Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Ancient Future Ministry*


Why I believe the revival of bi-vocational ministry is the future for the Church...

“[The Church] must begin now to think about what this new form of the faith is and is to become, because what once was an engaging but innocuous phenomenon no longer is. The cub has grown into the young lion; and now is the hour of his roaring.” The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle

Bi-vocational ministry will be the norm by 2025, for most United Methodist churches as well as many other mainline and independent congregations. When I say “bi-vocational ministry” I am referring to those pastors and Christian leaders whose primary way of generating income is beyond the local church. First let me say there is nothing wrong with making a living in vocational ministry. It has been my life for almost thirty years. I am blessed beyond measure to have experienced a season when I was paid to proclaim the gospel and think deeply about theology and evangelism., As we move into the future, the luxury of full-time, vocational ministry will quickly evaporate and a new generation of pastors will be expected to be “tent-makers” rather than professional Christians.

Bi-vocational ministry is fast becoming a necessity because the world is changing, and it is changing fast! Around the world, and even within some of our Wesleyan family of denominations, bi-vocational ministry is the norm. I have friends in the AME, AMEZ, CME, Free Methodist, Wesleyan, and other denominations that have spent their entire ministry serving a local congregation while simultaneously working a “real job.”

Bi-vocational ministry will become the norm for three reasons: first, salary heavy religious institutions are unsustainable in a post-Christian world. Secondly, by 2025 churches will either be large (300-500+ in average worship attendance) or small (less than 100 in average worship attendance). Thirdly, bi-vocational ministry decentralizes leadership and provides for organic forms of evangelism, mission, and discipleship.

Financial Sustainability
If you have ever been on the finance committee or leadership team of a local church you are aware of an uncomfortable truth: staff are expensive. Full-time, ordained staff with health benefits and pensions plans cost at least $70,000 per year per staff person. The average family attending a local church is estimated to give about $17 per week, or $884 per year (nonprofitsource.com). At this level, it takes at least 79 faithful families just to pay the pastor. With worship attendance plummeting, years of lackluster stewardship teaching fueling a decline in financial partnership with the local church, and the cost of living continuing to rise, it is easy to see why many churches will be forced to deal with the fact that they just can’t afford a full-time clergyperson to be their pastor. This does not even include costs like facility maintenance, special denominational initiatives, or connectional giving to support the administrative needs of the larger organization.  


Bi-vocational ministry will be able to provide the leadership the local church needs at a fraction of the cost. What is vital, however, is the need for oversite boards and denominational leaders to provide both effective, theological training, practical skill development, and basic supervision to assist bi-vocational pastors to do effective ministry. This burden will rest upon those pastors fortunate enough to serve larger churches with accompanying salary packages. They will have to return to Methodism’s concept of being a “supervising elder.” Acting as the center of a hub of local churches, they will provide guidance, support, and practical resources to insure small local churches flourish.

The Messy Middle
Mid-sized churches (those with average worship attendance between 100-250) are difficult to sustain. Their long-term survival usually means they evolve either into larger congregations, or smaller ones. The mid-sized church is messy because it has the desire to provide the level of worship experience, mission engagement, and discipleship opportunities of the larger churches without the resources. They also desire to maintain the relational intimacy of the smaller churches, but are too big to act as a single, extended family unit. In the end, mid-sized churches tend to become smaller because intimacy trumps program in most organizations.

Being a small church is not a negative. Powerful ministry happens in small churches. Small churches need effective leaders and that leadership should not be based solely upon their ability to scrape together an attractive salary package. Additionally, there shouldn’t be some form of ecclesial Darwinism that happens when church leaders write small churches off by proclaiming that they will “get what they pay for.” Many of these small congregations are in marginalized communities, struggling cities, small towns, and rural areas suffering from radical population shifts. These are the very places where Jesus traveled, and where the Methodist movement was birthed. Now is not the time to abandon them based solely upon their ability to sell enough Brunswick stew or chicken plates to put together a $100k salary package.

Bi-vocational ministry will provide leadership to these congregations. With proper supervision, lay pastors and clergy can be deployed into these places. Many already live there and are committed to those communities and simply need to be asked to step into leadership at a greater level.

Decentralized Leadership
Bi-vocational ministry means empowering laity at a level unseen since the early church. By giving the Church back to the “ecclesia” (the gathering of the people), it becomes more of an organic body than an unsustainable institution. Yes, the spiritual garden may grow wild, but history teaches us that the Church tends to be self-correcting when it drifts too far in any direction. For decades (millennia?) we have enforced a hierarchical structure of top-down leadership. Even in more “free” denominations, a small cadre of leaders in any given congregation tend to exert control. Bi-vocational ministry can level the playing field and encourage clergy and laity to work as a unified body to provide ministry to the local church. It will require much more equipping and far less pastoral hand-holding. Clergy will be forced to let go of control, and laity will be encouraged to take pastoral responsibility. The church could look more like Acts 2, with every home becoming a ministry center and every member becoming a minister.

