Tenure and Transition in the Kentucky United Methodist Church – Several Studies

For the past two years, I’ve been working with a team on an extensive research project. We’ve been analyzing data from the past decade in the United Methodist Church in Kentucky. One of our most interesting studies was on the effects of pastoral tenure and transition. I’ve summarized some of our findings in this white paper, “Tenure and Transition in the Kentucky United Methodist Church.” You can see the PDF here (may be easier to read and share) or see it in full below.

Methodology sections may be more technical than you care for. If the Results sections are clear enough to you, you may prefer to skip over the Methodology sections.

I hope to publish more from our study in the coming months. If you’d like to be sure you see those, click here to subscribe for my blog updates. I’d be happy to have more conversation or respond to questions. Contact me by email here.


In 2016, the Kentucky Annual Conference (KAC) commissioned a Stats Team[1] to conduct data analysis. Our mandate was broad: analyze the data for anything that would assist the Annual Conference in its future planning and goal-setting. This report summarizes our team’s findings regarding pastoral tenure and transition in the Kentucky Annual Conference––one portion of our larger study.

Recommendations at the end of this report are my own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Annual Conference or Conference Stats Team.

Study #1 – Worship Attendance Change & Year of Appointment

Question: How does reported average worship attendance increase or decrease during each year of a pastor’s appointment to a congregation?

Methodology

We studied all churches with an average worship attendance (AWA) of 150 or more as of 2005, a total of 80 churches. Study period was for 2005 – 2015.[2]

We recorded AWA change for each year of a pastor’s appointment at a church. The year of a transition from one senior pastor to another was considered a “transition” year. The first full calendar year of a senior pastor’s appointment was year 1, etc.[3]

Results

Change in worship attendance during each year of a pastor’s tenure

The chart and table below show the change in average worship attendance during each year of a pastor’s tenure.

In the table at left, N represents total number of observations for each data point (i.e. pastors observed in their ___th appointment year).

As number of observations decrease, so does our data reliability. Years 14 – 18 reflect 5 or less data points and so may not be reliable indicators.

 

 

 

As you can see from this chart and table, as pastoral tenure increases, so does the change in average worship attendance. The transition year and early years of a pastor’s tenure are the most likely years of attendance decline.

In total, attendance losses during Transition years represent more than 1/3 of the Kentucky Annual Conference’s total attendance decline for 2005 – 2015.

Losses during Transition year and year 1 represent more than 1/2 of the Conference’s total loss.

And losses during Transition through Year 2 represent more than 2/3 of the Conference’s total loss.

Percentage of growing churches

The chart below shows the percentage of churches that grew during each year of a pastor’s tenure. Upward trend line shows increasing likelihood of growth during later years of tenure. The first year where 50% of churches grew was not until year 7.

Survivorship Bias

We also researched survivorship bias. Is it possible that these numbers are skewed because pastors receive longer appointments when their churches grow in worship attendance, while pastors are more likely to be moved when their churches decline in worship attendance?

Findings:

• Pastors who receive a 3rd year[4] lost 6.5% in transition through year 2 (compared to 8.5% average loss)
• Pastors who receive a 5th year lost 4.8% in transition through year 4 (compared to 10.9% average loss)

Pastors with longer tenures had slightly better results in transition through year 2 and significantly better results in transition through year 4. Though their declines were less, even those pastors receiving a 5th year of appointment averaged a decline in AWA in their first 4 years.

Conclusion

The Kentucky Annual Conference has shown a clear and consistent trend for worship attendance losses in transition and early years of a senior pastor’s ministry, even for pastors who later see growth in worship attendance. As a pastor’s tenure grows longer, worship attendance change improves.


Study #2 – Worship Attendance Change & Pre-Transition Growth or Decline

Question: Are transitions preserving momentum (positive and negative) or reversing it?

Methodology

We studied all churches with average worship attendance of 150 or more as of 2005, a total of 80 churches.[5] Study period was for 2005 – 2015. In total, we observed 119 transitions.

For all transitions of a senior pastor during this period, we measured the church’s pre-transition worship attendance change and post-transition worship attendance change.

