Field Guide Preview: Storytelling as Assessment

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

Today, we’re sharing the fourth sneak peek of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, which we’ll release in full this fall. This preview is from another movement of the guide: storytelling as assessment.


Storytelling is central to the human experience. Without stories and those who tell them, our ability as humans to effectively build community and transmit culture would be nearly impossible. We depend on the power of stories to help us shape and structure our lives, both collectively and individually.

Stories help us understand where we came from. Stories help us discover where we’re going. Stories help us to connect with each other. Stories help us to make meaning of our lives amidst the looming complexity and uncertainty of existence. Stories help define us and set us apart. Stories weave us together in the inextricable web of mutuality that is human society and culture. Stories help us to truly know others and to be truly known ourselves. Perhaps most importantly, stories are how we come to know and experience the reality of God.

For these and many other reasons, the concept of story—the narration of events in the life of a person or the existence of a thing—has been central to the life of the church since the inception of Christianity. At the very heart of the gospel is the story of a God who loves the world. At the heart of Christianity is the story of Jesus Christ, who is the foundation of our faith. At the heart of Christian community is the story of how Christ died and yet lives, which binds us all together in love. Without question, Christians are people of story.

This long history of Christian story and storytelling isn’t just important to understanding who we are but it’s also pivotal to better communicating what we do and how we live as Christians. The art and practice of storytelling is vital to the work of cultivated ministry.

When we make cultivated ministry a priority, it becomes clear that not only do we need ways of gathering information about the effectiveness of our ministry, we must also learn to use that information to tell stories that matter: stories of impact and stories of transformation. Without these stories, we can collect all the data we want, but it won’t lead to the deep cultural and organizational adaptations we need to fulfill our mission in rapidly changing contexts.

Grounding our cultivated ministry work in both biblical and communal stories better enables faith communities to frame the context of their assessments and evaluations by telling the broader narrative of where we have been, where we are, and where we want to go.

As we seek to increase the fruitfulness of our programs and ministries we can incorporate storytelling at every step of the process. If we cultivate stories and tell them to one another as we cast our vision, use stories to invite others to join our plans and projects, reflect on the implementation of our ideas through story, and tell those stories when we evaluate our work, we will create opportunities for greater ownership and deeper connection for every ministry participant and stakeholder.

Telling Stories That Matter

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Shawna Bowman

Three years ago my congregation began the process of considering what God was calling us to next. Several years had passed since we had been through a major transformation: merging two congregations, closing and selling buildings, saying goodbye to faithful leaders and oversized structures, and starting a new congregation called Friendship Presbyterian Church. In the years since this new beginning, Friendship had fostered a deep sense of community, a thirst for justice, and an attitude of experimentation. Having been through such a radical transition, our capacity for risk was high and our faith that God would continue to guide us was strong.

We knew we needed to think about big questions like space and location as it related to our vision for a deeper connection to the communities we serve and the organizations we partner with. So we hired a consultant. And she came. And the first question she asked my people was: why do you come here?

Oh my goodness, their answers made my heart so happy. They said they came because this is where they are fed. They told stories about being stretched and engaged and invited to participate. They told stories about how they can be their whole selves here, about getting their hands dirty doing good work, about how this space has been a transformative one where they’ve experienced healing and God in new ways. Stories about how this is where they’ve begun to articulate a faith that makes sense, that holds up in the midst of conflict, fear, and doubt. Stories about how they can bring their family, no matter their needs, and feel welcome.

The consultant said, “Wow, you’ve got an amazing thing going here. Outside of these walls, who do you tell these stories to?”

And my people looked at one another, and they looked at the consultant and they said, “No one.”

My people were experiencing enriching worship, transformative conversations about their faith, and growth in their hunger for justice in the world but they did not have the words to articulate this outside the walls of our community. They did not have practice telling stories about their lives that connected to their faith. They did not know where to begin when it came to talking about matters of faith and their spiritual life because we don’t tell stories like that in the kiddo drop off at school or around the break table at work. We don’t often hear or tell stories about how God is working in our lives, softening our hearts or healing old wounds or whispering in our ears because these are brave and vulnerable and mystical stories and we’re way more comfortable with conversations about the weather than risking these revealing stories with friends and strangers.