Failure to Prepare…
The Church is changing. For years, powerful voices like Lovett Weems have been warning us about the coming “death tsunami” the Church is facing. Now we are in the middle of the tsunami, there is a hurricane off the coast, and a plague across the land. We still have time to make some major adjustments. It is time to embrace and encourage bi-vocational ministry as the norm, rather than waiting for complete collapse of the struggling system.

*I first heard this term when I met Robert Webber at a seminar about how liturgical Christians and charismatic Christians have similar passions for powerful worship. You can read his bio here. I believe it also applies to any Christian practice that was embraced by the early church that is being rediscovered for present-day ministry.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Rummage Sales and Grave Clothes

“The Right Reverend Mark Dyer, an Anglican bishop known for his wit as well as his wisdom, famously observes from time to time that the only way to understand what is currently happening to us as twenty-first-century Christians in North America is to first understand that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”
The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle

Christians claim to be resurrection people. We acknowledge that death does not have that last word and that the worst thing is not the last thing. Around this time of year, Eastertide, our sermons are filled with analogies of Spring, new life budding from dormant ground, and grave clothes being stripped away to make way for new life. Christians claim to be Easter people, and yet we live as though death has the final word.

As a Church leader, I know it feels like Good Friday. It feels like things are dying. You may be concerned that your congregation will not survive the financial challenges it is facing or that the people may not return when the doors finally open. In the words of the great African American preacher, SM Lockridge, “It may feel like Friday night, but Sunday’s coming.” 

Let’s not be too quick to abandon Friday night. As resurrection people, it is important to acknowledge that we need to let some things die. In every church I’ve served, there have been programs, events, and activities that were continued just because they “had always been done that way.” There seemed to be no way to just stop everything and then critically evaluate what was making disciples and healing a broken world. Here is the good news. Here is the hope of Easter morning, we now have that chance. There is a way to turn today’s chaos into an opportunity to be more effective in ministry. Sunday is coming and it is important that we not waste the chance to live the new life God has for us.

Difficult times provide an opportunity to evaluate what is important. It provides the opportunity to redefine what is “essential” and what needs to die so that new life can emerge. We have an opportunity to abandon things that weren’t working but were hard to eliminate. Most importantly, and perhaps the hardest thing to do, is we can clarify our mission and create new methods to fulfill the Great Commission.

If you weren’t doing what you were doing, what would you start doing? You are now a church planter! Now that everything has stopped, whatever you do next is either going to propel you forward or hold you back from fulfilling the mission of God. This is an Easter opportunity for the Church. Suddenly you have transitioned from being the manager of a local branch of a multi-national organization to becoming a church planter. The good news is that you already have a core team of committed believers, it is up to you to lead them into a post-resurrection reality.

 However, a word of warning: as soon as things return to any semblance of “normal” there will be the nearly irresistible urge to go back to doing everything you were doing before. At the risk of sounding harsh, I believe this would be intellectually, organizationally, and spiritually irresponsible. Like a church planter, it is vital that you put your energy into what is vital to making disciples and equipping the people of God to be a force for good. Resist the temptation to just do what you were previously doing because it is easiest.

Good Friday always precedes Easter Sunday, but Sunday is coming. At the risk of repeating myself, some things need to be left in the tomb when the stone is rolled away. In the Gospel narrative, I think it is an important detail that Jesus left the grave clothes behind. Jesus knew that to emerge wearing them, like Lazarus did, would bind Him to the past. Jesus knew that those symbols of death were no longer needed. As leaders in local churches we need to ruthlessly evaluate what grave clothes we need to leave behind. Let me be clear, Good Friday is a painful experience. There is a chance that some of the things God will call us to leave behind will hurt. God could call us to leave behind property or programs that we are emotionally attached to.

In every church I’ve pastored I found things that should have been thrown out years ago. Things like film strip projectors, flannel boards where the flannel was peeling off as the glue had released, and my favorite, fifteen-year-old Sunday School material. I sincerely believe that whoever decided to pack these things away had the best intentions. There may have even been a reason for doing so when they stored a box of 8-track tapes and an entire closet of plastic grocery bags, however those reasons were long gone. Grave clothes bind you to the past. Fold them up and leave them behind.

Start with Why.  If you haven’t read Start with Why, I suggest you gather your leaders (virtually of course) and watch the linked video, buy the book, and then work through it while you are on lock down. For the first time in our ministry, we collectively have time to get clear and chart a new path based solely upon the commands of Jesus and not the preferences of our congregation.  As a reminder, here is what Jesus said was our mission according to Matthew 28:19-20:

“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of 
       the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey 
       everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day 
        until the end of this present age.”

We claim to be resurrection people, it is time we lived like we believe it. Yes, right now it seems dark. Let us not waste the dark time simply waiting to resume the things we were doing before without critical reflection on whether they are the best things to accomplish our mission.

What needs to happen for your congregation to see itself as a new church rather than just rebooting what it was doing before and hoping for the best?

It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!

Marty

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Chaos, Crisis or Catalyst?