Worship attendance change for a pastor was measured as attendance in pastor’s last full year / attendance in previous pastor’s last full year. For example, if a pastor had worship attendance of 200 in their last year of appointment (before transition year) and the previous pastor had 180 in their last year of appointment, that pastor’s worship attendance change would be 200 / 180 = +11%.

Four categories for each pastor’s tenure at a church:

  • Big gain: 10%+ AWA increase
  • Small gain: <10% AWA increase
  • Small loss: <10% AWA decrease
  • Big loss: 10%+ AWA decrease

In the sample church below, the previous pastor experienced a 14% increase in AWA from 2005 – 2008, a big gain. The church received a new pastor in 2009. Comparing 2015 to the previous pastor’s last full year (2008), the church has declined in AWA by 21%, a big loss.

Results

Types of Transition

How were the studied churches doing prior to transition?

The most common pastoral transition came after a big loss.
51% of all transitions observed came after a loss in AWA while 49% came after a gain.

How did the studied churches do after transition?

Half of all churches experienced a big loss after transition.
69% of all post-transition churches declined in AWA.

What happens after a big loss?

We are reversing bad momentum into gains in 43% of post-transition churches (28% big gains, 15% small gains). Almost as many churches continue to have big losses with their next senior pastor, with 40% suffering another big loss.

Compared to all churches, a church that has experienced a big loss is much more likely to experience big gains and less likely to continue experiencing a big loss with its next pastor. Nevertheless, they are more likely to continue declining than to reverse their decline.

Average change for a church transitioning after a BIG LOSS: further loss of 5.3% AWA.

What happens after a small loss?

Pastoral transitions after a small loss led to a further loss in 78% of churches. Most experienced a big loss with their next senior pastor.

Average change for a church transitioning after a small loss: further loss of 7.3% AWA.

What happens after a small gain? 

Pastoral transitions after small gains led to a loss in 69% of churches. Nearly half of all churches transitioning after a small gain suffered a big loss.

Average change for a church transitioning after a small gain: loss of 6.2% AWA.

What happens after a big gain?

Churches that had big gains under one pastor have shown no tendency to continue those gains with new leadership. We are effectively reversing good momentum into losses in 90% of post-transition churches.

Churches that experienced a big gain with their previous pastor are the most likely category to experience a big loss after transition.

Average change for a church transitioning after a BIG GAIN: loss of 10.6% AWA.

In one instance, a church followed a big gain with another big gain. What can we learn from this exception?

The church below had a transition year in 2011 after growing from 154 to 171 (11% gain). They had another transition the next year and grew again, to 209 (a 22% gain). This was the one instance of a BIG GAIN following a BIG GAIN.

However, the church had a third consecutive year of pastoral transition. After that transition, their AWA has declined to 55. One big loss in transition erased all previous gains and resulted in a total 64% attendance loss over the past decade.

In total, 76% of all growing churches declined after a pastoral transition, while only 24% continued to grow.

Conclusion

Pastoral transitions in the Kentucky Annual Conference tend to be reversing good momentum and preserving bad momentum. 62% of declining churches continued to decline after transition. 76% of growing churches stopped growing and declined after transition.

Despite attempts at strategic appointment-making, new appointments have rarely been helpful to change negative momentum in declining churches, and they have been consistently detrimental to growing churches.

Churches that have suffered a BIG LOSS under their previous pastor are most likely to benefit from a transition. They have, by far, the greatest odds of growth after a transition. But even these have greater odds of further decline, with 57% continuing to decline and an average loss of 5.3%.


Study #3 – District Worship Attendance Change & Average Pastoral Tenure

Question: Are longer pastoral tenures in a district related to worship attendance changes in that district?

Methodology

We calculated the average years of pastoral tenure for all Full Elders in each KAC district, as of 2016.[6] We then compared the average pastoral tenure, as of 2016, to worship attendance change in each district from 2005–2015.

Results

Districts across the KAC show very different patterns for how long elders remain in an appointment, ranging from an average current tenure of only 3 years in Southeast District to 8.4 years in South Central District.

Average pastoral tenure has a significant correlation with worship attendance changes in our districts (0.54).

A significant correlation between average pastoral tenure and worship attendance change across districts is one of the few significant correlations to worship attendance change that our research has produced.

