Principle Centered Ministry — Guiding Principles for Challenging Times

By Eddie Pipkin

Well, here we are!  July’s almost done; fall is right around the corner.  Did you make it on that vacation you’d been planning?  Normally, about now, we’d be returning from our summer adventure, relaxed, refreshed, sharing the cool pictures on social media.  We would have relished that long-planned vacation, because it would have been a great time to check off all our accomplished goals and realized visions from winter and spring and clear our heads for the cool stuff promised by fall.  How’s that working out for ya?  Granted, this season has prompted some heroic ministry adjustments worthy of celebration.  But so many of us (especially when we gaze deeply into the unsettled, uncertain future) feel so stuck, stuck, stuck.  It got me thinking of some ways to kickstart the mojo, spray a little WD-40 on the rusty gears of my mental machinery.

The problem with “stuckness” is that it can lead us to embrace a shrug-of-the-shoulders mediocrity that can lead to a stagnation of ministry.  Of particular concern in this pandemic season is the malaise that may follow the surge of effort that was required to get churches up to speed as they adapted in new ways to the challenges required to continue ministry without meeting in person.  Having mastered video and in some cases having returned to modified in-person worship, it is natural to settle in to the “new” routine and coast along into the uncharted future.  While many churches normally kick off major initiatives and bold events in conjunction with the start of the school year, that’s not happening in 2020.  So, what do we do?  Slog along (with excellence!) or keep imagining and creating a new thing?

This Week’s Guiding Principle:  Don’t stay stuck.  Don’t settle for “good enough.”  Do use every tool in your toolbox to get motivated and get moving.

We’ve written a good bit in this space about ways to jump start your thinking and motivate your teams to new perspectives.  (Just last week we challenged you to rethink discipleship, and here’s a link to an archived blog about flipping frustration and boredom into creative energy — the blog archives are full of ‘tips for creativity’.)  This week I wanted to write about a couple of things that leaped out to me as part of my reading and research in the past few days:

  • Turn over the steering wheel.
  • Learn the principle of “inversion.”
  • Dig deeper to embrace real change.

Turn Over the Steering Wheel:  Okay, you need a break.  That’s fair.  That’s healthy.  Don’t just pull the ministry car over on the side of the road and engage the parking brake.  Let somebody else take over the driving for a bit.  This is common sense and healthy practice.  You can’t make a cross-country trip in reasonable time without sharing the driving, and you can’t cover a lot of territory in vision casting and execution without sharing, not just the workload, but the leadership / ownership / piloting duties.  It’s the perfect time to let somebody else make some decisions about what direction to head, what new thing to try, what to throw against the wall to see if it will stick.

This makes senior pastors very uncomfortable.  Own this discomfort.  In fact, do something revolutionary: tell your congregation what you’re up to.  It’s a new and unexpected era in how churches work, let some other people lead.  Let some other people preach.  This is true as you schedule yourself a mini-sabbatical and you let other people lead in your temporary absence (something that senior pastors actually do have some experience with), and it can be true even as you are still in the building and even part of the discussion in the room.  Instead of being the “ultimate decider,” “holy gatekeeper,” and “lord of all strategy,” look your leaders in the eye and say, “All right, you had a passion to try this project out.  Go for it.”

Learn the Principle of “Inversion”:  Inversion as a principle is a mental problem solving process that begins by thinking about the end of the process instead of the beginning for the process (familiar in one version to you Stephen Covey fans who utilize his famous maxim, “Begin with the end in mind.”)  The twist that inversion offers is tweaking that process by beginning with all the potential negative outcomes that might result from your new idea!  Anhup Jadhav explains it like this:

Inversion is based on the maxim – invert, always, invert. It is about considering an inverse (usually a negative) outcome and listing the reasons for these. It forces you to either stop doing certain things or avoid the actions that lead to the negative outcomes. It gives us new possibilities and capabilities that we might not have considered otherwise.

He lays out the three simple steps for taking this approach:

  1. Define your problem and your eventual goal – what would you like to accomplish?
  2. Invert it (or perhaps more cannily stated, subvert it) – what would cause your project to fail? Imagine the worst outcomes that might be possible if you start down a given path!
  3. Brainstorm ways to avoid these failures. (At this juncture you’re like a Marvel superhero, maybe Dr. Strange, manipulating the multi-verse and alternate timelines.)  What actions would be essential to avoid each catastrophic failure you might foresee?

