By Eddie Pipkin

Ministry leaders juggling a thousand priorities at once (especially in the next six weeks) should take hope in the power of focusing on “the one big thing.”  In last week’s blog about “bonsai thinking,” we concentrated on long-term strategies, but this week I’d like to remind you how, as part of that process, narrowing in on one specific goal – even a small one, shared and pursued relentlessly by your ministry team – can yield powerful results.

A small thing done with foresight and precision can yield long-term impact that influences everything that comes after.  Take, for example, the story of humble-hero-you’ve-never-heard-of, Pete Raynor.  If you’ve ever enjoyed an afternoon on a rail trail (a recreational trail that follows an old, abandoned railroad right-of-way – they are increasingly popular in communities across America), you probably have Raynor to thank.  He was a lawyer at the National Park Service in 1983 when he came up with a creative idea for what he termed a “good little law” that had far-reaching impact.  In the early ‘80s, many railroad lines were no longer feasible to maintain economically, and there was a movement by the landowners along those lines for the right-of-way to revert to surrounding property owners.  Raynor came up with the idea of “land banking,” a concept in which the rail corridors would be permanently preserved (or “banked”) in case they were ever needed as future transportation corridors, but, meanwhile, could be used for recreational purposes.  Thus, over the past four decades, thousands of miles of running/biking trails have been born.  (You can read the full story in the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy magazine on the website, here.)

It was a small idea with a big impact.  If we are thoughtful about ministry planning – not just next-event planning or reactionary-emergency-mode planning, but next-generation planning – we can have similar impact.  You can see this played out in some familiar congregational scenarios:

  • An early decision by a new congregation to focus on youth ministry: decades later, those resources and that emphasis have produced a strong and thriving focus on youth that has become a core identity of that congregation.
  • An early decision to geographically locate in the middle of a community with obvious social justice opportunities (as opposed to a safer spot in the suburbs): years later this congregation is known for its work with its neighbors, hands-on ministry partnership that spring naturally from the geography of the neighborhood.
  • A decision to not invest millions in new building infrastructure, but instead to project ministry into the community beyond the church walls: this decision, by default, forces the congregation to do ministry in settings other than their own property.

These are logistical decisions that are all about ‘visioning’ into the future and imparting our values as we decide how we live out our Gospel call as an organization.

There is, however, another aspect of “one big thing” thinking that any organization can implement at any point in their ministry journey whether just starting out, digging out of a rut, or sailing on a crest of success.  This is the idea of getting everyone across the board – all sub-ministries, all silos – each and every ministry leader, staff member, and supporting volunteer – on board with making one small change or undertaking one tiny emphasis to infuse a shared value with maximum impact.  Such an emphasis can shake things up and clarify perspective.

As EMC3 Coaching founder Phil Maynard likes to say, “Imagine the possibilities.”  Here’s how it works.  You take one thing you’d like to see your congregation doing – a specific emphasis that really captures who and how you want your congregation to be – either addressing a known weakness or leaning into a core value – and you get everyone to concentrate on that specific emphasis in everything they do for the coming year.  Here are some examples:

  • The Year of Better Communication: Everyone at your church agrees communication could be stronger, and your ministry would be stronger for it, so you challenge everyone to up their communication game for 2019.  You share ideas, you stress this emphasis at every meeting, you involve creative types in the process.  You study communication strategies together.  You hold one another accountable.
  • The Year of Stewardship: You finally take seriously the agreed-upon-but-mostly-ignored mantra that “stewardship should be a year-round, integrated emphasis.”  You challenge every ministry group to make a focus on stewardship education and impact a routine part of what’s happening in that ministry (and with that ministry’s leadership).  You hold one another accountable.
  • The Year of Prayer: You encourage the integration of prayer in every ministry happening – not just that perfunctory prayer at the beginning and end of meetings – but real prayer projects, creatively exploring ways to engage the entire congregation in prayer and share deeper prayer impact in smaller settings.  You challenge groups to take prayer into the community in new ways.  You teach prayer, integrating the lessons into the fabric of all sorts of settings.  You hold one another accountable.
  • The Year We All Learned Everybody’s Names: We encourage ministry leaders to take on a challenge to learn as many names (and stories) as possible.  We use this challenge as a springboard to make new connections and deepen casual connections.  We carry the challenge into the community!  You hold one another accountable.
  • The Year We Pushed into the Community: Make 2019 the year you challenge every single ministry to offer itself in the community beyond the church walls.  Cross-pollinate ideas and make it a friendly competition.  Consider very large ways and very small ways, within and beyond the context of regular ministry events, to engage people.  For everything you do on campus, imagine a potential off-campus version.  You hold one another accountable.
  • The Year We Said Thanks: Make it a year focused on gratitude, at every event, in every meeting, as a part of every program and class, and in every worship service.  Get all leadership and the entire congregation on board with celebrating gratitude at every turn.  Explore this foundational spiritual concept deeply.  It’s amazing how it can change perspective (no matter what’s at hand).  Of course, it’s important to hold one another accountable.
  • The Year of Holy Mash-ups: Make 2019 a year in which your emphasis is bringing different groups together in ministry and fellowship: old people hanging out with young people, youth ministry getting together with children’s ministry, women engaged in friendly competition and cooperation with the men, your independent preschool partnered with your congregation (who may not even realize they exist), different small groups getting together to share ideas.  Lots of possibilities, and lots of opportunity for creative energy.  Especially if you hold one another accountable.
  • The Year of Relationships: What if we spent a year focusing every decision about what to do and how to do it around the metric of how it will build relationships in our faith community.  We might set some projects aside – not much relationship building opportunity there! – or we might tweak things to magically open up relationship building opportunities.  This emphasis could be a source for deeper empathy, the healing of old wounds, or the birth of new vision.  Of course, one of the key aspects of any discipleship-oriented relationships is . . . accountability.

These are a few examples.  The possibilities are as varied as the unique identity of your congregation.  The point is that getting everybody to focus on one thing keeps us headed in a unified direction and (if you are serious about it) holds all participants accountable to measurable progress.  And to be very clear, we are not talking about any of the normal ‘churchy’ goals here – like “increased attendance” or “more giving” – we are talking about more subtle (and yet in many ways, more practical) goals that work throughout all aspects of ministry and produce results both in the moment that they happen and in a long-term transformational sense.

Have you had any experience with employing such an emphasis with your team or congregation?  Can you think of additional ideas for such an emphasis?  Share your stories.