How to Lead When You Aren’t Sure Where You’re Going

When the path forward is obvious, it is relatively easy for a leader to know what to do. We can rely on strategies that have worked well in the past. We can use existing resources and relationships to solve problems, set direction and create new opportunities. But when significant issues arise that are novel and more complex, leaders and organizations confront a crucial dilemma: How do you lead when you aren’t sure where you’re going?

Some of our uncertainty today is external to the church. Headlines remind us daily that we are in uncharted territory — and probably will be for some time. In addition to the global pandemic, our neighborhoods and cities are reckoning with social and cultural issues that affect every aspect of our lives, from healthcare to education.

The church faces internal uncertainty, too. If church members do not promptly return to in-person worship at pre-pandemic levels, what will we do to cultivate authentic community and share the responsibility of being the body of Christ? How should we disciple emerging generations when our culture often deconstructs their faith and the ways we use technology interrupt their engagement with faith?

If you’re attempting to do strategic planning, you probably need to accept the fact that it is impossible to determine what the church will need in three to five years. Susan Beaumont says that when the church is in a “liminal season,” the way forward is ambiguous, and this makes us feel disoriented.

Now more than ever, we need to clarify our purpose. Ask big questions with your leadership team:

  1. Why does the church exist?
  2. What and who has God called our particular congregation to do and be right now?

Sometimes, the best we can do is admit what we do not know about the future. Then we need to convene our people to listen deeply to the Spirit of God. The feeling of uncertainty may never completely disappear. But the more we listen for God’s genuine call, the more we can lead forward with courage and faith.

f leadership feels especially daunting to you these days, you’re not alone. Nothing in our preparation equipped any of us to reinvent the way we do ministry while trying to sustain ministry at the same time.

The words of writer Alice Walker remind us that “when we let Spirit lead us it is impossible to know where we are being led…” However, Jesus gives us the assurance that he “will be with us always, to the very end of the earth.” Even though you don’t know where you’re going, you do know who’s going with you. Sometimes that’s enough.

The Alban team and I always look forward to hearing your comments. You can reach us at Until next time, blessings!

Prince Rivers


Timely or Timeless: What Does Your Church Want to Be?

One of the more interesting initial findings of the work the Center for Healthy Churches is doing with Belmont University on 21st Century thriving is that, by itself, where a congregation lands on the spectrum of valuing history to valuing cultural relevance tends to make slight difference on whether a congregation is thriving. Instead, what we found is that thriving churches tend to have robust mechanisms for teaching and communicating timeless truths in timely ways. In other words, thriving churches find ways to make timeless practices relevant.The most important question for congregations who are trying to thrive in a 21st Century context will be only tangentially connected to issues of either trends or traditions, and it will have little to nothing to do with questions of style or methodological preference. The question that thriving congregations will ask is how we can take the forms of worship and faith development that are particular to your congregation and practice them in such a way that they meaningfully equip people to engage their faith across the breadth of their own day to day experience.
(Dr. Matt Cook – Assistant Director of the Center for Healthy Churches)

The Elephant in the Room

Avoiding the Avoidance of Pastoral Transition

It can take a church years, if not decades, to recover from a failed leadership transition. So much is at stake, you must get it right from the start.

Every pastor is an interim pastor. Succession is the elephant in the room of every church with a leader in his/her mid-50’s or older. The pastor doesn’t want to bring it up because concern that mentioning “succession” will bring it on sooner than they would like.

Likewise, church councils don’t want to bring it up because they don’t want to look like they’re trying to push the pastor out. Thus, the topic is avoided or clumsily discussed.

Vanderbloemen, a church staffing and Christian executive search firm, has identified signs it might be time to start talking about pastoral succession:

1 Members of the church are growing older. Its often been said that a leader attracts people who are about 10 years younger or older than the pastor. IT is true that pastors tend to relate best with those in their phase in life. A younger pastor connects with younger families.

2 The pastor has lost passion or energy. Although there are exceptions, its the nature of growing older. The drive to tackle big problems and go after a big vision just isn’t the typical drive of the older leader.

These are just some of the signs that you should begin the conversation about succession.

Leading Your Church into A Very Different Future

Since COVID-19 concerns shut down all church gatherings, leaders have had to make many decisions. Now with some knowledge of the long-term impact, its time to begin conversation about congregations’ future.

To frame the conversation for church councils, Dan Hotchkiss* of Congregational Consulting group presents four questions, drawing on churchcouncilhis experience getting church leaders to plan ahead. Perhaps they will assist you and your leaders looking ahead during a time when this is difficult.

