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Missional Strategies for Conferences
By Robert Schnase
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Robert Schnase
All rights reserved.
The First Lever
A Strategy for Starting New Churches
Levers help us get things done. The advantage of using a lever is that we can move things that otherwise we could never budge, and heavy loads can be lifted with limited strength. Levers make impossible tasks doable.
In physics, a lever amplifies an input force to provide a greater output force. The English word lever derives from the French levant, which means to raise. Levers help us lift things that would ordinarily be too heavy to lift, defying the downward forces of gravity with less effort than would otherwise be necessary. Fifty pounds of effort can lift one hundred pounds of weight with a properly working lever.
Organizationally, levers are critical operational focal points for change that allow leaders to derive disproportionate results relative to the amount of work and resources invested. They are fundamental strategies that use our finite resources to greatest effect, making progress against the otherwise unmovable forces of intransigence and decline.
Levers multiply results. Each lever leads to multiple system-wide consequences. Levers aren't necessarily the easiest places to effect change, but successful work in these areas fosters sustainable long-term benefits. These seven levers rise to the top because of the extraordinary consensus of research and experience that has developed on the importance of these strategies.
The first lever is a strategy for starting new churches. Conferences intent on increasing the number of vital congregations develop an assertive, sustainable, fruitful plan for planting congregations. No conference plan for reversing decline can succeed without starting congregations.
Twenty-five percent of the worship attendance in the Missouri Conference is in congregations started during the last thirty-five years. Thirteen of the twenty-five congregations with the highest attendance were either new church starts or relocations during that period. Last Easter, 2,700 people attended worship in churches started during the past five years in the single district that serves downtown St. Louis. Nearly 18 percent of apportionments are given by churches started between 1978 and 2012. (These statistics don't include the eighteen thousand members of Church of the Resurrection, which was founded by the Missouri Conference but moved across the border that splits Kansas City.)
These numbers aren't unique to Missouri. Six of the twenty-five largest congregations in the North Georgia Conference are new church starts during recent decades, and attendance in new churches accounts for 14 percent of the conference's total attendance. Several conferences could report similar statistics.
With my assignment to Missouri, I inherited a rich tradition of starting new congregations. The conference was one of the leaders in the jurisdictions in successful starts. Continuing that legacy required persistence. Five US congregations planted in the last five years already have more than one thousand people, and two of those are in Missouri.
Why are new church plants important? The statistical evidence demonstrates convincingly that new congregations reach unchurched people more effectively than existing congregations. Demographically, new congregations do better at reaching younger generations and more diverse populations, which are the fastest growing segments of our communities. New churches find it easier to experiment with new models of ministry.
This replicates the experience of congregations who seek to increase participation in discipling groups. Is it easier to achieve an increase of twenty young adults by pressuring a long-standing, middle-aged Sunday school class to assimilate them, or to initiate a new group focused on young adults using resources attuned to their needs? People exploring spirituality afresh connect more easily to people like themselves than they do to long-standing, tightly knit groups. New attracts new.
New congregations naturally focus outward. They have no "inward" to focus on yet—no buildings, infrastructure, cliquishness, traditions, or territories to defend—and their very existence depends upon their capacity to reach new people. They can't afford to waste money, and so they tightly contain costs, use highly motivated volunteers, and streamline governance. Every person has a discipleship task in the early life of a congregation. They focus on the mission field, highly attuned to their neighborhoods and to the needs of the people. They can't afford to become insulated from the people around them, or they close within months.
As new congregations grow, they provide streams of leadership also adept in reaching the unchurched. Many future church planters experience their call to ministry as laypersons in new churches. New churches become excellent resources for planting other churches. Reaching younger and more diverse populations, providing future leadership, multiplying missional impact, starting other churches, and returning financial strength to the conference—these are the multiple long-term consequences that make starting new congregations an essential lever for change.
