Read an Excerpt
Aiming Real Leaders at the Mission Field
By Paul D. Borden
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2006 Paul D. Borden
All rights reserved.
It's More Than Just Talk
The cultural currency of the ecclesiastical world is words. For humans, it began when God created the first people and spoke to them. God continued to speak throughout history and saw to it that the words were shared, remembered, and recorded.
God then sent THE WORD, who became flesh and dwelt among us. THE WORD, Jesus Christ, conducted his ministry while speaking in all kinds of settings to a variety of people who congregated with him. Whether from one-on-one interviews or from preaching to thousands, his words were remembered. The words and deeds of Jesus and the apostles were remembered and revealed to future generations of believers.
For nearly two thousand years, the followers of Jesus have spent time communicating the thoughts of God accurately and inaccurately in sermons, teachings, writings, prayers, stories, poems, hymns, and songs, and through the endless making of books.
As a result of all this remembering, revealing, and interpreting, most of what is done in congregations, missions, and ministries depends primarily on written and spoken communication. We pray, preach, share, testify, witness, sing, quote, print, e-mail, type, teach, and read words that convey an extensive variety of pious and divine thoughts.
Therefore, we usually expect that for one to lead well in a congregation, he or she must have the ability to communicate reasonably well in some form so that people are motivated to follow.
Our expectation for strong leadership is not being met in most places. This is one major reason why the Church in the Western world is deeply in need of change. Renewal that refocuses believers and congregations on seriously communicating the Great Commission is perhaps the greatest priority facing the Church. Leaders desiring to drive such systemic change must understand that this endeavor demands the strategic use of words. The majority of change agents in a congregation will be leaders who have a plan for change that includes a major overhaul of communication strategy.
Let's take pastors as an example. Too many former pastors are now selling insurance and funeral plans because they wanted to lead change but failed in communicating well the changes they were attempting to implement. They failed in large measure because they had no communication strategy. Probably no profession other than pastor has such a vast opportunity to lead change through individual and group communication. My hunch is that many executives in large corporations, non-profits, small businesses, sales, or even politics would be envious of the opportunities pastors have for leading change.
Each week people come and sit voluntarily so the pastor, whose salary they pay, can speak to them. Although different traditions circumscribe the time allotted for this communication, pastors have from ten to forty minutes or more to talk and communicate with congregants. And in most traditions the pastor is given time either before or after the formal presentation to make comments to the audience. Perhaps the only other leaders who have such access to their followers are coaches of sports teams or conductors of symphonies.
Furthermore, every time there is a meeting of the congregation, the pastor usually can take time to speak or is given time to communicate. This opportunity is afforded not only in informal gatherings but also in meetings where major decisions are made about the future direction of the congregation.
In addition to the public visibility, pastors are paid to spend time in study. This time for research provides pastors with the opportunity to examine key issues related to change, and to develop strategies and tactics to enhance the process and speed of change. Even in some rural settings where pastors are expected to be out and about talking with the community, such interaction gives the pastor insight into people and situations, while allowing the pastor to "test the waters" about changes that may be pursued in the future. In most congregations, people are willing to meet with the pastor when she or he asks. These meetings enable the pastor to develop relationships, model discipleship, and train leaders who may be open to following when change is being implemented.
All that is true for pastors, except for the weekly task of preaching, is true for congregational staff members. Not only do they have access to people, who often allow them to intrude on their schedules, but they also are usually given the opportunity to speak at every meeting they attend.
Lay leaders in congregations have the same access to leaders and other laity that pastors have. They are often involved in meetings where they are expected and given time to speak. They may be put in charge of groups where they are expected to lead. Any leadership they exert is generally through oral or written communication. The culture of most congregations allows them to call and make appointments with people, most of whom are willing to meet.
All of these relationships are possible because the cultural currency of the Church is words. No other social entity in our culture allows and expects people to communicate with others as often and as regularly as occurs in the world of a congregation.
Yet despite all the opportunities to influence others for change, most congregations and the Church in general are declining and moving more and more inward (focusing on themselves) as each day passes.