If we only tell these stories inside our worship spaces and never outside, how can we expect to deepen our relationships with our neighbors? How can we expect to know and be known by organizations we hope to partner with? How can we share the transformative power of our little community if we don’t tell our stories?

And so we began to practice. We began by learning the art of storytelling, and we began to practice on one another in worship. During a series on “Meals With Jesus.” we told stories about our own kitchen tables. We brought place settings and table cloths from our homes and set the communion table each week and told stories about family meals, awkward meals, and last meals. We told stories about gifts during Advent and stories about letting go during Lent.

We also began to tell stories at session meetings that would inform our decision making and mission priorities. When we decide to try new forms of worship, we added a storytelling component to our evaluation process. Instead of simply asking folks what they liked and didn’t like after trying new forms of worship, we gathered together as community and we told stories. We told stories about what we stretched us and what challenged us, about parts of worship that gave us comfort and where we found ourselves disconnected. Hearing one another’s stories deepened our compassion and understanding for one another. It changed worship into the communal experience it’s meant to be, rather than a commodity for each individual.

When we came together to work on the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, we wanted to infuse the process with storytelling. We know we can collect all the data we want, but if we don’t know how to make sense of it or tell the stories of what it means, of how our ministries and mission are having impact, then the data doesn’t do us very much good. As you consider the stories that shape your communities and the lives of your participants you might ask these questions:

What are the stories that get told most often about your community?

Are they true? Are they encouraging or discouraging?

Who gets to tell them?

What are our stories of risk and failure?

What are our stories of resilience and our stories of change and transformation?

Many of our communities need practice in telling stories that matter. The good news is that many of us are hungry to hear and tell stories. We just need practice. Our Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry will include a storytelling process and examples from congregations. Our hope is that you will uncover these stories in your communities and that they will help shape your mission and vision. Even more importantly, we hope these stories will feed you when you’re in the midst of change and transformation.


Shawna Bowman is an artist and pastor at Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago and co-founder of Creation Lab, an art collective and working studio space at the intersection of creativity, spirituality and prophetic imagination. 

The Surprising Benefit of Evaluation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Casey Thompson

Once in first grade, my teacher asked the class what each of us wanted to be when we were older. Cindy said a fireman; Mark answered a teacher; Stephanie wanted to be a princess (bless her heart, it seems more unlikely the older we get). Then our teacher turned to me, “Casey, what do you want to do when you grow up?”

I said, “I’d like to spend my life propping up an institution on life support, squeezing out the last bits of life from it so that it can continue to over-serve the wealthy and under-serve the poor. In short, Ms. Cunningham, I’d like to be a pastor!”

In retrospect, I might have been a cynical child.

Photo from Wayne Presbyterian Church Facebook page

Perhaps you were as well. It would explain why the church of Jesus Christ seems to have a problem with cynicism now. Cynicism happens when our hopefulness deflates, and it seems to me much of the church’s hopefulness has deflated. We’re wondering how to do ministry when the tested, traditional methods don’t work anymore — or when those methods actively make things worse. We’re wondering how to keep this marvelous institution alive that introduced us to the very thing we love most in life. As it gets harder to do, we get more cynical.

I too am prone to cynicism, but I love pastors (most of us) and elders (more of you) and congregants (nearly all of them). I don’t want the church to lose hope.

So I agreed to try and help as I could. I joined the Cultivating Ministry team. We were called together to consider new ways of evaluating ministry, ways that considered numbers and storytelling, ways forward focused on theology and new learnings.

What I have discovered in my time working with this group is that there is an unexpected benefit to evaluation. Evaluation is not just a way to gauge the effectiveness of a ministry so that it might be tweaked toward perfection. Evaluation actually subverts the forms of our ministry. It actually returns us to the theological question at the heart of vocation, a question so fundamental that we start asking first graders so they’ll have enough practice answering it by the time it becomes pressing for them: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” How do you want to spend your time?

