Saturday, July 5, 2014

Soylent Church, Part Two: Why, in a World Awash in “Successful Ministry Careers,” I Choose to Be a “Failure”

In yesterday’s post, I admitted being complicit (i.e., “an accomplice”) in a religious practice that has damaged my family, parishioners, congregations, and denomination. The same has happened to and through countless other church leaders. But I need to be clear, with myself, about that from which I have repented.
You’re welcome to read along.
In the 1980s and 90s, church leaders were sometimes trained to see our “target audience” as “consumers of religious goods and services.” At other times, we were to evaluate our congregations by applying “the Pareto Principle,” investing 80% of our time in the 20% who showed promise as “producers of additional disciples.” We were taught to motivate donors to open their various “pockets” in support of ministry expenses, while professional clergy did “the real job.” Those who were unable to finance our ministries were still valuable as “cogs in the wheels of our programs.” (Never underestimate how many “volunteers” the average church event requires!) And even before my first Sunday as a pastor (September 11, 1983), I understood that whatever I thought about persons, their needs, and their growth as Christian disciples, it was their status as “statistics to be reported to headquarters” that would largely determine my “success” or “failure” as a pastor.
These work. So does a "Free Beer" sign.

I was sorely tempted, and I yielded. At least monthly, filling out those reports, I reduced persons to something less than divinely-beloved human beings. Why? Our lofty goals demanded it. There were more important measures of ministry. We were going to “Bring Back the King!”
I was part of a movement that sought to radically and rapidly multiply our churches and adherents. We planted one hundred churches across North America—all on the same day—coinciding with the 100th anniversary of our denomination’s founding. Without a hint of irony, A Movement for God, from our office of National Church Ministries, refers to “the ‘Easter 100’ church planting offensive.” Though many of those attempts (over half, in the district I was then serving) quickly withered without establishing viable congregations, we pressed on. Simultaneously awed by our “success” and bizarrely attracted to rhyming our marketing slogans, we sought to plant “A Thousand More by ’94.”
I’m not kidding about the rhyming. I was serving as a pastor, and as regional extension assistant for our district. While attending our denomination’s annual meetings, I mentioned the results of having “planted” one hundred churches in one year, and asked the National Director of Church Growth how we established the time-line for planting 143% of that number, per year, for seven years straight. Again, I heard no irony in his answer to my question, “Why do we think we can do this by 1994?” He said, “Because it rhymes.”
One size fits some. Offends others.
Years ago, Lyle Schaller addressed church-growth, seeker-sensitive, statistics-driven acolytes like me. He claimed, “We count people because people count.” But what I was told and trained to really count on was the need for numbers. Otherwise, my “ministry” would not be considered a success, and my “career” would stall. And so I counted and reported what some call “nickels and noses” or “butts in the pew and bucks in the plate.” But even as I filed my monthly, quarterly, and annual reports to the parent corporation, I found that I couldn’t resist the time-consuming, face-to-face, limited-return-on-investment pastoral practices of preaching, teaching, visitation, and counseling. Thus, I “neglected to transition,” in Schaller’s terms, from being a “shepherd” to a “farmer” to a “rancher” and beyond.
I couldn’t complain about a stalled career. I knew that some were watching theirs end, and abruptly at that.
My friend, the church-growth director, shared that we were destroying the ministry careers of more than half of our church-planting pastors. He said, “When these churches don’t survive, I send the pastors’ resumes out to all our district superintendents. The superintendents don’t even return my phone calls. There’s nobody who’ll even talk to these pastors. They’re dead meat.” Since I was serving a struggling church-plant at the time, I had to ask: “So, what about folks who have a successful track record, but the church they’re planting doesn’t survive?” He didn’t turn toward me when he said it: “Well, you’re probably not dead meat. But you’d certainly be horse meat.” And soon I was. But I got over it. I got back in the saddle, after being horse meat. I’m glad I did. Not everyone got that opportunity.
Much cuter than any pictures of actual horse meat.
But still, to be accurate, I need to clearly state: I “was” part of what I still call “our” denomination. I am repentant from my attitudes and actions as part of the church-planting/church-growth/seeker-sensitive focus of our movement. And yet I still own that this is “our” problem. How does that work? Am I or aren’t I in or out?
Today, some of my former colleagues sigh sadly and wonder how it is that a young man with such promising skills ended up tucked away in the boondocks. Why have I been relegated to serving a small, rural mountain community? What did I do to be ostracized by the denomination that upholds my ordination, but refuses to license me to “that place?”
I honestly believe that the answer to those questions is simple: I began to listen carefully, and to hear my calling—not only my calling as a pastor, but to be the pastor of The Glenburn Community Church! I have sought to obey Jesus Christ in fulfilling my ministry as a servant to others for His sake (II Cor. 4:5). I don’t always do it as well as I’d like. But I also tend not to forget that those I serve, and serve with, are persons.  
And persons are not the stuff that careers are made of. But when the “career” I’m living is over, I trust that many of the persons I choose to serve will receive me into “the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).
If ever there was a place where horse meat tasted "just like chicken," this has to be it.


