commonly used leadership assessment tool I use with pastors and faith formation leaders is the DiSC Assessment (Center for Internal Change, www.internalchange.com), which I find lends itself to great insights and conversations, particularly when pastors AND lay leaders take the assessment. As a coach, these assessments provide me with quantifiable data to make sure I’m addressing the most important leadership issues.
Leaders coaching the CHANGE process also assess how much time and energy is devoted to discovering, developing, and deploying new leaders. Most pastors spend less than 20 percent of their time on this process. Congregations that have a deep bench of leadership typically spend significantly more time and resources in this area.
During my initial coaching conversation with pastors, I state that effective pastors and Christian leaders focus on multiplying their efforts by grooming AAA Christian leaders who in turn develop more AAA Christian leaders. I challenge them to track how many leaders they are developing rather than just how many followers they’re encouraging. I mention that Jesus spent most of his time grooming twelve leaders with the expectation that they would be the ones carrying on the ministry, and then I ask the question, “If you continue to do what you’ve been doing for the past five years to develop leaders who in turn develop more leaders, how many leaders do you expect to have five years from now?” The most common answer I get is, “I’ve never thought about my ministry in that way before.” I think it’s a question every Christian leader needs to consider and be able to answer. Multiplying our ministry efforts is essential for growing God’s kingdom.
Some questions I ask to learn more about the leadership capacities of the congregation include the following:
- Does the congregation have a process for identifying and developing future leaders?
- What ongoing training is provided for people serving in leadership positions?
- Does the congregation have a mentoring program for leaders?
- Do current leaders know their next step in growing as a Christian and becoming a more effective leader?
- Are paid and volunteer leaders provided performance reviews on a quarterly basis?
Leadership assessment tools Vibrant Faith Ministries frequently uses with individuals and teams include:
- “Leadership Self-Assessment Checklist” (Tool 10)
- “Reflecting on Ministry Form” (Tool 11)
- “Confidential Feedback Form” (Tool 12)
- “Healthy Team Checklist” (Tool 13)
Successful change efforts always depend on effective leadership. Leaders coaching the CHANGE process take time to assess whether or not the the potential of every leader is maximized and in the right seat. The Board or Council needs leaders who are dreamers who focus on vision, strategy, and policies that unleash their congregation’s potential to live into its mission and vision. Committees and task forces need leaders who are doers who get things done and keep things moving in the right direction.
Paying Attention to Structure,
Transformation, Storytelling, and Simplicity
Storytelling allows us to hear one another’s life and faith stories and to share about our faithfulness to Jesus along our individual and shared journeys. When we share the joys and challenges of following Jesus every day , we have the opportunity to give and receive encouragement. Through storytelling, we hear how lives are being changed as a result of the congregation’s mission. The stories we share about personal and spiritual transformation is what energizes others to get involved in mission and to grow in faith. Momentum is essential for living into God’s preferred future and storytelling is the fuel for getting people on board and keeping them engaged. Does your structure increase the opportunities for people’s stories to be told?
The principle of simplicity reminds us to keep our ministry easy to manage and easy to multiply. Simplicity has served as a strategic principle for Apple, which recently became one of the largest technology companies in the world by focusing on just four key products — iPhones, iPads, iPods, and computers. In grade school, I used to participate in baseball training camps where we’d spend the entire week working on three fundamental skills—fielding, hitting, and running bases. Doing only what matters most allows congregations to excel in what they do best and to let go of the burden of trying to be all things to all people. Complexity complicates communication, immobilizes people, and overwhelms leaders. Embracing simplicity as an operating principle allows us to quit majoring in mediocrity and help us to do less but go deeper.
QUESTIONS TO RAISE WITH LEADERS
- What procedures and practices (periodic assessment of programs, personnel, and strategies) are currently in place to assist leaders in your congregation in defining the current reality of the congregation?
- What aspects of your congregation’s life and ministry are in most need of a current assessment?
- How would you envision the information gathered through these assessments leading to further conversations and possible action steps?
- What resistance might you encounter as you gather information about your current reality?
- What is your leadership philosophy? What does effective leadership look like to you?
- Based on what you’ve read in this chapter, what do you celebrate about your congregation? What are some of your concerns?
- What tools do you find most helpful in measuring your own spiritual temperature? Your congregation’s temperature? How do your findings and insights lead to new behaviors or next steps in your faith journey?
