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?


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]


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?


• 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.


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?


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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?


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.


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:


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?


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]


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.


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.


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.

How to treat and evaluate missionaries well

A friend sent this article to me recently. I heartily commend it to any of you who ever interact with missionaries. The author lists ten things missionaries struggle with but usually don’t tell people.

Our family served with a missions organization in Spain for only eleven months, and we knew it was short-term. Even still, we felt nearly all of these. We saw long-term missionaries there struggle with all of them.

(For what it’s worth, I watch pastors struggle with a few of these, too.)

That experience has helped us treat missionaries––and other pastors, where it pertains––with more charity. A few things that has included:

– Read newsletters and reply with empathy.
When we were in Spain, we sent occasional newsletters to friends and family about what we were doing. One friend, Barbara, replied to every single one. Some replies were only two or three sentences long. Even so, they meant a lot. Those brief replies were a nice reminder that someone from home was following and hadn’t forgotten us, as the linked article mentions.

For the missionaries we know, I now try to respond to their letters with a personal note. I especially look for something to celebrate with them, something to grieve with them, or something to pray about.

– Celebrate the things that may draw criticism or skepticism from others.
The author of the article is certainly right about the discomfort of sharing pictures from a vacation or anything else of the sort. He’s right, too, about anxiety over sharing results that may not sound impressive enough. When I see that missionary friends took a trip for fun, I especially try to celebrate that with them. When I see they tried something new and got a response (even a small one), I send a note to celebrate it.

 Scrutinize the integrity of the person and the credibility of their missions organization. Don’t scrutinize their budget or the exact nature of the work.
Our family has enough opportunity to support missionaries we know, so we’re not picking random people off a page. That means we already know them well enough to know if they’re faithful Christians and diligent workers. That’s of first importance to us. I’m happy to support someone like this, even if they don’t know exactly what they’ll be doing. Put a hard-working, faithful Christian on a mission field, and I’m sure something good will come.

Over the years, I’ve had a handful of requests for support from people whose work ethic or depth of faith was questionable. We chose not to fund those.

I also want to know that the missions organization someone is serving is reputable and has good systems of accountability in place. That makes more sense than scrutinizing the budget or mission plans of a particular missionary. The organization understands the realities of mission work better than I do. I’m wary of people trying to serve without the cover and accountability of a good organization.

When I see some of the expected costs for missionary living, I confess they surprise me and seem high. The costs for travel and language school often surprise potential supporters. I can now say that good language learning is essential and merits its significant cost. And I understand travel costs differently now. One emergency trip back to the States can break a missionary couple’s budget for years. The author of the linked article mentioned not being able to attend his father’s funeral. I was with a missionary who watched his father’s funeral by Skype. The physical and financial toll of an emergency round-trip were going to be too much.

The article above also mentioned intense scrutiny from church missions committees about the exact plans for a missionary’s work. I’ve talked to several missionaries who lament what they have to do and share with States-side missions committees to get their support. It often feels exploitative––pictures of dirty, hungry children and the like.

We should leave scrutiny about the details of the work to the missions agency. We don’t know the situation in many of these cultures. We don’t know what’s truly needed. And sometimes the missionaries and agencies don’t know either. What they really need is to do some exploratory work. That’s hard to sell, but essential to the long-term work.

– Prioritize long-term missionaries.
I’ll still contribute a bit to someone who’s going on a 10-day trip to Mexico or a 6-month trip to serve in the Philippines. But what I contribute is a small show of support. I try to save most of our giving to missions for the long-termers.

Having seen both, and having been much closer to the short-termer side, I believe the long-term work needs and deserves the lion’s share of financial support. Let’s be honest, a 10-day trip is probably better termed “cross-cultural experience” than mission. It does some good, supports the long-termers, and maybe whets someone’s appetite to serve in a bigger way. But it’s still at least equal part sight-seeing trip (even if the “sight” is a VBS in a third-world country) compared to the deep, hard work of long-term mission.

I know this is probably an unusual position, but I look for someone going on a short-term trip to be financially invested. Some people can treat a short-term missions trip as a semi-vacation that others will pay for.