1. Ask: What are we learning during this pandemic time?
The last 2 months have forced churches to invent new ways to do the things they did before. We can worship virtually, conduct weddings, hold small-group ministries, and offer education classes online. Even memorial services can take place virtually. But it is not the same. No matter how we try to make online events just like in-person ones, they are different—touching people in new ways. When we can’t do what we are used to doing, we have a chance to learn. What are you learning? What are the people of your church learning? Make a list.

“Spend time with this information in council meetings and capture the result of your discussion. Think of qualitative and quantitative data you could gather that will help you learn, and then return to the same conversation when you meet again. Remember that a congregation’s “bottom line” is not found on the treasurer’s report—important as that is—but in the hearts you touch. Don’t let the press of urgent business crowd out the council’s primary concern.”

2. Ask: What has changed, and for how long?
Right now, no one knows how long the changes will last. Will social distancing become permanent? Will others continue to scoff at health measures now in place. A lot of people seem to think life will go back to normal at the expiration of the current shelter-in-place order. Its likely people in your church have opposing views.
“As a result, some council members may be nervous about venturing their thoughts about the future. I would raise this issue up front: ‘We know that right now, we can’t hold worship services or other gatherings in person. We don’t know for sure how long current restrictions will last, or whether they’ll be modified at some point. We hold a range of viewpoints on these questions. Let’s talk about the range of possibilities each of us expects, to get a sense of the uncertainty we’re living with.’”

Ask people to respond individually to several questions. You might ask, “How long before we can open up the church for public worship?” “How will people’s willingness to attend worship change even after the restrictions lift?” “How much will our congregation’s income be affected by this epidemic?”

Remember that the goal is not to resolve these questions, but to identify the range of answers that seem possible to each council member and the council as a whole. You may have one or more members who believe they know exactly how the COVID-19 crisis will play out. If so, the council will need to ask those members to accept that it will proceed based on the range of possibilities the whole group sees, not one member’s certainty.
Having sketched the range of possibilities the council finds credible, a next step is to construct scenarios to help with planning. This is a big step; not every council is ready yet. But by the end of the summer, your people will expect their leaders to have risen above day-to-day emergencies to work on finding a future for the congregation and its ministry.

3. Ask: What scenarios can we construct to guide our planning?
Each scenario should fall within the range of possibilities the council found credible in steps 1 and 2. None of your scenarios will happen exactly. Still, it is helpful to be fairly specific, because people respond more creatively to a scenario they can imagine vividly.
One scenario might be, “We open in September, but 40% of our congregation do not return, and giving from our current members will fall off by 25%.”
Another might say, “We will need to continue online worship for at least a year, but will be able to reintroduce small gatherings, with appropriate safeguards, in September. Giving from current members will decline by 30%.”

A third scenario might say, “We will become so proficient at virtual worship that attendance will increase by 20%. Any decline in current-member giving will be made up by newcomers who will give online.”

Your scenarios will be different from these, because they will fall within the range of possibilities your council finds reasonable. You choose how many scenarios to construct. Be open and let the congregation know about your scenarios once you have completed them. This takes a certain amount of courage and may challenge some council members who believe that leaders should be silent till they know all the answers, or who are afraid of the anxiety that hard questions can produce.
Decisions of this kind are not for councils to make in isolation. Councils should work closely with the congregation’s spiritual leaders and with members of the congregation, especially those on whose support success depends. The council’s role is to frame the questions in a form that allows others to participate, and to take responsibility for moving the discussion forward.

Transparency gives members notice that you may need to make significant adjustments and enlists their creativity in discerning how you will respond. And that’s the next step—to flesh out possible decisions that the council might make.

4. Ask: How will we fulfil our mission under each scenario?
When faced with a rapidly changing environment, the easy thing for any council to do is to stay the course, praising staff and volunteers who make the new situation feel as familiar as possible. This makes people happy in the short run, but risks squandering the resources that might make renewal possible by dragging out the status quo.

This is not work for the council to do in isolation, or just with the top clergy leader. It should enlist congregants and staff to gather data, flesh out options, evaluate and update the likelihood of each scenario, reflect, and pray about what God would want if God could vote at meetings. Choosing the most faithful way forward is uncomfortable work because it raises questions about cherished aspects of a congregation’s life.
For these reasons, it is helpful to set a timeline for this stage of the council’s work. Uncertainty won’t go away, but if the council commits to making some strategic choices by a certain date, that will go a long way toward reducing the anxiety this kind of planning raises.

