Churches are too cautious. People who won’t change can’t grow, because growth cannot occur without something being done differently than it was before. Churches that won’t take risks won’t experience the blessings that come from stepping out on faith. If the one who is in us is actually greater than the one who is in the world, we should have nothing to fear. You don’t have to worry about playing it safe when it comes to embodying the Christian mission because embracing our Christian identity is already the safest way that any of us can play it. You should try hard enough, often enough that your church experiences some failures in the work you’re doing. Failures often become the building blocks of our later successes. If you’re going to mess up, you might as well mess up doing stuff that matters. In that spirit, here are seven mistakes your church should make.
- Empower people too much. When you see a need or an opportunity, grab competent people you believe to be committed to their faith and give them what they need to carry out the task. Give them clear guidelines. How much is too much? How much is not enough? What should be the general effect of what they’re doing? Let them know, give them a budget, and tell them when you’ll check in again. What will go wrong? Occasionally, you’ll have some false starts. You’ll have some people who go farther than they should without keeping you in the loop. You’ll lose some touch with what all is happening and won’t always know all the details. But what you won’t have is a group at the top who mean well but serve as a bottleneck who keep good things from happening because people are always waiting on answers or permissions from you. Many good ideas die in leadership meetings at the hands of well-intended people who let themselves get tied up in things that can and should be delegated well. If you’re a leader, err on the side of giving people too much ownership and power over their church’s future. Most of the best ideas won’t come from your head anyway. Give people the ability to attempt something meaningful, even if they fail at it. If they’re trying but failing, they have a good chance of growing when you let them know that everything is going to be ok.
- Pray way more than you feel like you have to. Pray together in formal and informal settings. Pray about people when you’re by yourself, and when you’re together, pray with people and for people. See if you can find a way to invite God in as the third part of every conversation you’re having. Make everything be about us and God. When you have a goal, put it down on paper and have everyone pray about it. When you have a physical project going on, surround it with everyone, circle up and ask God to bless it. Make it feel like a person can hardly stop by the water fountain for a drink without needing to pray about it as they go. The mistake you could make would be…well…is it ever really possible to pray too much? Make God part of everything. Everything. Commit all aspects of what you’re doing to the Lord, trusting that it is ultimately God’s work being accomplished, in which you are privileged to take part.
- Invite and ask about your visitors too many times. Ask their names. When you forget, ask them again. See if they have lunch plans. Learn about what they do for a living. See if there are things you can pray about. Get to know whether they have family support near where they are living. Invite people to church. If someone unfamiliar shows up, invite them to sit with you. What’s the worst that can happen? You might be annoying. But you know what? If you have a mom that loves you, she’s probably annoying some of the time, too. Because she loves you. She keeps asking and prodding and inviting because it’s one way of saying “you matter to me.” You’re going to be some kind of church, so be the kind of church that cares too much about new people and overdoes it in making sure they know they are valued. The alternative? To be the kind of church that people can go to and sit there alone because everyone only talks to people they already know. No thanks.
- Keep your ministers too long and invest in them too much. Sure, numbers aren’t as great as you want them. Our staff are the easiest targets to blame when things aren’t going well or we want to justify our own laziness. “Hey, I drop a $20 in the plate now and then. I pay that person to do ministry so I don’t have to. What could they possibly be doing all week anyway?” Likewise, who can forget the tyranny of the “glory days”, back “When this church was better.” What leader wouldn’t hate to be reminded constantly that he can’t possibly measure up to his predecessors in your eyes? Sure, you can push ministers around if you want, but rather than having to search for a new minister every 2-3 years, why not actually invest in your minister’s wellbeing? In fact, if you do this well enough, you might get a new and improved minister every 2-3 years without having to make any new hires. It is often the case that there is a strong connection between congregational health and a minister’s long tenure. Of course, it is possible that your minister is not a good fit and may need to transition out, but if you thought enough of them to hire them, wouldn’t you want to do everything within your power to help them succeed? How can you do this? Take care of them all the same ways you would want your employer to take care of you. Here are some specific things that could help:
- Pay them as well as you can and give them increases for cost of living. If you gave them expectations up front of what they could expect down the road, honor your word. They’re in a position of vulnerability, and Scripture has nothing good to say for people in power who take advantage of those under them.
- Insist that they take vacations with their family and get time off. If you aren’t paying them enough to make this is possible, see if you can give them a nice trip as a gift.
- Demand that they get at least one day off per week with no responsibilities other than to rest and recover and spend time with their family. If their work load won’t allow them to take a day off, reduce their work load. Even God himself took a day off.
- If you’ve got a beautiful piece of property or extra space, offer them a room to use as a study for when their office is too hectic.