So when anyone who’s considering a short-term trip asks me about fundraising, one of my first suggestions to them is that they find a way to self-fund a significant portion. When we went to Spain, we received support for about 40% and used savings for the other 60%. That financial support from others was an incredible blessing. But as short-termers, I wouldn’t have felt right about it if we didn’t pay for a significant portion ourselves. (And if anyone is looking to do something like this just as a get-away, not for the sake of mission, I urge them to find a way to pay for all of it. No “Go Fund Me” campaigns.

Hear me in this: I believe those short-term trips are (usually) good and important! I’ve taken them and encourage others to. I only want to communicate here that those trips make a tiny impact compared to the long-term work. I want our major financial contributions to support the major, long-term work.

– Your financial support is more than just financial support.
I heard this several times before, but I never really believed or understood it until people began giving us support. The financial support was great. But just as significant was the vote of confidence it represented. I remember a few friends who made commitments that we knew were significant sacrifices on their part. Some of those came at our times of highest anxiety and doubt. Those commitments said, “I believe in you” in a tangible way when we most needed to hear it.

– Do not treat missionaries as if they live on vacation.
They may live in a spot that you’d go on vacation. You may even go on a 10-day missions trip there, and it will feel a bit like vacation because it’s a break from your norm.

But for them, it’s everyday life. And because it’s in a foreign culture and often a foreign language, those everyday life things are harder. Even after several years of being there. While we were in Spain, the extra mental (and sometimes emotional) effort of going to the grocery or the bank or the Emergency Room (twice!) caught us by surprise. Simple things we take for granted in the States were taxing. It got easier as we went, but even in our final month, normal life required more energy than it does here. If we were both trying to put in full-time work hours and then live normal life, we couldn’t have done it.

Those who have lived there 20 years have obviously gotten much better at all this. But even for them, the work of normal living was more than it would be in their home culture. (This is also a good reminder for us in the States who know refugees or others who came from a different culture. Everyday life is more taxing for them than for us “natives.” Good to give them some extra grace.)

– When missionaries are in the States, welcome them with open arms and don’t expect too much.
I’ve talked with several missionaries who say their hardest times are the times back in the States. They’re away from home, staying in others’ houses, on others’ schedules, and often traveling a lot. And then those receiving them assume that they’re on vacation.

That experience has helped me ask a lot of questions that begin with, “You don’t need to give me the acceptable line here, just tell me the truth…” And then ask questions like, “We were thinking about setting up this event while you’re here. Would that be more of a blessing or a burden to you?” “How can we arrange your time and living situation here so you leave refreshed, not tired?” “Is there food you’ve been craving or food you’re sick of?”


If you didn’t, you should read the article linked at top. If you found these suggestions helpful, share them with a friend, a pastor, or someone on your church’s missions committee.

I’ll open the comments on this post for any of you to provide other suggestions (or critique mine).

On Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion – An interview with Os Guinness

I recently had the honor to interview Os Guinness about his newest book, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion.

Dr. Guinness is one of our world’s most prominent social critics. He’s a devout Christian who seems equally comfortable assessing issues in the church and in the world. One of the things I love most about Guinness’s work is that he constantly points us back. Rather than creating new solutions, his work is about recovering what’s been lost.

Our interview covers apologetics and evangelism in the changing American landscape, errors in church growth, hypocrisy as a useful tool, and America’s historical near-sightedness. You can listen (right-click here to download), watch, or read the transcript below.

(My apologies for the *dings* you’ll hear if you listen. I’ll have those cleaned up before the next interview.)

Teddy Ray: I’m talking with Os Guinness today. Dr. Guinness is a prolific writer. He’s written and edited over 30 books. His most recent book is called Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. Dr. Guinness, thank you so much for joining me today.

Os Guinness: Well, my pleasure to be with you.

TR: In this book, I’ll just jump straight to your main point. The main problem you’re trying to address is that you say we’ve lost the art of Christian persuasion.

Could you explain what you mean by Christian persuasion and then also how you think we’ve lost that art?

OG: Well obviously the passion to communicate, to share our faith with others so that they may know Jesus the way we know him, is at the very heart of the Christian faith.

But if you look, say, at America over the last 50 years, we’ve gone from a broad Christian consensus where everyone understood, even if they didn’t themselves speak Christian. We’ve gone to a world in which public life has grown infinitely more secular and many people are trying to drive religious voices out altogether. And private life has grown infinitely more diverse. People say everyone is now everywhere. Well in that world, we can’t communicate as we used to.

