Tag Archives: Leadership

Pastoral Theology and Change: Part 3

by Jackson Watts

Change is inherent to the nature of salvation; repentance itself implies real spiritual change. So it should be no surprise that the congregational life of saved persons also must undergo certain changes in its ministry sometimes in order to better foster growth, discipleship, worship, or evangelism. The challenge is to discern the right degree and type of trellises to support the vines, to use Marshall and Payne’s metaphor.[1]

So far we have established two important truisms concerning church change. First, change is often very difficult, frustrating, and sometimes elusive. It can lead to confusion, conflict, and unwanted departures of leaders and/or members. At its worst, it fractures a church, hindering its witness in the community.

Nevertheless, we’ve also established that not all change is the same. Change has many different faces, requiring different levels of reflection and effort to implement. Implicit in this is a conviction that I think most leaders share: Change doesn’t have to be a problem. It can be a healthy, exciting opportunity despite the challenges that come with it. Understanding the different types of change is an important first step for pastors and churches to work through transitions in a way which strengthens Christ’s church.

Change through Reform

The second type of change is innovation. While innovation is usually associated with a new invention, it doesn’t have to be something entirely new. Don’t think of it like the invention of electricity or the telephone. Innovation is more like going from the first light bulb to LED lighting. Light itself wasn’t invented. Rather, a better means to produce and diffuse light was. Moving from a landline phone to a cell phone would be an innovation within the field of electronic communication. Innovation then, as I am describing it, is the reformation of some aspect of the church’s life.

We know about “reformation” due to the tumultuous period known as the Protestant Reformation. Some would argue that the very nature of the faith was altered, or even recovered. But consider what remained: Churches, priests/pastors, the Lord’s Supper, belief in the Triune God, and other core aspects of Christianity.

Without question, much changed with both church teaching and practice! But I use this illustration to show that Christianity as a religion about Jesus Christ didn’t end or begin. However, significant innovations occurred that were thought of as reforms, returning the church to a pre-existing form (historians can debate the best terminology to be used).

Innovation is arguably the most common form of change, and thus most likely to be attempted. Changes within an existing church culture happen organically, in fact. Sometimes background checks on children’s ministry volunteers must be performed to satisfy the expectations of the church’s insurance company. It is a change, but largely accepted as unavoidable. People resign from ministries, and new people step into those leadership roles. Most members accept and understand that these changes happen, even if they don’t prefer them.

However, innovation happens whenever background checks lead to expectations of special training for children’s helpers. Innovation is when the church changes financial disclosure practices under a new treasurer, or when a new youth pastor stops taking students to a particular camp each year and instead goes to a different one. Financial stewardship and student ministry didn’t end. It isn’t a simple matter of addition or subtraction. Yet these ministries have been reformed in some way. To put it another way, the form (structure) of a ministry (substance) has been altered.

Tweaking or Tampering?  

Innovation and reformation are themselves contested terms. Depending on who you’re speaking to, these words summon different reactions. To Silicon Valley investors, innovation has an appealing ring to it. To those struggling to set up their voicemail, it doesn’t sound so good. Similarly, our Catholic friends may have something of a bitter taste in their mouths toward ‘reformation.’ To those with shelves full of Banner of Truth books, it just as well be ‘Gospel’!

This range of responses is also seen in the local church. Saying one is going to “tweak something” seems harmless enough. To others, it is heartless tampering designed to take control. Reform, in other words, doesn’t necessarily signal improvement, even if that is the goal. Healthy reform have growth in faithfulness as its ultimate aim, but it requires more than good intentions.

Thankfully, whenever leaders successfully improve an existing aspect of the ministry through some innovation, members usually appreciate it. In fact, it is quite rewarding whenever skeptics or even critical members become some of the most vocal supporters of a change once it has happened. The challenge is patiently waiting and praying for that reaction.

Naturally, leaders and lay members alike recognize that there is not just a range of feelings about changing certain features of the ministry. There is also a spectrum when it comes to the scope of the change. A church may have preaching in its worship service each week. But if in a week’s time, the pulpit has been replaced with a new one and the pastor has lost his necktie, this will likely be considered a significant innovation (fairly or unfairly!).

