Failure of Nerve

About a decade ago, our church leadership team read Simple Church together. In principle, we all bought into the book’s premise: Identify the few things that matter most; do those things; do only those things.

As we read and worked, our team got excited about the great change that was coming. We could see how this kind of simplicity and focus was going to improve everything. So we identified the few things that mattered most for us––worship, growth in small groups, and service.[note]When I see the hundreds (thousands?) of churches with similar banners, I wonder if they all read Simple Church.[/note] We resolved to focus all of our energy and publicity and resources on those things.

People would get tired of hearing an invitation into our small groups because that invitation would be so constant. Our bulletin would change––rather than thirty announcements to get lost in, there would be only three. Our budget would change––rather than hundreds of line items fracturing our resources, we would focus all of our resources on these few things. We were all excited about it, in principle.

And then we had to start talking about all the other things.

Those items that would no longer be in the announcements. (Remember? We’re simplifying the announcements to talk about small groups ad nauseam.)

Those line items that would no longer be in the budget. (Remember? We’re reallocating our resources to focus them all on worship, grow, and serve. So much extra money for the most important things!)

This was when it all began to fall apart. “But the softball team…!” “But that fellowship dinner…!” As we went down the list of items we would no longer fund in the budget or advertise in the bulletin, it turned out each of them was important to someone. We were supposed to identify the few things that mattered most and do only those things. But everything we were doing mattered.

So what about our exciting new simple church? We decided we could at least organize the announcements according to our new slogan. And we could organize the budget the same way. If it didn’t fit under “worship,” “grow,” or “serve,” it would be an indication that we shouldn’t be doing it.

You know what happened then. We discovered that everything we were doing could be shoehorned into one of those categories. The bulletin announcements remained the same, but they had new headings. Same for the budget line items. We resolved to tweak some of those items––ask how the softball team could be a bit more of a spiritual growth opportunity, etc.––though I’m not sure how long that resolve lasted.

After several months of reading and planning and excitement, we had a new, Simple Church-approved slogan. And the same church.

Why real change fails

Why did our change effort result in a few months of dreaming, a new slogan, and no real change? For the same reason that most real change fails. Change inherently involves loss. And loss involves pain. And once we finally realize the changes we’re planning will involve pain, we have a failure of nerve and try to minimize the pain.

The best way to minimize the pain:
1 – Tweak the old system (to avoid the pain of real change)
2 – Tell yourselves you’re following the new plan (to avoid the pain of wasted time planning)

A more detailed version of that failure of nerve pattern:


In his book on the same subject[note]My diagram and definition of failure of nerve are my own. I’m not sure whether Edwin Friedman would approve or not.[/note] Edwin Friedman says it like this:

“[W]hat is clear about pain universally is this: To the extent that we are motivated to get on with life, we seem to be able to tolerate more pain; in other words, our threshold seems to increase. Conversely, to the extent that we are unmotivated to get out of our chair, our threshold seems to go down.”[note]in A Failure of Nerve, p. 93[/note]

Unless we’re motivated enough, we will not make fundamental change.[note]Ironically, Friedman talks about being unmotivated to get out of our chair while much of the United Methodist Church is relying on a process that requires us to make our most important decisions while we sit in the same chair for 8 hours.[/note] We’ll make tweaks and call it change. And sadly, stagnant and declining organizations usually don’t get motivated enough until crisis. And they don’t usually realize they’re in crisis until too late.

The first post I ever wrote here was about an experience like this. The Bishop had called for a task force to reconsider how we were funding our campus ministries. They consumed 8% of the Conference budget at the time. They were under fire for producing too little return on the Conference’s significant investment. Not that they were all failing. There were many good stories and important ministries happening. But there were others that couldn’t name more than ten students involved in their ministries. Since those ministries were receiving $70,000 from the Conference, they were good candidates for the “most expensive small group” award.[note]Thanks to Adam Sparks for this excellent award title.[/note]

Nevertheless, many leaders were unprepared to face our realities and endure the pain of fundamental change. Instead, our Conference passed a tweak to the system. I didn’t yet have the language for this, but now I can name it as a failure of nerve. We knew we needed to make a change (lots of talk around the Conference about under-performance and major investment; the Bishop had called for a task force!) But we weren’t willing to do it. Those leaders didn’t yet realize their crisis.