And far too many Christians, if they communicate at all, are using cookie-cutter recipe approaches, formulas, 1-2-3-4, and so on, which simply don’t work with people today.

And we’ve got to go back and really rediscover the Christian tradition, the Christian art of persuasion, which is in the gospels, in the New Testament, and certainly down through history. But we’ve lost much of it in America.

TR: Are you attributing so much of that loss to the fact that we were living in an easier time when we didn’t need to creatively persuade, and we just forgot how to do this in the process?

OG: Well that’s right. You just take one person, say, the Eisenhower era gave rise to Billy Graham. In the Billy Graham era, he was a magnificent preacher of the gospel and reached millions of people. But that was evangelism. And you can see that today, many people are hostile, indifferent, self-sufficient. They’re closed to the gospel.

So we need not only evangelism, sharing the good news straightforwardly. We need apologetics and the art of persuasion to people who are not open, not interested, not needy.

TR: And so because of that, you talk about this creative form of persuasion that starts where people are and helps them open up without their expecting to, as opposed to some of these techniques.

You talked about our left-brain schooling. We’re so well-educated in reason and logic and analysis, but without creativity and imagination and irony. Can you share your antidote to that? How do we get back some of that creativity and imagination?

OG: Well when we talk about this, a lot of people say, “Well obviously I haven’t been educated enough…” And I would argue no, that’s not the problem. The problem is too many of us, I include myself, we’ve been educated too much in an unbalanced, or the wrong way of thinking.

If you look at all the very best––and I’m not minimizing at all––of Western education, it’s rational, logical, critical, and all these good things. Which it should be. I’m not minimizing it.

But what it’s lacking is imagination and irony and creativity and things like this. In other words, we’ve got to fight ourselves out from the chains of much of how many of us in the best universities have been educated and go back to things that were actually much more human all along.

TR: You said that was the case for you, as well. Could you share some about how you made that transition or were able to be exposed to some of those things?

OG: I had the privilege of going to Oxford, which is certainly one of the best universities in the world, but very very heavy on rational, critical thinking, which is magnificent. But not quite so good in terms of the imagination and irony and creativity and things like that.

Whereas, when you look at subversive communication. People often say today, “We’ve got to use stories because we’re postmodern.” In other words, in the modernist world, you could talk logically, discursively and so on, but today in the post-modern world, we’ve got to use stories, narratives and so on.

Well that’s not the way the Scriptures put it. I’d put it somewhat differently. People are open. You can use tough-minded, logical thinking to take something like Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. That is very high reasoning, logical thinking, etc. But the Roman Christians were obviously open to what Paul was saying, so it’s thoroughly appropriate. And obviously many people’s sermons are like that.

But you look at our Lord. It wasn’t that he was a countryman talking to country people, as some people say very patronizingly. It’s rather that he was speaking to people—including the scribes, the Pharisees and others—who were dead-set against him. They were anything but open. And so his communication is thoroughly creative, subversive and so on. It’s indirect.

So we tell stories not because we’re post-modern. No, but because many of the people we’re speaking to are not open and stories are more subversive than statements in this case.

But as you know, I’ve got a chapter on all the different ways of communicating in Scripture that carry this particular creative subversion within them.

TR: Your references there, especially to David and then to the prophets and the ways they would approach these things were excellent.

You also mention people like Pascal and Dorothy Sayers and Chesterton and CS Lewis. Is there any living theologian today, or any few, that you would point to and say, “These are people who are doing it that way. They’re exemplifying what I’m talking about here”?

OG: Well I’m sure there are, but I’m not myself a theologian. I don’t move in the world of seminaries very much. I’m much more out in the culture on campuses talking with people who are trying to do apologetics.

One of my complaints in the book is there’s far too much thinking about apologetics rather than doing apologetics. We’ve got to get out there and actually do it.

Now when you come to the practitioners, this approach I don’t think is as strong or as common as I’d like it to be. Now I remember earlier on, Malcolm Muggeridge who came to faith in the Lord in his 70s. One of the reasons he loved the Christian gospel: it gave him a grounding for the way he saw the universe the way he did. It wasn’t just that he was a humorist and a comedian and he saw the world like that. No, no. He saw the gospel gave him a theological basis for that, which I love.