As a general rule, the degree of reflection, prayer, planning, communication, and implementation is proportionate to the extent of the reforms about to occur.[2] Bigger changes equal more preparation, in essence.

Innovation is not entirely unlike incorporation (change type #1). However, pastors usually learn that innovation and reform is most often easier to implement than actually introducing something new. With innovation, churches at least have the concept, structures, or other “raw materials” already in place. Being prepared to accept reforms then becomes the critical issue.

Leadership Insight

Why innovate? It has often been said that change for change-sake isn’t very healthy. People say this because they generally need to see a need for improvement in order to embrace change.

Ultimately, innovation is grounded in the conviction that God is calling his people to a deeper level of faithfulness. If the culture of a church is permeated by beliefs such as, “We are perfect,” “We are fine,” or “Everything is going well,” then any form of change will prove nearly impossible. However, whenever there is a growing sense that the church is imperfect or ineffective—as a whole, or in several areas—there is a greater openness for reform.

How does this awareness of imperfection or ineffectiveness occur? The primary means by which the church increases in awareness of the need for reform is 1) Preaching/teaching the doctrines of sin and sanctification, and 2) Regular observation and evaluation of the church’s ministry effectiveness.

The first of these is accomplished from the pulpit, the podium, the Sunday School classroom, and numerous other venues where believers intentionally meet for instruction. By learning that we are sinners as well as saints, they will be better able to connect the dots between their hearts and the ministry structures around them. In other words, if Christians still sometimes sin in thought, word, or deed—including inside the church—then this means that sometimes our ministries need sanctifying, so to speak.

Furthermore, the laws of physics tell us that things wear out: people, programs, buildings, etc. Sometimes a fresh coat of paint, new carpet, new chairs, and other tools are unavoidable if we are paying attention to this decaying world. Understanding the extent of the Fall helps us to see that every manmade thing won’t last.

When we take into account both the fallenness of our own natures, as well as the world itself, we know innovation will occasionally be needed as we address the flaws in our ministries. Naturally, this always begins with the heart, mind, and soul. But is an error to overlook the body, and thus the church’s material life. We are embodied souls who worship in places (e.g. buildings), in well-ordered ways (e.g. worship service times, order of services), with carefully-designed tools (e.g. curriculum). These trellises serve the vine best whenever innovation and reform is occasionally undertaken.

The second way to create a church culture that thinks in terms of improvement is to regularly inform members of the patterns of growth and decline of spiritual vitality over time. Church attendance is a valuable metric, but a very limited by itself. Church leaders must find biblical and practical means of observing, recording, and reporting how God is at work in the congregation. Some of these are easier to measure than others, but by developing multiple means of assessment of the church as a whole, and then specific areas of ministry, the congregation will be better positioned to understand what potential reforms may be needed.[3]

As a rule, this will be much more effective than saying, “We need to mix things up,” or “The church down the street is doing this, so let’s try it, too.” Members who are growing in maturity are doing so because they understand sin and sanctification, and they care deeply about the unfolding life of the church. It works it reverse as well: members being taught about sin and sanctification and who are helped to better see the ministry for what it is will grow in maturity. Such members become advocates of and partners in reform, not opponents.

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[1] Cf. Colin Marshall & Tony Payne’s The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mindset that Changes Everything. See a brief summary of their proposal here.

[2] This is why my illustration about the Protestant Reformation is intentional. Some would argue that we see the whole gamut of changes in this event: incorporation, innovation, and interruption (see forthcoming Part 4). This illustrates another facet of my argument, which is that once you begin ‘innovating’ or generally changing many things, at some point you begin having several different types of change all at once, which is more apt to lead to conflict than multiple changes of a single type in a single area of ministry.

[3] The concerns about the proper use of numbers or data are well-expressed in Kevin Hester’s recent post.

Pastoral Theology and Change: Part 2

by Jackson Watts

What’s in a change? We never truly know until we enter into the crucible which is change.

