We’ve always done it that way” –– a phrase to celebrate

Done-it-this-way2

What if this didn’t have to be a bad phrase?

We’re in the last month of the year. People are paying closer attention to their bank and credit card accounts. Some are lamenting rampant consumerism in America. Others are already making plans for how they’ll handle their money well in 2018. In light of that, each week for the rest of the year, I’ll be sharing an article on generosity for your consideration. If you’ve followed this blog for several years, you may recognize some of these. They were helpful for me to review again. I hope they will be for you, too.

Did you make a New Year’s resolution? By the end of the year, research says there will be an 8% chance you’ve kept it.

Eight percent!

Why so low?

Because objects in motion stay in motion. Objects at rest stay at rest. To change their course or get them going, you need external force. And the bigger something is, the more force it requires. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever tried to push a car.

The same is true of your resolutions. They require change, a new force, willpower. And that means working against nature, working against what you’ve become accustomed to.

They say one of the best times to change a habit is when you move. Why? Because you’re already undergoing major, unavoidable change. While everything is in motion, you can get that new habit in motion, as well. It’s a natural new start. And it’s easier to start that way, than to try to change later.

That’s an important general truth––it’s easier to start that way. Changing later is hard.

Because we’ve always done it that way” is a common phrase in corporate culture and church culture. It’s usually derided as a bad answer. But it’s also human nature. When we start doing things from the beginning, we’re likely to continue doing them.

How to use “we’ve always done it that way” for good

While we usually sneer at “we’ve always done it that way” as an uncritical, unreflective response, it can be just the opposite. Whenever you start something new (job, friendship, marriage, etc.), you have a great opportunity. Ask yourself this question:

Ten years from now, what do we want to look at and say, “We’ve always done it that way”?

Let’s take generosity as an extended example. I’m going to start with a thought about churches and then say something about families and individuals.

NEW CHURCHES & GENEROSITY

Several years ago, I was with the leader of a new church start in another state. They were about two years old at the time. He talked about how they were still trying to get established and hoped to start giving to missions and our denomination’s ministry fund (called apportionments) soon. They weren’t yet giving anything externally. Actually, they were receiving external funds.

That’s not unusual. They were two years old and still trying to get their feet under them.

About five years later, that new church start was still going. They had grown and hired multiple staff. I saw their pastor and asked how they were doing. Not well, it turned out. They had just learned they were losing their external funding, and they weren’t sure how they could survive without it. They were still giving nothing to missions or the denominational fund and still relying on external support.

How does that happen? They had grown and looked to be thriving! But from the beginning they had required every penny for themselves––plus some outside funding. And when their resources grew, their internal need grew equally. So that great ideal of starting to give some away remained just an ideal.

For new church starts, a wild and unusual suggestion: Ask yourselves how you want to be giving ten years from now, and then start giving like that on day one. Because if you choose to use everything internally until there’s “enough to spare,” you’re likely to find yourselves ten years later with still nothing to spare. And if you choose to give generously from day one, in year ten you’ll be able to say, “we’ve just always done it that way.”

First UMC’s model

I’m going to take a moment and celebrate the church and community I have the privilege to be a part of. I don’t intend it to brag––they’ve done this long before I arrived and apart from any of my leadership. I intend it to share a model I’ve learned from and hope others will follow.

First UMC has always been a generous church, and a few years ago, the leadership decided to automate it––no questions asked about whether to be generous. In lean years and good years alike. The church puts 12% of every dollar given immediately into a fund for missions and puts another 13% immediately toward our denominational fund (the full amount requested for that fund) ––which goes to support important missions locally and around the globe. That’s 25% out the door to support missions external to us. It’s automatic, immediate, no questions asked. In a difficult financial year, we don’t make ends meet by cutting our external giving. Not an option for consideration.

Since my community at First UMC (called Offerings) started, our leaders have never wavered on this. 25% goes out the door from the very first day. They want extravagant generosity to be part of our identity, and they don’t want that to start later. If you think you’ll start later, you may never get around to it. Our leaders want to say, “We’ve always done it that way.”