A council that cares about its mission has the courage to let go of old ways in new circumstances. To do this faithfully, the council must step back and take a wider view of what the mission really is—distinct from the familiar ways of trying to accomplish it. This work is not easy, but in this second stage of our coronavirus crisis, it is what governing councils are called to do.

*Dan Hotchkiss consults with congregations and other mission driven. He is the author of the best-selling Alban book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Council Leadership.

Navigating Pastoral Change

Every church inevitably goes through a time of leadership transition. Whether because of retirement, scandal, health complications, a change in calling or some other shift in a pastor’s life or career, churches are bound to walk through a pastoral succession of some kind eventually. A new Barna report, Leadership Transitions, addresses this universal reality and examines how churches navigate pastoral change and stay healthy amidst the shift.

“A make-it-up-as-we-go approach has less of a chance of going smoothly, and often fails to find time and intention for other steps that improve a transition, like including multiple types of input in the decision-making” Brian Kinnaman writes. If church leaders can plan ahead for a transition, or enlist evidence-based discernment, the church is likely to come out ahead.

Mustard Seed Consulting uses prevent methods to help organizations determine where they are in order to help them get to where they want to be. MSC offers church leaders guidance to make better decisions, in less time and with more confidence. Contact us today to learn more.5FCFC180-0F47-41DE-BF87-99ACF14ABB63

Spiritual Life Inventory Reveals the Health of ELCA Churches

3C7CE748-AB62-4CBE-BEC7-0DF45CD0C192Evidence based discernment is growing as a valuable tool for congregations today. Mustard Seed Consulting LLC used the Church Assessment Tool from Holy Cow! Consulting as the most tested, widely used instrument to get keen data-based insight into the health of churches and spiritual vitality of people. 

Other efforts are underway, too. Consider that in 2018, Luther Seminary, St Paul, MN as part of a Lilly Endowment-funded Leadership for Faithful Innovation project, enlisted a team of Luther Seminary faculty and staff designed an assessment tool called the Spiritual Life Inventory to help churches and their leaders get a better sense of the spiritual life and church engagement in their congregations.The Spiritual Life Inventory provides a dynamic snapshot of the spiritual health of the congregations surveyed.

Nearly 50 Lutheran congregations in six ELCA synods around the United States have taken the Spiritual Life Inventory. Nearly 4,000 responses have been recorded. While this is a self-selected sample of participants in our learning communities, and we don’t claim the results to be statistically representative of the ELCA as a whole, there are still important insights to be gleaned from the data. 

Here are eight key takeaways.

1. Twenty-two percent of respondents are spiritually stalled but want to grow. Even among those for whom church is working best–members who are active and involved–nearly a quarter of them reported feeling stalled in their spiritual growth. More importantly, they wished they weren’t.

2. Church members have active prayer lives but struggle to talk about their faith. Eighty-nine percent of respondents reported praying daily or weekly, but their conversations with God do not appear to readily extend to conversations about God with those around them. Only 23 percent said they share stories of what God is doing in their lives, and only ten percent have taught another person how to follow Jesus.

3. Respondents don’t know the Bible well. Only ten percent of respondents said they know the Bible well. Around half as many, six percent, said they don’t know the Bible well at all. The rest reported varying degrees of familiarity with the Bible, with the majority saying they know only the story of Jesus well or some stories or parts.

4. People come to church to connect with God. Church members attend church primarily because they want to connect with God: 95 percent of respondents listed this as important or very important to their church attendance. Tapping into a cultural heritage or attending church out of habit were among the most frequently cited reasons that were not important to survey respondents.

5. While 95 percent of respondents attend church because they want to connect with God, there’s a significant drop-off among people who feel they have an active, daily relationship with God. Only 68 percent said their connection to God is sustained during the week and that God plays an active role in their daily lives. The rest–almost one-third of churchgoers who participated–either said that God is not particularly active in their lives or that they are unsure of God’s presence and activity.

6. Worship, prayer, times of transition, and service help people connect with God most readily. Between 80 and 90 percent of respondents say they often or always connect with God during worship, prayer, times of loss, times of new life, and in serving others.

7. Very few young adults participated in the Spiritual Life Inventory.Only three percent of respondents were in their 20’s and seven percent in their teens.

