Archive for December, 2010

Assimilation vs. Acculturation

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

In the 1980’s, literature and workshops about assimilating new members were the rage in church circles. People were paying serious attention to declining attendance in the mainline church. The assimilation genre of literature was a massive response to the question, “Why are attendance and membership numbers showing such rapid decline?” It was before we were talking about post-modernism, “re-traditioning”, and the emergent church. Leaders were convinced that better systems of inviting, welcoming and incorporating new participants into the life of the congregation were key factors in reversing declining membership and attendance patterns.  Today you’d be hard pressed to find a workshop on new member assimilation. The center of the conversation has shifted, as has the way that we talk about receiving and incorporating newcomers.

In 1988, Robert Blass defined assimilation as having three components: absorption, integration and incorporation . Assimilation was understood to be the means by which a congregation coordinated and blended new members into a meaningful and unified whole, with the rest of the congregation. Owen Facey defined assimilation as an ongoing process of intentionally bringing, including, and integrating people into the life of the local church, with the goal of equipping and releasing them to serve.

In the 1990’s the world became sensitized to the language of assimilation. As the culture in the United States became more ethnically, racially, religiously and socially diverse, people began to question whether or not it was appropriate to use the term assimilation in corporate and business settings. It was argued by some that the term assimilation had a “melting pot” connotation that didn’t set appropriate boundaries around change expectations as newcomers are incorporated. Assimilation refers to a one-way adaptation process in which the culture of one group (the dominant culture) becomes the standard of behavior for all newcomers merging into the system. In a process of assimilation everyone, regardless of social background, is expected to conform to the norms and values of the dominant group. Little, if any, of the unique culture of the newcomer is brought to the dominant group for their adaptation .

 Acculturation was introduced as a broader term that more appropriately described the need for both the organization and the individual to mutually adapt to one another. Acculturation refers to a two way process of integration in which both culture groups (the organization and the individual) change to some degree to accommodate the norms and values of one other . I would argue that when we talk about the integration of new members into the large congregation, we need to embrace the language of acculturation, not assimilation. First, it is more appropriate for many of our congregations who are struggling to diversify membership across racial, ethnic and social groups. If we truly want to welcome members who look and think differently than the people currently sitting in the pews, then we need to approach new member integration as a mutual process of adaptation.

Second, one of the strengths of the large congregation is its ability to hold great expressions of diversity. Choices in programming and variety in worship venues allow for the presence of diversity at all times. People can find their way toward others with whom they identify, without the entire congregation having to negotiate difference all of the time. Those who are uncomfortable with difference can avoid it by choosing to place distance between themselves and the one who is “other”. And those who embrace diversity can find meaningful expression of the difference they seek. When people join the large congregation they don’t really join the whole church, they join that portion of the church with which they tend to identify. This makes room for diverse viewpoints and interests to live comfortably side by side.

If we want to cultivate a culture that embraces diversity, then we need to think about the integration of new members through the lens of acculturation, not assimilation. This ought to have significant ramifications for the way in which we approach the integration process of newcomers. What might our welcoming, orienting and membership processes look like if we are intentionally trying to adapt our membership body with each newcomer that arrives?

Photo Credit: Mario Aguirre

Administration and Ministry

Monday, December 20th, 2010

Clergy leaders in the large church must come to terms with the idea that administration is a form of ministry. Those who cannot understand administration as ministry quickly burn out in the role, always frustrated as they try to get administration “out of the way” so that they can get back to the real tasks of ministry.

I often work with senior clergy on the tasks of staffing and supervision. I’m struck by how often leaders fall into the trap of thinking that supervision is only something that you do when things are going poorly.  They believe that if people would just do what they are supposed to do, then senior clergy could spend less time providing administrative oversight and more time doing “real” ministry. The seasoned senior clergy leader generally comes to see that the work of supervision is sacred work that takes sufficient time to do well. They come to understand that they will always spend a significant portion of their time (at least 30%) on the task of staff supervision. They have the choice of spending that time in a reactive way (putting out the fires that emerge around poor supervision) or they can learn to spend that time proactively, guiding the strategic direction of the staff team. Crafting a culture that supports collaborative and accountable performance management is holy work that the senior clergy leader must do. In fact, there are aspects of that job that only the senior clergy leader can do.

In the book, “All for God’s Glory: Redeeming Church Scutwork”, Louis Weeks writes insightfully about the role of administration in pastoral work. 

“Church administration is exceedingly complex.  It consists of obvious tasks: making and keeping budgets; planning and assessing programs and activities; organizing worship and work efforts; enlisting officers, teachers, and staff, as well as dismissing those who cannot effectively carry out their responsibilities.  But is also consist of subtle and systemic perspectives, for good planning makes for excellent worship and nurture; mission and witness are inextricable from effective organization; deep, trusting partnership among pastor, staff and lay leadership are built on keeping promises and meeting responsibilities.”