To be certain, this involves sacrifice. If we kept that extra $35,000, I can tell you quickly how we would use it. If we had an extra $70,000, I can tell you how we’d use it. But isn’t that always the case? There’s always something more. Always something more we would like or could use or even think we need. And that’s why if you don’t start giving generously from the beginning, it’s likely you never will. Changing that pattern doesn’t get easier when you get bigger. Remember trying to push that car from stand-still?

FOR INDIVIDUALS

The same goes for individuals. So you’re just getting started at your first job, just barely scraping by? You couldn’t possibly be generous now. That’s for when you have more.

As your resources grow, so will your appetite. If you don’t set a pattern for generosity now, on that just-out-of-college budget, you’ll be shocked that you have just as little to spare on a nice 6-figure salary later. Even more, if you find that right now you need 110% just to get by (i.e. what you’re making isn’t quite enough to sustain, so you take on a bit of debt…), you’re likely to need 110% to get by, even when you’re making 6 figures. Even 7- and 8-figure earners aren’t immune. Sports Illustrated wrote here that 78% of NFL players were under financial stress within two years of retirement. Within 5 years of retirement, 60% of NBA players were broke.

Whether you’re just starting out, or just got a new job or raise… take advantage of anything new and ask whether you can start a new pattern now.

A big challenge for any of you who want extravagant generosity to be part of your identity… It’s 2017. What if you resolved to give away 17% of your income this year? And made it 18% next year? You see where this is going… If that’s impossible for you, then set your own numbers. If you go out for meals or Starbucks, have more than one TV / movie / music subscription, or stand in line for the newest iGadgets (as just a few examples), you should be able to aim for 10% minimum … or think about scaling back some of those other things. [This comes from my own convicting experience. See, “I wish I could give more.”]

Years from now, someone may ask how you––as a church, or a family, or an individual––can be so generous. And I hope you might be able to say, “I don’t know. We’ve just always done it that way.”

Preaching Question: “How do I stretch myself and avoid ruts in preaching?”

A fellow pastor asked how I stretch myself and keep from falling into ruts in preaching. It’s a great question. A predictable preacher is a boring preacher. I know I fall into predictable routines at times. It’s helpful to identify some of the ways to get out of those and continue developing.

Four practices have been most helpful for my continued development:

1. Lots of reading and lots of listening to different speakers and preachers.

When I’m keeping up with my reading plan, I rarely run dry, especially when I focus on critical / analytical reading (paying close attention to the main points and the structure of the story/argument).

I’ve also begun trying to watch TV shows and movies with that same critical awareness, especially noting structure. For what it’s worth, that hasn’t felt like it turned TV watching into “work.” I think it has enhanced the experience. Robert McKee’s Story is a great place to go for beginning to see some of those elements of story more clearly (if you don’t mind a big book).

I’ve noticed the same with listening to other speakers and preachers. I preach better, and with more variety, when I’m listening to others. I listen to Tim Keller and think about precision in structure and delivery. With just a few words, he can help me put language to something I’ve always known was there but couldn’t describe.

I listen to Jessica LaGrone and think about narrative and delivery. The way that she weaves a story together keeps me engaged every time. And she’s maybe the gentlest “power-preacher” I’ve ever heard because of the warmth and presence in her delivery.

I used to listen to Rob Bell and love how he would take me on a journey through his own exegesis. He was able to bring me to the “aha!” of the exegesis, even sliding in some Greek and Hebrew, and yet never made me feel like I was listening to a scholarly exegesis paper.

If I listen to one person long enough, I catch myself sounding more and more like that person—which is okay with me for seasons. But varying the preachers I’m listening to has helped me appreciate and try to imitate some of what each of them does best. Right now, I’m wondering if I could find a way to listen to more of Bishop Fairley’s preaching.1 I’ve heard him preach a few lectionary sermons now (lectionary! a Bishop!), and each one was riveting—deep, steeped in biblical thought and language, gospel-centric, powerful delivery.

The same goes for other speakers—paying attention to how they structure their content and how they deliver it. I love watching Jerry Seinfeld for the way that he builds something and the way he transitions. If you haven’t, you should watch the documentary Comedian. It gives a good behind-the-scenes look at his preparation.

