Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Growth in the fast lane, pixie dust and other issues of growing weekend attendance

  I am privileged to be a part of The Unstuck Group, where I have the opportunity to work with churches around the country. I get to meet wonderful people and hear great stories about how God is impacting lives through the ministries of the local church.

  I primarily work with churches who have 500 or less in attendance, which is a totally different dynamic than the larger/mega churches The Unstuck Group normally work with. One major difference in working with smaller churches is the visibility of growth...or the lack thereof. For example, if five families leave a church that's averaging 1,200 people each weekend, it's unlikely their absence would be noticed the following Sunday. That's like throwing a stone into a lake; it makes a ripple, but very small. However, when five families drop out of a church that's running 120 people, that's like throwing a stone into a puddle. The following Sunday the pastor sees the empty space. There's a huge splash and everyone gets wet. 

  This is one of the main reasons churches 500 and less look for growth in the fast lane. They want to walk in on Sundays and see the room full. They want quick results. They want instant increase. They want a bag of pixie dust. Chasing growth in the fast lane seldom ends well. It usually creates more problems and more frustration. And if the pixie dust did exist...every church would be full. 

There is no Pixie Dust for Church Growth

  I remember being a young pastor, running from conference to conference looking for my own pixie dust to grow my church. I wanted growth in the fast lane and I wanted it now. It took me five years of pixie dust hunting to realize church growth was dependent upon leaning into Jesus and working my butt off. Growing a church is hard work and there's no way around it. Building good strategic plans doesn't always result in less work; but good strategy brings clarity so the right work can be planned, executed and measured. If you want your church to grow, you must be willing to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. 

Slow Growth is Healthy Growth

  I have always told pastors, "Never put a 4th grader on the bus and expect him to come home an 8th grader. Growth takes time." If the 4th grader did return an 8th grader, it would be unhealthy growth. There is, as always, an exception to this thought. I have seen churches grow very quickly as a result of God's intervention, the right leadership and good planning. However, churches that have been stuck for years usually don't see quick growth. In my experience it takes at least twelve months before a stuck church starts seeing tangible growth; and up to three years to see significant growth. It really depends on how long the church has been stuck and the ability to lead change.

Growth means Change means Loss

 Lastly, when a stuck church is ready to grow, they must be ready for change, which can also mean loss. When a six year old loses a baby tooth, no one calls the ambulance. Even with the kid screaming and blood everywhere, the parents don't freak out. They understand that losing (baby teeth) is part of growing. It's normal. The same is true with churches. When a stuck church begins to grow again, change occurs; and there are things the body outgrows. Some common areas I see affected are governance, decision making processes, worship styles, target audience, staff and burying ministries that aren't making a difference. Is it messy? Yes, and sometimes it bleeds...a lot. But we know change and loss often proceed growth and is therefore, necessary. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Leading, Bleeding and Saying the Hard Things

Some of my fondest memories as a boy were hanging out with my neighborhood friends. In those days we were influenced by movies like Rambo, (Sylvester Stallone) and Missing in Action (Chuck Norris). My friends and I spent hours in the woods, fighting invisible enemies with plastic guns. We were typical boys. There was hardly a day that went by that someone didn’t go home with a scrapped knee or bloody elbow. 

When that somebody was me, I knew what to expect. My mom would wash the wound and then pour liquid hell on it. We called it, “the red stuff,” but the correct name was Merthiolate. If you’re my age or older and spent a lot of time playing outdoors, you probably know exactly what I am talking about. It was usually in a little brown bottle and lived in the medicine cabinet. And if you’ve ever had it applied to a cut, you can testify that the red stuff hurt much worse than the rock that scrapped your knee. 

In the world of church, we don’t see a lot of scrapped knees, but we do see people wounded by sin, both in the congregation and church leadership. When it comes to wounded leadership, it's usually the result of some sort of internal conflict. When contention surrounds critical areas of the church, leaders can get scrapes that can’t afford to be left unattended. There is value in having people around the table who ask the tough questions; but when resistance to mission and vision occur, it can be deadly. 