The gospel, put simply—and you’ve got to say it reverently—the gospel is closer to the dynamics of comedy than it is to the dynamics of tragedy. And we’ve got to recover a lot of this.

But I don’t know the world of the seminaries. That’s your world.

TR: And that’s quite all right. I think these, though, are excellent things to bring into that world. And you’re right. What you point out is that you see quite a bit more technique. Here are the four steps to take. Do this, this, this, and this. And this will work with everyone.

You’re saying, “No, every individual requires something different.” So I really appreciated your chapter on technique.

To bring it to church world in a bigger way. You related our obsession with technique to the way we’re starting churches now. I’d love you to say a bit more about that. How you’re seeing that happen and what you would advise.

OG: Well you can see in the last fifty years the popularity of church growth. But there was a very significant moment when Pete Wagner said, “We need church growth,” and I’m quoting now, “on new ground.” In other words, it wasn’t the power of the gospel, the word, the Spirit, and things like that.

It was management, marketing, sociology, psychology. I have nothing against those. My background is the social sciences in my own life. Nothing against them, but they should never replace theology. And I remember there was one book in the early days on marketing the church which made the point that in marketing the church the audience, not the message, is sovereign. I’m almost quoting exactly.

Now that’s a recipe for heresy. The message—the word of the Lord, the gospel itself—is always sovereign.

So yes, we listen to people, we get close to people. Paul says, “I’m Jew to the Jews, Gentile to the Gentiles.” So Gadamer the philosopher’s term of “fusion of horizons,” or what you might call identification. All these various words that come in.

We get as close to people as we can, but they don’t shape our message. We have the same message that brings them back to the Lord.

And so there’s a lot of thinking in the church growth movement that was very unntheological and very unwise. And you can see that just as the extremes of Protestant liberalism led us astray and virtually committed spiritual and institutional suicide over the last 200 years.

We’ve had varieties of some of the extremes of the church growth movement, or the extremes of the emergent church, that have done the same thing within evangelicalism. And that’s been extremely sad. Not nearly enough critical thinking.

TR: It’s funny to me that you say you’re not a theologian, but the ways you’re pointing us back to actual theology over all these other social principles, which you say is your world… I wish we had more people, whether we call them theologians or social sciences people, who would point us in these directions. I appreciate you doing that.

And actually, let me point to another piece of what I would call theological argument that you’re making. You talk about how Christians are inconsistent to our beliefs, too. We claim one thing and then we live differently. You talk about hypocrisy. You didn’t budge on that. You said, “Where unbelievers cannot be consistent, we should be.” Is part of our problem with Christian persuasion tied to holiness?

OG: Oh, absolutely. But I would say we have to appreciate the sting of hypocrisy.

Sadly, we’re at a place today, take, say, the New Atheists, where the main argument for atheism is the Christian faith. In other words, the corruptions and failures of the Christian faith, whether it’s the Inquisition, or the notion that error has no rights and all these things back in the medieval world, or Christians today.

And you can often see some moments in the lives of great atheists, say Bertrand Russell or whomever, where they were wounded by Christians and they never got over it. In other words, we have got to take hypocrisy very seriously. We have created many of the grounds for the objections against the Christian faith.

But as I was arguing, we shouldn’t be depressed by that. Because the simple fact is, people who get really angry about Christian hypocrisy, or any hypocrisy, they sound as if they have outrage on their side, but in fact they don’t have a standard or foundation for truth or for justice by which you can judge anything as hypocrisy, let alone have an answer.

And so I would argue that there is no greater counter-hypocrisy program in all history than our Lord’s, and he is the toughest person challenging hypocrisy, and of course, sadly that includes many of his own followers—us. So we’ve got to take it deeply seriously.

And while non-Christians can’t be consistent to what they claim they believe because it isn’t finally true, we should be! So every time there’s a charge of hypocrisy, we’ve got to say, “Lord, is it right?” And if it is, we’ve got to put something right in our individual lives or in the church as a whole.

Hypocrisy, understood properly, is a very useful accusation. It’s a stinging one, but a useful one.