2. Pastoral visitation

I preach better and with more variety when I’m spending more time with people. Specifically when I’m spending more time in spiritual conversations with people. I start to read the text differently and imagine different ways it can speak to people when it comes right after talking to someone about a miscarriage, or about how they’re struggling to find time for important self-care things, or how they’re thriving in something they didn’t expect (baby, career change, etc.)

Without that variety of what I’m hearing from other people, I tend to stay in my own, more limited life experience and catch myself repeating the same themes a lot.

3. Varying series

Some variety between scriptural and topical series has been helpful for me. A series that starts from a particular text sends me on a deep dive in that text first. One that begins with a topic sends me on a wide survey of that topic in Scripture and historical theology. Both kinds of series merit both kinds of study, but the starting points differ.

Within these, the larger series creates natural variety, too. We’re preaching through Exodus and a bit beyond right now––the OT lectionary passages. Because the series covers the big narrative, it seems to demand more than just a deep exegetical dive into each Sunday’s passage, but lots of awareness about the context. (All exegesis demands context work — but the nature of this series has made context a much bigger piece than at other times. We’ve been living with Moses and the Israelites for about 9 weeks now.) Then we go from this fall’s huge narrative arc to really tight and focused in January when we have a 5-week series on the Lord’s Prayer.

And of course, following the liturgical year adds natural variety, too. Take, for example, the Exodus 17 passage about Israelites grumbling for water to drink. That looked much different as part of our Exodus series compared to how it will look in Lent next year, when it’s an OT lectionary passage.

If you forced me to choose one way all the time, I’d choose to preach lectionary year-round. And there’s still plenty of variety there alone. But the occasional topical series or lectio continua series has been great to force me to think and prepare differently.

4. Varying preparation

I have a pretty defined preparation structure (seven 75-minute blocks) but I’ve left a lot of intentional variety in it. So I don’t handle the exegesis the same from week to week. After several readings of the text, I’ll choose one or two ways to start digging deeper into it, depending on what seems like it will be most helpful that time. Sometimes that’s Lectio Divina, sometimes it’s inductive Bible study, sometimes it’s doing a really wide contextual survey, and other times it’s focusing on a deep dive into translation. Each of those methods makes me think about the text differently. I know people who swear by one of them. For me, if I leaned on one every time, my sermons would end up having less variety. (And if I tried to do them all, I’d spend way more time on sermon preparation than I have to give.)

I also don’t handle the move from text to sermon the same every week. Sometimes I do an outline, sometimes a mind map, and sometimes I manuscript it. I had a good season where I used PowerPoint to story board my sermons like 3- or 5-act plays. I’ll occasionally do more than one of these, but again … time and other priorities. When I mind map, I notice that I tend toward a more narrative approach. When I manuscript, I tend to be more precise and nuanced and more linear.

Also, I keep a list of questions to ask that I reference each week, but I never reference all of them. There are too many. So picking different questions leads me in different directions. Some of those:
Doctrinal: What doctrine from the Echo catechism or a creed most relates to this?
Liturgical: What from our baptismal covenant, confession & pardon, Great Thanksgiving, or Lord’s Prayer most relates? Or from other liturgies (UMC Social Creed, marriage and funeral rites, songs, etc.)?
Moral: Which of the capital vices or virtues, beatitudes, or fruits of the spirit relates here?
News: What happening in the world right now relates to this?

At least once a month, I go back to Tom Long’s list of potential forms for sermons in The Witness of Preaching. I try to imagine how my sermon would fit in a few of those different forms. Even if I end up not choosing one, some of that imagining expands how I’m thinking about the sermon. And this keeps me from falling into a rhythm of always preaching a “hook — exegesis — application” sermon, or whatever other form I could fall into.

For me, it has been important to ask questions about delivery, too. “What if I don’t use any slides for this sermon? How would that change it?” Or “How can I get people actively involved –– engage some sense other than seeing and hearing?” I keep thinking about PechaKuchas — 20 slides, 20 seconds apiece. I’ve used these a few times in other settings. Would it ever be possible and make sense to do a PechaKucha-styled sermon? I don’t ever want to do something like that just for the novelty. But when I have to engage with a different set of rules, I think it helps me get more creative than if I just keep doing what’s most comfortable.

