By Eddie Pipkin

Here in Florida we take a good bit of ribbing when fall rolls around.  We get tons of texts from our more northern pals featuring hillsides of vivid leaf color.  I like to counterprogram with featured shots of the more subtle (but still beautiful and inspiring, if less showy) blooms and berries and fallen acorns that are unique to our peninsula in September and October (#subtlefloridafall).  Of course, for we Methodists, we can tell it’s fall even if we’re cut off from any visual clues because it’s the season of Charge Conferences and Stewardship Campaigns.  Inevitably, it’s a time to rush to fill leadership slots and throw together generosity campaigns – a dramatic rush of activity (like a mountainside of showy leaves) – but there’s a more subtle, more effective, calmer approach, my friends.

I was reminded of these truths because of three conversations I had in the past week, one on each topic.  In the first case, the local church I’ve been attending reached out to me about taking on a leadership position for 2021, and the administrator who emailed me to ask about it – and there are at least two details in that last phrase that might give you pause if you’re paying close attention – expressed the request like this: “We’re working on our Charge Conference reports, and we need someone to be in charge of Spiritual Development for next year.  Would you be interested?”

A version of this exchange gets repeated in local churches across the land a million times and more during this season.  Now, granted, the church staff and existing leadership at this church know that spiritual development is a passion of mine and that I have some expertise in the subject.  And we’ve already worked on some projects together, so they know I am reasonably competent and that I will show up for meetings on time and meet other basic requirements.  It may turn out to be a match made in paradise, but it’s an excellent example of speed dating (as opposed to slow courting or either the meticulous machinations of traditional matchmaking).  There was no deep conversation up front about what that role would look like, the vision for spiritual development moving forward, the expectations, the challenges, etc.  It was a very loose “we’ll figure out later – we’ll figure it out as we go” vibe.  And don’t get me wrong – I love this little church – they are doing great ministry, and I don’t mean to pile on here.  In this case, I am sure it will be a fruitful pairing (I’ll keep you posted).  But taking a bigger perspective – thinking honestly about those million cases at a million local churches across the board – it often does not.

We at Excellence in Ministry Coaching have written often about the need to be more thoughtful (that is, prayerful and conversational) and intentional (that is, organized and methodical) in identifying key leaders.  Otherwise, we end up with the same old problem that has plagued local churches since the dawn of organized religious institutions: a person serving in a role out of a sense of obligation and is, therefore, uninspired, unequipped, and on the fast track to burnout and disillusionment.  The second conversation I had this week that touched on this topic was with an old friend who is a talented musician and teacher, who I was stunned to hear has taken on the role of coordinating her local church’s Sunday morning tech crew.  It’s not her passion, it’s not her specific area of giftedness, and it’s not something that brings her joy.  “Why would you agree to that?” I asked this person who has been faithfully  serving her local church for more than a decade.  “Because somebody has to do it,” she replied.  Sigh.

Here are some of our favorite essential principles for avoiding this common scenario:

  • Knowing who’s “got next.” We tend to get that cubbyhole filled in the leadership box, then heave a huge sigh of relief and move on to something else.  What if one of the first things we said to every newly named key leader was, “Okay, now we are going to to help you bring on board someone who can partner with you, learn with you, lead with you, and be the potential leader in waiting.  If churches did this, this single change in philosophy would have a profound impact going forward.  What most local churches do now is rotate key leadership roles among a small circle of the same people.
  • Recruiting future leaders. The pool for figuring out who’s “got next” is derived from an intentional focus on developing leadership.  Leaders (staff and volunteers) should develop a primary goal of developing more leaders.  This means that we set expectations that leaders will rise up, we provide training and opportunities and mentoring opportunities for those who express interest / feel called, and we give regular volunteers small leadership roles that grow steadily larger as they demonstrate aptitude.  It is key that we have a strategy in place for helping new disciples find and develop their spiritual gifts and ministry talents.
  • Working a long-term vision. One of the reasons our quest for expanding leadership drifts into obscurity is that we don’t have a clear sense of destination.  With a clear destination / goal, we are forced to take actions to keep us moving in the right direction.  Without a clear destination, it’s much easier to drift along, careening from crisis to crisis, always in response mode, never in the mode of forging new directions.
  • Starting earlier. We should have a strategic calendar that looks far ahead into the upcoming year.  That calendar should pinpoint the dates at which leadership forms must be completed and stewardship campaigns must be commenced, and then it should count backwards, months and months backwards, and schedule for prayer, building foundations, and getting the right people involved.
  • Public profiles. Let people know what you’re doing!  Don’t make your approach to either leadership recruitment or stewardship campaigns be a secret knowledge that you share only during a dramatic revelation.  Let people in on the processes, and let them know how they can be a part.  One of the most effective ways of doing this is to let your current leaders have platforms to publicly communicate (both as spokespeople for information in their areas and as witnesses to their own current experiences and vision for the future).  Let them be in ongoing conversation with the congregation, via appearances in worship and on social media.  Great things happen when the people can be in an ongoing conversation with their leaders – when they feel comfortable and empowered to ask questions and share ideas, they will!