- Send them notes or emails and say, “I believe in you and I support you.” or “Here’s how something in your lesson last week blessed me.”
- Set a budget for them to buy books and resources that they need.
- Pay for them to attend a lectureship or workshop and insist that they don’t preach the Sunday they return so they can be fully present, not having to work on lesson prep while they recharge and grow.
- Ask them to go to lunch or coffee with you, not to complain about what bothers you, but to ask how they’re doing and what you can do to help them. I’m not just talking about preachers here, either. Your staff is valuable. Invest in them. It is nearly impossible to lead other people to be healthy if you yourself are not healthy. Overdo it in trying to help your ministers and their families be healthy.
- Stay closer to people than you need to. Everyone has a different personality. Some people like being on prayer lists and others would rather you not know they’ve got a problem until after their funeral is over. Just the same, if you see something and aren’t sure how someone is doing, ask. Just ask. “It’s probably none of my business, but I want to be sure you’re ok.” It is especially critical in times of transition to stay connected. Change pushes us toward taking sides and charting out new territories and tribes. We need to defuse this by staying closer. Even if sometimes you come across as nosey, stay close to people. I can think of some of my very favorite church members who I absolutely knew had pure hearts and wanted to do what was right and treat everyone well. Even though everyone knew this about them, many of them were also the most likely to respond to an invitation, go forward, and apologize for if they had hurt anyone’s feelings or created any trouble. “They’re probably the last person I’d have a problem with,” I’d think to myself. A person who errs on the side of peacemaking sure is easy to identify as a child of God. That’s what Jesus said, anyway.
- Communicate too much. It is hard to think of many problems in churches that don’t somehow come down to communication. It’s a problem in small churches and its importance grows exponentially in larger churches. I’ve heard people throw around the rule of five, that if you haven’t told people something at least five times, you haven’t told them once. I don’t know if the number is five, but it should absolutely be the case that the people at your church who do read the bulletin and do attend regularly and do listen to announcements and do read the email blasts should feel like you’ve told them some things too many times. What are your congregational goals? How are you going about achieving them? Who is involved in the process? How does a person go from being an outsider to becoming a member? Whatever the average newcomer would want to know, your regulars should hear over and over again. Never assume that everyone “probably” knows what’s going on.
- Get too caught up in the mission. Usually, when a church is dying, the last thing to go is the minister because, in an old and dying church, two things people care about are that (1) someone will come to see them in the hospital and (2) eventually will preach their funeral. This tendency is often what causes a church to stay in a decline pattern, since the minister’s time is eaten up with maintenance to the point of having no time left for mission. Churches that are maintenance-oriented are focused inward on their own needs. Churches that are healthy and growing are mission-oriented, focused on what God can be doing through them. In his book Breakout Churches, Thom Rainer describes that in a church that is healthy and growing, the number one complaint you hear about the minister is that he doesn’t do “enough” pastoral visiting. At least, not as much as some would prefer. This is not to say that pastoral care is unimportant, because it’s very important. But if you care about the future of your church, you need to be all in, doubled down on the mission of the church, first and foremost. It should be obvious that your church exists for a purpose. You have goals and targets for lives you are trying to impact, and for the kinds of disciples you are helping people to become because of their involvement. The mission of the church should be so key in everything that it dominates the landscape, even to the exclusion of some of the matters of maintenance and preference which lead some people to grumble. In his other book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Rainer contends that based on his substantial research, the single biggest dividing line between healthy churches and dying churches is that healthy churches are focused on their mission and dying churches are focused on keeping their members from grumbling.
We have to keep asking, seeking, knocking, inviting, reaching, and grasping. And as we do this, we’ll inevitably have times of imbalance. So if we’re going to have times of imbalance, let’s overdo it in good ways.
What are some other healthy mistakes that churches should make?
Very thoughtful article, Mark. I have witnessed the overly bureaucratic church with the process of Yorktown Baptist coming on line in the CarePortal System. Over about 6 months I have been contacted by the “point person” for Yorktown regarding our process etc. Each time I am amazed how convoluted their process is and how happy they are to be mired in the organizational morass. Yorktown Baptist is still not online.
Our congregation just sort of made it up as we went along, building the boat as we sailed out onto unknown waters. I think the lesson I learned clearly is that if you let Him the Holy Spirit will lead you in spite of your best efforts to be lazy, disorganized and afraid of the water you are about to set sail on. Every time I deliver a gift card, clothes, furniture or whatever I receive such affirmation from the people we help referencing God in some way that it is clear who is staring the boat. I thank God for not letting me weasel out of this mission in the way I am prone to . The other thing that has been so clear and affirming is the joyful generosity of our brothers and sisters. It is such a blessing to be the delivery boy of their kindness to those in need.