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.

If you’re going to follow the Billy Graham Rule …

In his autobiography, Billy Graham writes about a group of evangelists who recognized the serious threat of sexual immorality. This could be a special threat for men (these were all men) who were traveling and separated from their families. So they all pledged “to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion.”

From that day on,” Graham writes, “I did not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.”[1] This has become known as the “Billy Graham Rule.” It came into popular discussion recently when the Vice President said that he keeps the same boundaries. Now it’s back in popular discussion because people have contrasted Pence with Harvey Weinstein.

Let’s first acknowledge the noble intent in the Billy Graham Rule. I’m tired of the headlines about sexual immorality involving Christian leaders. You are, too, I’m sure. One study had 38.6 percent of clergy admitting to some “sexual contact” with a parishioner, 12.7 percent admitting to sexual intercourse.[2] Those numbers terrify me. I don’t want to believe them. Let’s be thankful for a group of leaders who resolved to not become one of those headlines or statistics.

We can also acknowledge that a meeting or meal alone isn’t the root problem here. Some people have built straw men on this point, then kicked them over with self-righteous vigor. “I can go to lunch and keep my pants on.” Yes—and we congratulate you for that. The meal isn’t the problem. There are surely some deeper issues of accountability, the state of the heart, etc. But it’s probably true that being alone in one setting makes it easier to be alone in another—a slippery-slope, if you will.

Also, being alone develops intimacy. And intimacy can lead to sexual attraction. And sexual attraction is one of the leading causes of sex. But again, we shouldn’t confuse intimacy for the root problem here. We shouldn’t confuse intimacy for a problem here. We’re created for intimacy. Even, dare I say, with people we may find attractive.

The Billy Graham Rule doesn’t deal with the root problems of accountability and lust and the state of the heart. But I bet it has prevented some people from falling into inappropriate sexual relationships over time. Let’s not condemn it through and through.

The problem with the Billy Graham Rule is the way it puts women at a severe disadvantage in any majority-male industry (or vice versa). A lot happens during a meal or a one-on-one meeting or a car ride—planning, mentoring, trust- and camaraderie-building. As many decisions are made at lunch tables as in conference rooms. They may become official in the conference room, but they really happened at lunch. The man who can go to lunch with his boss gets an edge over the woman who can’t (or vice versa, again).

So what do we do? I’m not ready to write off the Billy Graham Rule for everyone. Though I think there are deeper issues at root, ones that I’d like us to get to, I expect this Rule has been helpful, even necessary, for some men and women. I don’t follow the Billy Graham Rule myself, nor do I advocate it for others. But if a person thinks it a good buffer, I don’t want to discourage them from it.

Here’s a different option for anyone who thinks they should stick to the Rule: make the Rule universal, not gender-specific. Don’t do one-on-one meals or meetings or travel with any colleague, male or female. Find ways to keep all of these interactions in a group setting. You probably don’t love that idea. But right now, you’re denying important opportunities to people because of their gender. You can’t do that. Follow the Rule with everyone or get rid of it altogether.

Regardless of whether you follow this Rule or not, more important to get serious about those root issues. How are your systems of accountability? How’s your heart? Who are you talking to about any of the vices that may be taking root in your life?


[1] Just As I Am, p. 128.

[2] This was a survey of 300 pastors in Richard Allen Blackmon’s The Hazards of Ministry (1984), a Ph.D. dissertation for Fuller Theological Seminary. It was a long time ago. Several other follow-up studies had similar results. I’d like to believe the numbers would be lower today, but haven’t found a good recent study to cite.

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.

  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.”