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.|