My genuine answer is that I want to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want people to encounter the gentle spirit that canopies the world, the shelter that is also the source of our being, and the incarnation of that spirit in the person of Jesus Christ. I want people to know of his love for the world and of his vision of justice and peace. I want people to know there is grace for our failures and consolation for our grief. I want people to know they are not alone, that the Holy Spirit is with them.

When I’m not re-addressing these fundamental questions I find that I drift from trying to serve the gospel to simply managing a slow decline of the mainline’s flavor of the church, staving off social trends with my own work and creativity — instead of the generative work of Christ. “We’ll try it this way this year,” I say. Or if there is less energy: “It was good enough last year. Just move on and get the sermon done.”

I’m going to lose the fight against the slow marginalization of the church in the United States. I think most of us know that now. It’s like trying to sell Blackberries in an iPhone world. It doesn’t fit anymore — even if there’s a dedicated group of users.

But serving the gospel? Yes. I know that serving the gospel is a worthy endeavor even if I fail at it.

Evaluation returns me to the core of why we do what we do in serving the gospel. Evaluation isn’t simply a tool to make your Wednesday night fellowship group run smoother, your Sunday school class more topical, or your Christmas Bazaar better than the Methodist church’s down the street. Evaluation asks why it’s important in the first place. It’s a reminder that the Wednesday night fellowship group helped a couple persevere through a cancer diagnosis for their daughter. It’s the reminder that the Sunday school class birthed a tutoring ministry that helped to close the achievement gap in the local school. It’s a reminder that the Christmas Bazaar raises funds for a church camp where pre-teens fall in love with God in a way that haunts them and enlivens them for the rest of their lives.

The surprising benefit of evaluation is that it prompts us to return to why we spend our lives how we spend them. In that, we see how God works through us and in us and we find hope for a future.

Evaluation, it turns out, is salve for cynicism.


Casey Thompson is pastor of Wayne Presbyterian church in Wayne, Pennsylvania. 

Field Guide Preview: Mutual Accountability as Assessment

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

Today, we’re sharing the third sneak peek of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, which we’ll release in full this fall. This preview is from the second movement of the guide: mutual accountability as assessment.


Of course, we understand that the harvest is ultimately in God’s hands. Yet we also know that even though the harvest is plentiful, the workers are few.[i] Jesus nurtured a culture of utmost accountability. He demonstrated relational power, clarity of purpose, and giving of himself fully in joy, love, and grace. We may not be able to attain that level of accountability, but we can lift that up as our guide as we seek to bear fruit that will last in our particular ministry contexts. To do that, creating a pattern and discipline of mutual accountability is essential.

Mutual accountability is not driving by the church to see if the pastor’s car is there, combing through last year’s itemized spending reports to find where someone made a mistake, or sending out a bunch of surveys or paying a consultant to tell you what is and is not working about your ministry.

If mutual accountability is present, ministry will feel:

  1. Transparent

Participants in the ministry can talk about what they are trying to do and are on the same page. They are upfront about who is involved and who is not. They make realistic goals and plan to be in communication. They are honest with each other when something could be improved or when a ministry or event does not meet expectations. This is handled without blame but also without avoidance.

  1. Energizing

Participants are able to articulate in real time what they seek to achieve. They become more future-oriented than backward-looking. The past is understood a learning tool. Failures are shared. Successes are celebrated. Little time and energy is devoted to those who want to complain but do not want to participate in the ministry’s improvement. Participants are honest about their energy level and make space for different reactions to the same program or event based on how different human beings are wired.

  1. Relational

Participants come to feel connected with God and with each other. They don’t dread responding to emails or attending meetings because they have care for the others involved beyond simply the short-term activities of the project. They spend time in each meeting finding out more about the passions, gifts, and animating stories of the people around them. They hear about the impact of their actions through stories of those impacted.