A few years later, the campus ministries lost their Conference funding. That task force had been the last chance at preserving their funding.

(A point of celebration: that new funding crisis forced our campus ministries to “get out of their chairs.” Some that were struggling before are thriving now.)

Who will hold the line?

Is fundamental change needed where you are? If so, are you willing to pay the price? There will be loss––and pain.

For any group to pay that price, it will require a bold leader who is prepared to hold the line when others start saying, “But what about [insert pain point]??”

What does that bold leader look like? Especially in church world, they often look like a jerk. I wonder if this is why we so rarely do it. Edwin Friedman describes them this way: “Anyone who wishes to advance our species or an institution must possess those qualities which those who have little sense of self will perceive as narcissistic. All this besides the fact that ‘arrogant,’ ‘headstrong,’ ‘narcissistic,’ and ‘cold’ will be the terms used against any person who tries to be more himself or herself.”[note]p. 190[/note]

Arrogant, headstrong, narcissistic, and cold… Church world rejects these (perceived) characteristics perhaps more than any other world. Do we have room for leaders who are willing to hold the line? Or will we reject them as cold, arrogant, and lacking compassion?

I wonder if the church’s penchant for compassion may lead us to a more regular failure of nerve than most others. Of course, this is often only a perceived compassion, more properly called a desire to keep everyone happy, which is often at its heart narcissistic.

A vote in favor of Methodist itineracy, or When the circuit rider dismounted…

Many advocates for itineracy in the United Methodist Church have contended that itineracy is at the heart of Methodism and a vital part of our ministry.

I’ve advocated in many places for the importance of the local pastor. Some have taken my advocacy as a disregard for itineracy. On the contrary, I would argue that itinerant ministry played a vitally important role in the history of Methodism and could continue to play that role now.

In 21st century Methodism, the ideal of itineracy has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.[note]with apologies to G.K. Chesterton[/note]

Real Itineracy and the Dismounting of the Circuit Rider

Long ago, our circuit riders dismounted. We now operate with stationed pastors who get shuffled around from time to time. This may be a continued acknowledgment of episcopal authority––the Bishop decides when and where someone goes. It has little to do with itineracy as the early Methodists understood it. If anything, our current practice of “itineracy” is likely to have an effect opposite that of real itineracy as the early Methodists practiced it.

Look at this description from Frederick Norwood’s The Story of American Methodism:

“What they meant by itineracy was that plan of appointments by which ministers were kept moving twice-over. In the first place, each man had his appointment for a strictly limited time [at first quarterly, then annually with an absolute 2-year limit, then 3- and 4-year limits in the later 19th century]. In the second place, every preacher kept on the move on his circuit, and this was true even of ministers appointed to city stations, for they had several outpoints […] In this way, some preachers were appointed to circuits in which they preached perhaps four times (once each quarter) in each of many preaching points, and then went off to the annual conference for appointment to a different circuit. Four powerful sermons, ringing the changes from conviction of sin all the way to perfect love, would take care of an entire year’s preaching!”[note]p. 137[/note]

Itinerant preachers moved twice-over. (1) Their appointments to circuits had strict limits. Those who stayed at the same appointment for a second year were criticized for staying too long. (2) Even within those circuits, they were constantly moving. They might preach somewhere four times in a year!

Were these itinerant ministers the ones conducting weddings and funerals for all of their people?


Were they the ones convening weekly leadership meetings, hiring staff, visiting the sick? In other words, were they the “pastor in charge”?


Would they have even known most of their people’s names?

I wonder.

The itinerant minister functioned much more like an evangelist. “Four powerful sermons, ringing the changes from conviction of sin all the way to perfect love…” The itinerant minister provided little to no pastoral care, little church management, rare “vision-casting” leadership, if at all––and the “vision” would usually be a vision of the kingdom of God, not a committee-created 2020 “vision” for the church.

