By Eddie Pipkin

In my blogs in the previous two weeks, we have been exploring the ways in which our formulaic ministry thinking can corral us (and those we work with) in unhealthy ways.  We can get so caught up in the logistics of successful programs and events that we lose sight of what’s important: individual souls, relationships, and an authentic (messy) exploration of faith.  We have talked about the ways we can adjust our leadership strategies to limit gatekeeping and move from “them to us” thinking to “us to them” approaches.  This week, in Part 3 of this series, we’re going to knock down even more fences.

First, a recap!

We began with a premise:

Knocking down fences means we move from a “them-to-us” model to an “us-to-them” model of conversation and engagement.

This formulation acknowledges our natural tendency to focus our attention on internally generated programs, events, and activities, the logistics of which then consume our time and energy, causing us to be invested in recruiting other people to support our plans with their time, talents, and donations.  It’s a natural process, but it can cause us to inadvertently sacrifice individuals to the “plans.”  If we tweak our leadership focus, we can shift the balance between programming details and the people who serve as the focal point of our ministry.

We explored these points:

  • Leveraging technology.
  • Thinking expansively, not possessively.
  • Flexibility within traditional contexts.
  • Responding organically and contextually.

(Here’s a link to last week’s blog in full, as well as the original overview which kicked off this blog series.)

We also considered these additional premises:

Knocking down fences means we ask better questions and we listen more sincerely to the answers.

Knocking down fences means we tweak the ways we evaluate success.

(This last – alternative metrics for evaluating success – will be the topic of next week’s blog.)

Meanwhile, considering the ways in which we can think more expansively, responsively, and organically as we develop ministry with our teams, we can adjust our leadership strategies:

It means we train leaders differently.

We spend a lot of time training leaders – formally and informally – to efficiently manage programs and events.  We teach them to manage event logistics and to lead classes effectively.  We teach them to “manage” volunteers and program participants, which most often means keeping those volunteers and program participants on task within the framework of smoothly flowing, trouble-free activities.

We spend much less time training our leaders to look and listen for the individual needs of people (as they are planning and executing programs and events).  Every shift in focus that we gain can be replicated throughout our ministry teams.  Are we asking good questions and listening sincerely?  Are we leveraging technology?  Are we hemmed in by the same old tired assumptions and meager expectations, or are we thinking expansively?  Are we being flexible in our ministry execution, even as we honor our traditions?  Are we aware of contexts and making decisions based on those contexts (cultural, historic, real-time)?

It’s daunting to imagine asking all of these questions every single time we make a decision.  But if we practice question-asking (perhaps with painstaking formality at first, via the use of tools or processes), we gradually build a culture in which question-asking is a fundamental part of our planning and execution.

Here’s how to do it:

  • When we are involved in staff and leadership meetings in which we are nailing down logistics for our programming and events, include an element in which we are focusing on how individuals are deepening their discipleship through their participation.
  • Include discussion of how we have changed specific plans based on feedback from participants.
  • As leaders, take turns developing questionnaires for one another that hold us accountable to the principles of congregational care and engagement: Children’s Ministry folks develop the questionnaire for an upcoming Youth Ministry event; Worship Leadership develops a questionnaire for a new discipleship program; etc.
  • Make it a point to share stories in which a team member or participant made an inexact fit for a program or activity, but were able to find their own story within the larger story.

It means we are fiercely entrepreneurial in our ministry approach.

There is a sameness to the ideas that come up in our normal leadership channels.  If you put the same leaders in a room (which we all do all too often — that infamous rotating cast of characters who are willing to take on a committee assignment), and if you frame your organizational challenges in the same ways, is it any surprise that different variations of the same ideas keep bubbling to the surface, again and again?