We acknowledge that correlation does not imply causation. Other factors could be affecting both pastoral tenure and worship attendance change in these districts. It is possible that better worship attendance numbers have led to longer pastoral tenures in some places. Further regression analyses could provide more insights. Given how few variables we found that showed a relationship to worship attendance change, this relationship is worthy of attention.

Conclusion       

Preliminary research demonstrates that districts with longer-tenured pastors have experienced better results in worship attendance change than districts with shorter average tenures. This question merits further research and is not yet conclusive.


Study #4 – Worship Attendance Change Over Tenures of 10+ Years

Question: How does reported average worship attendance change in churches whose pastors have 10+ years of tenure?

Methodology

This study examined worship attendance changes from 2005–2016 for all churches with a pastor serving in his/her 10th or more year of appointment as of 2016 Annual Conference Journal.

Results

118 pastors were serving in their 10th+ year of appointment as lead pastor of a congregation, as of July 2016.[7] These churches showed a significant difference from churches whose pastors had served less than 10 years.

Churches whose pastors served 10+ years had experienced a 1% average worship attendance loss in the previous decade. Those with shorter pastoral tenures experience an 18% loss during the same period.

Other analyses reveal the difference between churches with full-time pastoral appointments and part-time appointments over a 10+ year tenure:

The difference between pastors serving multi-point charges and those serving a single charge over 10+ years:

And the difference between various classifications of pastors serving these appointments:

Conclusion       

The most important finding from this study is the significant difference between churches whose pastors have a 10+ year tenure (1% worship attendance decline) and those with shorter tenures (18% worship attendance decline). This is likely a two-way relationship, as better worship attendance results may make it more likely for a pastor to stay at his/her current appointment.

These results also confirm other studies that suggest multi-point charges suffer worse worship attendance losses than comparable single charges.

Charges with full-time pastors performed marginally better than those with part-time pastors, and charges with non-retired pastors performed significantly better than those with retired pastors. With retired pastors removed from this study, churches whose pastors have a tenure of 10+ years showed a small gain in worship attendance.


Study #5 – Professions of Faith & Pastoral Transition

Question: How does the number of pastoral transitions affect a local church’s professions of faith?

Methodology

This study was conducted by Greg Survant of SLI, Inc.„ so it covers a different study period: 2008 – 2013.

The study categorizes churches according to how many senior pastors they had during the study period: 1 pastor, 2, 3, or 4+. It compares each category based on annual professions of faith / 100 AWA.[8]

Results

The average rate of annual professions of faith across all churches was 3.7 professions per 100 AWA.

Best-performing churches had only 1 pastor during the study period. For each new pastoral transition, professions of faith decreased.

The study then categorized churches according to size. In every size category, churches with fewer pastoral transitions had higher rates of profession of faith.

Results remain consistent across multiple segments, suggesting that this is a significant relationship. The more pastoral transitions a church has, the fewer professions of faith.

Conclusion

A local church’s professions of faith show a direct relationship to pastoral transitions. Higher frequency of pastoral transition correlates with fewer professions of faith.


Recommendations

The United Methodist Church is committed to an open itineracy. However, current practice does not reflect the past reality of Methodist itineracy, when Methodist preachers constantly traveled from town to town and were more often appointed to areas than single congregations. Current average tenures of 5 years suggest that we no longer equate itineracy with constant movement. Instead, our practice of open itineracy relates to two other values of the historic Methodist movement:

  1. Elders are committed to go and serve wherever their bishops send them.
  2. This commitment to itinerant ministry helps us meet the pastoral needs of congregations by allowing the bishop to send pastors where they are most needed.

The itinerant system is a means of meeting the pastoral needs of congregations. Results of this study suggest that we should further separate the concept of “itineracy” from the practice of constant movement. Results suggest that the pastoral needs of congregations and their communities are best met with deeper, longer-lasting pastoral relationships.

The United Methodist Church of the 21st century should focus on longer pastoral tenures and fewer pastoral transitions. Short pastoral tenures and frequent transitions are harming local congregations.

Many United Methodists have cited the increasing number of retirements as a problem. Retirements force transition. Due to this and other unforeseen factors, we should begin by focusing on increasing average tenure. This focus will lead to fewer transitions over time.