The Congenial Combination in Early Methodism

So what about all the rest? Who would conduct weddings and funerals? Who would meet with the leaders of a congregation and visit their sick? Who were the “pastors in charge”? The located leaders. These were the often overlooked backbone of the early Methodist movement. The traveling evangelists could bring their four powerful sermons, then move on. A local church would not rise and fall on that kind of occasional leadership. Instead, the ongoing leadership of a congregation came from people who were not under threat of being moved at the next annual conference.

The traveling preacher and the local pastor made for a great team. The one serving an apostolic role––constantly on the move and proclaiming the gospel––the other a priestly role––living among the people and shepherding them. “Only when the circuit rider dismounted and settled in the community where the local preacher lived did the problem arise […] of what his role should be,” explains Norwood, “especially in a community accustomed to a congenial combination of the two.”

Today’s Methodism has lost that congenial combination. We have no traveling preachers. We have lost what was best and most important about that role––its evangelistic nature and focus.

We have only local pastors. Yet we warn local pastors and their congregations that we’re likely to uproot them and move them to a different congregation from time to time. With that, we have lost what was best and most important about that role, too––its constancy with the people.

Why did we abandon the true itinerant ministry? Mainly because we found it difficult. Even in American Methodism’s earliest days, the bishops lamented that “an embarrassingly large number of traveling preachers located.” [note]Norwood, 135[/note] The pilgrim life is hard. It’s best cut out for the young and the single. (It was when circuit riders married that they tended to locate.) How many of our “itinerant” ministers today would truly be able and willing to travel like those early Methodist preachers? The car is much easier on the body than a horse. Still, we would likely lose most. Perhaps we would replace them, though, with those truly called to a ministry of itinerant evangelism.

And how many more great pastoral leaders for the church might we gain if we did away with the threat to move them to a different town and congregation? Likely many. Though what we call “itineracy” today is hardly circuit riding, its constant threat of displacement is still difficult both for those with families and for those whose vision of ministry includes a long journey with a particular community.

The Unnatural New Creation of Modern Methodism: The Ad Interim Pastor

Our circuit riders dismounted long ago. When they did, we abolished both the itinerant ministry and the located pastoral ministry. Instead we settled for a new, unnatural and biblically unprecedented form: the ad interim pastor, where the interim may be one year or twenty––hold your breath at each annual conference cycle. It is now the ad interim pastor who conducts most weddings and funerals, convenes most leadership meetings, hires most staff, and sometimes visits in the hospitals, too. Many in the UMC will contend that we should train laity to do some of these things––at least the visitation. To what degree will depend on which ad interim pastor is serving a congregation at the moment. That wasn’t a question in early Methodism. When the circuit riders dismounted, the lines between these roles blurred.

What if we tried itineracy again? What if we tried having located pastors in charge again? Even one of these moves could reap great rewards. The two together could be a piece of returning to the roots of the Methodist movement.


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HOW we need to plant churches: How to NOT squander church resources (pt. III)

In the coming years, the church must find a way to maximize its resources. The United Methodist Church serves as an excellent experimental lab, with thousands of ongoing experiments running in different local churches and Annual Conferences. What can we learn from those experiments? In the last part of this series, I detailed why we need to focus on church planting. This part will focus on the how.

Church Planting

Over the past 200 years, Methodists planted over 800 self-sustaining churches in the state of Kentucky. Those churches have been places of care for their members, mission outposts in their communities, and contributors to a mission far beyond their own.

How can we continue to create places like these for future generations?

I’ve read numerous studies on church planting and conducted some of my own research over the past few years. The most slap-you-in-the-face clear findings: (1) more churches reach more people [see previous post]; (2) initiatives sponsored by local churches usually succeed; the rest usually fail; (3) disproportionate outside funding harms long-term sustainability.

