Q&A with Bishop Robert Schnase: ‘Just Say Yes!’

September 29th, 2015

I recently had the opportunity to connect with Robert Schnase, bishop of the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Bishop Schnase has just released Just Say Yes!, a book about how churches can encourage more ministry and reach new people by creating a permission-giving environment instead of perpetuating a culture of No. The principles he shares can be applied in almost any congregation, regardless of denominational affiliation.

Bishop Robert Schnase

Shane Raynor: Bishop Schnase, how does someone know if a culture of No pervades their congregation?

Bishop Robert Schnase: A culture of No pervades a congregation when people with energy and new ideas feel restrained by systems and attitudes that stifle bold and creative ministry. People become frustrated by useless meetings that merely report and rehash the same information over and over. Convoluted administrative systems are impenetrable to new people who are confused by the array of policies and rules and restrictions and by the labyrinth of committees and meetings that must approve every decision. These are the marks of a culture of No.

But the most obvious sign is that nothing new gets done and the church merely does things the way they’ve always done them before. Creative ideas are shut down and new people are closed out. People leave the church to channel their charitable impulses into endeavors that are responsive and effective, where their contributions and ideas shape outcomes.

In contrast, a consistent quality of clergy and lay leaders in healthy churches is an openness to innovation and change. They invite people to express their ideas and encourage them in their callings. They shift a focus on meetings to focus on ministry. In short, growing churches say Yes to ministry initiatives that declining churches say No to.

SR: How do clergy-centered attitudes in churches stifle creativity?

RS: Some congregations believe that only the pastor can do certain ministries, such as pastoral care, teaching confirmation, leading a service project. Or they believe that the pastor must approve everything that happens or must attend every meeting to participate in every decision. These clergy-centered attitudes limit ministry. If everything that happens must cross the pastor’s desk for approval, the pastor becomes a bottleneck that restrains ministry. If he or she displays an overly controlling leadership style or an inordinate fear of disapproval, the pastor stifles rather than encourages creative initiative.

Pastors in healthier churches may enjoy considerable authority, but they purposely exercise it in a manner that encourages ministry rather than controls it. They preach and teach and model missional the assumptions — that everyone has gifts for ministry, that all are called by God to serve, and that congregations are meant to cultivate people to growth in ministry. Leadership does not mean control; it means mobilizing people toward the mission. Decisions can be made, ideas can be generated, and work can be done without the pastor being at the center of everything.

SR: Why do so many churches seem to naturally follow the path of least resistance when doing ministry? What happens when they do?

RS: No is easier. Yes is messy. No means not having to learn. Yes means trying new things. No relieves anxiety and causes us to repeat ministries as we’ve done them before. Yes means change. No means stability, status quo, predictability, the same old thing. Yes brings uncertainty, resistance, movement, work and dealing with energetic and passionate people with different ideas. The decline of many churches can be recorded as a succession of No votes through the decades. The growth of many churches can be measured in a series of bold Yeses.

Imagine a church that says No to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on their property because “we don’t know who they are,” and No to a basketball league because “they’re not our children anyway,” and No to a divorce recovery ministry because “that’s so negative,” and No to forming a hands-on mission team because “we’d have to amend the budget by $1,400.” A consistent pattern of No reduces ministry, avoids human need and narrows engagement. People begin to expect the church to say No, and so they stop trying.

If our first instinct when we hear an idea is “What’s in it for me?” then we naturally focus on what it will cost, what we will lose and how it will interrupt what we feel comfortable with. We fail to consider the spiritual needs that will be met, the suffering relieved or the lives changed if we try something new.

SR: How do systems put denominational churches at a disadvantage when it comes to planting churches and creating new ministries? How can churches overcome this?

RS: Just like our churches, most of our conferences operate with a labyrinth of prescribed committees, required policies and mandated boards. A new idea requires permission from five to seven different committees or people, any one of which can say No, but none of whom has the authority to say Yes. Complexity is the silent killer of organizations. Systems that merely irritate long-standing leaders create insurmountable obstacles to younger generations who have little tolerance for our bewildering way of doing ministry. We’re a mature denomination that has accrued thousands of rules that limit, direct, mandate or restrain. At last count, the United Methodist Book of Discipline includes 4,835 shalls … the pastor shall …, the trustees shall … the conference shall. Leaders spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to figure out how to do things that need to be done despite restraint.

Conferences get just as stuck as congregations do. Conferences need to unleash churches for ministry just as churches need to unleash people. This means less centralized control so that churches can start churches and experiment with second sites and initiate conversations about adopting sister congregations. Large churches and healthy churches of all sizes need to be set free to initiative campus ministries and develop missional relationships with down the street, across the state and around the world. This does not mean that anything goes; excellence, fruitfulness and accountability must be expected. The book Seven Levers: Missional Strategies for Conferences gives countless examples of how Just Say Yes works at the conference level.

