Monday, August 19, 2013

No Instant Experts

The church has entered a dangerous age of instant experts. It was ushered in shortly after we admitted that we were out of touch with the culture around us. It was then that we decided we needed to be “reverse mentored” by those who were immersed in the current culture yet familiar enough with us that they could make us understand what they wanted. We seem to believe that if we somehow reach young people, we will succeed in perpetuating the faith. That may be true if in fact we could ground them in the faith, and teach them what they need to thrive in a hostile world. Our current tendency is to put them in charge, consider them the experts in reaching the young. This is very short sighted. They are experts in what they want, that does not make them experts in what God’s church needs. Surely, it is important that we be aware of the values that motivate the people around us. It is important that we learn to communicate in ways that will be heard and taken seriously. But let us not sell short what we bring to the table. For a few thousand years the truth has been bouncing around behind our history and our theology. And even though the progress has been painfully slow, we have made important gains. Human rights have advanced a long way since Old Testament times. The status and role of minorities and women have improved greatly in the church and beyond. We have learned that ours is a mission of sharing culture not dominating it. It has been an ugly struggle. We are still fighting about human sexuality. The work is slow because it is so very complex. Developing common goals and a mien of collaboration takes real finesse. We have to account for beliefs, tastes, personalities, and varying levels of commitment. The work is affected by long-standing prejudices and exaggerated emotional responses often the result of indoctrination by dysfunctional systems. A lot needs to change before an old institution can do new things well. Deep change requires a lot of careful well guided work. Successful church leadership requires: a fair and mature appreciation of the cultural location of those in the system, an accurate assessment of the gifts and the needs of each of the players, a thorough grasp of the full organizational history, the ability to identify and cast a compelling vision, a heart for the mission and the ability to see how it fits into the global picture, a working knowledge of the current rulebook, a realistic picture of the costs and benefits of pursuing proposed tactics, the ability to translate the work of the church into whatever idiom is required, the willingness to hold people accountable for the work that is assigned to them, and the charisma to draw a following. The fact of the matter is, there are no instant experts. People who spent their careers learning the church’s theology, missiology, ecclesiology, pneumatology and praxis have something to bring here. Those who study the culture sociologically and demographically, and those who work on the effectiveness of church organizational systems need to be brought to the table. We need negotiators, and salespersons, and accountants, and dreamers, and partyers, and good friends. Our church systems have failed to evolve and are therefore not surviving. But the answer is not just to get some young people to go do stuff with other young people. We need to reinvent this Christian movement all over again, changing everyone and everything as we are led. We need to bring the church to a place of cultural relevance by engaging the world with the truths that have sewn the fabric of civilization together since the beginning. Desperately throwing together a few cool sounding projects is not going get us where we need to go. There are no instant experts, there are no easy formulae; there is only the reality of evolution. We need to be evolving at every level of church life, and we have a lot of catching up to do.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Coaching: A Special Way to Help Your Leaders Lead

“Coaching” is a term that is all the rage in the business community and across the Christian church. It can refer to different practices depending on its context and usage. Most coaching in the church entails coaching leaders to improve their performance. Because the church is a system, a change in any part of the system affects every other part of the system. The simplest way to improve the way your church organization works to accomplishing its mission is to make its leadership more effective. Leadership is the key to effective ministry. Rick Warren has said,“If you want to know the temperature of your organization, put a thermometer in the leader’s mouth.” No one in your church will be more committed, focused and enthusiastic than your designated leaders. It makes sense, then, to put significant resources into supporting the health and vitality of your leaders.

Continuing education is one place to do this, but more is needed. Leaders need the an objective person to walk along side them who understands the context of the leader’s work but is not a part of that context, who demands a clear delineation of the plans the leader has for the future, and who asks the difficult questions when those plans are not unfolding on schedule. Such is the role of coaching in church life.

Sometimes a leader needs a mentor; someone who has experience and wisdom in similar circumstances who can share best practices and warn of potential pitfalls. But the coach is not a mentor. The coach is not there to bring expertise to the leader, but rather to help the leader bring his or her own knowledge and skills to bear most effectively.

Sometimes a leader needs consultant to do an objective evaluation of the operation of various systems in the leader’s organization and to prescribe remedies for those places where there is dysfunction. The coach is not a consultant. The coach is there to hold the leader accountable to the stated plan, not to offer a new plan.

