As we prepare for the Ministry in a Changing World Seminar taking place on April 28, we want to share some vignettes on transforming congregations. In this first story, we hear from PCUSA Teaching Elder Tod Bolsinger and what he learned from a meeting with Kevin Ford, one of the three presenters at the seminar.
At the end of our 2006-2007 fiscal year, our church had a $100,000 general fund surplus. In twenty years of church work, I had never seen anything like it. By all common measures, we were doing as well as a church as we could ever hope.
We were in our tenth consecutive year of growth in worship attendance and membership. We had faced all the obvious and not-so-obvious challenges before us. We had unified around a vision, we had applied disciplined thinking and acting to most of our ministries, we had even rebuilt our entire campus around our vision to be an intergenerational “Community for the community.”
And then we noticed something. It was subtle, but there was no mistaking that it was there. A kind of malaise, a growing sense of discouragement. Leaders were talking about being burned out and others were hesitant to step up. Even more, we noticed that some families were beginning to slip away. While the usual “markers” of bucks in the plate and buns in the pew were still pretty good, we began to notice the early signs of disengagement and disconnection. As the pastor, I was confused. How could we be doing so well and yet “feel” like “something” was so wrong?
We brought in TAG Consulting to take a good look under the hood. They led us through their Transforming Church Index process. It was both easy and comprehensive. They reported back that our scores were really strong; we were among the healthiest churches in the nation. But they also told us that there were some disturbing “early warning signs”, that could all be traced to an unintended consequence to our “win-win” strategy…
The reality of loss is the very reason why these truly transformational challenges are so difficult and enduring. Even more complicated, the “problem” you face to today is very often the result of the “solution” from the past. While “win-wins” feel great, the bad news is that a “win-win” strategy often only perpetuates the gridlock of competing values that keeps the organization stuck…
Our lay people reported that while they trusted the leadership and appreciated the ministry, the most common response of most people was “this is a good church, but they don’t need me here.” Our church members told us, “We love the preaching, worship and programs, but there is no way for ME to make a difference, express my gifts or fulfill my own sense of calling here.”
When our consultant Kevin Ford, laid this out before me, I grimaced. “So what’s causing this? What’s at the heart of the problem? What do we need to change?” I asked in almost rapid-fire questioning. He looked at me and said. “You.”
Kevin continued, “Tod, don’t get me wrong. These people love you. They respect you. They appreciate your preaching and they trust you. In fact, we have never had a church talk more about a senior pastor than this church talks about you. And that is the problem. It’s not your problem, at least not yet. Nobody thinks that you are trying to build the church around you, but that is in fact what is happening. You could continue on for another ten years and the church will remain healthier than most. But without even trying to, the culture that you have created here under your leadership will continue to disempower, disengage and finally create disconnection for the most creative and passionate members. Unconsciously, the message that is going out is that everybody here thinks it is their job to support the ministry that YOU are having here. And that is slowly sapping the passion from the church.”
Kevin and I talked about the options open to me at that point:
- Do nothing. The church would continue to revolve around me and it would likely not become a huge problem until someday after I left the church.
- Resign. If I was out of the way, then the church members and would-be leaders would be forced to reengage and rediscover its ministry without me and my vision at the center.
- Learn to lead differently. This would be hard, and it would be a risk. While the danger signs were evident, the church was still relatively healthy. There was a significant chance that trying to create a less-centralized and more collaborative culture would be both resisted and resented (especially by those who liked the church the way it was.) And especially it would mean a big “loss” for me. I would lose the sense of competence that comes from using a leadership style that I clearly was comfortable with and which had had success.
Because I love my church and being their pastor, I opted pretty quickly for number 3. I have been re-learning what it means to lead ever since.
It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was one of the hardest and yet best things I have ever done. Today, not only are the “markers” even stronger, but even amidst this great recession, we are still solidly growing. We have faced hard cutbacks with clear values. We have maintained unity and have more diverse creative, lay-run ministry than ever. We are seeing more and more people step into leadership and express faith in missional service. While I am not as central as I one was, I am still firmly part of a more collaborative ministry.
Today I consult for TAG and help other pastors learn or re-learn how to lead in this changing world. And it all began with understanding that for our church mission to “win” I had to “lose”.