There are multiple reasons for this inward direction that the Church is taking, but Direct Hit will address two major ones. The first is that many people in leadership positions in congregations either are not willing to lead transformational change or do not even see themselves as leaders. The second reason for decline is that even when people assume the role of leader and lead transformational change, they often do not have a well-developed communication strategy to affect such change.
Now it is true that only God produces real change, and only God grows the Church. However, it is also true that God usually works through leaders who function wisely and are committed to God. The Scripture is filled with stories of leaders who came to the people of God when they, like the Church, had lost hope and were convinced nothing could change. However, when those leaders led well, God brought all kinds of transformational changes as a result of their wisdom and effective communication. The good news is that I have not only seen God do this for the people in the Scriptures; God has done it for our part of the Church too.
In 1997, I, along with others, began working with a group of over two hundred congregations in northern California and northwest Nevada, affiliated with the American Baptist Churches of the West. From 1997 to 2001, we experienced a miracle of God. In 1997, less than 20 percent of these congregations were growing. Many had experienced growth and health in the 1950s and '60s, gathering over five hundred in worship each Sunday. By the time we arrived, many had less than one hundred in worship attendance and the congregations were aging, often with few if any younger families attending. However, by 2001, over 70 percent were growing, and many of those congregations today are averaging between three hundred and nine hundred people in worship attendance. Today we are aggressively planting new large congregations that launch with over three hundred people in worship. Our miracle continues.
God used several major human factors to produce this miracle in this part of the Church. The first key factor is that our change began as we focused on the crucial role of leadership and made it a value in our congregations. Usually we started with our pastors. For those who were here before 1997 and are still here, now leading much larger congregations, it required a significant spiritual and mental shift in how they viewed their role. It was a role that took some convincing prior to acceptance, and then required intensive training and mentoring to fulfill. But as pastors have accepted this role, they have experienced a dynamic change both personally and professionally.
However, not only pastors need to become leaders. Good leaders are constantly raising up new leaders. The pastors in our region understand that one of their primary responsibilities is to develop their staff and board members as leaders. As our congregations grow, more and more staff members are recruited, mostly raised up from the congregations they attend. For example, we now have a pastoral cluster designed for female full-time staff members, which is led by a female staff member. Most of the women in this cluster were not in church leadership five to ten years ago. A congregation grows in proportion to the number of new leaders that are being developed every year.
We now have board members who not only protect and cheer their pastor as she or he leads; they too lead. These new leaders are active in a governance model that allows mission and vision to be achieved. However, they are also learning that their most important function is not sitting on a board but leading an effective ministry in the congregation. We now have board members who are invited to go outside our region and denomination to help other pastors, lay leaders, and congregations make transformational changes.
My work with congregations and denominations for thirty years around the world has demonstrated over and over again what others continue to say about all organizations, religious or secular. The ability for any organization to effectively accomplish its purpose is ultimately determined by leaders who are effective because they communicate well. Effective congregations—defined by the ability to fulfill the Great Commission—have outstanding leaders. This is true for new church plants, growing congregations, or congregations who desperately need transformation. Some might say that this principle is self-evident, but with so many dying and ineffective churches, is it really obvious to everyone that the leader is the key?
The good news we have discovered in our part of the kingdom (and what I have discovered around the world) is that many pastors who never saw themselves as leaders are willing to take on that role and with training and mentoring are now able to lead healthy, growing, reproducing ministries. These pastors are becoming adept at developing other disciples as leaders too. Many of our congregations are developing a leadership community that is constantly growing and producing new leaders.
Barriers to Leading Change
The first barrier has already been stated: Most pastors do not see themselves as the leaders of congregations, except perhaps when accepting the title of "spiritual leader." Few pastors are willing to assume the role of a leader who takes responsibility for mobilizing the congregation to accept the mission of obeying our Lord's Great Commission: to make disciples for Jesus. Instead, many pastors and other church staff presume that their job is to call individuals to personal discipleship. This assumption permits them to take on roles as the congregation's chaplain, preacher, theologian, disciple maker, and so forth. These roles are validated by the pastor's training and the expectations of the congregation. However, the idea of leading a community of people (a local congregation) to fulfill a mission and achieve a vision is foreign to their way of thinking. It is not part of their paradigm.