Bishop Al Gwinn, former residing Bishop of the North Carolina Annual Conference, notes a goal set by his Conference to increase the average pastoral tenure to 10 years. To meet that goal, the Conference planned for many pastors to serve well over 10 years to balance unexpected short tenures. When they appointed pastors to a new charge, they appointed them with the expectation that the pastor would serve that charge for a minimum of 10 years.

This requires filling appointments of retiring pastors with pastors who will not be expected to retire or move for the next 10–15 years. It requires leaving pastors in their current appointments if they will likely retire in the next decade. It requires patience on the part of the pastor, the local charge, and the bishop when a pastor does not thrive in the early years of an appointment.

Based on the above, I recommend that Annual Conferences set a goal of 10-year average pastoral tenures.

To meet this goal, we would need to make several changes to current practice and understanding.

1. Boards of Ordained Ministry should prepare current and incoming pastors to expect long tenures. 

Several current and former members of the appointive cabinet have suggested that most transitions are pastor-initiated. We should help pastors to expect tenures of 10+ years as normative, and to expect only two or three appointments over the course of their time in appointed ministry. Pastors who expect the itinerant system to serve as a system for steady promotions will have to reevaluate their understanding of itineracy’s purpose. Pastors who have used the itinerant system to quickly escape uncomfortable situations will have to learn how to work through difficulties and invest in congregations for their long-term benefit.

The expectation of longer tenures and fewer moves can provide many side benefits to pastors, their families, and their ministries. Harvard professor Robert Putnam observes, “[F]or people as for plants, frequent repotting disrupts root systems. It takes time for a mobile individual to put down new roots […] frequent movers have weaker community ties.”[9] This change in paradigm will be welcome news to many (potential) United Methodist pastors who have been wary of the disruption caused by frequent moves. Greater stability will likely lead to greater health for pastors and their families, stronger community ties for outreach, and better financial security for families of pastors with working spouses.

2. Bishops and their appointive cabinets should make appointments with the expectation that they are appointing for a minimum of ten years.

This will require patience during difficult transitions. As the results above show, even pastors who eventually see worship attendance increases frequently experience losses during their first several years in an appointment. Bishops and cabinets will need to urge congregations and pastors to continue working together, rather than offering an easy exit plan when either side is unhappy.

This will also require bishops and cabinets to resist using the itinerant system as a system for promotions. Pastors will need to remain in the same appointments for long periods of time, so the opportunity to use new appointments for promotions will be rare.

Finally, this could require new strategies for clergy whose churches decline in attendance. Longer tenures will expose clergy who are not able to provide the leadership needed to sustain a larger church. In some of these cases, clergy may lead churches to a point that they can no longer sustain a full-time elder’s compensation. This will require the bishop and appointive cabinet to determine whether it would be appropriate to initiate a part-time appointment (outlined in BOD ¶ 338.2.a.3) or to initiate a process for evaluation of clergy for effectiveness (outlined in BOD ¶ 334).

To move toward these longer expected appointments, appointive cabinets could move to a quadrennial regular appointment cycle. Outside this cycle, appointments would be considered exceptional––to fill voids due to retirement, death, or other unexpected events. This would free congregations and pastors from annual anxiety and conjecture about whether the pastor will be moved.[10]

3. District Superintendents should prepare congregations to expect long tenures.

This will require District Superintendents to have a high level of engagement with congregations during times of pastoral transition. They will need to communicate to congregations that appointments are intended for a long period, and they do not plan to respond to calls for new clergy leadership unless a pastor’s conduct or performance requires formal evaluation.

Because of these expectations for long tenures, a good transition and good fit between pastor and congregation will be imperative. Helping ensure good appointments will become the most critical duty of a District Superintendent. DSs will need to invest significant time and energy in knowing their pastors and congregations, especially in preparation for times of pastoral transition.

As stated above, these recommendations do not reflect the opinions of the Kentucky Annual Conference or the Conference Stats Team. They are only my opinions, based on the results of the current study.


Further Study

This research provides many opportunities for further study. Research above was limited to the Kentucky Annual Conference, churches with 150 AWA or more (for studies #1 and #2), and 2005 – 2015. By changing any of those variables, we could ask the same questions and obtain new results.