Sometimes a leader needs a counselor to give emotional support and direction. It is easy to lose one’s self in the complexities of ministry and a wise counselor can help us balance our lives. But this is not the coaching role, for the coach is focused outcomes, not on the intricacies of emotional life except to note when performance is being impaired.

Sometimes leaders needs a spiritual director to help with the forward momentum of their spiritual development. But even though the coach may be keenly interested in realization of spiritual development goals as laid out as a plan for the church, the personal spiritual development of the leader is outside the scope of the coaching relationship, except insofar as it helps or hinders progress toward realizing the vision for the church.

The coaching role therefore is unique and limited; an aid to the discipline of leadership, and a way to help leaders stay on top of their game. When you are thinking of all the ways you can help your leaders be effective, do not leave out this simple but important tool. It has the potential of turning your good leader into a great leader.

Lauren Swanson is a consultant with Strategic Missional Solutions and is available to help your mission-based organization align with its purpose.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Upper New York Conference: Underchurched or Overchurched?

In Upper New York Annual Conference we Methodists have one church for every 6898 people. Our churches are not evenly distributed across the population, however; far from it! In some of the most populated areas we have as few as one church per forty thousand people. There are over 300 zip codes where we have no church. At the other end of the spectrum are zip codes where the church-to -population ratio is high. There are thirteen zip codes where we have a church for every one hundred or fewer people.
These figures can be misleading, because zip codes have neighboring zip codes and vary in geographical size. Mapping out these areas however is a good first step in identifying places where new ministry development has potential, and those places where consolidating our resources might be wise. It is prima facie evidence that the church has not kept pace with population shifts. The death of many of our churches in the most populated areas is a sign that we have not kept pace with cultural shifts either.
When considering the ministry potential in any particular place there is a lot to take into account. It is not as simple as dividing up the population among the Methodists. What are the prevailing cultures in the area? What churches of all kinds are there? How are they doing? What types of ministry are taking place? Who is not being reached? What are the social, political, and financial realities in the area? All these determine the kind of ministry that has potential in an area.
Of equal importance: What resources do we have to bring effective ministry to the area? Who do we have to give leadership to the development of new ministry there? How will the leaders be trained, coached, supported, connected, and held accountable?
Whether the task is to reconfigure places where there are not enough people to sustain our churches or to fulfill our mission by bringing the gospel to places where there are not enough churches to reach the people, these same questions apply.
Our denominational motto is “Rethink Church.” Rethinking entails both self-examination and context evaluation. If our real intention is to “be God’s love with our neighbors in all places,” then we must start with the consideration of who those neighbors are and how we would best develop relationships with them.
Our natural tendency is to start with the preservation of the status quo. We have been trained this way. Laurence J. Peter has said: “Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.” We need to regain credibility and relevance in the culture, and we will not do that without first taking the culture seriously. Rethinking threatens to radically change the way our church does just about everything. If you do not find this unsettling, you have yet to grasp what it means. We church folk have a curious comfortable little niche that we need to give away to the world, so that people very unlike us may find the truth of the mission we are on. It is time to give the church back to God; to put the mission ahead of our personal preferences; and to commit to the call to create new places for new people and to revitalize existing congregations in whatever way is best for the church universal.
There is no one program, no single approach, that will bring us to realize our potential. Recreating our church culture is incredibly complicated and difficult work. We need help identifying the links between who we are and whom we are called to serve. It takes time and dedication to the mission. It takes an openness to ideas and practices we have not previously encountered. It means aligning all that we do with the mission; eliminating whatever stands in the way, and whole-heartedly supporting and structuring around those things that connect us with the strangers around us. If we do not do this, and do it well, and soon, this new conference will be short-lived. Let us not be afraid to admit when we do not know what we are doing. Let us get the help we need from those with specialized training, and more importantly from those populations we are called to reach.

Lauren Swanson is a consultant with Strategic Missional Solutions and is available to help your mission-based organization align with its purpose.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Leadership Inspires and Follows Through by Lauren Swanson


In Developing the Leaders Around You, John Maxwell said: “The strength of an organization is a direct result of the strength of its leaders…Everything rises and falls on leadership.” There was a day when we thought that churches succeeded because of their location, and/or the charisma of the pastor(s). We have come to realize that in this day leadership is the key. Churches are in transition. They are either changing rapidly or they are declining. Positive change requires good leadership. Charisma is not enough. It is not enough to entertain, or even inspire. There must be a functional system in place that can use moments of inspiration to bring about transformation.

