Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Tough Enough To Change?

As promised, today I'm posting some selective reflections on the time our presbytery leadership spent last week on retreat with Dr. Paul Borden.

Borden is an American Baptist pastor who serves as the leader of one of that denomination's regional judicatories. We read his book Hit the Bullseye as background for his presentation. Since the retreat was for our presbytery leadership, he focused on ways to develop the presbytery staff as consultants to plant healthy churches and transform existing congregations. These strategies can be (and have been) easily adapted for church leaders wanting to grow a healthy congregation. I recommend the book to those of you who are interested--it is a compelling and easy read. Dr. Borden has a good record of success transforming churches which gives his ideas credibility.

Borden is a proponent of tough love. His position is that making disciples must be the first priority -- it is more important than worship, education, fellowship or denominational principles. When he talks about growth, he is not talking about increase in number of members--what El Jefe calls "exchanging hostages" (receiving new members who were already Christians in another church)--but making disciples out of those who were previously not Christians. When Dr. Borden talks numbers, he is referring to worship attendance rather than membership. He believes that the Great Commission is the foremost obligation of the church.

Borden said many things that I have always thought, but never heard anyone else say:
  • Too many churches are designed and structured to remain small and ineffective. We think too small.
  • Too often peace is a higher value than mission, or anything else.
  • Most pastors don't know how to effect transformation because they've never been trained to do it.
  • Fellowship and shepherding must be programmed because making friends is far more important than being friendly.
  • Congregations that are declining will not change until they become focused outward.
  • If a church wants to grow it must staff and behave as if it were larger than it is
Borden also said a number of things that I hadn't heard before and found very challenging:
  • Pastors should not be acting as "chaplains" for the congregation, but should focus on developing the leadership of the staff so the staff can develop the leadership of the laity. (See this excellent post by Jan Edmiston and the thoughtful discussion in the comments that expand on this subject.)
  • Churches that are not making new disciples for Jesus Christ are not being faithful or healthy, no matter what else they are doing.
  • A healthy church gives priority to the people who aren't there yet instead of the people who are.
Accountability is the key to the strategies that Borden advocates--the pastors and other church staff as well as the lay church leadership must be held accountable for well-defined goals. Those goals should include the number of UNCHURCHED people their ministry will reach this year for Jesus, how many leaders they will develop, and by what percentage their area of ministry will grow this year. Borden stresses that "you must marry responsibility with accountability."

It seems to me that the issue of accountability will be the most difficult obstacle to overcome. Accountability is something that churches of every denomination fail to apply to their pastors/priests/ministers, staff and lay leadership at every level. Too often the suggestion that performance standards should be agreed upon and implemented is successfully resisted by those who either fear them or fear the controversy that enforcing them might cause. Witness the congregations and denominations that reward pastors and denominational leaders despite loss of membership, revenue and withdrawal from mission. Or note the many times that ineffective and/or dysfunctional lay leaders remain in place because neither the pastors nor the other lay leaders will remove them. Effective systemic change will never happen unless we are willing to deal with some unpleasantness and pain along the way. The question is can we be tough enough to change, or are we satisfied to wring our hands and whine?

Dr. Borden's presentation did not gloss over the difficulties in the path of congregations that commit to following his strategies for transformation. He gave us way more to think about than I have included here. Dr. Borden's prescription would be a dose of salts for most of us, but maybe it's just what we need to move into the future making disciples for Christ instead of continuing our self-satisfied ways and wondering why the church continues its decline.

If I were the pastor of a church that committed to work with him and his principles, I would be mightily heartened and encouraged to have Paul Borden's assistance and counsel during the inevitable trip to the valley of the shadow that the process would bring. He is positive, convincing and very supportive of pastors, staff and lay leaders who engage in transformation. His presentation included lots of specific examples of creative ways that churches he worked with reached out to make disciples.

Because it would be difficult to re-structure an existing congregation in the way he advocates, I think that using these principles in the implementation of new church plants will prove to be the most productive strategy. I'm appointing a small group of those who attended to sift through all these ideas and recommend ways for New Covenant presbytery to tackle them--that may include exploring the idea of a joint "Growing Healthy Churches"/PCUSA church plant in this presbytery. Since New Covenant presbytery is training church transformation consultants this week, we will also want to consider integrating some of the GHC principles into our program--with special attention to Borden's emphasis on accountability.

Our retreat was very challenging and hopefully will prove to be very productive for us!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this. I think there is one other kind of congregation that can make these moves: churches that have hit rock bottom and their only other option is to shut the doors. Otherwise, we are too set in our ways, and more devoted to our own favorite parts of "church" than the call to "make disciples of all nations." I don't say that in anger, but in sadness. I have my favorite parts too that I don't want to give up.

Anonymous said...

This is great! Thanks for sharing your experience. I am going to refer this entry to my church's session. (I'd link it, but I'm still learning blog-ese).

This is really enlightening for me as well. I've been too focused on how the church should support it's own members, but this gives me new ideas on how we can help each other in the process of mission focus.

Anonymous said...

Really interesting! We are going to focus on growth issues in the coming year(s) and this sound like a possibly excellent resource for us.

I have finally figured out what I hate about the word "unchurched." It sounds like "unwashed." Not alliteratively, but substantively.

As long as we use that word, a lot of people are going to respond to us with scowls rather than with interest.

Mark Smith said...

This brings a few thoughts to mind.