At both the conference and congregational level, some truths apply: Stop holding useless meetings, streamline processes, use fewer committees, focus on the mission field, maintain a direct line of sight between every activity and the mission of the church, practice planned abandonment, expect people to have ideas, protect creative innovation, etc. However, most unleashing has more to do with attitude than with structure.

SR: How can church leaders help create an environment where a congregation is more comfortable taking risks?

RS: Even in the most intransigent churches, people have ideas, passions, callings and spiritual yearnings. These are the people for whom Just Say Yes! was written for. How do we foster an autonomy and self-determination that gives them the permission and freedom to initiate ministries without winning countless votes from church leaders who aren’t interested in their ideas? The freshest energy may come from newcomers or people at the margins of the congregations who have not been drawn into the negativity and complacency.

Imaginative pastors and lay leaders must feed the new while starving the old. New people are the greatest collaborators and co-conspirators for change. If we can’t get the congregation unstuck, we can at least give permission and freedom to those at the edges to start ministries and experiment with new groups, perhaps without pushing every idea through the formal structures for approval. New people bring a new day. Just say yes.

SR: Is it possible for churches to say Yes too much? How does a church find the right balance between Yes and No?

RS: Sometimes No is the right answer. Even Wikipedia has its managers to protect quality, value, framework and purpose. No is important.

Churches should say No to ministry ideas that do not align with the mission or spirit of the congregation, to ministries that cannot be done with excellence or which bear no fruit. They should say No to people who refuse accountability or who display emotionally unhealthy patterns in their relationships. They should say No to activities intended for personal profit. Saying Yes to avoid hurting feelings or for fear of disappointing someone or as a surrender to unhealthy, dominating personalities never serves the purpose of the church.

Just Say Yes! includes examples of churches that balance when to say Yes and when to say No. They base their discernment upon missional assumptions. Instead of filtering ministry ideas through a series of permission-withholding committees, they consider basic questions. First, does the idea align with the mission? Does it fit the values, identity and purpose of the church? Second, who will take responsibility for this ministry? Who will champion the cause? Who has the passion, gifts, and time to make the program happen? Who has already expressed interest, signed on or volunteered to help? Many denominational programs don’t work in local churches because they don’t begin with excited, passionate persons in the congregation who feel called, motivated and gifted to lead them. Third, how will the ministry be funded? Does the prospective ministry cost anything, and who bears those costs? Most new ministries that extend the mission either cost nothing at all or are supported by those who volunteer. People can’t simply dump ideas on the church expecting someone else to do them or to fund them.

SR: What steps can a leader take to honestly assess whether or not he or she is a permission-giving leader?

RS: Congregational systems never become more permission-giving than the people who lead them. Leaders can unintentionally discourage innovation, resist change, tighten rules and ignore the gifts and callings of laity and staff around them. Sometimes we discover that we’re the obstacles to innovation and change.

Just Say Yes! has a chapter that lists characteristics and behaviors of permission-giving leaders. They trust people, and they trust that God calls people to ministry and gives the gifts for ministry. They are initiators and experimenters and responsible risk-takers. Permission-giving leaders know how to listen. They spend time with people who do not belong to the church or who are new. They work with a minimum of defensiveness and territoriality. They get out of the way. They are clear about the mission and hold high expectations. They open options rather than close them. They say Yes even to people with whom they disagree. They protect the outliers and innovators, the young and the inexperienced.

No one fulfills all these descriptions. However, the list and the elaborations in the book serve as a beginning point for personal reflection, and for honest conversation with peers, colleagues, and friends.

The book ends with reflections on the ministry of encouragement. A safe way to enter a conversation about workstyles and leadership temperament is to reflect on this fundamental practice. How do we exercise a ministry of encouragement with one another? How does a ministry of encouragement infuse the congregation, and what can we do to foster greater encouragement to those who feel the stirrings of the spirit to serve? Just say yes!

SR: Thanks, Bishop Schnase, for taking the time to answer a few questions about your new book.

RS: Thank you, Shane, for the conversation and for the excellent and insightful questions. And thank you for your support of Just Say Yes! Unleashing People for Ministry. On October 1, additional downloadable resources will be available to help local congregations unleash people for ministry, including supplemental videos, invitational postcards, a leader retreat guide and a seven-session devotional guide. So next week, check out SayYesToMinistry.org.

Robert Schnase is bishop of the Missouri Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. He is also the best-selling author of Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations and Just Say Yes!

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