Confrontation Cleanses

As leaders, we have no choice but to confront the issues that can slow down the growth and impact of the church. Confronting disgruntled leaders is necessary because they typically have a level of influence in the church. It’s never easy, but neglect can create worse problems. No one enjoys saying the hard things no more than our moms enjoyed pouring the red stuff on our scrapped knees; but pretending it isn’t there is an open door for infection, that eventually affects the entire (church) body. 

Ignore the Noise

I wished I could tell you that at the age of twelve, I gritted my teeth and took the red stuff like a man, but I didn’t. Instead, I screamed like a girl. Despite my squirming and squealing, my mom didn’t stop dosing the wound with Merthiolate (she did always blow on it to soothe the burning…that’s what moms do). Like our moms, we have to ignore the noise people make when decisions are made for the health of the church. Saying the hard things can sting and burn; but at the end of the day, you have to do what's best for the overall body.

It's easier to please people than confront people

There will always be pushback and challenges when it comes to executing vision and mission. It’s been that way since the beginning of time. It’s easier to please people than confront people, which is why most churches are under one hundred in attendance. Leading requires saying the hard things and a splash of Merthiolate every now and then. People will squirm and squeal, but the end result will be a healthier body. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Leadership Unity and Vision Flow...

I am privileged to serve as both an XP for my own church and a ministry consultant for churches around the country (with The Unstuck Group). I get excited when churches grow, thrive and impact people for Jesus. Growth and impact doesn't come easy. It's hard work. In addition to the organizational challenges, the church also has to tend with a spiritual foe, who relentlessly tries to discourage the work of the gospel. 

When leading churches through strategic planning, I ask them to identify the top risks that could slow down or stop growth and impact. While different churches identify different risks, there is one that usually makes it into the conversation, the lack of unity. Disunity is a risk. Dividing a church usually starts by dividing the team that's leading the church. 

In Bible, the Psalmist talks about the beauty and importance of unity. He writes,

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running on the collar of his robes! Psalms 133:1-2, ESV

In this passage, we see four important pieces of unity that can be applied to the church and the vision. Allow me to run with some symbolism here...

The Vision

The Psalmist paints a beautiful picture of God's people united under a cause. The cause is more than a Sunday gathering; it's about the Kingdom. If we rewind to the Old Testament, we know the oil was symbolic of God's anointing and presence. It reminds us that Kingdom vision must flow from above, from God Himself. When the church is unified around God's vision, powerful things happen. Our responsibility is to keep ourselves and our church in alignment with where God is leading.

The Leader

Notice the oil is poured upon Aaron's head, who served as God's priest in the Old Testament. In the church world, this would be a picture of the lead pastor. This doesn't mean the pastor has all the answers or is responsible for the complete organizational vision of the church; but at the end of the day, he is the leader and must know where God is leading. A pastor can't unify a church around a vision that he isn't clear about himself. Knowing God's heart requires an intentional listening on our end. There is nothing that can replace time alone with God

The Lead Team

The oil runs from the head to the beard. The beard is a picture of a leadership team, or those who surround the head. They share the same oil; the same vision. The idea is, when the head turns, the beard turns with it. They are unified and focused on the same things. When this happens, it truly is beautiful. However, when there is a misalignment between the leader and the leadership team, the vision flow becomes interrupted and focus becomes lost. 

The Church Body

The most interesting fact about this Psalm is the collar of his robes. If the head represents the leader and the beard the team who surrounds the leader, then the body must represent...the church body. When you think about it, hair doesn't absorb oil as much as it carries it. It's the collar of the robes that absorb it. Here's the picture. When the leader and lead team are in alignment and unified, the church body becomes the recipient of the oil. Vision is carried to them. They become saturated with God's purpose and awesome things begin to happen. 

Things to Ponder...