8. The most commonly represented demographic profile of an active church member in the congregations we surveyed is a white woman in her 60’s.Sixty-five percent of respondents were female and 23 percent were aged 60-69–with only 20 percent of all respondents coming in under 40. Only five percent of respondents identified as people of color.

Five Stages of a Pastor’s Service to a Church

Research among Protestant churches show clergy tenure is relatively brief on the average. Hard data is difficult to find, but there’s general agreement that 6-7 years is a common point at which clergy make a move.

The time a pastor serves a congregation does contain common stages. Researcher Thom Rainer1 has studied the phenomenon of pastoral tenure. He’s convinced there are distinct stages with clear characteristics, even while the years he designates for each stage are not precise.

Rainer names the stages and offers the “why” behind each stage.
Year 1: Honeymoon. Both pastor and church have a blank slate and they enter the relationship hoping and believing the best about each other. Perhaps the pastor was weary of the previous pasfivetorate, and perhaps the church was happy to replace their former pastor. For a season, neither can do wrong in the other’s eyes. That season does not usually last long.

Years 2 and 3: Conflicts and Challenges. No pastor is perfect. No church is perfect. Each party discovers the imperfections after a few months. Like a newlywed couple, they began to have their differences after a while. The spiritual health of both the pastor and the church will likely determine the severity of the conflicts and challenges.

Years 4 and 5. Crossroads, Part 1. This period is one of the most critical in the relationship. If the conflict was severe, the pastor will likely leave or be forced out. Indeed, these years are the most common years when a pastor leaves a church. On the other hand, if the pastor and the church manage their relationship well, they can often look forward to some of the best years ahead.

Years 6 to 10: Fruit and Harvest. The research is not complete, but it’s more than anecdotal. A church is likely to experience some of its best years, by almost any metrics, during this period of a pastor’s tenure. Indeed, in interviews with both pastors and members, this theme repeated. Both parties have worked through the tough times. They now trust each other and love each other more deeply.

Years 11 and beyond: Crossroads, Part 2. During the earlier crossroads era at year 4 or 5, the pastor decides to stay or leave. Or the congregations may make the decision. During this relatively rare tenure beyond ten years, the pastor will go down one of two paths: 1) be reinvigorated as a leader and ready to tackle new challenges and cast new visions; or 2) be resistant to the surrounding changes and then become complacent. It remains challenging to understand why pastors go down one path versus the other.

Pastoral tenure matters. It is far too short in many churches. I do think it is critical for us to understand tenure, because the health of the church is directly impacted by it.

Mustard Seed Consulting can provide your church evidence-based discernment for any stage of pastoral tenure. We are ready with proven tools and expertise to help pastors and leaders understand key dynamics and realities to promote longer tenure and healthier ministries.

Contact us today to learn how we can help your church.

1Thom S. Rainer, May 31, 2019

The Short List of Strategic planning

One important component in becoming a vibrant and healthy congregation involves having a shared sense of direction. A strategic plan answers the question, “In what new and different ways will we touch lives in the coming 3 to 5 years?” A short list of answers to this question, supported by key leaders and a strong majority of active members, will guide and enliven everything from program planning, and worship to decisions about staffing, buildings, budgets,and commStrategic-Planningunity outreach.

Consider beginning a process of developing a shared sense of direction by gaining evidence about your church. The Church Assessment Tool* (CAT) offers the best approach to giving equal voice to all your people for the purpose of gaining evidence-based discernment. When you do you’ll make better decisions, in less time and with more confidence.

*Provided by Holy Cow! Consulting” and available to you through Mustard Seed Consulting, LLC.

Look Out Window, Head Out the Door

Conflict is especially challenging for churches. But research has shown that churches least likely to experience conflict considered negative are ones that have started some new community outreach within the last five years.
Why might this inoculate a church toward less destructive conflict? The answer is simple. Congregations with an exclusive internal focus will likely find much to quibble about, whereas externally focused congregations experience an internal alignment around a shared purpose.

Congregations are like people. There are times when when an internal focus is both necessary and appropriate. For churches this includes times of leadership transition, experiences of trauma and loss, and periods of wrestling with major theological questions. But as with an individual, when the internal focus stretches into years there is a danger of obsessive introspection at the expense of outward purpose.

