Friday, March 25, 2016

Tenuous Tenure—Part Four: Finding Your Traction in the Pastor-Parish Rotisserie

This post continues thoughts that began in “Tenuous Tenure—Part One: The Dangers and Damage of the Pastor-Parish Rotisserie.” This post examines the third of three stages of ministry that occur in the development of a pastor’s relationship to a congregation, and to the development of new churches within the community in which they are planted. Those pastors and new churches who survive the first stage, “Putting Out Fires,” do so largely because they have learned an important skill that is based on an important shift in perspective: “Spinning the Plates.” Those who manage to supply sufficient spin and survive their fifth anniversary as a pastor, or their tenth anniversary as a new congregation, do so largely because they have developed the disciplines necessary to “Finding Your Traction.”

External Causes for Wheel-Spinning: Feeding Off of Fragile Fellowships
When successful, the transition into this third stage results in “Finding Your Traction.” Where unsuccessful, the ministry of a parish pastor or the continued congregating of a newly-established ecclesiastical franchise begins to resemble any mighty American muscle car immobilized by mud and simply “Spinning Your Wheels.”

But in the usual responsibilities of a pastor toward their congregation, or of a church-plant toward the community whose needs they decided were unmet by previously existing congregations, the wheel-spinning is often a result of smaller, solo-pastorate congregations becoming “feeder-churches.” Some of us trained during the early days of the church-growth movement were actually encouraged to ensure that our churches became the ministries feeding off of the results of ministries in these smaller churches.

It's a long road, and it leads through rough territory.
In hopes of provoking prayerful consideration by friends who know no other paradigm than the past thirty years of “bigger-is-better” ecclesiology, I dare to call this phenomenon the church-growth movement’s multi-staff metastasis. This spreading cancer routinely drains actively-involved Christians from their engagement as devoted disciples in a local body of Christ, collecting them into a cesspool of spectators gathered for pious performances in emporiums of religious goods and services. There, the swelling ranks of paid professionals evaluate and report their success by estimating the crowd of “average Christians” attending their events and programs.

In this way, disciples once devoted to one another in their mutual service in the communities to which Christ calls them can sometimes barely remember how they once seemed satisfied in “such a small, unsuccessful church.” Meanwhile, the spectacle presented by “high quality professionals” distracts them from regretting their new role as mere donors. The sycophantic symbiosis of mutual self-congratulation lets attendees admire their “ministers” who, in turn, attend to whatever the attendees most admire. Those on stage serve those who gather; those who gather serve those who perform. And those outside the happy pairing of actors and audience (that would be, in my estimation, the community to which Christ calls us in service, and often even the Christ that calls us as well), enter the equation less and less often.

Count the blessings of smooth roads, and keep running...
Internal Causes for Wheel-Spinning: The Failures of Feeder Churches
This third stage of ministry development requires similar skills of pastors within the congregations they serve, and recently-planted churches within the communities they serve. When either has overcome the firefighting (see the “Putting Out Fires” post) and plate-spinning (see the “Spinning the Plates” post), the relative stability of wheel-spinning may actually be attractive. Though the scenery never changes because there is no forward progress being made, the engine still makes a lovely sound, and the passengers are never jarred by bumps in the road. And yet, the tenuous balance between patience and boredom is rarely sustainable, even where there seems to be an unlimited supply of fuel (a consistent influx of new residence to the church’s service area, for example) to keep the wheels whirling.

Finding your traction means first overcoming the frustrations and fatigue of realizing the absence of active servants who were once among your beloved fellow-believers, but having departed (silently, for the most part) for greener, and passive pastures. Finding your traction means developing a pattern of preparing new participants to fill the vacancies voided by what will always seem like disloyal defectors. And finding your traction means evaluating success by the actual ministry being accomplished in the communities to which Christ has called us, rather than in the stability of a particular roster of Christian servants. Few and rare are those who refuse to be seduced by the simpler, easier, more exciting, or less time-consuming options offered elsewhere.

...and on into the night.
Where We Go to Find Our Traction
Remember that we are considering congregations that have reached their tenth anniversary, and pastors who have served more than five years in their current position. Only those who have surpassed the firefighting and plate-spinning stages have built the equity necessary to accommodate a more definitive approach to proclaiming “this is who we are.” And that is where the traction is to be found, whether it is a congregation that has become established, or whether it is an individual Christian servant who has become incorporated into the congregation being pastored.

A strong sense of vision and mission in service to Christ and others will not eliminate sheep-stealing poachers from offering a more comfortable Christian experience to even those who strongly support the current purposes being served by a given congregation. But the statement “this is who we are” assumes that the loyalty of members within a local body of Christ transcends the tasks and structures of particular ministry activities. The congregation’s vision and mission evolves together as certain needs are met and other needs arise. The consistent focus on Christ’s calling to serve together in His purposes also sustains the movement forward, despite the addition and subtraction of individual members of the body. New gifts and talents expand the congregation’s abilities; what appear to be losses may serve to refine and refocus the congregation’s areas of service.

What Lies Ahead
Are there further stages of ministry for pastors and recently-planted congregations? Probably so. But while my tenure at The Glenburn Community Church has allowed me to recognize where I go in finding my traction here, my two experiences in church-planting ended with the dissolving of each congregation before their tenth anniversary. (Again, I have seen some reach the third stage in their ministries sooner or later than the averages. But both of those in which I served failed due to the fatigue of their primary plate-spinners.)

Is there a fourth stage of ministry beyond what appears to me to be the ultimate maturity of this third stage? Yes, I believe there is. For congregations, perhaps the fourth stage involves the eventual evolution beyond being led by their founding pastor. For pastors, it may involve the eventual adjustments and accommodations to injury, illness, or infirmity, where mere delegation (to and with those who share in developing and implementing vision and mission) must give way to the outcomes of true discipleship. There comes a day when one’s calling shifts to passing the torch either as a consultant, or decedent.

As a Death Pastor, I will suggest that the transition is preferable when you decide to pass the torch while you can still be available as a consultant.

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