Douglas Anderson, the director of the Rueben Job Center, coined this much quoted maxim: “Events inspire; processes transform.” Have you ever sent people off to trainings or events, had them return on fire with enthusiasm, only to find that nothing comes of it? Perhaps you have experienced that yourself. We design events with great speakers, powerful worship, and impressive crowds. It is easy to get swept up in the excitement. Indeed we need these experiences to energize us. But if there is no plan of action around the visions discovered there, the fire is short-lived.

Prov 16:15 (The Message) "Good tempered leaders invigorate lives; they’re like spring rain and sunshine." Spring rain and sunshine are on-going needs for growing plants; God supplies, and plants thrive. Likewise, leaders must institute processes for nurturing growth in the long run, well beyond the planting of the seed. Leaders must stayed attuned to the progress being made and adjust to evolving needs of their organizations.

I have discovered another important principle: Transformational processes require mileposts for accountability. Laying out a plan to realize an inspired vision is a great thing to do, but will result in transformation only if the journey proceeds. Someone needs to be responsible to systematically ask how the voyage is going. Only then can needed course corrections be identified, and failing components be replaced or repaired. Leaders that are not only inspirational, but also skilled at seeing the progress of transformation objectively, are of the highest value.

So when you have folks on fire with ideas, ask the question, “So, now what?” Set a process in motion with mileposts of accountability. Fan those flames and direct that energy toward a well-articulated goal. That’s what good leadership does. That’s how transformations are born.

Friday, November 5, 2010

It's a Rocky Road to the Promised Land

Our mission as United Methodists, as Christians, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Transforming the world is a pretty tall order! It begins with transforming ourselves. That is a pretty tall order too. All of us in the church need to model ourselves after Jesus, who was the ultimate self-sacrificing servant leader. To be a disciple is to follow this example. Only disciples can make disciples. The transformation of the world begins with the continual transforming of our own lives. All this calls for a lot of change. Change this profound and this radical requires strong leadership.

In every institution there are workers, managers and (hopefully) leaders. Workers are primarily concerned with their own individual tasks. Competence is the highest value for a worker; doing the job well; getting it right. Managers, on the other hand, are focused on the smooth running of the system, and therefore look not just to the competence of the workers in their care, but also to the relationships between workers that either contribute or hinder the harmony of the workplace. The manager’s goal is to keep things on an even keel.

When circumstances call for profound change, managers get nervous, for this means that the system, even at its functional best, is not accomplishing what it needs to. The system needs to be changed, if not replaced. That road is not smooth.

Strong leaders are comfortable with change. The central focus for the leader is the destination. Profound change will only happen if the vision that is driving it is subscribed to as the only acceptable outcome. In order to achieve the best result, the leader needs competent workers and a smooth running system. But the leader knows that new goals require different competencies and reorganization from the ground up. Peter Drucker once said: “If you can’t change the people change the people.” The leader is willing to do that. Jim Collins, in Good to Great, indicates that, when journeying somewhere new, you need the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and everyone in the appropriate seat. People do not like to change seats. People really do not like losing their seat to someone else. The change journey is bumpy and requires leaders to hang tough. Workers will fuss when new skills are required. Managers will want to placate and control using the old patterns. The rockier things get, the more the managers will want to control. But the opposite needs to happen. For a new and healthy system to develop, new leaders must have the freedom to try new things; to do what they were called to do. An emerging organization needs to place high accountability on leaders for outcomes, but low control of resources from the top down. And what is more, if the organization is going to remain true to its calling, it needs to understand itself as always emerging, never arriving, and continually learning from the surprises along the road.

Listening to the Right Voices

1Kings 19:11-13
11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

The prophet Elijah had defeated the prophets of Baal and was running to save his neck. With his survival threatened and his resources gone he found himself in a scary place. Winds howled around him and an earthquake shook the very foundation on which he stood. He had trouble finding God in all the tumult of change around him. Listening to the wind, watching the rocks crumble, feeling the land shift beneath his feet no doubt demanded his attention, but God’s voice was not to be found there. God was heard in the “sound of sheer silence.” When all the other distracting voices were put aside, the voice of God came clearly to him.