1. What practices are in place to ensure strong unity between the lead pastor and leadership team?

2. How often does the leadership team come together and measure vision progress?

3. What are the best practices for leadership to carry vision to the church body? 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Three Things that can Cripple Discipleship in Churches 500 & less

In Acts 3, we find Peter and John going to an afternoon prayer service at the temple. As they approach, they see a lame man at the gate. There, he sat and asked people for money as they walked by. When Peter and John came near, the lame man asked for an offering. Peter answered, “I don’t have any silver or gold for you. But I’ll give you what I have. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, get up and walk!” (Acts 3:6, NLT) 

The formerly crippled man's life was changed forever. He was healed. While this was probably the man's first Jesus experience, it wasn't his first begging experience. He was 40 years old and was born crippled. It's even likely he sat in the same spot for years.  In those days, most of the handicapped were totally dependent on the benevolence of others. 

Over the years, I have thought about this story. I can see this guy sitting on the ground at the gate called Beautiful, week after week, year after year asking the same question, "Can you help me?" And I can see the nice church people passing by; some giving money, while others pretend not to notice him. I have often wondered why someone didn't bring him to church or invite him to their home. Maybe he was obnoxious. Maybe he was anti-church. Who knows. But what if it was something else. What if the church was just as crippled as the man? I assume if the church could spend money to build an extravagant gate, they could probably afford to help this hungry, crippled man who lived in their community and sat right outside their door every week.  

Unfortunately there are churches that mirror the dysfunction of the lame man; they have members (people) who aren't functioning the way God designed them to. This is especially true in churches with attendance 500 and less. While it's easy to blame church stuckness on uncommitted or lazy church members, the real problem lies much deeper. The real problem is a lack of discipleship. When a church makes disciples, growth happens. 

Here are three common issues that can cripple discipleship in churches 500 or less:

Problem #1: Assimilating people into members, instead of disciples

There is a reason approximately 85% of the churches in the United States average under 90 people in attendance. A recent survey showed that out of all the people who drop out of church, 82% drop out in the first year. This means our assimilation strategies are broken. Too often churches are more focused on people becoming church members instead of disciples. When this happens, they gain a lot of names on the membership role, but few butts in seats. Assimilation must give people easy next steps that lead towards relational environments where they are challenged to follow Jesus. 

Problem #2: Pushing people into programs instead of relationships

There isn't anything wrong with Bible studies or programs, unless they are your only means of making disciples. If Bible classes made disciples, the church would be full every weekend (there usually isn't a shortage of classes). At the end of the day, you can't program discipleship because you can't program life. Everyone is in a different stage of life, which is why churches need different flavors of small groups. Small groups is the best engine for making disciples. Churches 500 and less often struggle or fail at small groups because they are unwilling to stop the things (classes, programs) that compete with groups. You have to be willing to bury the things that aren't producing life change and resource the things that are (or will) produce life change. Burying a ministry can be tough, especially when it's been around a while. Click here for a tool that may help. 

Problem #3: Building small groups without B.C. Entry Points

If the church's vision is about reaching the unchurched, the discipleship (small group) model must align with that vision. Small groups must have easy on-ramps for B.C. (before Christ) people. This means the model must make anyone, including non-Christians, feel comfortable to participate as much or as little as they like. It must foster an environment that is highly relational and gospel-centered. Actually, that's the way Jesus did it. When a church has small group model like this, great things happen. People can invite their unchurched family and friends without reservation; and because the gospel is the centerpiece, life change happens. In this way, small groups becomes both an evangelism and discipleship engine. 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Why You Need more than a Vision Statement

I remember the days as a lead pastor when word smithing a vision statement was of the utmost importance. Once crafted, I would post it everywhere a person may have the opportunity to read it (including the back door of the stalls in the men's bathroom). I wanted people to memorize it, understand it and quote it at a moment's notice. I think I may have been the only one who met those expectations. 