  1. Empowering

The work becomes transcendent and participants offer grace to one another when a tough season befalls someone in the group. There is less talk about “filling the slots” or “finding new blood.” There is more talk about building leaders and inviting someone into the work because of their particular story and how that generates appetite for the work. People don’t micro-manage each other because they have respect for each other’s commitment and can freely talk about issues as they arise. People don’t fade off or burn out because they are serving in an area where they are known and the work engages their primary areas of interest.

[i] Matthew 9:37

Building Evaluative Muscles

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Shannon Kershner

Two years ago at our annual session retreat, congregational leaders at Fourth Presbyterian Church discerned God was calling us to make discipleship a priority in the life and mission of our particular congregation. We decided it was time to intentionally focus on nurturing and growing our sense of God’s claim on our lives and life together, as well as our ability to articulate the difference that claim made in our lives. As a congregation, we have always felt strongly called to work for God’s justice and compassion in the world, but we have not always been able to articulate why. The session decided it was time to help all of us give words as to why we did what we did. It was time to help our folks be able to describe what made us, as a congregation, different from other non-profit agencies who did similar community outreach work. We felt God was challenging us to work on a deeper sense of discipleship.

As we continued to wrestle with what that meant (including trying to define discipleship!), we began to get stuck on how we would know if we were making progress. What were the metrics we could use to see if we were actually doing what we said we felt called to do? We knew that we could not just use the church’s operating budget or our worship attendance numbers to tell us if the discipleship priority was taking hold. Both financial health and attendance statistics provide useful data, but neither thing captures “success” – at least not in terms of ministry. And yet, those kinds of quantitative metrics were all we had.  

I was always reminded of this point whenever elders who had rolled off session would want to hear how things were going. “How are we doing with our discipleship priority?” they would ask. “Are you seeing some shifts occur?” Being a preacher, I always came up with something to say, but I also felt inadequate to describe the progress I saw taking place. I had a variety of anecdotes I could tell them, in which I could describe how I saw our baptisms shining brightly, but I did not know if that “counted,” in terms of metrics… until NEXT Church launched the Cultivated Ministry project.

Our session took the Cultivated Ministry method out for a spin this past June at our last annual retreat. I will admit it was a little rocky in the beginning. Some of my folks needed to be convinced that the traditional ways of measuring healthy ministry via budgets and attendance were actually meant to be inputs rather than outputs. In other words, a church’s financial resources and people resources are means to an end and not the “end” itself (hint—the end is God’s complete reconciliation of the cosmos). It is a shift to recognize that people’s stories of transformation are just as valid as how many people showed up. We have been counting for so long that other ways of describing progress can feel suspicious or threatening. However, the more we practiced broadening our vision as to what/how to measure “successful” ministry, the more it began to feel right. We have a long way to go, but we have gotten started.

Our next steps will be to keep practicing the Cultivated Ministry method with small, well-defined ministry programs. It is still difficult to measure how we are doing regarding deepening our discipleship, but we can become more adept at these new metrics if we start with smaller tasks. For example, we can use this method to see how our new family neighborhood small groups are working  Or we could use this method to look at a new mission trip. Or we could use this method to evaluate our session meetings or our trustee meetings. There are a myriad of different ways we could implement Cultivated Ministry metrics as we build our evaluative muscles.  

I am thankful for the group who gave this work all of their time, energy, imagination, and love. I get excited to imagine how this different way of measuring healthy ministry might take root in the congregation I serve. It feels faithful and interesting. And I believe it has the potential to keep us from getting too comfortable or stagnant. The practice of Cultivated Ministry will help us grow deeper in our discipleship and more articulate about how our faith impacts our life. We are going to keep working at it, undoubtedly messing up and trying again, as we try to figure out how to scale it for our different ministries and mission. I hope other congregations will join us in the experimenting!