There is distinct value in expanding the pool of ideas.  Here’s how that is done:

  • Create a culture in which we make it known that entrepreneurial ministry is one of our values.  If a person feels led to pursue a ministry idea and if that idea is aligned with our ministry vision and within the budget and logistical constraints or our congregation, we should encourage experimentation.  Earlier in the summer I wrote a whole blog about the power of individual ministry insight to accomplish great and unexpected things.
  • Regularly celebrate ministry that springs from the insights and hard work of individuals who have experienced God’s call.  Tell their stories, and inspire others to listen to and act on God’s call for their own lives.
  • Regularly host ministry visioning workshops.  Hold forums for people to share ideas for improving existing ministries and introduce new ministries.  Encourage people to share ideas that they get from other churches, independent resources, and community initiatives.
  • If you have space and leadership bandwidth, be receptive to ministry or community programs that initiate outside of the confines of your congregation.  Be a clearinghouse and a focal point for community initiatives.

It means we are re-committed to the power of humility.

For the above points to be true, we must be humble in our leadership.  We must practice the spiritual discipline of thoughtful humility, and we should avail ourselves of every advantage in leading the way that Jesus led.  As Eugene Peterson interprets Philippians 2:7: “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all.”  If we can’t move past the ingrained concept that we know the right, best way to do everything that needs to be done, instead of finding talented leaders inspired by the Holy Spirit, we spend all our time recruiting people who will endorse our approach to every item on the agenda.

Here’s how we lead with humility:

  • Surround ourselves with team members who feel empowered to challenge our decisions when necessary, who feel comfortable offering their own ideas, and who are allowed to take leadership on passion projects.
  • Offer up regular opportunities for people to give feedback and demonstrate that we are paying attention and responding to the feedback.
  • Solicit outside feedback from independent observers.
  • Be intentional about involving people in leadership who are spiritually mature but have clear differences in approach and perspective to our own.

It means we utilize the astonishing power of technology to offer people more and better options to individualize their spiritual journey.

This is a further exploration of the previously mentioned concept of leveraging technology.  It has never in ministry history been more possible to utilize technology to give people options to grow spiritually at their own pace and with a focus on their own unique interests.  This means providing abundant access to the foundational activities, events, and programs that we are directly offering our congregation.  This also means connecting people with options that move beyond what we can directly offer.  In one sense, this idea is merely an expansion of the longtime tradition of the “church library” or “church bookstore”: a physical space that offers books and tapes that capture worship service recordings, offer books related to worship series and discipleship studies, and promote independent growth from recognized authors.  These physical resources are still a feature in many local churches.  Now, they should also be replicated — but with far greater range — in online form.

Here’s how that happens:

  • Pictures, audio, video, and written narratives should give people access to worship services, congregational resources, programs, and opportunities to give and serve.
  • These resources should be accessible online, through web sites, social media, mobile-friendly sites, apps, and podcasts.  Different people access information in different ways — replicate content on as many platforms as possible.
  • To the fullest extend possible, anything a person can do in person at your church campus should be doable in some form remotely online.
  • Discipleship development should have a strong presence online.  People should be able to participate in studies, discussions, and theological explorations online.
  • A comprehensive link to foundational discipleship resources should be featured as part of your online presence.
  • People should have easily accessible ways to share their own stories.  They should be encouraged to be part of a sharing community.

Although we’ve been talking in this series about knocking down fences as a useful metaphor, we are not talking about throwing out the fruitful structures that have produced disciples for generations.  We’re really talking about doing the foundational work as leaders that we have always done, bringing people together to learn more about the character of God and how to live as a follower of Jesus.  We’re just talking about culturally and contextually relevant access to the work of God’s Kingdom.

Rather than knocking the fences totally down, what we’re really talking about is building more gates in our fences and handing out more keys for opening those gates, granting people unique access to the work God has called them to pursue.

What are the ways you have built unlikely but accessible gates through which people have gained entry to ministry involvement and growth as a disciple?  Have you built a ministry culture that is entrepreneurial?  That asks great questions to invite unusual perspectives?  That leverages technology to enhance access?  Share your stories in the comments section.  And next week, we’ll talk about metrics!