TR: That’s a great word, and one we seem to miss. I’ve even seen the bumper stickers that say, “The Church—we’re full of hypocrites!” And it has become a celebratory point. “We’re full of hypocrites, and we could take one more, too!” Rather than saying, “No, we have to live differently!”

What you just did there, pointing back to our past, pointing back clearly to our Lord, seems to be a key theme that runs through almost all of your work. You point out a problem in the present, and rather than presenting a new solution, you’re presenting really old solutions. You’re constantly taking us back, even in your social critic work, you’re pointing back to the founding fathers, and in your works on the church, you’re pointing back to classical understandings.

Could you share some about that approach and why you lean on it the way you do?

OG: Well I just happen to have been brought up in England with a strong sense of history. The prime minister when I was a boy was Winston Churchill. You hardly heard a speech of his that didn’t sort of breathe the air of a thousand years of English history.

And you don’t understand anything today unless you understand history. Now I had that in my background, so when I came to faith, I wasn’t one of those who believed that we only discuss things today and we jump back to the New Testament, and know nothing in between. No, obviously the Scriptures for us are authoritative, and our Lord supremely.

But we thank God for every year of Christian history in between. Some of them sad, some of them incredible, some of them really bad. But we need to understand them all so we don’t make the same mistakes today.

So Americans often have a very short sense of history. For example, all the discussion of racism and slavery. I’ve even heard sermons in the last month that speak as if the 19th century––where you had the justification of slavery in the south––was the norm.

And they forget that the whole notion of freedom came from the freed slaves, the book of Exodus. And it was Christians, and long before the 19th century worst happened, Wilberforce— who was a friend of my great-great grandfather’s, who founded the Guinness brewery—Wilberforce had abolished slavery in the British empire. So the greatest reform in all human history was by an evangelical. And we should have some of these great historical perspectives in our mind when we tackle some of these issues today.

But many Americans are incredibly myopic when it comes to history.

TR: I have a friend who talks about “out-traditioning” the traditionalists. He says so often we grab onto the last 20 or 30 years and say, “This is who we are!” He says, “Let’s talk about who we’ve been over the past 200 or 300 years.”

OG: That’s right. You remember the phrase in the 1960’s, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” And Tom Oden gave a brilliant answer to it: “Don’t trust anyone under 300.” And you can see today, that’s hitting the church and hitting America in what I call generationalism. We’ve narrowed and distorted the generations down to the cohort of shared experience.

And it’s become a new form of identity. “I’m a millennial,” “You’re a boomer…” She’s a this. He’s a that. And it’s become a new form of relativism. “Well of course, you wouldn’t understand, it’s a generational thing.” Now that’s actually crazy.

We see in Scripture the Lord is from generation to generation. Our Lord is the same yesterday, today, forever. So we’ve got to part with this generationalism, this incredibly myopic thinking, and recover a living sense of tradition. And the millennials have a very distorted view of that, as if all tradition is the dead hand of the past rather than safe-keeping from generation to generation.

TR: Yeah, there’s a much deeper identity there. A deeper rooting. That leads me to one final question I wanted to ask you. I wanted to point to one of your earlier books, The Call, because it’s been such a great guide for me. I think I’ve quoted it at least five times in the past year in sermons.

As I was working with a group through it last spring, we started recognizing how calling answers questions that everyone seems to be asking. Christian evangelism always used to start with sin and how you can be forgiven. And that seems to have made sense in earlier eras. But people aren’t asking about sin and forgiveness much in our culture.

They’re still asking a lot about calling and purpose. And that gives me a great chance to say, “There’s no call without a caller,” to quote you. So I’d just ask you if you think we were seeing things correctly. Is calling one of those natural entry points into Christian persuasion?

OG: Oh, absolutely. As you said rightly, calling is the ultimate answer to that human longing for purpose. And it’s one of those wonderful places where… I have this little apologetic principle, “Contrast is the mother of clarity.” And if you look at the other worldviews, religions, philosophies of life in comparison with the gospel, it’s dramatically different at that point.

I’m simplifying it drastically, but if you look at Hinduism and Buddhists, their essential answer to purpose, forget it. Why? To take yourself seriously as an individual is to be called into the world of illusion. And freedom in the East is freedom from individuality. Not freedom to be an individual.

