The Missing Ingredients That Are Killing Congregations
No real surprises or secrets in the premise of this article; just another article on some of the reasons that people are abandoning church involvement in ever increasing numbers. But unlike other articles, this one goes into a bit more depth about what is missing from most congregations that is causing the exodus, and suggests tangible fixes to begin a cure to the problem. It is admittedly scathing in tone, but perhaps a scathing tone is what is needed to wake up the church from its self-induced hypnotic state.
Oh, all congregations these days have a ‘mission statement’. Never mind that it either has been in place for decades (when such statements came into fashion), or that it gets changed with every change of pastor, or that it is hollow because no one has clue how to carry it out or measure the effect in practical terms. Mission statements look great on letterheads and weekly bulletins, but are pretty much useless if no one is genuinely invested or enacting the mission in any fresh, relevant manner.
I’m Facebook friends with a congregation across town, and the pastor posts pictures of himself with folks he has shared the Good News with on the street, usually after they have accepted Christ. I don’t know if this pastor is just showboating, or if he is for real. But one thing is for sure, what he is doing is carrying out THE one-and-only-genuine mission statement of the Church in a pretty focused way.
All too often, congregational mission statements are just showboating, and the people (both inside, visiting, and outside) of the church know it because they do not see genuine, tangible proofs of it being taken seriously. There is just too much self-absorption, programmatic confusion, irrelevant offerings, shoot-in-the-dark efforts, and ignoring of people’s pain that guts most mission statements.
Let’s face it, most real mission in congregational life is to keep the status quo, keep members ‘happy enough’, provide the illusion of authentic mission action, or to simply keep the doors open for another year (or until the pastor gets to retirement). If a congregation is not creating new disciples (note: not new members), it is failing in the mission.
Tangible Fix: Congregations can choose to access professionals who are trained in helping corporate bodies to achieve clarity of mission through a structured visioning process.
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Care and Responsibility
Congregations (and pastoral staff) baptize folks, confirm folks, require folks to go through ‘membership classes’, marry folks, admonish folks, Sunday School folks, and bury folks, but seem to always be insufficient (in all but the last) at being responsible to care for folks very well after the fact. A basic premise of becoming responsible for someone who has claimed the Name of Christ seems to be a concept that has long ago faded away. Most Baptismal rites for infants have several clauses about how the parents and receiving community is responsible for the training up of the child in the faith, but very little on the deeper levels of care for those who eventually have problems in life, or those who don’t quite ‘fit in’. Most congregations are absolutely inept at caring for kids after drab, meaningless ‘confirmation programs’, let alone caring for any that continue to hang out after the fact. Even though the ministry of Jesus should make it obvious that we are mandated to be responsible and give care to those who are disenfranchised, the church does not do a very good job (even with its own) at it.
The honest truth is that the church is abysmal at offering post baptism, post confirmation, and post marriage support to its members. To be sure, many think that they provide support through occasional, marginally relevant sermons or Bible studies, but these tend to simply present the expected ideal and fail to provide any genuine help when the member has difficulty meeting the ideal. Just as it is irresponsible to convert an individual and then not follow through with providing for their formation in the faith, it is irresponsible for congregations to say, marry people with no protocol for helping them stay that way.
Tangible Fix: Discovering a clear mission and vision for carrying it out allows a congregation to make comprehensive restructuring of not only programs, but radically fresh approaches that meet prospective believers where they are at (not sitting in the pews), and motivating and training existing believers on HOW to carry the Good News to others.
There are very different skills required in being a pastoral clinical counselor and a preaching pastor. Though some preaching pastors may have a compassionate and supportive disposition, and may even have a seminary course or two in ‘pastoral care’, they are not trained clinical counselors. Preaching pastors may (or may not) refer members to secular clinical counselors, but just as often try to do the counseling work themselves, which is not only inadequate, but likely unethical as well. Pastors or Clinical counselors may or may not have the skills needed to be good teachers and trainers of others. We find this truth when Paul speaks of the many members of the body, each having a purpose.