Simple next questions: Do other conferences, or even denominations, show the same patterns? Do smaller churches follow these patterns? Have these patterns been similar in earlier times, and will they be similar in the next years and decades?


Appendix 1 – Tenure and Transition in NFL Coaching, a bonus study

The importance of lengthening tenures and limiting transitions applies far beyond the church. A study of current NFL teams (using their ELO rating, as of 11/5/17) also shows a relationship between team strength and leader tenure and transitions.[11]

As with pastoral tenures, we may note that this is a two-way relationship. Success is likely to lead to longer tenures. But a comparison of the top 25%, second 25%, third 25%, and bottom 25% of all NFL teams shows a steady decline in median coaching tenure and a general increase in leadership transitions over the past 15 years. Median tenure of coaches in the top 25% is four times as long as the median tenure of bottom 25% teams.

With short tenures and frequent transitions, teams are unlikely to develop a stable and healthy culture. Though the head coach is not the only leader, he is the person in charge, and his consistent presence has a significant effect. Likewise, though the senior pastor should not be the only leader in a church, (s)he is the pastor in charge and has a significant effect on the stability and health of a church’s culture.

 



[1] Members: Teddy Ray, Paul Brunstetter, Tami Coleman, Chad Foster, Paul Frederick, Todd Nelson, Greg Survant

[2] Most studies below are for 2005 – 2015. Our team did not have access to reliable data for earlier years.

[3] Example: Gary Ball was appointed to Crestwood UMC in July 2006. 2006 was recorded as “transition,” 2007 as year 1, 2008 as year 2, and 2009 as another transition year, as the church received a new senior pastor in July 2009.

Crestwood UMC’s reported AWA increased by 8.5% in 2006, then decreased by 9.5%, 6%, and 9.8% in the following years. Changes for those years were recorded:

Transition: +8.5%
Year 1: -9.5%
Year 2: -6%
Transition: -9.8%

[4] Technically, this is an appointment to a 4th year, since our methodology counted the first appointment year as “transition.”

[5] Churches under 150 in AWA were not studied due to time constraints. We also felt the statistics for these churches were less reliable, since reporting has not been as consistent for smaller churches.

[6] These numbers only represent full elders. They do not account for a large number of licensed local pastors, provisional elders, or other clergy designations. The study intends to recognize different patterns in appointment-making across different districts. Though these numbers do not reflect all clergy, they serve as representative about appointment decisions in each district.

[7] Another 13 pastors were serving in 10th+ year of appointment in an associate role.

[8] By calculating professions of faith / 100 AWA, we normalize professions of faith for all church sizes.

[9] In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 205.

[10] Thanks to Rev. Chad Bowen for this suggestion.

[11] My Bengals appear to be a sad exception.

A New (Old) Church Strategy

In his memoir, The Pastor,1 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.

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

Pastors or Missional Strategists?

The other day, I talked with a friend who works for a large corporation. He talked about the latest meeting with some company executives. The executives had descended from their corporate offices to speak to the people on the “front lines.” There were new slogans, new acronyms, and new diagrams, accompanied by familiar platitudes and stock phrases. The executives emphasized the importance of everyone “getting on board” with the new strategy.

If you’ve been part of a large organization, you may have had a similar experience. The execs read a new book or go to a new conference, they have a new visioneering retreat, and then they announce the company’s new direction to the “front lines” people with breathless excitement.

[Ironically, most of those execs at one time based their next bit of breathless excitement on the book Good to Great, which notes, “The good-to-great companies had no name for their transformations. There was no launch event, no tag line, no programmatic feel whatsoever.” It was the under-performing companies that kept unfurling banners with the next great tag line.]

My friend was frustrated by the meeting. Frustrated that they often receive edicts from the corporate office with no understanding of the realities on those “front lines.” Frustrated that the people giving new edicts and calling him and his colleagues to “get on board” have never taken the time to get to know them. The executives are “too busy going to conferences and having strategic meetings.”