“That is, every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread—and been spread—dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity’s reach as a result of its time of unease and distress.” Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence


Five or six months ago, depending on which projection you read, the world changed and initially no one noticed. That is the way major change occurs, isn’t it? It starts as a ripple on the surface that eventually erupts into a tsunami. Somewhere someone got sick. Then their family got sick. Some of them had minor symptoms, others got so sick that they died. They went into a city to seek medical care, and as is often the case in large hospitals, crowded with immunocompromised people, this new virus began to spread. The ripples were becoming waves, precautions were taken, though too late to contain the spread. Now the world is different than it was. The tsunami is crashing the shores. Theatres, churches, and stadiums are empty, and home is the locus of our day to day lives for the first time in decades. The world changed, it has thrown our lives into chaos, the systems we depend upon are in crisis, however this is an opportunity for it to be a catalyst for those of us who call ourselves Christians. We have the opportunity to lean into the difficulty and practice our faith in ways that bring hope into a world that is clamoring toward despair.

Chaos

Chaos, complete disorder and confusion, is what life feels like. The internet is filled with people lamenting about not knowing what day it is, how disoriented they are, and, of course, how much they miss their hairdresser. Can we have a moment of truth telling? For some time, we have known that Christianity, especially how it has been practiced in the West, has been in chaos for some time. Some of us have even lamented that the way we do “church” is broken. Sure, your church might be “thriving” however I would speculate that in your city there are fewer people who practice Christianity than there were a decade or two ago. Even “successful churches” are really those that are best at simply gathering discouraged Christians from other congregations because you provide a better band or cooler youth group. The chaos has been building, yet we have been denying it because of a few flagship congregations who seem to be growing when they are just gathering sheep from other flocks. Now that there is no way for them to provide the emotionally-charged, experience-driven weekly event, there is chaos.

It is not just large churches in chaos, small churches that were barely hanging on before, are also in chaos. These churches didn’t have robust online giving portals or flashy tech staff to be able to attempt to translate their experiences into a full-blown media event. They have part time pastors with iPhones trying to Facebook Live their messages and maintain contact with a scattered congregation. These churches relied on close, intimate contact, pastoral visits, and extended family relationships that have been thrown into chaos by having to physically distance themselves from each other. With offerings not taken and funds drying up, these churches will soon be facing difficult decisions.

Crisis

Not only are our lives in chaos, the systems we have come to depend upon are in crisis. I never imagined the U.S. would face a ventilator shortage or the possibility that there wouldn’t be enough hospital capacity. I also never imagined people would be protesting in the streets to be allowed to go to the hairdresser or shop at Bass Pro Shop. Governmental systems are giving radically mixed signals and nobody really seems to be in charge. After years of vicious partisan division, when a catastrophe has come knocking at the world’s door, the house is too divided to stand. In all of this, I am still an optimist. People are resilient. Despite some of the failings of the larger systems, it is encouraging that at a local level small victories are being won. Communities are organizing to feed their neighbors, provide for the elderly and at risk populations, and support essential workers. Crisis continues to shake our confidence but if history teaches the people of faith anything, it teaches that crisis and chaos are the foundation for catalytic change. It us during these times of radical change where the message of hope that Christianity can bring to the world can be heard as a clarion call.

Catalyst

Your church will be completely different after this There will be no “going back to the way things were.” The gathering of God’s people in community will look more like Acts 2. The post-Constintinian, experience-driven, large gatherings we have become accustomed to may be suspended indefinitely or at least scaled back. If we take medical experts seriously it may yet be months before dozens, hundreds, or thousands can gather again in what we have come to understand as “church.” There are two ways to look at this. The first way is to see it as though it is the large group in the big, fancy building or twenty to fifty saints in a rural white chapel that is the “church.” Even a cursory reading of the New Testament will clarify that this was never what the First Century Christians considered the “ecclesia.”

The second way, that I hope to unpack and help you strategize and create space for over the next few weeks, is the smaller gatherings that will allow the people of God to experience the power of the Holy Spirit in intimate settings within their homes. It is certain that before we are encouraged to gather in large groups again, we will be allowed to gather in groups of ten to twelve (that number sounds familiar). Here is where the true “ecclesia” happens. The Church grew fastest during the years 70-325 AD. This is because the gatherings were based in homes where real relationship happen. While large groups are exciting, smaller gatherings allow for deeper faith exploration. In our highly cynical world we are naturally suspicious of faith leaders who remain distant and removed this is a chance to be truly known.  Intimacy provides for transparency.

Currently the doors to the building where you gathered are closed, however the hearts of people all around us are open to the Word of hope that comes from a relationship with the risen Christ. Instead of seeing the loss of a building as causing chaos and a crisis to overcome, perhaps it is time we realize that is just this type of catalyst the Church needs to break free of its stagnant and broken structures and rediscover itself in the words of Acts 2: 42-47:

“The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the
community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe
came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the
apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. They
would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds
to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the
temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity.
They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The
Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”

My prayer is that we return to a time where the Lord adds daily to the community. Then we will truly be the Church. I remain:

Consumed by the Call
Marty