The Gathering in St. Louis began when an associate pastor approached the superintendent and bishop with his desire to start a congregation. He formed a leadership team and identified a mission field while remaining on staff and using the larger church as his base. The superintendent negotiated with a small congregation that had declined to eighteen attendees and was ideally located for the new start. The church closed, and the new congregation renovated the facility. The congregation thrived by reaching younger adults with a passion for urban life, a taste for blended/traditional worship, a love for Christ, and a desire to serve the city and the world. When attendance reached six hundred, the pastor of a smaller church rethinking its future initiated conversations with The Gathering, and soon the young church expanded to two worship sites. Last Easter, The Gathering led worship at four sites. Average attendance now surpasses one thousand people. The Gathering has become a center point for mission, with hundreds of people engaged in hands-on projects. One Christmas Eve, they received more than $111,000, and the next year they received $155,000, which they contributed entirely to Kingdom House, a United Methodist urban ministry, and to building water wells in Mozambique.
The story of Morning Star Church in St. Charles parallels The Gathering. Approaching its fifteenth year, Morning Star worships with 2,100 people, has started two new congregations, provides a stream of pastors and lay leadership for conference projects, attracts talented staff to Missouri, teaches other congregations, and gives more than 100 percent of its apportionments each year.
No lever influences the future of a conference more than an effective strategy for planting new churches. If you're going to use a lever, reach for a big one!
"Go To" Instincts
Jesus sent the disciples out "to every city and place he was about to go" (Luke 10:1). He commissioned his followers to "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matt 28:19). In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit weaves people from all places into a living community, the church. The people of God attended worship together, broke bread, learned from the disciples, and shared as anyone had need (Acts 2:42-47). Peter and the early Christians carried the message of Christ throughout the Jewish world, forming faith communities. Paul started churches across the Mediterranean. Forming faith communities and planting churches is a missional strategy from our earliest roots.
This outward focus derives from our theology of grace. When we speak of God's grace, we highlight the gift-like quality of God's love. God loves us with an everlasting love, a love that is unearned, unachieved, and unmerited. The word grace also emphasizes the active quality of God's love. God's love is a searching love, a seeking love, a pursuing love. In Jesus' parables, shepherds search for sheep, women look for coins, fathers eagerly anticipate reconciliation. Jesus travels from place to place, stepping across social boundaries, speaking with forbidden foreigners, entering the homes of tax collectors, reaching out to lepers, interceding on behalf of the woman accused of adultery. Jesus reveals the grace of God, and grace pushes, propels, compels, interrupts, drives, motivates, and takes us to new places and new people. Grace drives us outward beyond the walls of our church and stretches us beyond the concerns of our community. Grace never sits still.
John Wesley and the early Methodists realized that to go to every city and place Jesus intended to go meant reaching people unreached by the church of their day. He offended the sensibilities of church leaders when he experimented with field preaching to reach the laborers and the poor. He formed classes, bands, and societies and founded chapels and preaching houses to take the gift of God's grace to the most remote areas. Mobilized by God's grace, early Methodists visited prisons, ministered with the poor, fed the hungry, educated children, and addressed the social evils of the era.
The whole Wesleyan system was designed for expansion. The circuits that worked well in England for forming faith communities across broad swaths of territory with minimal resources worked with extraordinary effectiveness in America. Circuit riders covered entire states, forming faith communities in farm houses, trading posts, and emerging communities. Clergy started churches, laity started churches, and churches started churches.
Methodism began with "go to" instincts, but has become a "come to" denomination. Our passivity is a recent phenomenon. Waiting passively for people to find us, to come to us, and to like our way of doing things betrays our Methodist roots and Wesleyan theology. Planting faith communities to reach people with the message of Christ should be an absolute expectation. Church planting seems new, difficult, countercultural, and exceptional when formerly it was natural, expected, and nonnegotiable. The case for developing a conference strategy derives from the mission of Christ, our theology of grace, our Wesleyan roots, and our passion for helping others grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God.
Some conferences operate with a well-tuned, effective strategy for planting churches, and we can learn from them. But some conferences plant churches in haphazard, inconsistent ways without systems for preparation, supervision, or evaluation. Each church plant becomes a separate and unrelated experience, with no consistent streams to supply leaders or funding. Some conferences unintentionally become good at starting small, struggling, unsustainable congregations that they can't close without assuming massive debt.
A conference strategy for new church starts doesn't mean adopting a lengthy study paper outlining a complex linear organizational process or merely listing unrealistic aspirations. A strategy establishes a priority, defines an objective, mobilizes people, and aligns resources. A strategy is simple, clear, and succinct and focuses attention toward desired outcomes. It fosters system-wide planning.