Local Initiatives

One of the best quantitative studies I’ve found analyzes the Christian Reformed Church’s planting success. It compares local initiatives to denominational initiatives. Of the 43 locally sponsored initiatives, 31 were successful, a 72% success rate. Of the 36 other initiatives, 2 were successful, a 94% failure rate!

The author of the study, David Snapper, discusses advances in church growth research and training for church planters. Many people expected good training in church growth techniques would lead to success. However, the denominational-initiative pastors––the 94% failure rate pastors––had received heavy training in church growth techniques. Snapper concludes, “[G]ood technique cannot, by itself, overcome the enormous difficulties imposed by isolation, lack of support, diminished name-recognition, and similar realities of many NCDs.”

Of course, this study was conducted on congregations organized between 1987 and 1994.[note]See “Unfulfilled Expectations of Church Planting” by David Snapper in the Calvin Theological Journal 31 (1996): 464:86.[/note] A lot has changed since the 90’s. Is this data still relevant? Results from recent Kentucky church plants suggest that it is.

I wish our team in Kentucky had come across Snapper’s research study and heeded its warnings fourteen years ago. A study of UMC church planting in Kentucky from 2004-2018 showed similar results. We looked at all plants that had received denominational funding in the past 14 years and have since gone off funding. We categorized them as no longer existent, sustaining,[note]exists, but is not paying denominational apportionments, a sign of continuing financial challenges[/note] and thriving.[note]financially self-sustaining + paying apportionments[/note]

Out of fourteen attempts at independent plants, eleven no longer exist and three are sustaining. None were categorized as thriving. That makes for a 21% somewhat-success rate.

Out of ten attempts at local-initiative plants––multi-sites or plants from a founding church––two no longer exist, three are sustaining, and five are thriving. That makes for an 80% success rate for at least sustaining, 50% success rate for thriving. The two that no longer exist represent one idea that received limited funding and never actually began and one congregation that left the UMC denomination (so they do still exist, just not in the UMC).[note]I’m not including other kinds of plants that were a part of the larger study––multi-language plants (new language, same location), church restarts, and church-within-a-church. Our sample size was too small and results too inconclusive to be of much help. The early results from all of those did not look good.[/note]

Every piece of our findings confirms what that earlier study of the Reformed Christian Church demonstrated: Initiatives sponsored by local churches are likely to succeed, the rest are likely to fail.

As with frequent moving of pastors, the independent plant model of church planting seems to defy basic biology. A church plant is much more likely to succeed as an organic outgrowth from an existing church than as an isolated strategic initiative. God can create ex nihilo. The rest of us will do better with the strong base of support a local church provides.

Disproportionate Funding

Another question we asked about church plants over the past 14 years: How did the amount of denominational funding they received impact their long-term success?

Specifically, we asked, “For every dollar given by church members during a new church’s first year, how many dollars of denominational support did they receive?” Many of us expected an easy answer: the more financial support, the better. That was wrong.

We categorized them into churches that received <$3 in total from the denomination for every dollar contributed by members in the first year (e.g. If a new church’s giving was $50,000 in its first year, the total denominational support was $150,000 or less), churches that received $3 – $9 for every dollar contributed by members, and those that received over $9. Look at the success rates:

The more disproportionate the denominational support, the less likely a new church was to succeed.

Even more revealing is a look at attendance, giving, and contributions back to the denomination (“apportionments” in the UMC) for each of these categories. We asked, “For every $10,000 our denomination invested, what is the average worship attendance––or annual giving, or annual apportionments paid––today?”

To help make sense of this chart –– The churches that received a total of <$3 from the denomination for every dollar of first-year giving are averaging nearly ten people in worship per $10,000 invested by the denomination. If the UMC invested $100,000 in one of these churches, attendance today is likely around 100 today. By comparison, if the UMC invested $100,000 in a more disproportionate way –– if it was in the middle category, that church is likely to have 20 in worship today.

I think what we’re seeing here is that with more disproportionate denominational investment, new churches become dependent on that funding. They are unable to mature into churches that can become self-sustaining.