A second barrier is that pastors have been trained and often perform in an environment where faithful endeavor is honored, but fruitful results are not expected or demanded. This avoidance of results is present not only for pastors but also for any individual who possesses ministry responsibilities in the congregation. And so we have declining congregations and declining denominations. The Church shies away from accountability perhaps better than any other organization in our society. The incentive to change is particularly absent when the ministry environment reacts so negatively and often labels change as unspiritual.
Serving in a world where a "slow, painful death" is the norm frustrates many pastors and lay leaders. However, there are so few models and systems from which to gain encouragement and experience that these people do not know what to do, and they are without hope. Too often they attend conferences where stories of health and growth motivate them to return to their congregation with great excitement, only to have that excitement drowned with the discouragement of working within a system that is so highly dysfunctional that it vacuums any joy or excitement from the soul.
A third barrier to change is that many congregations are led by a handful of people who have gained that position by default. A long line of ineffectual pastors coupled with the continual loss of key lay leaders has defaulted into these people taking over control of the congregation. Though often they often start with good motivations, their leadership deteriorates to one of conserving the status quo. Their fear of losing more people, coupled with an introverted theology that the congregation exists for them and those like them, causes them to gain personal significance from holding things together. The thought of risk and acting in faith scares them because it threatens their security and significance, which motivates them to resist any change that tampers with their influence and control. The result is a strong and often organized passive-aggressive attack against any leader who wants the congregation to become active in fulfilling the Great Commission. The people in control realize that a great influx of new people would mean a loss of control and that such a loss would be accompanied with a decline in their own status. Therefore, they attempt to lead with negative communication, sometimes even scaring off new people before they can become part of the congregation.
The last major barrier is the polity of most congregations. Regardless of the denomination and its polity, most congregations in the United States are designed to be small, remain small, and function ineffectively in the twenty-first century. These structures, from their inception until now, reflect the cultures in which they were created. Unlike in the Scriptures, authority is divided from responsibility to act. There is little if any accountability for results, and the little that does exist is not applied with consistency throughout the system. In some cases, triangulation is codified into the system. Egalitarianism is honored over effectiveness, and bold leadership is greatly discouraged. Change always starts with mission and vision. However, no new mission and vision will take hold and last over time if the structure is not changed to allow both to flourish. The bureaucratic structures of our congregations do not produce leaders or allow leaders to lead, and such structures usually drive off the good or strong leaders at both the clergy and lay levels.
The good news is that we have seen God break through these barriers in many of our congregations, as well as in congregations all over the globe. It is important to note that God used leaders who had clear communication strategies to produce such miracles. While it is true that in some cases God worked in spite of us, in most cases God worked through leaders who took responsibility for results, were strategic in developing the right tactics, and communicated in such a way that these strategies and tactics could be employed effectively.
Factors in Leading Change
Effective congregations are led by pastors and a team of leaders who are clear about their mission and focused on achieving a vision. Unlike the majority of congregations that are either on a plateau or declining, effective congregations are healthy, growing, committed to reproduction, and open to changes that will move them from one level of effectiveness to the next. The constantly changing culture, wherein what is new today is passé tomorrow, demands fluidity in strategies, tactics, and methods. Healthy congregations are outward-focused, and they maintain that focus against tremendous forces that are constantly encouraging an inward bent. Such congregations are led by leaders who regularly implement change. Such leaders create an environment where change becomes the norm and maintaining the status quo is unacceptable.
Many pastors have gladly accepted the role of leading individuals to change. The role of leading someone to move away from a destructive and sinful life to embrace Jesus Christ and his teaching is what has often motivated pastors to choose their profession over others. However, few pastors have taken seriously the role of leading an entire congregation to change from conducting ministry for personal consumption to conducting ministry for the purpose of transforming the community that surrounds it. Those who do take on this more biblical and global role have not been trained to do so, and there is often little help in pursuing this role from either their peers or the denominations in which they find fellowship.
Excerpted from Direct Hit by Paul D. Borden. Copyright © 2006 Paul D. Borden. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.