As I explained in my previous post, church leaders (especially pastors) face numerous challenges in the course of leading God’s flock. Among them is the difficult task of helping implement change. This change operates both on the level of personal spiritual sanctification, as well as the structural aspects of the church’s congregational life which are intended to foster spiritual renewal and progress. We might say that changes in the organism (individual believers’ lives) are inextricably connected to organizational changes (the programs, policies, and procedures of the church’s ministry).

Pastors, especially by virtue of their role as overseers or bishops (episkopoi), must wisely work together with other leaders and mature members to discern which changes will best accomplish the church’s mission.

However, many of us intuitively know that not all change is the same, though some may tend to associate all change with discomfort and hurt feelings. Part of why this is so often the case is because there has been a failure to consider the nature of specific changes. In other words, church change isn’t a monolithic category.

I would suggest that there are at least three main forms of change a church can experience. Each is difficult in its own way, but each is also sometimes necessary. Here we will consider the first of these three unique types of change.

What’s New?

The first type of change is when something new is introduced to the church’s life—what I call “incorporation.” This is the resourcing of the church’s ministry because a new practice or custom, artifact or object, or value or belief is introduced to improve or strengthen the church.[1] Sometimes the newness is associated with a pastor’s particular background or experience elsewhere, or perhaps an emerging trend among associated churches. The perception is that the pastor is “bringing this newness” or that all the other churches are doing this now. Regardless of the source, usually a pastor or group of leaders presents the idea, hoping to persuade members of its value, and then implement it as smoothly as possible.

The main obstacle with this type of change is that the newness in question seems like an unwanted intrusion on a church’s existing life. For members who aren’t in the habit of self-examination, there is usually an implicit assumption that everything is already fine. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” epitomizes this sentiment. Therefore, the default position is to reject anything new on this basis without further reflection.

Any number of other sensibilities can be attached to this reticence toward change. Members may be fearful of how something they deeply value may be negatively impacted by the intrusion of the new. New programs, practices or tools have a tendency to displace older programs, practices or tools that may be deeply cherished.

Another common reason towards resisting the new is that many churches have had a checkered history when it comes to implementing new things. More than likely, the frustrated pastor is unaware that some of the congregational resistance to change has been conditioned to be that way by prior, unsuccessful changes. If crossing Jordan posed its difficulties for the Israelites after they had the Red Sea crossing in their rearview mirror, then it’s no surprise that sometimes church members—especially those desiring peace—don’t want to retread old ground whenever things weren’t successful before.

In this way, our experiences tend to be hermeneutical in nature. If a church leader has had success with a particular change in a previous ministry situation, it conditions him to think that it could go well and work smoothly in other contexts equally well. Likewise, if people have had unpleasant experiences with various forms of “newness,” this will shape their perception and expectations concerning the impending change.

Expectations and Ends

An equally problematic pattern with incorporation can be when churches want to adopt anything and everything new simply because it is new. In this, the church reveals its captivity to the myth that whatever is new is inherently good, and whatever is old is inherently bad. Another aspect of this is the belief that this new thing will deliver to the church something needed or sought after, whether converts, improved finances, or any number of other positive things. In this respect, the modern notion of ‘technique’ (especially in its commercialized American form) is simply applied to ministry. If the right technique is applied, then this will engender the desired result.

Many people will recognize that the first reaction above by some lay members is problematic in that it out-of-hand rejects anything without careful spiritual reflection. But the second mindset is also problematic because it also lacks a certain level of essential biblical evaluation. Rejecting something new for the wrong reasons is, in the long run, just as detrimental as promoting or accepting something new for the wrong reasons.

Pastors must work diligently to make a reasoned case, from Scriptural principles, for why certain new additions to the church’s life should be pursued. Additionally, they must develop an understanding of the context into which such new changes are being proposed. This will not only help them gauge the reactions they will receive, but the likelihood of success even if the changes are adopted.