The second conversation I had was an old canard about stewardship campaigns.  It was a ministry friend who rolled his eyes as he was describing the scramble to put an effective series together about giving – times had been busy and they were hustling to find people to talk about stewardship (which is how we generally end up with folks standing up front and talking who have stood up front and talked before).  It’s an unhealthy pattern practiced in lots of local churches in which everybody from leadership to pew warmers dread the October-November inevitable focus on giving.

We at Excellence in Ministry Coaching have written extensively about the need to focus on stewardship year-round, which is not only a solid discipleship practice, but also far more effective (even if you calculate effectiveness by the sole criteria of funds raised).  You can sample our blog section for detailed breakdowns of this year-round-stewardship-focus philosophy [and someday soon we’ll gather all those blogs into one handy corner of the website for you].  But the gist gets to these guiding principles:

  • Passionate people exploring a lifestyle of generosity. There are people who love this topic, who live out a lifestyle of generosity and love the idea of getting other people excited about its blessings and joys.  We should have our radar tuned to knowing who those people are and giving them the tools they need to share that passion.  If we do this as a lifestyle focus – as opposed to a once-a-year know-your-obligation focus – these generous folk are free to lead others in exploring the many-faceted wonders of generous living.
  • Helping people understand impact. Most people are generous by nature, and certainly most church folk understand the relationship between discipleship and giving.  Still, it’s hard to navigate the noise of constant financial pressures and obligations.  What really helps people get over the hump is giving them a clear picture of the impact their giving can have.  This is not accomplished through small-print budget reports, but through creative visualizations of how God uses our resources to change lives.  A narrative budget can be one of the most powerful tools of all.
  • Constant communication. We tend to focus on big, dramatic evocations of the power of giving during the one time of year that we really lean into it, but your passionate generosity team can share tidbits, challenges, insights, and encouragement every single week of the church year.  This is, after all, an opportunity for spiritual growth that is designed to be an ongoing discipline, practiced daily and intertwined with the spirit of gratitude that defines the lives of those who follow Jesus.  In focusing too much on big, dramatic stories, we miss out on the subtle tales of generous living (and abundant blessings) that influence us day-to-day.  Let me say a word here, too, for transparency.  People feel much more comfortable giving when they feel like they are partners in budget and spending decisions, so they value regular, straightforward communications about what’s going on with their churches and money.
  • Story sharing. It’s a part of the communications strategy, but there is no more potent tool than getting people sharing their own stories about generous living.  Make videos.  Write testimonies, and get those testimonies on as many platforms for sharing as possible.  It’s a celebration.  Train people to celebrate by sharing the ways that God has challenged them, blessed them, given them new insights, and revealed new truths in their lives.  There are many fun and inventive ways to do this, and it is a great way to get young people involved (youth and even kids).  If you ask them for their ideas for how to challenge generosity and celebrate generosity and the impact of giving, you will be surprised and delighted with the approaches they suggest.

Of course, for most of you reading this, you are currently, as they say, deep in the weeds.  But take a moment to write yourself a giant sticky note that says, “We’re doing this differently next time.”  Mark your calendar to take up this topic in January, or do a de-brief with the people currently involved in this process – come back together one last time with the team who filled in those Charge Conference slots or the team who ran your stewardship campaign – evaluate what worked and start planning then and there for next year.  Schedule sessions throughout the year to work on these important topics.

What is your team up to in regards to leadership assignments for 2021 and/or stewardship campaigns for 2020?  Were you / are you scrambling just to “get ‘er done” like always, or did you have a more sane or thoughtful approach this year?  And how did the chaos of corona add to the complications of completing either of these obligations?  I have a $10 Starbucks gift card waiting for the first person to chime in in the comments section!