This runs against much of the logic used in new church development circles. If a church has more internal funding, we support them less, supposing that they have enough already. If a church is struggling financially, we often rush to their aid with more denominational funding, trying to prop them up. Those efforts to prop up will probably be wasted money, keeping a new congregation dependent on the denomination, when it would be better to allow them to either rise to the challenge or close.

Putting it all together

What if we asked only two questions for supporting new faith communities: (1) Is it an initiative coming out of a strong founding church? (2) Can we support it with proportionate denominational funding? In this case, I’ve identified proportionate as matching funding from the denomination that would put a church in that <$3 category above.

In the past 14 years, 12% of Kentucky investments in new church planting have fit those two categories. Look at how those investments have done:


I think we have enough evidence to make a change. We should re-focus our church planting resources. Can a good idea + a charismatic leader + massive denominational funding lead to a successful church plant? Of course! But it will be the rare exception to the rule. We’ve spent millions on parachutes for charismatic leaders with good ideas, and we have little to show for it.[note]This should actually provide some reassurance to any of those discouraged leaders. If you tried to start a church without the strong backing of a local church and were unsuccessful, we shouldn’t first assume it’s a reflection on your leadership. The odds were stacked against you.[/note]

Denominations need to keep a focus on church planting, but their role needs to be about inspiring and incentivizing local churches to plant new churches. Denominations should invest in those new plants as partners, not as their primary benefactors. We need to get out of the business of investing in ideas––even ones with exciting, well-crafted plans. We need to run from any notions of centrally-planned initiatives. If we continue investing in initiatives that aren’t based out of a local church or where denominational funding makes up most of a new church’s budget, we need to ask whether we’re squandering our resources.

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Why we need more churches: How to NOT squander church resources (pt. II)

In the coming years, the church must find a way to maximize its resources. The United Methodist Church serves as an excellent experimental lab, with thousands of ongoing experiments running in different local churches and Annual Conferences. What can we learn from those experiments? I wrote part I of this series on pastoral tenure and transition. The next two parts will focus on church growth and church planting.

Two charts that should change how we think about church growth

I’m going to share two charts with you that should make us reconsider how we typically think about church growth.

These are based on my research of the United Methodist Church in Kentucky. This is obviously a limited data set. One denomination, one state.[note]Not even a full state. Just my conference. A handful of our counties are in another conference.[/note] Nevertheless, it gives us over 800 churches in 105 counties, so there’s a lot to work with here. I suspect that it would hold true if we went beyond my denomination and state.[note]Preliminary research on the North Carolina Conference of the UMC shows similar results.[/note]

An easy first question: Is there a relationship between the number of churches in a county and the percentage of that county’s population in worship?

If you said yes, you were right. More churches = more people in worship. The chart below plots each county based on its number of UMC churches per capita and the average percentage of the population in worship attendance at UMC churches.

churches-and-attendanceLook at that beautiful direct relationship. More churches = more people in worship.

For people who like math and statistics, the correlation here is 0.884.

If you’re unfamiliar with correlations, they show you how closely related two variables are.

A 1 signifies a perfect positive relationship. Things with high positive correlations: ice cream sales vs. the outdoor temperature, your waist size vs. the amount of junk food you eat.

A -1 signifies a perfect negative relationship. Things with high negative correlations: hot chocolate sales vs. the outdoor temperature, your waist size vs. the amount you exercise.

A 0 signifies no relationship. Things with a near-0 correlation: the temperature outside vs. the amount of money in your bank account.

So a 0.884 correlation suggests a strong relationship between these two things.[note]There’s an important reminder in statistics: correlation does not imply causation. The number of people who drowned by falling into a swimming-pool correlates with the number of films Nicolas Cage appeared in during the year. Nevertheless, I think we have reason to believe that some causation is happening here. A few people might argue that the number of people in worship is causing the number of churches in that county. I don’t think that argument would find much support.[/note] I took this data to a team of MBA students at UK to be sure I hadn’t mishandled my data or misunderstood my results. They came back to me amazed that the data showed such a strong one-variable relationship.[note]For statistical analysis nerds, there’s much more here to discuss re: regression analyses. A regression analysis using county size and churches per capita shows a p-value of 4.4*10^-37 for churches per capita. A regression analysis using county size and average church size shows a p-value of .97 for average church size. I’m happy to continue the conversation and get your help and input for any next steps of study. Email me.[/note]

Let’s ask a next question. Is there a relationship between the size of churches in a county and the percentage of the population in worship?