 

I can’t say that I’ve built all this in specifically for the sake of growth and staying out of ruts. I think some of it has been out of my own sense of restlessness. Follow the same routine too long and I get bored. Hopefully it keeps me from getting boring for others, too, and keeps me from being content at my present point of development.

—–

  1. Leonard Fairley, Bishop in the Louisville Episcopal Area of the UMC

A New (Old) Church Strategy

In his memoir, The Pastor, Eugene Peterson describes America’s dominant church leadership culture this way:

Pollsters were busy issuing monthly reports on the precipitous drop in church attendance. There was widespread panic, especially among pastors, at times verging on hysteria.

If God were dead, the church couldn’t be far behind. Life-support systems were being proposed right and left to keep the church going. ‘Relevance’ became the mantra of choice. New forms of church organization were proposed. Innovative strategies of public relations, misnamed evangelism, were launched with impressive fanfare. Worship was replaced by entertainment. Statistics trumped kerygma.”

That sounds quite a bit like today’s church leadership world––workshops and conferences and strategies for how to grow, appeals to the need for “relevance,” marketing and PR, though many have long dispensed with naming anything “evangelism.”

But when Peterson writes this, he’s not talking about today’s church leadership culture. He’s talking about the 1960s –– some fifty years ago as he was starting in ministry.

He writes in another place (I’m quoting him at length. His wisdom is worth it):

I was watching both the church and my vocation as a pastor in it being relentlessly diminished and corrupted by being redefined in terms of running an ecclesiastical business. The ink on my ordination papers wasn’t even dry before I was being told by experts, so-called, in the field of church that my main task was to run a church after the manner of my brother and sister Christians who run service stations, grocery stores, corporations, banks, hospitals, and financial services. Many of them wrote books and gave lectures on how to do it.

[…]

This is the Americanization of congregation. It means turning each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business run along the lines of advertising techniques, organizational flow charts, and energized by impressive motivational rhetoric.”

I love how Peterson identifies the problems with turning the church into an ecclesiastical business. And I love how he upholds the vocation of pastor while so many are turning into mere missional strategists. But mostly, I’m interested that in these quotes, he’s talking about the 1960s.

How have things gone for the Church in America since the 1960s? Most of the pollsters would say not good. Our decline has continued, and at a far quicker pace. A “religiosity index” that rates total religious interest (see at right) is at an all-time low after steep declines for the past fifty years. We’re talking about the rise of the “nones.” My denomination, the United Methodist Church, last increased its U.S. membership in 1965, when Peterson was starting in ministry.

An observation: During the last fifty years, a time of decline in America, the leading voices in the Church have been the ecclesiastical business gurus.

Many of those gurus can point to bright spots of success. They can show the churches that adopted their methods and grew. But while they have been our leading voices, the results across the nation have been dismal. Is the problem just that not enough churches are listening to them? I’m not convinced.

Even where these advisors have led local churches to growth, I don’t believe they’re off the hook for the results across the nation. Instead, I believe even those growing ecclesiastical businesses may have contributed to the decline. Because even while they’ve grown in number, where they have deemphasized real pastoral ministry, they’re likely to have developed shallow churchgoers, consumer churchgoers, churchgoers who see the church only as a utilitarian machine. Those are churchgoers likely to drift from the church without much loss or flee at the first disagreement. They’re less likely to raise up the next generation in the faith.

I wonder — Why do we continue to give center stage to the group of gurus who have presided over 50 years of decline? Many of their strategy specifics have changed, but still they look to the business world or social sciences world for the church’s answers. (If you can tweak most of what you’re calling “church strategy” and fit it to a business, you’re strategizing for an ecclesiastical business.)

Could we instead call this a failed experiment? I know some local churches have had great numerical success following these strategies. But for the American Church as a whole, this experiment has failed. The era when every church has a mission statement has been an era of decline in the church. The era of “church growth” and “small group multiplication” and “innovation” has been an era of decline in the church. The era when pastors have spent more time in conference rooms than living rooms has been an era of decline in the church.