- Does your congregation have a process for continuously gathering feedback? Does it set aside time to reflect on the data and discuss the data’s implications for ministry?
- In what ways is accountability built into your congregational setting?
One’s leadership style reflects how they are wired, their gifts and passions along with their understanding of what leadership is and how it is exercised. Listed below are assumptions about leadership that many people, including me, embrace as essential for being a transformational leader everyday, everywhere. Begin making a list of which assumptions below resonate with your understanding of leadership.
Questions to Raise When Assessing Your Congregation
One of the first things to look for when assessing a congregation as part of the CHANGE process is how well the leaders frame the congregation’s ends and means through defining its mission, vision, values, and governing policies. The mission statement defines the purpose and nature of the organization and answers the question “Why do we exist?” A good mission statement serves as a bull’s eye— a reminder of what everyone is aiming for. It needs to be clear and compelling. Ideally, it should be short enough to fit on a T-shirt and could be repeated by members at gunpoint. A good mission statement serves as the ultimate measuring stick for a congregation. The importance and effectiveness of all programs and ministries should be evaluated through the lens of how successful they are in fulfilling the congregation’s mission. When assessing a congregation’s mission statement, I seek to discover answers to the following questions:
- Are most members aware of the congregation’s mission statement? Can they recite it to others?
- Do they understand how the mission statement informs what the congregation does and how it goes about making decisions?
- Is there buy-in from members?
- Are they committed to fulfilling the mission?
- Do the words and actions of the congregation reflect its mission?
A good vision statement provides a clear picture of God’s preferred future for a congregation set in the context of its mission. It describes how a congregation will uniquely carry out its mission. Many congregations create a phrase or tagline to describe God’s vision for their congregation while other congregations may write a short narrative of how their congregation would look if God’s preferred future were realized. There are five things I look for when assessing a congregation’s vision:
- Are leaders passionate about the vision?
- Do they talk about it?
- Are they energized by it?
- Do they help others understand it and embrace it?
- Does the vision reflect the totality of the congregation’s purpose, passion, people, and priorities?
- Is the vision linked to the existing assets and activities of the congregation?
- Is the vision sufficiently compelling so that people are willing to make sacrifices to realize the vision?
- Was the process of creating the vision a spiritual one that focused on discerning God’s preferred future?
Very few congregations have a clear picture of God’s preferred future for them, primarily because the majority of congregational leaders’ conversations are focused on the present and the past rather than discerning God’s preferred future. This is a difficult pattern to break unless congregational leaders view themselves as spiritual elders who prayerfully attend to what God is up to in their lives and congregation. We have found that our coaches usually need to train leaders how to orient their conversations toward spiritual discernment and being forward thinking before they can begin to discern God’s future for their congregation.
During on-site visits, Vibrant Faith Ministries coaches will frequently ask paid staff members to recite their congregation’s mission statement and we find that very few can muster an adequate response. When coaching leadership teams, we often provide leaders a blank three- by five-inch index card and ask them to write down the congregation’s mission statement to the best of their ability. The assignment immediately raises the blood pressure for half of the group. About a third of the participants can mention a word or phrase related to the statement. About 10 percent can recite the actual statement and another 10 percent will ask, “Do we have one?” When we ask congregational leaders about God’s preferred future for their congregation the most frequent response we get is, “I’ve never thought about that.”
An activity I frequently do with leaders is to ask what they would tell a visitor their congregation is about and I have them write that down. Some of the responses I received the last time I did this exercise included “We have a tremendous music program here!”; “We have great social programs for seniors”; and my favorite, “We’re known for our annual Lutefisk Dinner!” I had to remind myself that I was meeting with Christian leaders from a congregation, not leaders from a local community center.
Ask your leaders these “Top Twelve” to learn more about your congregation’s purpose:
- How would your people and your community be different if our congregation ceased to exist?
- In what ways are you helping people to “go . . . and make disciples”
- In what ways are you helping people love God with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their strength (Deut. 6:4-9)?
- In what ways are you helping people love their neighbors as themselves (Mark 12:28-31)?
- What do you consider to be the primary purpose of your congregation?
- What expectations does your congregation have of people choosing to be members?
- In what ways has the congregation helped you grow spiritually in the past two years?
- What do you hope people will experience when visiting your congregation?
