Archive for November, 2010


Is “BIG” a Core Value?

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

What are the central essential characteristics that make this congregation unique? This is a question that I frequently pose to congregations who engage me as their consultant. Healthy congregations typically provide a concise response to this question and the response is consistent when posed to different leaders in different venues. Healthy congregations know who they are and how they are different from other congregations.  A healthy congregation might respond with something like this, “We are a congregation that values excellence in worship and the arts. We have a progressive theology and are known for our commitment to the pursuit of social justice.” Or, “We are proud of our intergenerational approach to faith formation and development. We excel in offering a strong Sunday school program and a vibrant small group ministry that thrive side by side.”

Recently, a congregation that I worked with posed this question to their membership, as part of a series of listening circles designed to help leadership listen to membership. A disturbing phenomenon surfaced as we began reviewing the collected data. A significant number of people responded to the question about central essential characteristics by replying with some version of, “Well, I guess what makes us unique is that we are big”.

As we probed the response a little further we discovered that people meant many different things when they named size as an essential characteristic of the congregation.  Some talked about the fact that the size of the congregation generated enough resources to insure that the congregation was impactful in its ministry. For others, size produced a capacity for excellence in worship and education that they valued. For still others the size of the congregation was a measure of prestige. They valued being part of the “biggest and richest” congregation around. (Leadership expressed a collective “ouch” in response to that last interpretation.)

As you can imagine, this data set produced some interesting dialogue among leadership. Can/should our size be one of the core values expressed by our congregation?  Is size an end unto itself, or a means to accomplish something else? If we cease to be a large and resource rich congregation, will we have failed in our mission? If we are not known for being one of the  denomination’s largest financial contributors to mission, what will we be known for?  Has our image of ourselves as the big and resource rich congregation become an anchor or albatross, holding us down?

I suspect that this conversation could (and perhaps should) take place in any number of large mainline Protestant congregations. What value does your membership place on the size of the congregation? Is “big” one of your core values?

Photo Credit: Gabriele at flickr.com

Can Our Youth Save Us?

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Congregations love to advocate on behalf of youth ministry…at least in principle.  At some point in every congregational planning process someone stands and issues the battle cry, “We need to be doing a better job with our youth. They are the future of our church. If we have a thriving youth program, the church will grow.” The notion that a thriving youth ministry will lead to church health and vitality is a long standing assumption in most of our congregations. 

We look at the void of young adults in our congregations today and we aren’t quite sure what to do about that. We see young adulthood as a time when people are not inclined to seek out church participation, and so we convince ourselves that reaching out to young adults is simply too hard. But youth ministry, that’s a different story! We know that the teen years are critical faith formation years, and we know from our own personal experience that parents will attend almost any church to which their adolescent children feel attracted. Many of us also have fond memories of vibrant youth ministry years in glory days gone by, and we’re sure that the way back to those glory days is to tend to our youth and to get that particular vibrancy back.

Over the last several years nearly every congregation that I have worked with on strategic planning has claimed children’s ministry or youth ministry (or both) as one of their 2-3 key strategic initiatives for moving forward. In other words, they recognize that their children and youth ministry programs have lost their impact and they believe that infusing energy and resources into these ministries will make the biggest difference in the right direction for the future health and vitality of the congregation.

However, there may be a problem with our assumptions about the role that youth ministry plays in revitalization.  In 2009 the Hartford Institute for Religion released the findings of a significant research project called American Congregations 2008 . The report states the following:

“Interest in many areas of congregational life cycle up and down over time. Youth ministry is one of these. Right now interest is rising. The reason may be because of increasing worries about flat to declining memberships and the perception that youth programming would stimulate growth. Interestingly, FACT2008 finds that a positive relationship between youth programming and growth (For FACT2008, in worship attendance) only holds for our Evangelical Protestant and Catholic/Orthodox families, and even here it is not very strong. For Oldline Protestantism the relationship is actually negative, although again not very strong.”

What are we to do with this piece of information? It’s startling and it feels counter-intuitive. Certainly no one is suggesting that we eliminate an emphasis on youth ministry. But, if your congregation has limited resources to invest in revitalization efforts (and what congregation doesn’t have limited resources), is youth ministry the best thing in which to invest those limited resources?