Or if you look, say, at our atheist friends, secularists, agnostics, materialists, naturalists… You can put their position in three words: Do it yourself. In other words, there’s no meaning in the universe. So if you want meaning, you’ve got to create it. You know, Bertrand Russell, or the Greek giant Atlas with his own world on his own shoulders. Or Nietzsche, you’ve got to live to be able to say, “Thus I willed it.” Do it yourself! Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.”

And you contrast that with the Jewish and Christian, the biblical understanding. There’s purpose because we’re created unique. So it’s, “Be who you are.” But not only that, “Become who you can become.” Because as you rise to follow the call of the Lord, you’re in touch with parts of yourself and things which he knows we can do, which no one else knows for us.

And so, not surprisingly, there’s no deeper sense of purpose in all human history than you have in the biblical understanding of calling.

TR: We had someone in our group… We asked everyone to interview someone about calling, and one of them intentionally interviewed a staunch atheist. And we said, “Well what an interesting thing that you chose a staunch atheist to talk to about calling!” And he said, “This is universal. This guy sat and talked to me about this great calling on his life, and I sat there and said, ‘So where did this come from? Where is the caller?’”

It was a brilliant moment. So I’m seeing how all your work on calling and your work on Christian persuasion come together there.

OG: Well, thank you. No, it’s a wonderful time.

Going back to something you said earlier, Teddy. Many of the of the deepest, profound problems today, whether philosophical or practical, social-political… they raise questions that are only answered in the profundity of the biblical answer. So it’s an incredible moment for us where we’ve got to go back to go forward.

TR: And that’s what you’ve done so well in this book. We’re out of time. Let me just commend to my readers—I would love for you to grab this book and take a look.

It really does counter a lot of our current notions about what evangelism is and really calls us back to something before evangelism and to something that has been lost in our history in a lot of ways. So grab this book if you can. I want to thank you for joining me today, Dr. Guinness. I appreciate your time.

OG: My privilege. Thank you.

TR: That was Os Guinness. His new book is Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. You can see the link for it both on my site and on the video here. I’d love for you to pick it up. I hope you enjoyed this conversation. We’ll have more to come.


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My deepest gratitude to Jason Huber for producing this. His studio, graphics, and detail work made it possible.

Let’s have more “boring” testimonies

testimonyA friend just told me he has one of those “boring” testimonies. I told him that’s something to celebrate.

As a father, I’ll be thrilled if the story my kids have to tell about me in 20 years is “boring” in the same way. I would like nothing more than for them to say, “I’ve always known my dad loves me. I’ve never doubted that. Never rebelled against it. I just keep seeing his love for me in new ways and enjoying it. And I love him a lot…” (To be clear—I’m not suggesting there are no bumps along the way, just no dramatic rebellions.)

As a husband, my goal is for my wife to have a similar “boring” story about me when we’re old. No questions, no doubt, no extended periods of hostility. No breaches of faith.

In fact, those aren’t “boring” stories, are they? They can be beautiful stories of love and faithfulness, vitality and growth. These are stories about life change—not because of a drastic course correction, but because of steady, enlivening faithfulness.

Sometimes we downplay these stories because they don’t take a dramatic turn. They don’t excite us like a broken relationship repaired, a corrupt person redeemed. But they’re good stories.

What’s my greatest hope and prayer for my kids, and for all of the kids in our church? That they’ll have “boring” testimonies about their faith when they grow up. I’d love to proudly put one of them in front of the congregation each week to tell a “boring” story about faithfulness.

About how that congregation made a covenant to them 20-some years ago and kept it—a covenant to surround them with a community of love and forgiveness and pray for them, that they would become true disciples of Christ.

About how they had always known God’s love. Never doubted it. Never rebelled against it. Just kept growing in it.

Now I know I can’t control this. Not as a father, not as a husband, not as a pastor. I can influence these things (see especially “Finding a church for my kids”), but not control them. The enemy still leads people into rebellion, even from the best of circumstances.

And when that rebellion happens, we’ll seek out any lost sons or daughters and throw lavish parties for any who return. We’ll put them in front of the congregation to share their “less-boring” testimonies, and the extra drama of those stories may result in more tears and cheers than normal. We’ll probably rejoice more over that one lost sheep that returned than over the 99 who never strayed. And that makes sense.

But for me, I’d love to have more “boring” testimonies. I don’t think they’re really all that boring after all.