- If you had to move to out of the area, what would you miss most about your congregation?
- When’s the last time you invited a friend, neighbor, or work colleague to your congregation? What were you inviting them to?
- When’s the last time you had conversation with a friend, neighbor, or work colleague where God was the subject of your conversation?
- How do you envision this congregation fulfilling its mission five years from now? What will you still be doing? What will you have quit doing? What new things might you be doing in the future?
Strategic Alignment of Core Values
Programs and ministries should not only support the fulfillment of the congregation’s mission and vision, they should also reflect the congregation’s core values. Leaders coaching the CHANGE process assess the significance of a congregation’s core values based on
- how prominent they are on the website and in publications,
- what percentage of leaders can recite them to others,
- how frequently they are referred to in sermons and conversations, and
- how frequently they inform decision making and setting priorities.
When I hear people in a congregation talking passionately about serving their community, it’s apparent that outreach is a core value. If I hear people of all ages share stories about practicing or expressing their faith, I know that lifelong faith formation is important.
Some congregations list their values on their website as a way to describe their congregation to website visitors. I’m a fan of having values posted on a website as long as two conditions are met: (1) No more than six values are listed, and (2) the values posted are actually lived out. One website I visited recently listed twenty-two core values. Believing that when we emphasize everything we emphasize nothing, I found their list to be less than helpful. Many congregations list on their website what I call aspirational values—values they hope their congregation will live into but that don’t reflect their current situation. For example, many congregations list “welcoming” or “hospitality” as one of their values, but if you talked to some of their disillusioned visitors you’d hear otherwise. As one congregational visitor remarked, “Their words and actions didn’t match their website.” The next chapter will provide more insights on ways to identify core values and align them with the resources and activities of the congregation. Listed below are additional elements Vibrant Faith Ministries has found to play a crucial role in helping people form faith and follow Jesus: alignment of beliefs, the importance of theology, and the emphasis on discipleship.
Congregations by Roy M. Oswald and Barry Johnson. Place numbers (from 1-10) on the floor with each number
about 5 feet apart. Invite people to go to the number that best describes how they view their congregation.
On a scale of 1-10, is our congregation . . .
Traditional (1)————————————————————- Innovative (10)
How do we honor our roots while living into God’s preferred future?
Inward-focused (1) ——————————————– Externally-focused (10)
How do we respond to the needs of our members AND to the needs of our community?
Membership-minded (1) ———————————— Discipleship-minded (10)
What does membership mean here? What expectations do we have for members?
Individual Concerns (1) ———— What’s in the Best Interests of All Members (10)
Do we pay attention individual concerns or what’s in the best interests of all?
“Filling church slots” (1) —————————– Fulfilling People’s Callings (10)
Are we seeking to sustain the congregation or honor people’s calling?
Short-term Focused (1) ————————————— Long-term Focused (10)
What’s God’s preferred future for our church 5-10 years from now?
Focused on the Past (1) ———————————–Focused on the Future (10)
Do we spend out time looking out the windshield or the rear view mirror?
Staff-led (1) —————————————————————– Lay-led (10)
How do we empower staff and lay leaders to jointly exercise effective leadership?
Leaders coaching the CHANGE process pay particular attention to the trajectory of a congregation’s life and ministry. I asked a senior pastor serving a congregation whose worship attendance has been dropping 5 percent a year, “If you keep doing what you’ve been doing for the past ten years, what do you anticipate your average worship attendance will be ten years from now?” Another pastor confided in me, “I turned forty last month and I’m 40 pounds overweight. I realized that I’ve been gaining two pounds a year for the past twenty years.” I responded with a trajectory question: “If you continue to do what you’ve been doing for the past twenty years, how much do you think you’ll weigh by the time you retire?” The alarm bells went off as he visualized the answer to that question. He took to heart Will Rogers’s advice, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!” Living out of his commitments rather than his excuses, he changed his eating and exercising habits and has been losing a pound a month ever since. Congregations, like people, need to be aware of how their faith community and the community around them is changing. Some of the changes coaches typically track include
- changes in worship attendance for the past ten years,
- changes in membership for the past ten years,
- changes in the average age of the congregation for the past ten years,
- changes in budgets for the past ten years,
- changes in giving units and average giving per unit for the past ten years,
- changes in staffing and staffing configurations,
- changes in what the congregation talks about (such as maintenance versus mission)
- changes in programs and ministries, and
- changes in the use of technology.
