By Eddie Pipkin

I was in a Cracker Barrel off I-75 in Georgia earlier this week, making a pit stop, when I encountered an unusual appeal to find salvation and assure my entry to Heaven.  You can see it in the accompanying photo.  It’s an evangelism tract perched atop a urinal in the Cracker Barrel men’s room.  Once I was finished observing the law of nature, I had an opportunity to read about the four spiritual laws.  I have to say I was impressed with the dedication of the evangelist who left this diminutive tract.  What I couldn’t decide was if this was a prime example of “proactive” ministry (part of a well-considered plan) or “reactive” ministry (a reaction to an opportunity in the moment.  It turns out that successful local church ministry needs both!

Reactive ministry is an ability to respond to obvious needs in powerful and effective ways.

Classically speaking, this means that if a natural disaster strikes a community, a local church is able to organize an outreach to meet people’s needs: a traditional work team approach in the aftermath of tornadoes, hurricanes, or floods, for instance.  It can also mean a response to man-made disasters: I’m thinking here of the outpouring of opportunities for community healing offered by Orlando area churches in response to the Pulse shooting (a scene that has been sadly repeated in too many communities that have experienced the effects of mass violence).  On a more intimate level, local churches are well-known for their ability to help individuals and families deal with major life events associated with struggle and grief.  Local churches are often highly effective at helping people through major illnesses and death.  Those responses fit a template we know how to navigate.  Such provision of comfort and support in difficult times (to which we respond as they arise) is one of the time-honored roles of the church community.

Proactive ministry is an ability to see into the future, plan ahead with intention, and organize to deal with future developments.  Local churches more often struggle with this aspect of resource management.

To be clear, there is real overlap between reactivity and proactivity.  Our ability to be effectively reactive is often determined by our commitment to being proactive, and pats on the back with which we reward ourselves for being proactive can be false celebrations of activity that is more reactive than we realize.

Using my photo illustration from the Cracker Barrel men’s room as an example, was the anonymous evangelist acting in a proactive or reactive manner?  Did he carry a ready supply of tracts wherever he went, seizing upon an unexpected opportunity to leave them behind whenever creativity inspired him (a more reactive approach), or had he carefully planned out a strategic vision for where tracts would be deposited, a modern day Johnny Appleseed of evangelism (a proactive approach)?  The mystery abides.

For the local church, some solid proactivity produces a more robust ability to react with speed, efficiency, and precision.  If there is a functioning disaster response team in place with clear leaders and designated resources, they are ready to go quickly and with built-in organization.  If a church is using sign-up software to quickly organize folks who are willing to share a meal with a grieving family, that system can be activated immediately.  If there is a person or team that is thinking about the way social media is used to communicate stories of hope and healing, there will be a natural outlet to spread the good news whenever those stories inevitably present themselves.

Worship is an interesting category to consider when thinking about these complementary strategies.  Worship planning in many local churches is still primarily reactive.  In too many churches, it is still done week to week (and I am thinking here of small congregations – still by far the most prevalent congregations in America – guided by small staffs, often a single pastor.  In these cases, the clergy person in charge (always the lead worship planner) is so busy “reacting” to the many typical crises of a pastoral and administrative nature in the typical congregation, that worship planning becomes a kind of struggle to survive to next Sunday.  The hopeful alternative in these cases – although it is counter-intuitive for many pastors – is to develop worship planning teams that work farther ahead, develop ideas together, and share the workload.  In this case, proactivity makes the end result richer and more rewarding.  On the flip side, even with the megachurch inspired model of worship planning teams and long-range planning, we can become reactive to the calendar and congregational expectations, bound by the restrictions of the lectionary (in some circles) and by rotating seasonal events in all circles.  “What are we going to do for Lent?” “What are we going to do for Christmas?” “Don’t forget it’s graduation Sunday!”  The seasonal nature of the worship calendar – a beautiful, familiar trajectory that guides the rhythm of our faith – can become a tired and frustrating exercise as we feel pressured to come up with the next new thing.  It can shift from proactive process to a reactive process if we’re not careful – and being careful, in this case, means remaining faithful to our own spiritual growth and the faith journey of our congregation rather than beholden to the planning process itself.  [This topic is worthy of a blog entry of its own – stay tuned.]