The point of the process is that it hopefully gives you unexpected insights into subtle (or not so subtle) ways that you can tweak the strategy for your vision to give it a stronger chance for success, break out of old habits, avoid predictable pitfalls, or take a different approach that may engage more people with a greater level of enthusiasm.

The Farnam Street blog (which specializes in mental models for problem solving, including this one) gives another explanation:

Inversion is a powerful tool to improve your thinking because it helps you identify and remove obstacles to success. The root of inversion is “invert,” which means to upend or turn upside down. As a thinking tool it means approaching a situation from the opposite end of the natural starting point. Most of us tend to think one way about a problem: forward. Inversion allows us to flip the problem around and think backward. Sometimes it’s good to start at the beginning, but it can be more useful to start at the end.

Dig Deeper to Embrace Real Change:  Having been through the initial round of creatively responding to crisis, having found some equilibrium to keep ministry afloat and vital, the temptation now is to not rock the boat.  We’re thinking, “Let’s keep things steady.”  It’s an understandable conservative approach that will keep people engaged without freaking them out (in a moment in which a freak-out seems right around the corner at every instant), and it’s a cautious approach that won’t overload the bandwidth of our staff or leadership.  But here’s a radical idea: what if, instead of taking things slow and steady and prudently . . . what if we dug deeper and asked, “What would a revolutionary do?”  (After all, let’s be honest, it’s arguably the world’s biggest-ever revolutionary whom we serve.)

What if, instead of advocating incremental change, we went all in on real and transformative change?

It definitely seems like a season in which old ways are shaking loose and historical change is at hand.  I got to thinking about this as I was reading Austin Channing Brown’s powerful memoir, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Designed for Whiteness.  It’s a book I recommend – I’m starting a group study with it next week, and it’s going to be a volatile discussion as a group of middle-aged white folks consider her first-hand account of growing up as a Black, Christian woman who works in social justice ministries within the context of the church.  In one of the final chapters, she writes a powerful passage in which she challenges her brothers and sister in faith to move beyond conventional metrics and approaches to a deeper commitment:

Racial reconciliation has become something of a buzzword in Christian circles.  Churches refer to themselves as “multicultural” and uplift their missions work as evidence that they are making a difference in the world.  But though the term has powerful implications for how Christians should pursue racial justice and multiracial community, you could be forgiven for thinking reconciliation is just a church-sounding catchall for any kind of diversity effort.

It’s worth being clear, reconciliation is not a fancy word for any of the following:

  • There are lots of [insert ethnicity here] people in my church.
  • A multiethnic church.
  • Sharing a building with another, more diverse congregation.
  • Having one or two people of color and/or women on your leadership team.
  • Diversity that’s represented only in custodial positions.
  • Asking lots of racial questions over a cup of coffee.
  • Celebrating various ethnicities and cultures every month.
  • Missions work.
  • Outreach work.
  • Urban ministry.

Too often attempts at reconciliation go no further than the items on this list – and when this happens, the word becomes commonplace, drained of its emotional power.

Ouch!  (Note that she has, in one sense, done a form of the “inversion” technique, except that these are not imaginary troublesome outcomes, but observable outcomes.)  A realistic and unflinching analysis leads to great questions and a poignant call to imagine new and different possibilities.  She goes on to write about what true racial reconciliation might look like in the context of local congregations.  There is (as we like to say here at EMC3) no “one size fits all approach.”  There is a different path forward for every unique, individual context.  The question is whether we’ll take the easy path or the hard path, and – news flash – just as Jesus regularly challenged and inspired his followers to consider, the harder path produces the most relevant, lasting, impactful effects.  Not being wiling to settle for safe, incremental change, but insisting on authentic change can produce a dynamic shift in energy and focus.  You’ll note this is another version of the process we challenged you to last week for rethinking and restructuring discipleship.

How are you and your congregation moving from stuck to inspired?  What ministry excitement lies ahead?  What techniques are using to jumpstart the enthusiasm of your staff and leaders?  Share your own stories and struggles in our space and learn from one another.