Well designed processes (systems) and well-written policies provide clarity that allows people to fully engage. Lack of coherent processes and policies always cause glitches in a congregation’s capacity to executive their vision and plans.
Almost every congregation that Vibrant Faith Ministries coaches struggles with the implementation portion of their vision. Some of the common roadblocks include fuzzy goals, inadequate leadership capacities, a convoluted organizational structure, and lack of accountability. When assessing a congregation’s structure, which is also part of the governance assessment process, I’m typically trying to answer these questions:
How are decisions made?
- Who is responsible for what, and do the people responsible have the necessary authority?
- Do people understand the structure and the decision-making process?
- What delays or bottlenecks occur as a result of the current structure?
Before recommending changes to the structure, I try to determine what operating principles guide congregational decision making and ministry efforts. Knowing where and how congregations typically get stuck, I usually assess how the following principles show up in their ministry settings:
The principle of changed lives reminds the church that we are here to serve our neighbor, and that shows up through changed lives and changed communities. If our efforts do not result in changed lives, it gives congregations permission to end ineffectual programs, ministries, and traditions that no longer serve the community and replace them with experiences that transform lives and communities. If the desire is to change lives, then a congregation’s structure needs to be nimble and adaptive in order to respond to opportunities to serve others at a moment’s notice. It has to be permission giving to allow people to step forward and use their gifts without becoming enmeshed in the organization’s bureaucracy. Is your congregation structured to change lives?
The timing is not always right to move forward with certain types of significant change efforts. Listed below are ten questions every congregation should ask to discern if now is the right time to move forward:
- Do people have a clear understanding of the congregation’s mission?
- Is there a clear and compelling vision for where God is leading the congregation?
- Can most members articulate the congregation’s mission and vision?
- Do the majority of members feel that the congregation is moving in the right direction?
- Do most members feel that the congregation is being led by competent and caring staff?
- Do congregational communication tools provide a clear and consistent message?
- Do people see how their contributions of time and money result in changed lives?
- Do most people understand their role in helping fulfill the congregation’s mission?
- Does the congregation have in place healthy ways to deal with conflict?
- Do people feel their voice is heard and their feedback valued?
- What barriers need to be removed to enable people to execute more effectively and efficiently?
The Achilles’ heel of most congregations I work with usually involves follow-through and accountability. I believe that this has to be a core operating principle; if it’s not, then the goals and action steps the congregation establishes will not have credibility.
As a leader, consider asking members one or more of these questions on a regular basis. Schedule time during your monthly meetings to share the feedback received and to reflect on the implications of the feedback you’re receiving. Vital congregations establish ways to gather data continuously and translate their findings into more excellent ways of doing ministry.
Readiness for change must be embraced by leaders or they’ll find that very little progress will be made. Leaders must conclude that the congregation needs a new course of action and be willing to do what needs to be done for the sake of congregational transformation and the difference that will be made in people’s lives because of that transformation. Leaders must be willing to go first, experiencing what they’re asking others to experience, and to model the behavior they say is important. Are your leaders ready and willing?
Vibrant Faith Ministries often recites the phrase theology matters and refers to the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) as one of our foundational texts. It’s perhaps the most important confession in the Old Testament and in Judaism, and is frequently confessed by Orthodox Jews: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Jesus confirms the significance of the Shema in Mark 12:28-31 when he states, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: `Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” With those words, Jesus explicitly describes what it means to be a true disciple:
To love God
To love others, and
To live this out authentically in God’s world.
As we love God in and through the whole of life, we discover the true nature of worship. As we love our neighbors as ourselves, we rediscover our relationship to the world and our obligation to “the other.” This monotheistic worldview provides a unique lens through which we can rightly interpret the world and its surroundings. It also reminds us that with no mission, there is no discipleship. To be a disciple and to be the church, we must view ourselves as modern-day missionaries who relate to issues beyond our own personal morality and which get worked out in the larger community. Jesus is the central reference point for all Christians and sets the standard by which we assess our discipleship and spirituality. When Jesus invites us to come and follow him, he’s inviting us to become living versions of him! As part of the assessment process, leaders coaching the CHANGE process pay particular attention to the role Scripture plays in practicing faith and guiding ministries.