Vision statements, regardless of the innovative language, does not equate vision movement

I have seen some pretty nifty vision statements plastered on church walls and printed in bulletins. I have listened as leadership teams told me how many hours they spent creating their sticky vision blurbs. I am not knocking vision statements; if you have one, roll with it. However, a vision statement alone will not cause vision movement, regardless of the innovative language used.

While working with different churches over the years, I have listened to leaders share vision. In many cases, their vision sounded more like their mission. Understanding and differentiating vision and mission is critical. When I help a church build a mission statement, I try to help them build something that captures the reason their church exists. A mission statement should answer these three questions: 

1. What are we called to do as a church?
2. Who are we called to reach?
3. What makes us unique?

If you can measure it, you can grow it

Mission statements are important, however a mission (or vision) statement alone will not result in movement. Statements are stationary. They are created to be printed, read and bring identity to an organization. However, despite the crafty and inspiring language found in statements, there's one thing missing that is absolutely necessary to cause a vision to begin moving. I am talking about vision metrics. When I help a church build a vision, I like to ask questions around the metrics of their ministry (attendance, baptisms, financials, etc). After capturing their numbers on a flip chart, I like to ask these questions: 

1. Where are we today? 
2. Where do we want to be in the next few years?
3. What must be measured and monitored to move forward?

Wrapping metrics around a vision allows you to measure it; and if you can measure it, you can grow it. It also gives permission to ask the right questions and identify what needs attention. If you stop looking at the numbers, the vision will slowly drift into left field and by the time you notice it, consequences are inevitable. 

Vision Statement < Vision Map

So what's the answer in terms of vision? Instead of creating a vision statement, think about gathering your team and create a vision map. Ask the right questions and gather the right data to get clear perspective of where you are right now. Next, ask the questions, "Where do we want to be in one year, two years, five years?" Again, it's important to look at the current numbers and then determine where you believe you'll be in the next few years. Don't be afraid to dream. God loves dreamers. 

Once you have landed several vision metrics (current and future), you're ready to begin building strategic plans that will fuel and propel the vision. At the Unstuck Group, we lead churches through the StratOp process to help them determine what those strategic plans look like. When good plans are built and executed, church growth and life change happens at a higher level. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Friendliness Factor

Being a preacher's kid, I have seen my share of churches, especially rural churches. I have a lot of great memories from those experiences. I still remember the guys who stood at the front door, ready to shake my hand every Sunday. I also remember the infamous homecomings (which included a lot of fried chicken and casseroles) where church people talked, laughed and committed acts of gluttony. There are many churches (especially those 500 and less) that define friendliness by social church gatherings and greeters at the door. However, engaging outsiders (or the unchurched) requires more than comfort food and handshakes.  

While working with rural churches, I have noticed many are quick to claim their friendliness level as high. They believe the warm and fuzzy family feel is inviting to everyone. However, the family feel is often a big part of the problem, because the family typically doesn't include outsiders.  There's nothing more unfriendly than awkward stares and internal conversations.

Being a friendly church to outsiders must become a part of the mission, meaning the why becomes more important than the what. Why be friendly? Because friendly churches get talked about. They're like a good restaurant; you don't need a billboard, because you can't hide a good restaurant. In Gary McIntosh's book, What Every Pastor Should Know there were a number of interviews conducted with people who visited a church for the first time. They were asked, "What made the biggest impression? What effected your decision to return the following week?" It wasn't the eloquent preaching, excellent worship or the fun-filled kid's ministry; it was the friendliness factor. They based their decision to return on how they were treated. The interview proved that the number one answer by far was the friendliness of the people. Gary goes on to say, they determined the level of friendliness by the number of people who talked with them. Many conversations equaled friendliness. 