1. When looking for the Unchurched, don't forget an easy subset to find - the Formerly Churched. These are the folks who drifted away or left because "something happened". These folks already have brain pathways trained to think faithfully, and sometimes it's just a matter of being wanted and being helped to get past the "something" that caused a break that brings them back.

2. This whole concept seems fraught with danger in some ways. Neglecting the folks you already have will just create a revolving door - you lose folks while you gain others. Every person who stops coming to church is a lost soul. They deserve the same nurture as new members. If they don't get it, they'll leave. As cell phone companies have learned, it costs more to make a new member than to keep an old one. Sooner or later, the population of those who went out will be bigger than those coming in.

3. How does this concept fit with the concept of defending the faith against heresy? Many of those who demand a pure faith (often "the way we used to be") refuse to "bend to society" in order to attract new members. Do you bend, hold fast, or is there a new 3rd way that both attracts new blood AND keeps the purity of the faith?

reverendmother said...

Thank you for this!

Anonymous said...

My questions would be is this plan or method workable across denominational lines? Does this work equally well with churches with an episcopal, or connectional, or congregational polity? Is this for 'main-line', or evangelical, or non-denominational churches? Is there mention of the local congregation being a place where spiritual formation takes place? Does this method work across the theological spectrum? Is this culturally relevant to churches of different racial/ethnic identities?

I agree this might work best in your presbytery w/NCDs, especially a new one using these principles. That sounds quite interesting.

Our congregation used a Paul Borden survey several years ago which led to some good changes. Those changes led to another, different survey, which led to more changes, and then led to yet another survey with the Natural Church Development program which led to even more good changes!

As churches address their current situations in what amounts to times of self-discovery they are quite naturally led to times of change which leads to further evaluatuion and survey. For us this was a good thing and also helped us realize that not any one survey or purveyer thereof had all the answers.

Be prepared to be in this for the long haul!


Quotidian Grace said...

Thanks for the great comments, everyone. I'll try to respond to them.

Jan--I agree that a church that hits "rock bottom" may be willing to reinvent itself along these lines and that might also work.

GG--I'm with you on your discomfort over the word "unchurched".

Mark-- you're right about the formerly churched. They may be more apt to come back than someone who is completely unfamiliar with a church experience. Borden emphasizes that you will loose some people when you change and that is why it is crucial for the leadership and the congregation to covenant together at the beginning of the process. As to your question about heresy, Borden is a Baptist but does not seem very interested in preserving theological purity. He's more interested in saving souls for Jesus and that is his focus.

PresbyG--Borden says that the more connectional the denomination, the more difficult transformation will be. As you know, Baptists have a very loose connectional structure compared to many other denominations. Still he described ways in which he has "worked around" his denomination's structure and suggested that we could find appropriate strategies for our denomination as well. I think he is right about this, but at this point I don't know what that might look like.

Anonymous said...

One more question for you, QG: In his discussion of transforming existing congregations, did Dr. Borden discuss spiritual and/or corporal support between the members?

( I'm thinking in terms of how we, as members, can help each other thus freeing up more time for focus on missional activities. )

will spotts said...

QG - thank you for this helpful and insightful post. The comments have also been very interesting. I'm very impressed that you're (if you'll forgive the cliche) 'the hard questions'.

A couple of things concern me here. One was the covenanting together for transformation aspect. If that transformation is not biblical, but a matter of preference and sensibility - then I see no need for people to commit to it uncritically. (I realize that is not the point, but there is a pronounced tendency to stick with whatever strategy you adopt and keep applying it when it is clearly not working. On the other hand, there is also a pronounced tendency for people to abandon an idea before they give it a proper trial. I don't have a right answer, but I can see both as problematic - and I'm uncomfortable with the covenant language applied to this.)

The second issue is the question of theological purity. At times in history this emphasis has been over done; but today, I'm inclined to think that the wider culture errs so far against this - that the church will get nowhere by ignoring it. Yes, I know the idea is that you can be more attractive to people, but without a certain level of theological cohesiveness, you lose your raison d'etre. Quite frankly if this were solely to build community solidarity or even to do good in your communities - then dispense with the religion part of it. It is either a needless appendix or the whole point of the church. Obviously this is not what Dr. Borden is suggesting - but it is a logical conclusion of ignoring the issue.

Quotidian Grace said...

Presbyterian Gal-- I don't recall Borden addressing your question directly. He did stress the importance of training church members to do pastoral care for others in the congregation so that the senior pastor would be freed up to lead the church.

Will--The covenant language was my word and not Borden's, and is probably a poor choice on my part. As you point out, that may not be the appropriate term. He does ask congregations to vote and commit to the process for a stated period of time.

In answer to your second point, no one in our retreat raised the question of theological purity in the discussions. My impression is that the American Baptists are much more clear and united in their theological viewpoints than the PCUSA, the Methodists, and other mainliners, so it hasn't been much of an issue in many of the churches he has worked with. It would be interesting to discuss this with him since I don't recall that he addressed this in his book either.

will spotts said...

QG (AKA Mom of Presbytery) - 'The covenant language was my word and not Borden's' Thanks for the clarification. I just took that word more strongly than I think intended.

Anonymous said...

The Borden method is being used in our denomination with devastating results, churches are being closed, sold, pastors are being fired...its a mess.

My heart is saddened and grieved.

Tough love is one thing, this is another entirely.