To give another very familiar example: Vacation Bible School.  There are arguably more congregations rolling their eyes at the prospect of hosting another VBS than there are congregations expressing genuine excitement at this inevitable summer offering.  We react to the fact that we have to fulfill the expectation that it has to be done, so we order the familiar curriculum and we put the thumbscrews to the familiar cadre of volunteers, and we get it done (and the Holy Spirit frequently works in powerful ways, despite our ennui).  But the proactive approach is to start asking deep, exploratory questions about our goals, about the needs of our surrounding community, about the talents of our congregation and our available resources.  Such proactive soul-searching applied to an established tradition can take us in new and exciting directions.

Of course, one area – an area that we just wrote about just last week in this space – an area that most dramatically illustrates the typical dysfunction between reactivity and proactivity is stewardship.  Most local churches are still largely reactive in their thinking about stewardship.  We fail to develop a comprehensive stewardship/generosity emphasis for our congregations, and then we react throughout the year to budgetary shortfalls by making dramatic appeals as necessary.  It’s nerve wracking, it distracts from other ministry (by sucking up bandwidth and promoting anxiety among leaders), and it’s not a faithful model of discipleship.  Plus – guess what? – it’s not nearly the best model for consistently providing the richest resources.  We get habituated to the drama and apparent effectiveness of a reactive strategy, but proactive is better and healthier.

Some of you reading this paused to pat yourself on the back right about now because of your well-organized yearly stewardship campaign, but traditional stewardship campaigns are frequently a model of dolled-up reactivity.  They share much in common with their cousin, VBS.  Sometime in late summer, it dawns on everybody that they need to start planning the fall stewardship campaign, and then they draw straws to see who gets the short one.  That’s not proactivity.  Here’s the simple test: Do you already have a team working on your next official stewardship campaign?  Do you have a strategy in place right now that is celebrating stewardship/generosity in worship and church communications?

The stewardship topic as an example of the proactive-vs.-reactive debate also popped onto my radar because of a link last week to an article in Christianity Today called “Here Come the Skinny Cows.”  Written by several prominent church leaders, it offers a sharp analysis of the ways that church giving is facing dramatic changes.  Because of demographic shifts, modifications to tax laws, new economic realities, and generational expectations, they argue that giving patterns are changing in permanent ways, and church leaders need to revise their old attitudes and react accordingly (thus practicing good, biblical stewardship as leaders).  The reactive response is to be making decisions from an operational attitude of scarcity, but the authors argue that a proactive approach allows the freedom to instead think from an attitude of abundance:

Ministry leaders embracing a mindset of abundance are able to envision possibilities, inspire optimism, capitalize on opportunities, and unleash entrepreneurial creativity in the church. Concerning the financial future of their congregations, they do not sit idle, hoping good things will happen. Instead, they “get after it” and make good things happen. By leveraging church assets they establish profitable business enterprise, create jobs, reduce local crime, produce tax revenue, resurrect abandoned property, and provide emotional hope to their communities. In so doing, the gospel, the local church, and the kingdom of God are advanced through the application of wise and benevolent church economics.

It’s a great read.  I encourage you to take the time to check it out.  I also encourage you to share this discussion of proactive vs. reactive approaches with your staff and leadership teams.  An emphasis on proactive thinking is a cultural shift within an organization, but it brings a breath of fresh air with it and can engage new people to join in the process.  As I was writing, I came upon the list of antonyms for “proactive,” and they were great examples of what our ministry initiatives can too often devolve into: half-baked, half-cocked, improvident, myopic, shortsighted . . . ouch!  Let’s not be those things.  Let’s be proactive and positive in our ministry and in our mission.

In what ways do you see your congregation being proactive?  In what ways – if you’re honest – are you functioning as a primarily reactive ministry?  Do you feel like you are lunging from crisis to crisis?  Or do you feel the peace of a long-range, organized, strategic approach to your goals?  Share your own stories so that others may benefit from your hard-won wisdom.