This program will save your church!

July 23rd, 2019

The pitch

Friends, let me tell you from experience. If you faithfully implement this proven program in your church, you are guaranteed to see results. Follow the authors' time-tested principles, and watch your congregation transform into a more active body of disciples working together to grow God's Kingdom right there in your community. This program will help you clarify your church's unique vision, effectively carry out its powerful mission and ultimately claim its role as a God-given blessing to the world. By following this system of well-researched best practices, you will also witness an increase in worship attendance, a deepening commitment among existing members and higher levels of financial giving. Your church will become more relevant, engaged and influential. In short, you will stop surviving and start thriving.

And the best part about this new program is you won't have to spend a penny to own it, because it's already yours. Sound too good to be true? I promise you, it's not. Watch this. I'm going to show you a magic trick.

The product

If you are a pastor, the next time you're in your office, take a look at your bookshelf. See anything there that you haven't picked up in a while? Do any of the books on your shelf make promises similar to the ones in the first paragraph of this article? Or, how about we review your calendar? What was that training you and some of the lay leaders attended a while back? You know, the one that made so much sense at the time, and you were all excited about taking home what you learned and putting to good use? Perhaps you even hired a consultant to visit your church and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. Where is that report today?

My bet is that after minimal searching, you can easily come up with a few ready examples of times you purchased that perfect product with proven results only to find that you and your congregation never got around to implementing the kinds of transformation it prescribed.

The reality

I remember when I was in my twenties working in a classroom under a veteran teacher in his fifties. Time and again I heard him lament the district leadership and its annual unveiling of the latest educational silver bullet. "Every summer," my mentor complained, "the superintendent reads a new book or attends some conference about educational reform, and every fall we're instructed to implement some new program. The result? Nothing ever really changes."

I've seen pastors do the same thing. They browse a catalog, buy the book, maybe even use some of their continuing education money to travel to a conference by the program's authors, and they get fired up. What they read or hear makes perfect sense. Why shouldn't they share it with their congregations? And you know what? They are right to do so. The people writing these books and designing these programs are usually offering legitimate, valuable advice. They took the time to distill the lessons they learned from years of experience and package them into an easy-to-understand set of practical recommendations as a service to their colleagues. Pastors and lay leaders would be foolish not to access those resources.

The problem is, we're better at buying products than we are at putting them to use.

The solution

When my brother and I built a faith-based nonprofit organization from scratch, we got pretty good at flying by the seat of our pants. We were smart enough, dedicated, and supported by a host of wise and generous people, so this worked fairly well in the beginning. In fact, our willingness to wing it was a huge asset when, in 2008, our city was hit by the worst natural disaster it had ever seen.

Still, as the organization grew more complex, it became increasingly clear that new systems needed to be put in place. Things like board development, accounting processes, staffing policies, consistent communications (mail and web-based), volunteer and donor management and long-range strategic planning all had to be improved.

Specifically, I remember how difficult it was for us to select a CRM (constituent relationship management) software product and then put it to use. Other staff and I couldn't agree on which product was the best, and even after we compromised enough to make a choice, once we started using it, we ran into all kinds of unforeseen obstacles. I think we went through three fairly involved test runs (and some tense conversations) before we finally decided that any one of them would be good enough, and what we really needed to do was just pick a system and commit to using it. Then came the long and laborious process of learning how to incorporate all the tasks of that new program into the daily routines carried out by staff.

It's still not a perfect system, but it's better than no system. And therein lies the solution to the problem that led you to open this article in the first place. A practiced process is more important than a perfect product. Instead of chasing every new program that promises to transform your church, start figuring out how you can put the knowledge and training you've already received into practice. Then commit the time and energy to making some of those changes part of your congregation's routine.

An example

My father-in-law is a retired United Methodist pastor. He grew up in the Philippines, went to seminary there, then moved to the U.S. to study for his doctoral degree. Most of his ministerial career took place in rural Iowa, where his family was often the only non-white family in town. In order to succeed, he learned to be careful, consistent and very friendly. He is now and has for a long time been "old-school." He does not jump on trendy bandwagons. In fact, he's probably more happy to stick with tried-and-true routines than just about anyone else I know. So long as they work.

One of his disciplines (and great joys) is visitation. Every congregation he ever served, he got to know the people well. He spent time in their homes and learned their stories. He never was an amazing preacher (decent, but not outstanding). He can barely use a computer, and he definitely doesn't get pop culture. Yet somehow every church he pastors ends up growing, and that growth always includes families and young people. They love him because he is positive, humble, disciplined, and he consistently takes concrete steps to show his members that he loves and appreciates them as well.

Late in his career and even now in his retirement, he is sent to churches that have had major struggles with conflict, dysfunction or some kind of trauma. He helps those communities heal, mostly by putting simple and proven processes like a visitation schedule in place.

You can (and should) do this

I know that what I'm telling you might sound slow, tedious and a lot less exciting than the advertising language you're used to hearing. I feel the same way. I can be one of the worst when it comes to falling for that latest program of salvation. And really, I certainly don't think you should stop looking for new and improved techniques for church leadership. All I'm saying is, none of them work until they become more than a fad.

It's just like dieting and exercise. I'm sure you know someone (maybe you are this person) who tries every new diet out there but never seems to get healthy. "Nothing ever works," they say. "Although I did hear so-and-so talk about this new thing she tried and she lost thirty pounds in three weeks!" And off they go again.

That consumeristic pattern doesn't strengthen our bodies, and it won't help your church. But that doesn't mean it's impossible to get healthy; it just means you have to begin slowly and build routines.

My advice: Start small with something that matters. Pick just one of the things you've read about in one of the books on your shelf, something you're pretty sure you and your congregation can accomplish on a regular basis, even when you're tired and busy. Then practice that thing until it becomes second nature. If it seems to work, leave the routine in place and start another.

As you slowly lay in the bricks of these foundational practices (whichever ones seem important and doable to your church), your capacity for bigger, more dramatic action will grow. Three, five, ten years down the line, an opportunity will come along for your church to do something truly, jaw-dropping amazing, and because you started small and worked diligently, you all will have the ability to get it done.

Then it will be your turn to write a book and tell us how you did it.

A version of this article originally appeared at Ministry Matters on November 25th, 2014.

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