Many senior pastors of large congregations believe that they must either adopt a Chief Executive Officer Mantle, or reject that mantle as ill suited for leading the church. Many still want to think of themselves as pastors first, but recognize that their role usually doesn’t lend itself to pastoral kinds of activities. All senior clergy leaders grapple with how to appropriately engage in pastoral care for their size congregation, and how much time to spend on preaching and teaching.  Even pastors within a year of retirement will often articulate their as yet unresolved struggle about whom to engage in personal care. The choices that must be made always come with a measure of guilt and grief, as pastor’s yield to not personally knowing the individual challenges and triumphs of their congregants. Most struggle with ways to combine their responsibility for the business of the church and their pastor’s heart for the people of the church.

 What have you learned about managing the tension between administration and ministry?

Photo Credit: nuts and bolts by maxpower

Program Evaluation

Monday, December 6th, 2010

The large church never met a program that it didn’t like.  The leadership default position in the large congregation is to add programming every time someone wants to enhance impact or pursue excellence. Every new strategic planning process results in the layering on of new programs without winnowing out the old. The hint that any small group of individuals in a congregation is still attached to a program is enough to warrant keeping a program around for years, even after the program has outlived its usefulness. Meanwhile, our staff teams are becoming increasingly exhausted as they struggle to keep pace; attending a vast array of choices that are no longer meaningful to the mission of the congregation. It’s time to stop the madness!  

A particularly effective tool for evaluating programs is the Program Logic Model. You can use this model to evaluate a standalone program, an entire ministry area, or to engage a more comprehensive evaluation of all the programs in your congregation. Here’s how it works. The model invites you to describe the logical linkages among the situation a program is meant to address, the inputs required, the outputs generated and the outcomes sustained. When you invite leaders to define each component you surface unstated assumptions about the program and its intentions. This allows leadership to more objectively define critical performance measures and to evaluate whether the outcomes of a program justify the investment of time, resources and energy required.  The creation of a logic model can facilitate meaningful dialogue among your leaders about what you are seeking to accomplish, and how effectively you are achieving those outcomes. Here’s the model.

Situation: What is the condition to which this program is a response? How is this program/ministry an appropriate response to the condition?


Inputs:  What we Invest

  • Time
  • Money
  • Volunteers
  • Partners
  • Facilities
  • Supplies
  • Equipment
Outputs:What We Do & Who We Reach

  • Classes
  • Services
  • Publications
  • Meetings
  • Meals served
  • People served
  • Participants engaged
  • Members reached
Outcomes: (Short, Medium and Long-Term)Changes We Observe In:

  • Knowledge
  • Skills 
  • Attitudes 
  • Motivation 
  • Awareness 
  • Behaviors 
  • Practices 
  • Policies and procedures 
  • Environment 
  • Social and economic conditions 


It works well to engage the model with a group of leaders who are relevant to the ministry. Invite the gathered group to define the situation, the inputs, the outputs and the outcomes. Then set them loose evaluating how effectively this program is serving the situation it was originally defined to address? How well does the program serve the congregation’s mission (however we currently understand that mission)?

If you’d like to learn more about how to apply the logic model in a congregational context, I’d recommend “Holy Clarity: The Practice of Planning and Evaluation” by Sara Drummond.

Who is in Charge of Growth?

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Most congregations like to pin overall responsibility for growth on the senior clergy leader. Fundamentally, most of us still believe that outstanding preaching and worship is what draws people into the large congregation. These two areas of congregational life are under the direct oversight of the senior pastor; therefore, the senior pastor is the “one” most responsible for growth.

Recently I read an article posted by the Leadership Network entitled, Diverse DNA: Varying Factors in Church Cultures Lead to Rapid Growth. I found the overall article rather confusing, but my interest was piqued by these quotes from church growth consultant, Dr. Samuel Chand.

“Most senior pastors have a gift of gathering, but there is a ceiling built into that,” Samuel says. “And most staff members have the mentality of ‘you bring it in, you make it happen, and we’ll do our best to take care of it.’ But that’s a management mentality, not a growth mentality.”

“Instead, Samuel says, each department should have its own growth goals—with measurements and accountability.”

“Churches do not grow exponentially through Sunday morning,” he adds. “They grow exponentially when every department head takes responsibility for growth.”

I have found that the place where growth is managed in a congregation is largely dependent upon the size of the congregation. All churches grow when members invite others to join them in worship, learning and service. All churches grow by adding programs, educational opportunities, service opportunities and worship venues. But different sized congregations manage the growth process from different places.

Congregations with worshiping communities that number 150-400 primarily manage growth at the board level, with strong input from the staff team. Congregations with 400-800 in worship manage their growth through a centralized staff team that collectively coordinates and manages the life of the congregation. The board may provide oversight, expressing expectations about growth, but the growth itself is managed by staff. Congregations worshiping 800-1,200 manage their growth more strategically. Typically an executive team within the staff team takes overall responsibility for coordinating the growth centers of the congregation. After 1,200 the management of growth becomes decentralized and is managed in multiple places at the same time.

How and where is your congregation managing its growth process?

Photo Credit: jimflix at