Peterson writes about today’s pastoral vocation:

Men and women who are pastors in America today find that they have entered into a way of life that is in ruins. The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans. Any kind of continuity with pastors in times past is virtually nonexistent.”

This quote invites a next observation. What pastors are doing in this era (an era of decline in the big-C Church) has no continuity with pastors in eras past (eras that have included great growth in the Church).

What if it’s time to stop listening to the leadership gurus about entrepreneurial leadership and missional strategy? What if it’s time to listen again to pastors from times past––to those pastors who didn’t mind to be called “pastor,” who probably didn’t have a mission statement or a 5-year plan, but who led the Church in some of its greatest times of growth?

In another book, Under the Predictable Plant, Peterson describes the work of a pastor:

I want to be a pastor. I want to lead people in worship each Lord’s Day in such a way that they will be brought into something large and beautiful – into God and his salvation (not reduced and demeaned). And I want to be with them through the days of the week at those times when they need verification or clarification of God’s continuing work and will in their lives (not promoting sure-fire moral schemes, not bullying them into churchly conformity) so that they can live originally and praisingly.”

Peterson doesn’t write about preaching to get everyone “on board.” He writes about preaching to bring them into God and his salvation. He writes about being with his people through the days of the week, not to recruit and strategize, but “so that they can live originally and praisingly.”

Peterson writes about the pastoral vocation as it has been practiced for 2,000 years. He writes against the new model of pastor as ecclesiastical business CEO, as it has been practiced for 50 years.

Church strategy

After my post last week – “Pastors or Missional Strategists?” – I had several follow-up conversations with people who wanted to reemphasize the importance of strategy. They stressed that we must be more than “just chaplains.” They stressed that pastors need to be strategic in equipping others for ministry.

I think when many people hear “pastor,” they hear only the role of pastoral care––nurturing people in need. The classical pastor –– the Eugene Peterson type of pastor –– does much more than that. (S)he looks at people with a concern for how they can grow in faith. This absolutely includes equipping principled Christian leaders for the church and world. It involves equipping teams of people for ministry and setting them free to do it. I don’t do anything alone in my congregation. Worship preparation, visitation, outreach and witness, all of these are team ministries. I rarely receive a direct phone call about a crisis in someone’s life. I receive most of them second-hand, from the (lay) pastors of our small groups.

And in the end, I suppose I’m not even railing against “strategy.” Our church isn’t strategy-less. We know what we’re doing and why. We even have a mission statement! Goodness, I chair our Conference Stats Team!

Instead, I’m suggesting that we’re using a bad strategy, a failed strategy. It’s a strategy that seeks to turn pastors into managers and CEOs, one that makes strategy itself the answer. Today’s graduating seminarian is more capable of taking people through a mission-vision-values retreat than sitting across from someone to talk about the state of his soul. Today’s ministry conference or workshop is more likely to provide training on writing a ministry action plan than training on how to “visit from house to house.” The latter was emphasized during the Methodist Church’s greatest period of growth. The former has been emphasized during our greatest period of decline.

I want us to reclaim the strategy of pastoral ministry:

  • Lead the people in worship each Lord’s Day in such a way that they will be brought into something large and beautiful – into God and his salvation. This is different than planning an exciting Sunday worship experience with a teaching that will get people on board with our vision.
  • Be with people through the days of the week to help them clarify God’s continuing work and will in their lives. This is more than being with people to strategize and equip, though it will certainly include those things. The difference: We start by looking for where God is at work in people’s lives, not by looking for where people fit into our strategic plans.

Those may not sound as exciting as some of the big hairy audacious goals and strategies we put to paper. But for most of the church’s history, they’re what has actually worked. Maybe it’s time we focus on them again.

I write often about pastoral ministry, the “classical pastor” (see some related posts below), and the UMC. If you’re interested in any of those, I’d be honored if you would click here to subscribe for future posts.

————-

  1. Yep, I’m referencing it again. You should go read the whole thing.