A healthy congregation celebrates baptisms, first communions, wedding and commemorates the lives of the departed. Every church must attend to realities of building realistic budgets, maintaining physical plants, enlisting and supporting talented staff. However, a congregation focused only on the needs of its members and the demands of its building and employees is likely a congregation in decline. To paraphrase William Temple, “a congregation is the only association that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

Healthy congregations look out the window—and head out the door. Unhewindowalthy congregations, like unhealthy people, are self-absorbed. They worry about worship attendance and offerings rather than engage in service. They develop a “scarcity mentality” and organize turf wars over who will get what share of a steadily shrinking pie. They become oblivious to the community outside the doors of their congregation. Meanwhile, conflict builds as members begin to blame each other for the evident decline.

How then is it possible for a church accustomed to gazing only in the mirror to look instead out the window? Leaders must engage in some essential shifts for the congregation to look out the window and move out the door.
1. Leaders teach that the congregation exists not only to serve its members but also to serve its community.

The scriptures provide numerous stories of faith communities called to serve those outside the boundaries. Clergy who call for people using the beliefs and practices of faith to reaching and serving the needs of the surrounding community are on the right track. Focus on the biblical texts which call members to expand their vision.

2. Leaders themselves serve beyond the congregation.
Encourage your pastor to practice what he/she preaches by supporting their engagement with the community. Professional staff and key lay leaders who model this commitment—will help the congregation understand it exists to serve its community, not just its members.

3. The congregation’s budget demonstrates a commitment to its community.
Often a church’s strategic plan reflects its aspirations, while the annual budget reflects its realities. It is not unusual to look at a congregation’s budget and see “staff salaries” and “building maintenance” consuming the largest share. However, a healthy congregation demonstrates a commitment to giving beyond itself by investing in its community.
What about your congregation? Is it gazing in the mirror (even a rearview mirror) …or looking out the window? Ironically, a congregation that tries to save its life by continual self-focus will lose it, but a congregation that gives its life away by offering itself freely in service to the community thrives.

Our congregations are not intended to serve only their own members. They were designed as instruments of God for service to enable and equip their members to engage in service to their community. Once we look out the window, everything changes.

7 Things to Know for 10 Years to Come

What the Church Needs Now – 7 Things to Know 

After a season of assisting churches with evidence based discernment, mostly small congregations in smaller communities, I’ve encountered a notable level of concern about the future. Leaders of these churches already know these two things, but there are seven others they really need to embrace. They know:

1 the present doesn’t look anything like the past.

2 if their churches don’t begin to attract new people (usually “families with children and youth” they question whether they have a future beyond the next 10 years.

0778D9E0-4E7D-465E-A467-021D1758B1BAIt’s inevitable. Churches must change. Change drastically. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t need to change the message. Just the method. One is sacred. The other is not.

What isn’t as clear is what the future church will look like, and what kind of characteristics will mark those churches.

However, I think some trends are coming into focus. I may not be correct, but the following traits describe what I relieve are the kind of churches that will have a significant impact a decade from now.

Here are a few traits I believe will make churches successful in making an impact in the next few years:

1. The ability to say no. All too common reasons churches don’t change is because leaders are unwilling to say no to current members who prefer things the way they were. When you learn to say no to the preferences of some current members, you learn to say yes to a community that is ready to be reached.

2. Focus Beyond.  Congregations that become passionate about people outside their walls will be far more effective than churches that are passionate about keeping the few people they have inside their walls. Better still, you will have a healthier church.

3. Prioritizing a for you not from you culture.  Churches in decline often think in terms of what they can get from people – money, time, growth etc. Churches that will make an impact on the future will be passionate about what they want for people – financial balance, generosity, the joy of serving, better families, and of course, Christ at the center of everyone’s life.

4. Flexibility.  Often a church doesn’t need to change its mission (sometimes it needs to be rediscovered, though!)  but going forward it will be key to change your methods. Flexible and adaptable churches that can innovate around strategy and different initiatives will have the freedom to make the changes they need to make an impact moving forward.

5. A willingness to embrace smaller to become bigger.  When small churches stop being anxious about being bigger churches (or like they were in the 50’s and 60’s) good things can happen. Small can be mighty. Smaller churches  might be a hallmark of future churches making an impact.

6. An openness to questions.  Churches that understand that embracing questions is as important as providing immediate answers will make an impact in the future. We’re discovering that if you embrace questions, the answers are often lived into. The Spirit actually does move in people’s lives.

7. Value exploring and  experimentation. The more traditional you are, the less you will value experimentation. The more successful you are, the less you will value experimentation. If you start to raise the value of experimentation, you will accelerate change and flexibility. The churches that connect with their community will be the churches willing enough to try a variety of things, and who also have the courage to kill them as soon as they stop producing results.

That’s what I see. What do you see in your church?