No ordained person or other church staff is good at or skilled at everything, nor should they be required to be so. Yet continuing education for the ordained and other church employee is often quite slim on practical relationship skills at all levels of functioning. Volunteers are delightful, and may have a great desire for their area of ministry, but this does not translate into skills to do the job. Ongoing, integrated, required skill training for pastors, paid ministers, and volunteers in ministry programming is essential, yet often routinely ignored.
Ideally, the church (Christian congregations) should be places of healing, but if no one has any tangible healing activities to offer than a blessing from the pastor and a ‘prayer chain’, you can be assured that not much healing will be taking place. This is not to suggest that that prayer does not heal, it certainly does…just that most people have an innate sense that there must be something that they could learn and do to improve their own situation. And again, in reading any of the Gospels, we often see that while Jesus is compassionate and heals people, he quite often expects them to engage in some activity: allow mud to be put on their eyes, pick up their mat and go home, keep silent, offer thanks to God, or to go and sin no more.
Many congregations have such long histories of extensive interpersonal wounds, grudges, divisions, and even crimes that have been swept under the carpet that the congregation has become a convoluted stack of unresolved pain that prohibits any real execution of the central mission. All that is needed, in their skewed view, is a new pastor to cure everything. Congregations become so self-absorbed that no real spiritual growth is possible.
Tangible Fix: Development of a comprehensive, integrated and year round training and re-training schedule for those involved in direct ministry positions in the congregation, as well as training offerings for the average member.
It is axiomatic that congregations keep plodding along, do the same thing they always have done out of a kind of stuckness in nonsense traditions that have long since lost their meaning and effectiveness. One of these that is insisted upon, for example, is that primary ministries in a congregation can be adequately handled by volunteers. Congregations that would not think of living without a paid custodian balk at hiring a skilled and trained youth minister, for example. Or if they do hire on, they hire a very part time, inexperienced college student and then pat themselves on the back for being progressive.
Congregations routinely hire someone to direct the music program, or to ghetto-out youth ministry, but rarely decide to hire someone with counseling skills to help their membership (or prospective members) with emotional, psychological, or behavioral issues. One may ask if that is, in fact, the job of a church to do. Even a cursory reading of Luke’s Gospel should answer that question readily.
Likewise, many congregations pin their hopes of membership increase on spending wads of cash on things like sound systems or projection systems, expensive props, overpriced do-dads for VBS, or video equipment to broadcast pastor’s sermons. These bells and whistles are not what people need from church. People need real compassion and healing.
Money is often the stated snafu as to why hiring skilled professionals to fill ministry positions is not done. But in addition to having problems with mission focus, many churches have a crippling lack of vision as well. Holding on to a volunteer mentality and active resistance to the sound mission achieving, disciple building reality of employing qualified professional ministers in specialty areas is something that readily shows to the new person walking through the doors on Sunday morning, and slowly grinds down the 20/20 visioning sight of the existing members.
Tangible Fix: Based on the discovered mission and vision for the congregation, careful discernment and determination where available monies are best spent, with an eye to balance between member care and making new disciples.
There are many, many fine, caring, and competent ordained pastors out there, but there are also many, many inadequate, ill equipped and downright emotionally unbalanced ones as well. The pastors who are really ‘good Joes’ are often radically under-supported economically, emotionally, and spiritually. Just as frequently, they are isolated, lonely, and their family and marital lives are highly stressed. Some middle of the road pastors are just trying to keep the doors open to their church and keep their salaries from dropping along with the weekly attendance. And then there are some very damaging pastors who are so full of themselves that they see any suggestion of the need for support as a betrayal and hostile action against them. Yet other pastors are clinically mentally ill, with depression, anxiety, or personality disorders.
Tangible Fix: Consideration of the development of greater, genuine lay leadership sharing with the ordained and paid staff. Comprehensive, required pastoral care of the paid staff, including time for individual and family retreat, study and prayer, and adequate vacation. Education and structures at the higher level of denominational organization to recognize and deal with mentally, emotionally, and behaviorally ill clergy.
Until churches and congregations stop their denial process of the real reasons people are fleeing from the organized church will there be a slowing and reversal of the current exodus. To learn more about some of the basics of such reversal, visit bandbseminars.com
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