A second thing they must do is closely evaluate which problem they are trying to solve, or area of ministry they are trying to improve by such a change. What is the end, in other words, of this effort? What are we realistically expecting to happen as a result of this change? Will the evaluation of the change’s effectiveness continue even after its adoption? How, if at all, will the church tweak the change or even reverse course if things are not successful?

These questions demand more time, attention, and reflection than we sometimes want to give, even if we are well-intentioned throughout the process. But they are the reasonable extensions of any case for incorporating something new into an existing church ministry.

Leadership Insight

We must come to appreciate the unique ministry setting in which God has placed us. Certainly the principles of Scripture are truthful, valid, and beneficial in any place where God’s people are. Yet these can never be hastily abandoned in the name of cultural relevance, or even in a misplaced desire to give the illusion that the church is making progress simply because they are doing something new and different.

There are also no doubt trans-cultural principles that shape pastoral ministry in any context. However, one of these principles is, in fact, that all ministry is local! This means that the pastor must be an anthropologist and historian, in addition to being a theologian. They must be students of the people they are called to love and serve. They must explore the history which has shaped the church throughout the years, making it the unique congregation that it is. The church’s history itself is constituted not by random events that simply happened to the church; its history is the sum total of the decisions (good and bad), gifts, victories, defeats, and dreams of the people. An awareness of such history will facilitate pastors in all types of change, especially with incorporation.

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[1] More on these three ‘traditions’ will be shared in a later post.

Pastoral Theology & Change

by Jackson Watts

One of the most frustrating aspects of Christian leadership—and pastoral ministry in particular—is the challenge of leading congregations through change. By change we mean either the 1) introduction of something new to the church’s life, 2) reformation of an existing aspect of a church’s ministry, or 3) removal or cessation of something that presently exists in the church. Any of these changes require different considerations. Of course, the specific object of change also carries its own unique baggage.

Whether leaders be pastors, deacons, teachers, and/or some other ordained or elected person, most recognize how unusually difficult change can be. It’s demanding because we deal not only with processes, policies, and procedures; we deal with people. Because people are an exceptional bundle of personality, heritage, hope, fear, giftedness, and brokenness, this only adds to the complexity of figuring out the mechanics required to implement any change effectively.

In a forthcoming series of posts, I will explore how any sound pastoral theology, and philosophy of Christian leadership in general, must incorporate the concept and practice of change. The genesis of these posts is a presentation I gave as an ENGAGE Leadership Seminar at the 2015 National Association meeting in Grand Rapids.

What’s in a Change?

For all the talk about change among evangelicals (including Free Will Baptists), we often don’t attend to the theological underpinnings to the subject. We tend to paper over these, operating purely on the level of the practical outcomes. We want change in the interest of things “going more smoothly” or “being more efficient.” This is understandable. After all, we want to pursue a “manner of life,” to use the New Testament’s language, which accords with the sound doctrine with which we’ve been entrusted. We want to see the spiritual fruit that follows faithful labor for the Lord. Yet this reasoning assumes a larger understanding about human nature and what God is doing among His people.

‘Change,’ properly conceived, begins with a biblical conviction about the necessity of repentance. Repentance (metanoéō) signals a change in mind. This change isn’t merely an intellectual move. It suggests a reorientation in spiritual direction. Perhaps the best way to put it is to see repentance as one side of the coin of conversion. One turns from their trust in self and all that is not Christ (repentance), and they turn to place their trust in Christ (saving faith). Thus, the apostolic preaching to “repent and believe the Gospel” is the key to conversion.

Repentance is not only part of the act of conversion, but it’s part of the way of life which the Gospel makes possible. Some people think of this in terms of sanctification. More commonly, we speak of spiritual growth or discipleship. Regardless of terms, we’re referring to the process of learning from God’s Word, walking in the Spirit, and being conformed more closely to the image of God’s Son. Change, then, is taking place throughout our lives as God’s Word and Spirit chisel away at who we once were, helping us to grow more fully into the new nature given to us in regeneration.