The Missional Strategist

I had that conversation around the same time I was reading Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor (highly recommended). Peterson recalls a seminarian saying something similar about the church: “I realize that for those twenty years that I was an engineer sitting in the pew each Sunday, I never had a patient pastor––they were all trying to get me ‘with the program,’ shape me up, get me, as they put it, ‘involved.’ I don’t want to become a pastor like that. I don’t think that is what pastors are for.”

Today’s mission-driven church world runs many of the risks of the corporation I described above. Pastors cease to be pastors and become missional strategists––too busy going to conferences and strategic meetings, never enough time to sit with people and know them. Too worried about getting people “with the program” to take note of what God is doing in their lives. Our sermons can be shaped more by conference room discussions than by living room discussions. And when we do this, I expect the response of most of our people to be like that friend on the “front lines” above––as someone treated with no more dignity than a cog in a machine, a means to an end.

The Pastor

Peterson quotes another pastor: “I think I see something unique about being a pastor that I had never noticed: the pastor is the one person in the community who is free to take men and women seriously just as they are, appreciate them just as they are, give them the dignity that derives from being the ‘image of God,’ a God-created being who has eternal worth without having to prove usefulness or be good for anything.”

When our pastors become mere missional strategists, they lose that unique role in the community. They become just another set of people looking for how they can use others to accomplish a mission.

The Pastor and the Missional Strategist

Compared with “missional strategist,” the role of “pastor” seems a much bigger role to me. A pastor can see people in the community as they are, in all their God-given dignity and all their human need. That will include a zeal for ministering to the hurting, hopeless, and wayward. It will include treating the people in our congregations and communities with dignity, getting to know them simply because they are worth knowing. It will include nurturing people in their discipleship and recognizing their gifts to lead in the Church and in the world. It will include missional strategy, but it will be far more.

I don’t believe that pastors shouldn’t be missional strategists. I believe the word is just much too small. I’ve seen how it has led some pastors to abandon their roles as pastors. They hide in meetings and conferences, they compose bold mission statements with detailed action plans, and when they’re done, there’s no time left for their people and communities. (Let’s be honest, meetings and conferences and Ministry Action Plans are much easier, much less messy, than soul-tending.) And then when those missional strategists come to their “front lines” people with the new slogans, new acronyms, and new diagrams, they come away frustrated at how many people “just don’t get it” or “won’t get on board.” Then, lacking a culture of healthy dialogue and empathy, they resort to blame or coercion.

The Chief Missional Strategist

I write this aware that the UMC has embraced the role of our district superintendents as “Chief Missional Strategists.” For all the reasons above, I believe that’s a mistake. I understand its intent––moving this position’s role away from regulation. Many of our DSs had become simple rule-enforcers. (Side note: A growing bureaucracy for the sake of regulation is a symptom of a deeper problem. See another intriguing quote from Good to Great in the footnote here.)12 But the name change also communicates a change of primary roles for our pastors and DSs––away from pastor; to missional strategist.

A long-time district superintendent whose writing I deeply respect, Sky McCracken, writes on the other side of this. He advocates for the role of DS as chief missional strategist. But I don’t believe that’s really what he is. He’s still a pastor first. Even when he writes about DS as chief missional strategist, he writes, “For a D.S. to truly be a chief missional strategist, s/he must be involved at the congregational level.” For McCracken, a DS will fail at all the missional strategizing if (s)he fails to be a pastor first. See his five essentials for district superintendents at the end of this post. Three emphasize his role as pastor to the pastors and congregations in his district.

 

Strategic church world is clamoring right now for more missional strategists, more entrepreneurs. At the same time, we’re undervaluing the role of the pastor and shepherd. Of course missional strategy is part of the work of the pastor. And of course we don’t need more bad pastors. But I still believe what we need most is more pastors––more leaders who take people seriously just as they are, in all their God-given dignity; more time in living rooms, even if it means less time in conference rooms.

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  1. “The purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline—a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people in the first place. Most companies build their bureaucratic rules to manage the small percentage of wrong people on the bus, which in turn drives away the right people on the bus, which then increases the percentage of wrong people on the bus, which increases the need for more bureaucracy to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline, which then further drives the right people away, and so forth.”
  2. And another gem related to discipline: “Don’t confuse a culture of discipline with a tyrannical disciplinarian.”