In the midst of great change we are assailed by a cacophony of voices. There are the voices of opportunistic power seekers who would exploit the vulnerability of people in change to gain position. There are the voices of the disenfranchised crying out to protect the center of influence that once was theirs. There are the voices of the chronic complainers who find even more fuel for their tirades. There are the whimpers of those who fear change. There are the cries of grief from those who are losing the cherished familiar. In the midst of this welter, discerning the voice of God is quite difficult. Where in all of this is the voice of the prophet; the one who has heard God’s vision for the future and has the courage to proclaim it?

I saw a poster today that said: “When the winds of change blow hard enough, the most trivial of things can turn into a deadly projectile.” Systems in turmoil try desperately to gain equilibrium. In the process, those who promote deep change are often subjugated. When the change is inevitable, and change leadership persistent, excitement abounds. When change leaders are subjugated, the system returns to its defaults and is destined to produce only what it did in the past.

The church at all levels is in need of deep change. We need to boldly pursue a radically new vision for the future of ministry in our place and time. We need to step back from the raucous ruckus of self-serving voices and listen for the voices of the prophets among us; those who are in touch with God’s vision for the church and not motivated by personal agendas. True faith is proved when we follow God’s vision despite the turmoil it engenders

Friday, July 23, 2010

Roles for Congregational Development in UNY Conference

Our New ACT team identified three foci for ministry in the new conference that will help us to “live the gospel of Jesus Christ and to be God’s love with our neighbors in all places.” I would like to outline here some places where I see past Congregational Development practices going forward in support of the new vision:

Focus Area 1: Engaging, equipping and empowering local churches to be in ministry with and to our global neighborhood. There are some essentials that need to be in place in the local church if it is to be healthy and able to accomplish its mission effectively. The first of these is to fully embrace its individual mission. When a church really understands and values its calling and is passionate about fulfilling it, its ministry is bound to be a blessing. The second is to have compelling vision; a shared picture of the kind of ministry that will accomplish the mission here and now with these people in this place. The third is to have a well articulated, reasonable, accountable, strategic plan with clearly defined measureable goals and objectives to realize the vision. Congregational Development can provide processes for identifying congregational values, refining the church’s mission, developing a shared vision, and creating a strategic plan. It is also a resource for best practices.

Focus Area 2: Encouraging and developing leadership within the laity and clergy that is diverse and engaged with the vision of Christ. Leadership and Congregational Development go hand in hand. A leader without a plan and a plan without a leader are both useless. Effective leadership must have affinity with the population that it is trying to reach. Affinity can come from accidents of birth or from careful relationship building. We are surrounded by great diversity. Racial and ethnic segments, generational differences, cultural identifications, lifestyle choices, economic disparities, individual tastes and preferences, social/political/economic trends, all contribute to the picture of the ministry context that leaders are helping their congregations to reach. Congregational Development plays an important role in identifying these factors and equipping and supporting leaders and churches for mission in their context. Congregational Development in the new conference could provide church leadership with mission context evaluation, congregational health assessment, educational opportunities concerning the dynamics of change and strategic planning, coaching, mentoring, conflict management, consultation around size transitions, guidance and support for launching new faith communities.

Focus Area 3: Building relationships with our neighbors particularly those who have been disenfranchised by mainstream society. How do we build bridges into communities where we heretofore had no entry? We need to find an open door and then go through it. Asset mapping and needs assessment of both the local church and the community can identify places where church and community can usefully intersect. When felt needs meet the help needed, the potential for relationship building is great. It is through relationships that we learn how to truly make room for the other. It is through relationships that we stretch and grow and learn to be the church in new and exciting ways. Congregational Development can provide tools for asset mapping and needs analysis to help the local church find those points of entry.
As we begin to give thought to the programmatic structure of the new conference, let us be careful to create an infrastructure that supports local churches in their mission. The Annual Conference can bring more than mere administrative oversight; it can be a real asset to local church ministry, providing a source for shared ministry ideas and opportunities, and resources of all kinds to promote congregational health and bring valuable ministry to fruition.