An analogy that may be useful is thinking of change with respect to physical development. Infants possess certain physical qualities that gradually change in the aging process. Jesus himself was said to “increase in wisdom, and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Lk 2:52). Stature here, I believe, is a reference to physical maturation. We recognize that there is a process taking place, under normal conditions, across a person’s life. When some changes don’t seem to be happening, we take note. When a 60-year old still has a full-head of hair, we marvel. When a six-month old hasn’t gained more than a few pounds since birth, the pediatrician intervenes. While genetics play a significant role in such instances, we have come to anticipate gradual physical change as being a normal part of life.

Similarly, a Christian understanding of change begins not with renovations to the church sanctuary or revising the By-laws. It begins with having a clear grasp of the renovation of the whole self that the Spirit brings. By extension, leaders must consider how effectively the church’s ministry is facilitating this spiritual change.

Vines & Trellises

Once one has a sufficient understanding of what Scripture says about change, we are then able to consider what we might call the “material or structural dimensions” of congregational life. This is difficult because the Bible appears rather silent about buildings, service times, Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and much more.

The existence of such aspects in church experience doesn’t necessarily mean that they are unbiblical (contrary to biblical truth) simply because they’re extra-biblical (beyond Scriptural mention). God’s timeless truth takes on shape in historical and cultural contexts. When we move into life’s gray areas—areas where Scripture doesn’t specifically command something—we must determine how to live out our faith consistently with biblical principles, precedents, and patterns. The Bible says to preach the Word, but it doesn’t say how long precisely to preach each Sunday morning. Scripture commands husbands to love their wives, but it doesn’t say in what setting this instruction to love must always take place.

General revelation, historical precedents, and observing how people grow best helps fill in some of these gaps. If a congregation is used to hearing 15-minute sermons, it may become evident that this doesn’t translate into a sufficient engagement with the Word for the “Sunday-morning-only crowd” to grow. A gradual lengthening of the preaching component of worship may enhance the influence of the Word on a congregation. We may discover that setting aside a weekend a year for a couples retreat provides a nice break from the ordinary to challenge couples in a helpful way that passing remarks in a sermon do not.

Having grounded ourselves in Scripture’s commands, principles, and patterns, as well as supplementing that knowledge with a grasp of church history, the order of creation, and the starting points of our people, leaders are better able to consider what forms or structures best foster spiritual growth.

Another helpful illustration of these principles is the key metaphor offered by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne in The Trellis and the Vine (Matthias Media, 2009). The emphasis of New Testament ministry is the growth of the vines (individual believers) into the true vine (Christ). All that is essential for this task is God’s Spirit speaking through God’s Word. However, while we don’t technically need buildings, bulletins, or budgets to be a church, these serve a purpose in facilitating the growth of the vines. They function much like a trellis in guiding and ordering the growth of vines.

Buildings provide an established, secure, useful place to gather for worship, fellowship, and other ministry-related activity. They provide a visible reminder to the community of the presence of an assembly of believers. Bulletins, properly used, can help worship to be decent and orderly. They can communicate important happenings in the body from week to week. Budgets may engender intentional stewardship of God’s financial provisions. Certainly some qualifications attend the usage of all of these, but they are tools which have been developed in church history to facilitate the worship, service, and overall ministry of God’s people.

Leadership Insight*

Good leaders recognize that these tools don’t guarantee spiritual growth. In fact, if not careful, we may mistake the trellis for the vine. They are far easier to manage than vines which often seem to have a mind of their own (because they do!). However, with caution, prayer, and Scriptural reflection, sound pastoral theology requires consideration of the structures, tools, programs, and procedures that accord with sound doctrine, and thus support spiritual growth.

Leaders must try to identify the connections between the material aspects of the church’s life (structures, tools, policies, procedures, programs), and the spiritual development of God’s people (growth in holiness, fruitfulness, outreach efforts, healthy families). Much more could be said about why these connections exist, but I think we primarily have to become good observers of and listeners to those we serve in order to determine when and why change is needed, and then take steps to lead such change.

In the next post, we will consider the three different types of change, and the unique considerations that come with their implementation.

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*At least one key leadership insight will be provided at the conclusion of each post.