This seems as intuitive as the first question. Bigger churches should equal more people in worship.

If you said yes… you were wrong. Bigger churches = nothing as far as total reach. The chart below plots each county based on the average size of its UMC churches and the percentage of the population in worship attendance.

size-and-attendanceNo relationship. The correlation is -0.12. This doesn’t change significantly even if we separate our counties by size. Even among our large counties––where churches are likely to grow larger––the number of churches per capita relates to how many people we’re reaching, the average size of the churches in that county does not.

More churches, more people

Tell me the number of UMC churches in your county, and I can tell you with decent accuracy what percentage of the county you’re reaching. Tell me the average size of UMC churches in your county, and I can tell you… nothing.

More churches = more people. Bigger churches = no difference.

In the data points above, you might see that the UMC has nearly 8% of one county in worship each Sunday. That’s Cumberland County. That county doesn’t have a single church with more than 100 people in attendance. But it has 17 of them![note]Some people will argue that Cumberland County is an outlier. Except that it’s not. Remove it, and the correlation doesn’t change. It is not an exception to the rule. It’s an extreme data point that proves the rule.[/note] For comparisons’ sake, that’s four more UMC churches than Fayette County has, even though Fayette is 46x larger.

If the Church really believes in reaching more people, it should be locked-in focused on starting more churches. Instead, we seem much more focused on growing churches. We celebrate church growth more than anything. Which people do we put in the spotlight? The ones who grow big churches! “The next speaker grew his[note]Let’s face it, it’s almost always “his.” I don’t celebrate that.[/note] church to ___ thousand in just ___ years!” The not-so-subtle suggestion: we all want to be like that guy and grow massive churches. Or at least grow larger than we are. Because we’ve all been convinced, if not consciously then subconsciously, that bigger churches are better.

We reveal that disposition when we refer to the church down the street as competition instead of as an ally. We reveal it when we say [insert your city name] has enough churches already, or when we advocate for church mergers. (“Do we really need one more church down the street? Why not combine into one bigger church?”)

About those mergers

When we look at our merger products, we see more evidence that our bigger is better thinking is flawed. Analysis of Kentucky’s merger product churches over the past decade shows them as the single worst-performing category of churches we found. We had eleven merger product churches. Nine declined in their combined attendance and averaged a 33% loss. Five of them were among our top 20 attendance decreases across the conference during this period. (A category of churches that makes up only 1.4% of the Conference represented 25% of our churches with worst worship attendance losses.)

Two of those merger products actually grew. Those two exceptions are telling. One maintained separate geographic locations. The other maintained worship services in different languages. Neither merger included getting all the people under one roof.

Why we prefer bigger, why we need more

Bigger affords more. Specifically, it affords pastors a bigger pulpit, paycheck, parsonage and pension. (I’ve heard about the 4 P’s more than a few times. So long as they’re prized, our decisions will be based more on pastor preferences than kingdom impact.) So there’s a baked-in incentive for pastors to favor bigger rather than more. If you send people out to start something new, it means that your pulpit will stay smaller. And probably the paycheck and pension, since people will take their money with them. One church of 400 can pay a pastor much more than five churches of 100 can each pay their pastor. But we reach more people the second way.

Bigger affords more, but bigger doesn’t reach more. More reaches more. How can we flip the script in the church to start celebrating more churches more than we celebrate bigger churches?

This post deals with our why. Why plant churches? Because we reach more people. The why isn’t enough, though. How do we plant churches effectively? Next week’s post [now available] will suggest that we already know… but often ignore it. To be sure you don’t miss it, JOIN my e-mail update list.