Here is one of my favorite mantras as I work with large congregations in the midst of planning. The large church has the capacity to do just about anything it chooses to do with excellence, but no church has the capacity to do all things with excellence. No congregation has unlimited resources. Choices must be made. Realistically, a congregation can only focus on two-three key strategic initiatives at any one point in time.  Should youth ministry be showing up on every congregation’s list right now?  Are we investing ourselves in an area of ministry that feels safe and familiar when a riskier approach, with greater potential for impact, remains unexplored?

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Who Does the Planning?

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

Who participates in strategic planning in the large congregation? We all know that the overall responsibility for creating a strategic plan resides with the governing board. The board is responsible for the strategic leadership of the congregation. But when it comes to actually formulating the plan, who is involved? Does the board as a whole facilitate the planning process, or is it delegated to a committee? What role does the staff team play? How is the voice of the congregation represented? How much influence should the voice of the senior clergy leader carry? 

I suppose the answer to these questions depends upon your theological perspective about where vision resides in the life of a congregation. Most of the clients that I work with believe that the vision of the congregation, and consequently the strategy that supports the vision, ultimately reside in the hearts and minds of congregational members.

The senior clergy person can articulate a vision on behalf of the congregation, but if the congregation doesn’t resonate with that vision there isn’t much hope that the vision will take hold.

The staff team operates as the organizing managerial center of the large congregation.  However, it is the role of laity, not the staff team to claim the overall strategy. The viewpoints of staff must somehow be incorporated into vision formation. Staff members have their hands on the pulse of ministry and can often name the challenges and opportunities that inform what happens next. How are the voices of staff honored in strategic planning, without being overly influential in the work that belongs to lay leadership?

Most boards find that if they try to facilitate the self study that undergirds a strategic plan, they end up losing focus on their oversight responsibilities. The process of strategic planning (from the ground up) can be a daunting and time consuming undertaking, taking anywhere between six to twelve months to complete. Most large congregations find that they need to form a separate planning team/committee that is accountable to the governing board. These committees are charged with fully engaging congregation members, board and committee members and staff members in a collective dialogue about the future of the congregation.

I am frequently asked to talk about who should serve on the planning team and to describe the team’s role in decision making about strategy. Let’s talk about role first. Once the role of the team has been defined it is much easier to figure out who should be serving on the team.

A planning team operates best when they understand their role as facilitators of dialogue, not decision makers about strategy. The planning team is charged with designing and facilitating a self study process that will create meaningful venues for the congregation to discern, register opinions and explore options. This is done through a carefully crafted process of data gathering that often includes: a congregational survey, listening circles, demographic studies, community leader interviews and congregational visits. The planning team doesn’t need to personally conduct the entire data gathering process, but they do need to design the overall data gathering framework and recruit leaders who can assist.

Once data gathering is complete, the planning team works to facilitate discernment and decision making conversation with congregational leaders. It is not the role of the planning team to “decide” what the strategy and vision should be on behalf of the congregation.  It is their role to make meaning out of the data and to present digestible summaries of the data to the leadership of the congregation. Finally it is the role of the planning team to convene leadership gatherings that invite the articulation of core values, strengths to preserve and the new strategic initiatives. The team synthesizes what it has heard and prepares a planning document to present to the governing board for their final discernment and approval.

The planning team needs to be made up of congregational leaders who can organize people and data, while keeping the larger picture in view. Planning team members should be good process designers, good strategic thinkers and well connected in the life of the congregation so that they can invite widespread participation. Planning teams should be selected on the basis of their ability to represent the entire congregation. They should not be selected based upon their ability to represent a particular constituency or point of view. They should not be selected based on their ability to fund the new initiatives. Teams that are appointed with a representational viewpoint in mind always end up in turf war debates. Teams that are made up of the moneyed members of the congregation often don’t engage in very effective process.

Hands down, the best strategic planning team that I have worked with was made up of the senior pastor, the executive director (pastor), the current church moderator (president), and the four previous church moderators.  Every member of the team was a good strategic thinker, operated on behalf of the whole congregation, and was well connected to congregational communication channels.

How do you engage planning in your context?

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