Pastor Greg said...

My denomination had a "2000 by 2000" campaign once!
Some of my coworkers and I had the opportunity to meet several times over a couple of years with our counterparts from similarly sized congregations. One "large" church from another state had a staff that was completely burned out by their senior pastor's incessant demand for numbers.

Even within the context of a single large church the numbers game can be played in evaluating programs and staff. Reminds me of Laodicea. "For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." (Rev. 3:17). Are we so focused on our growth metrics that we don't here the knocking at the door?

Wm. Darius Myers said...

Thanks for the comment!

Rhetorical though it is, your question overwhelmingly moves me to answer. "Yes, we are, so that no, we don't."

And the metrics-orientation is not confined to large churches and/or denominational churches either. The temptation is always there to ask "What's in it for us?" as a congregation whenever we set our focus on ministry that does not specifically offer a "growth potential" in attendance, finance or, at least, influence and reputation.

Multnomah_Student_SB said...

Bill, I enjoyed reading your reflections. They even got a laugh. I wish I could write something cute that rhymes all to make the point that I am thankful God is faithful to us throughout our life in him. I really value your earnest desire to be faithful to him. May it be so for each of us!!

Wm. Darius Myers said...

Thanks, SB, for your comment and for the sense of solidarity. As you note, thankfully, Christ is faithful to walk with us, even when we wander out into the brambles of enemy territory as we're chasing our own rainbows. That way, we have a clear Guide for the most direct course back to the path He calls us to: cruciform, sacrificial servanthood. And even then, He allows us the extra blessing of being able to laugh about it!

Anonymous said...

What a wide chasm separates a spiritual motive from the numerical/statistical method. I fully agree that we who are spiritual leaders must be different from non-spiritual leaders. As those in spiritual authority over others, we owe a debt of custodial care for their well-being. Does not your God say the fear of man bringeth a snare: but whoso putteth his trust in the Lord shall be safe? May your God bless you mightily and richly for your devotion to the small, rural mountain corridor community you pastor. I bless you today and I encourage you, and I pray on your behalf that your God will carry you as you minister to the people whose lives are rooted in his mountain regions. jp

Wm. Darius Myers said...

Thanks for the benediction, JP, along with the acknowledgement of that wide chasm. Sadly, some of us with better motives still pursue the prescribed methodology--because that's what we've been told is all there is! I'm not sure I'd use the phrase "spiritual authority," in deference to a concept of support and accountability in solidarity with those called to do the work of the ministry (while pastor-teachers seek to equip/align/connect them). But that blog post will eventually get written, too. Thanks again!

Chris Haughee said...

I tried to post a response to this article last week, but it looks like blogger ate it. I will try to remember my brilliant points (ha ha). I am a few years your junior, but I remember the same pressure for numbers and growth in youth ministry, where I cut my teeth, so to speak. At one point I was counseled by the elders of the church to dumb down (their words, not mine) my talks at youth group because I could only get greater numbers if I spoke simply... like YoungLife. Lots of games and songs and "splash," but not much substance, I followed their advice--because to not obey meant I was being unteachable and would have been let go--and the group stayed about the same size on Weds nights. However, I did notice a change... the sign ups for mission trips went down and those that eventually went on into the ministry dipped precipitously. I was calling attendees to youth group... not making disciples. One book I did like that came out of this era was Coleman's MasterPlan of Evangelism (I think I am remembering the name and title correctly). Do you know that little book? What are your thoughts about it's place in this season of church growth "stuff" that came out?

Wm. Darius Myers said...

Dear Chris,
The other "cost of non-discipleship" we continue to recognize is the great apostasy of most churches' young people when they leave home to pursue college, career, or carnage. They are not only unequipped to deal with the intellectual and social challenges outside the ecclesiastical cocoon, but disinterested in adult-level participation in church life.

Coleman's MasterPlan was required reading during my college years. I remember it having an impact, but in the intervening years (being so much so your senior!) much of it has not so much faded, but been assimilated, I believe, into the work I've done over the past thirty-plus years. The pattern of training I've used for some time centers on 8 "Es" - Engagement, Explanation, Example, Experience, Expression, Evaluation, Extension, and Exit, and is refined somewhat by the TAFERR Model (Training, Affirmation, Feedback, Evaluation, Recognition, and Refection). All center on life-on-life, deeply committed relationships in making disciples who can make disciples (at least as I recall Coleman). I am so thankful that my stint as a pastor of worship and youth followed immediately on the heels of a father-son team in those positions who had worked to draw about a third of the "mother-church" congregation into splitting off to pursue a "more evangelistic" seeker-sensitive ministry. I had free reign to invest in the lives of our remaining team and students, rather than in the "splash," as you called it.
Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. Sorry it took you two tries, though. The points seemed brilliant enough to me.
Yours for His sake (II Cor. 4:5),

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