Three myths churches of 500 or less believe

MYTH #1: We're a friendly church because we're friendly with each other 

Many churches believe because they are friendly with each other, they are automatically friendly to others. As a secret shopper, I can't tell you how many times I have seen churches talk and laugh with one another, while completely neglecting the new guy in the room. Engaging new guest with friendliness requires planning and intentionality. It can't be something we hope happens; it must be something we make happen...because it can determine if they come back. Creating the right first impressions team can amplify friendliness. 

MYTH #2: We're a friendly church because we have door greeters

 In my experience, I have seen door greeters who serve people well...and those who don't serve so well. There is nothing worse than a greeter having a conversation with another member, who pauses long enough to say hello to a new guest, and then quickly return to the conversation. This is no different than a Walmart greeter. They have a job to do and saying hello to people is simply part of the job. Guests hate this. Asking door greeters to make eye contact, share their name and always open doors (as guests approach) can be a real game changer when it comes to friendliness. 

MYTH #3: We're a friendly church because everyone is welcome

I have never yet found a church who didn't say, "We welcome everyone!" Yet, what I have discovered is this: Most churches love the idea of being a welcoming church; but not all churches welcome everyone. The reality is, many churches have their own version of the no shirts, no shoes, no service sign. While there isn't a  physical sign posted, it's communicated by the unwritten standard expressed in dress codes, internal language and complex next steps. Creating a casual environment and building easy next steps fosters a friendliness that can help new guests build relationships with other people and with Jesus. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Building a Ministry Scope

Every organization comes with its own set of challenges. This is true in both the church and corporate world. While the challenges may differ, there are some common denominators that land on both sides, and one of those is management. Managing is asking the question, "How are we doing?" And if you ever stop asking, you'll soon learn how important that question is. 

For pastors, management can be challenging because ministry has many moving parts. Hospitality, teaching, youth ministry, kid's ministry, budgets and small groups are just a few. While each part is important to the mission, it's impossible for a pastor to keep a finger in everything; and when pastors attempt to, they move into micromanagement and quickly find themselves (and their teams) frazzled. 

the big idea

A few years ago, I had an idea about a tool to help with management. Believe it or not, the idea came from deer hunting. I typically use a rifle with a scope while hunting deer. When I look through the scope, I see crosshairs (or a quadrant). The goal is to place the target at the center of the crosshairs. If the scope is tuned well and my target is in any part of the quadrant, I'm likely to hit my target. If my scope isn't zeroed, I'm likely to miss, even if my target is dead center in the crosshairs. Any scope that gets used will need consistent tuning. Now, let's bring this into church leadership.

First we need to answer the question, "What is the target on Sunday?" Obviously the answer is going to vary, but at the end of the day, we can probably land on "gospel impact" as our target.

what are the mission criticals?

If gospel impact is the target, then we can ask, "Which things are most critical to the mission?" There are probably many things that are important, but we need the top four "mission criticals" (criticals isn't a word, but it fits here). Check out the scope below. While these four things will be different in each case, you'll see what most pastors say is critical for gospel impact. 

tuning the scope

Once you have determined the four mission criticals, then we must learn how to keep our scope tuned. Remember, if the scope isn't consistently zeroed, we soon begin missing our target even though we're aiming at it every weekend. In order to tune a ministry scope, we simply need to get our teams around it and ask the right questions. I recommend gathering your team, asking the right questions and tuning the scope at least four or five time a year. Look at the example below. 

When tuning the scope, you may ask your team, "How is our weekend hospitality going?" If they inform you it's beginning to tank, you start looking for solutions. If they tell you it's amazing, you ask, "How can we make it better?" You are able to tune the mission criticals by asking the right questions...and the questions can (and should) change over time. 

Once you learn the process, you can departmentalize the scope throughout the organization. For example, a children's pastor can gather his or her team, draw a scope and put the words fun, safe, organized and gospel-centered in each quadrant. Afterwards, they would ask the right questions to tune the four things they believe are critical to the mission of children's ministry. 

Consistent tuning of your ministry scope will ensure a consistent hitting of the target each weekend and as a result, your teams will lead well and reap the harvest.