Without defined strategies, conference leaders feel frustrated and say things like, "I don't know if I have permission to pursue this conversation or not. I don't know whether this fits the strategy." Wasted energy, lost time, and underperformance result from having no strategies. No one knows what to work on.
With a strategy, everyone knows, "We are actively and assertively looking for opportunities to start churches, and we welcome any ideas for recruiting people, identifying locations, developing funds, or forming partnerships." With a strategy, people begin to work on the tactics—the distinct steps and methods for achieving the end—each from his or her own position of leadership. A strategy guides work for everyone, including the cabinet, the finance committee, the trustees, and the conference as a whole. A strategy sets direction, aligns energy, and moves the project forward.
One challenge in a strategy for planting churches is the difficulty in identifying persons with the particular gifts that predict success in this specialized ministry. How can we improve the stream of people with the particular calling, talents, and energy to start congregations?
Formerly, the conference subjectively identified "entrepreneurial" pastors, mostly extraverts who easily formed relationships and risk-takers comfortable with uncharted territory. We selected one or two such people each year and sent them to the New Church Leadership Institute (NCLI) sponsored by the jurisdiction for five days of training. Then they were assigned to plant a church. The system worked moderately well, but this approach provided only a limited stream of pastors. Because of the subjectivity of the selection process, nearly all persons identified were young, white males with a particular temperament. The tactic created a bottleneck for finding people.
Seven years ago, we changed tactics. We began to send fifteen to twenty people each year to the NCLI, whether we thought they had the gifts for planting churches or not. The practices learned at NCLI enhanced ministry for everyone. Mentor pastors, superintendents, and the Director of Congregational Excellence attended NCLI to observe, listen, and search for those pastors who responded with passion and gifts. Each year four or five people emerge as prospects for starting churches, and several others sort themselves out by expressing reservations about planting churches. The list of candidates became more diverse, which has allowed us to successfully appoint increasing numbers of women and ethnic pastors to plant churches as well as pastors from varying clergy statuses and ages that we might otherwise have overlooked with our previous tactic. Forty percent of our participants in NCLI are female, and more clergywomen plant churches in Missouri than in any other conference in the jurisdiction. We started three predominantly African American congregations, a number of Hispanic congregations, and several intentionally multiethnic congregations using pastors identified through NCLI.
After a few years, the tactic deepened. The seventy pastors who had attended NCLI demonstrated greater understanding of church dynamics and were more likely to maintain an outward focus, even in traditional congregations, and so we began to send nearly all our beginning full-time pastors as well as newly appointed superintendents. NCLI provides a practicum in evangelism and in demographics that benefits any pastor.
And we use NCLI to recruit seminary students and pastors from other conferences who feel disillusioned by their own conference's unwillingness or inability to plant churches. We pay their way to NCLI, based on the belief that the training contributes to effectiveness wherever they eventually serve. The stream widened and grew stronger. Success fosters success, and the network of young pastors feeling called to plant churches is well connected. We received more inquiries and began to communicate and cooperate with more conferences to train and transfer talented people.
Our own churches also feed the stream of potential church planters, especially large congregations and new churches. A congregation hires a layperson for a staff position who later seeks candidacy and licensing as a local pastor while continuing to serve on staff. Some set their sights on seminary and ordination. We support nontraditional career development paths and encourage our large churches to do this. This stream provides leaders with a proven track record of fruitfulness and experience in a growing church—two rare attributes that are particularly useful for planting churches.
These tactics represent the front door of the leadership development system. We've widened it so that we identify more candidates. When we discern whether to assign someone to plant a particular church, another phase begins that involves intense assessments with the Director of Congregational Excellence, the executive assistant, the superintendent, and a member from the Congregational Development Team. Interviews focus on gifts, temperament, experience, family support, psychological health, work style, fruitfulness, and affinity to the mission field. We focus on their actual experience in initiating ministry, starting groups, inviting strangers, and leading teams. Pastors who plant churches don't step into an existing system; they create one, and so we explore organizational skill. We assess four to six people a year and then appoint three or four to start new churches.
After we appoint pastors to start churches, we send them to the "New Church Start Boot Camp" for church planters. They receive one week of intensive preparation, learning the logistics and practicalities for forming leadership teams, meeting people, and finding locations, among other skills.
Excerpted from Seven Levers by Robert Schnase. Copyright © 2014 Robert Schnase. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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