By Eddie Pipkin

The kids and I bought my wife a very cool raised bed gardening platform for Mother’s Day.  It was something she had talked about wanting for a while, a space out on the deck to grow her own herbs.  Her plantings have flourished, and we have all enjoyed the fresh, homegrown basil, thyme, dill, and oregano.  The only problem we ran into was the tomato plant I threw into the mix – supposedly temporarily until I transplanted it to a bigger container, which I, of course, never got around to.  There among the herbs, the unwieldy tomato vine loomed large and seemingly healthy, except it never produced any tomatoes.  Whether the shoehorned setting or visitations by night creatures or some other quirk of botany was the factor, we got vibrant yellow blooms and some teeny hopeful ‘mater babies, but no tomatoes ever made it to full-grown, edible maturity.  It’s just that way with churches sometimes, too.  Lots of hopeful, sporadic energy . . . lots of what looks like growth . . . but true congregational maturity just doesn’t seem to happen.  That’s why the “Maturing Dimension” is a necessary next step in the 7 Dimensions of Congregational Development.

[Note: This blog is the sixth in a series outlining the new Excellence in Ministry training, “7 Dimensions: A Coaching Approach to Congregational Development: A transformational coaching approach, partnering with your congregation, to develop healthy, growing, effective ministry in your context.”]

It is sometimes easy and obvious to spot a lack of congregational maturity at a local church, but it’s sometimes difficult.  That’s because almost all churches are home to a number of mature disciples who are serious about serving God (however they happened to arrive at that state of maturity).  If you are familiar with the 80-20 rule, you have sat in meetings bemoaning the truth that 20 percent of the people are doing 80 percent of the work (and let’s be honest and admit that at some churches it’s a 90-10 rule).  Of course, it’s the spiritually mature people who are doing the bulk of the work.  They are the ones who have absorbed the truth that discipleship is synonymous with service.  For lots of churches, though, as long as the work is getting done (whether that’s by 10 percent or 49 percent, a lack of maturity of the overall congregation is not identified as a crisis.  Note as well that if not a lot of work is getting done, and everybody is okay with coasting along, that lack of congregational maturity is also not identified as a crisis.  Plenty of older congregations trundle along for years this way – not much is happening, and what is happening is able to be sustained by the folks who have been doing that work for a long, long time.  Note one other common situation: church folk may have a mature grasp of one phase of spirituality, like service, for instance, but be woefully immature in other areas.

Of course, you can make a great argument that people who are at the highest levels of spiritual maturity are not content to coast along doing things as they’ve always been done – and they’re not content to be mature in only one area of their spiritual lives.  They see growth in all areas as the goal, and they see ministry multiplication as an essential part of the mission to which they are called – but we get ahead of ourselves – that is next week’s topic.

For this week, let’s circle back to the idea that many churches lack a high level of congregational maturity, and this condition is masked by the presence of some people who are both spiritually mature and dynamic leaders, as well as by the fact that some spiritual maturity happens through individual ownership of one’s spiritual growth and is also the natural byproduct of good preaching, meaningful service projects, and the occasionally great Bible study.

[By the way, if you want an excellent interactive diagnostic tool for reaching an objective analysis of your congregation’s level of spiritual maturity, you can’t beat the Real Discipleship Survey.]

Sustained, long-term spiritual maturity for the entire congregation happens, however, only in congregations in which the development of such maturity has been established as a priority.  Spiritual maturity across an entire congregation happens because of systems.

Healthy congregations build systems that are designed to support the vision and goals of the congregation.  There is a snarky aphorism that goes, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”  Less snarkily presented, the universal truth is that you inevitably get the outcome for which you plan (and if lazy or nonexistent planning results in hazy or nonexistent outcomes).  The implications of this truth are huge for the effectiveness of ministries in our congregations.

Let’s consider a couple of examples.  First, let’s take the goal of the Great Commission: inviting non-believers into a loving relationship with Jesus Christ.  Well, if we’re not reaching new people by doing what we’re currently doing, our system needs to be redesigned.  Thinking about a second but related goal, let’s say we have articulated an objective that visitors will leave our worship service feeling like it’s a place where they are welcome and they could see themselves belonging.  However, with a little direct observation we discover the reality is that when visitors join us, it turns out no one around them is engaging them in conversation . . . or really acknowledging them meaningfully at all.  Well, that system for “welcoming” clearly needs an overhaul.

Minister and author Nelson Searcy helps us understand more clearly what a “system” is by converting the word itself into an insightful acronym:

A good S Y S T E M . . .

Saves – You – Stress – Time – Energy –

and Money.

You can develop a system for approaching any regular requirement of ministry management.  And a thoughtful, well-designed, and carefully implemented system is going to save each of things listed in the acronym.  Taking a willy-nilly approach that uses no system and follows no plan is guaranteed to come with a cost.

When we conduct the “7 Dimensions” training at Excellence in Ministry Coaching, we focus closely on design considerations for 8 major systems that are foundational for healthy and growing local churches.  We engage decision makers in conversation around the selection, development, and deployment of leaders to support the various systems.

Those systems include a stewardship system, a discipleship system, a worship system, a ministry system (which includes ministries of service and a strategic approach to leadership development), a hospitality system, an administrative system, a communications system, and a strategic planning system.

The development of an ongoing stewardship system, as an example, would be a revelation (or revolution) for most local churches.  Rather than the staid and familiar budget committees and the panicky yearly assemblage of a stewardship campaign, a stewardship system takes an organized, unified approach to budgeting, managing church resources, and teaching biblical principles of stewardship and modeling inspiring generosity practices for the congregation year-round.

This approach works for each of these 8 areas (and anywhere else you care to apply it – local contexts vary!).  Do you still have a couple of greeters handing out paper bulletins on Sundays, or do you have a hospitality system that serves the needs of people from the time they park their car to the day after their visit when they’re wondering if anyone will remember them with a friendly, welcoming word?

Here are some of the pertinent questions we ask those local ministry decision makers and leaders as they are thinking about their own churches and what their current systems look like:

  • What are the systems/structures supporting your congregational ministries?
  • How would you rate the effectiveness of these systems and structures?
  • What systems can you identify for your congregation? What is the goal of each?  Do they produce the results you are seeking?
  • How are systems developed and evaluated in your congregation?
  • What percentage of current church leadership are new to the church (within the last five years)? How are persons recruited and trained for leadership in your congregation?
  • How does your leadership keep “fingers on the pulse” of the surrounding community and develop strategies for ministry?
  • How are behavioral and leadership covenants used as tools for engaging with leaders in your congregation?
  • What does the organizational chart look like for your congregation? What percentage of your congregation is involved in administration?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to any of these questions.  It’s not that there is one right solution for every context.  The key point is that the staff and volunteer leadership has come together and collaborated and devised a system that works for them and their unique setting and then implemented that system with faithful diligence.  Such systems bear abundant fruit – in the short term and especially in the long term.  They give people a sense of where they are headed and why what they’re doing matters.  People love that sense of purpose and that sense of progress toward a greater goal.

How does your local church do with the development and management of the systems that keep ministry humming along, evolving, and achieving big, bold goals?  How does your congregation communicate and empower progress towards maturity?  Do you feel spiritually mature yourself?  In what areas do you feel far along on your journey, and in what areas do you feel like you’re just starting out?  How would you like your church to support you more fully in your spiritual quest?