Shannon Johnson Kershner is the senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church (P.C.U.S.A.). She grew up in Waco, Texas as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and an elementary school teacher. Shannon stayed in Texas for college and graduated in 1994 from Trinity University in San Antonio. In 1996, she began her theological training at Columbia Theological Seminary and received her Masters of Divinity degree in 1999. Her sermons and articles have been published in a number of journals, including The Journal for Preachers and Lectionary Homiletics. She is involved in leadership for NEXT Church and serving on its strategy team. Shannon is married to Greg, whom she met in high school at a Presbyterian summer conference at Mo-Ranch. They have been married for 21 years and are the parents of 15-year-old Hannah and 12-year-old Ryan.  

A Culture of Accountability

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Andrew Foster Connors

We kicked a pastor out of our community organizing group not too long ago. Technically, he chose to leave. He was in the middle of lecturing the rest of the clergy on what needed to happen. One of our seasoned leaders called him on it. “I’m asking you what are you going to do about it.” The pastor equivocated, returning to his pontifications. Again, the leader interrupted him. “We know what you think about the problem. My question is how many people are you going to bring from your congregation so you can turn your thoughts into action and actually change the situation instead of just whining about it.” I was uncomfortable in the tension, but I confess I was glad that he got up and walked out. I have little patience for people who do not want to be held accountable. There’s too much important work to do to spend our precious time and energy when people want to be “right” more than they want real change.

Accountability is one of the most challenging practices for the church and certainly for pastors. Pastors typically want people to like us and we are often better at caring for people’s feelings than we are at developing them into disciples of Jesus. I know from personal experience that I sometimes enable bad behavior in the name of pastoral care. But accountability is not just the responsibility of a pastor alone. I’ve come to see it function best not so much as a practice, but as a culture.

When I first got involved in community organizing, I developed a relationship with an organizer who met with me monthly to discuss my goals. The first difficult part of the work was moving from amorphous goals like “change our culture of leadership” to “meet individually with all Session members over the next six weeks.” Big goals are fine, he encouraged me, but you have to break them down so I can hold you accountable to them. Of course, if those smaller goals fail to produce the larger outcomes, that’s okay, we can adjust. There’s no reason to be afraid to fail. But you have to be held accountable to your decisions.

The second difficult part was showing him my calendar. “Why do you have to see my calendar?” I asked him. “This is my calendar. Nobody gets to see it.” “Don’t waste my time,” he told me. “If you tell me these are your top three goals for your congregation, I’m going to make sure you are spending your time on them.” Sorting through the calendar, the organizer helped me see that in order to focus my time, I’d have to let go of some other things.

At its root level, accountability is simply the practice of naming our work and aligning our time with what we’ve said is most important. When we fail to run our calendars, they run us. This is as true for the congregation as it is for pastors. Leadership in the church is about identifying leaders who are willing to do this work. Together they discern God’s direction, naming the work and following through on it. The culture of accountability that is built over time attracts new leaders who want to be held accountable to meeting the goals they set for themselves and dissuades “positional holders” who do not.

I realized that culture had taken shape in my own congregation when an elder threatened the Session to either take a particular action or he would resign. I felt the urge to “manage” the situation. Before I could, a ruling elder said kindly, but directly, “you have raised really important considerations that deserve careful attention, but this is not the way we relate to each other.” Others chimed in to remind him what we had named as our work and what we had discerned was not our work. He resigned from the Session. The best accountability the church can deliver is public, transparent and relational. We hold each other accountable.

This culture makes what is often the dreaded annual review meaningful and spite-free. Instead of a few lay people giving their personal opinions about what they like and don’t like about the pastor’s leadership, they are asking questions that are aligned with what the Session has said is the work of the church. “Is our pastor’s time aligned with our church’s goals?” is a much more helpful question than “do I personally like how she spends her time?” More importantly, this culture expands the annual review beyond that of the pastor to the leaders themselves. “Did we achieve the goal we set for our congregation in 2017?” “What did we learn from our successes and our failures?”

I’ve learned through the years that I function best with colleagues (pastors and lay leaders alike) who are holding me accountable to the claims and call of the gospel. That means spending time with other leaders who I respect and who are willing to be held accountable and willing to hold others accountable. In includes learning from leaders across the usual lines of denomination, race, and ideology. And it means learning from leaders who are more experienced as well as less experienced than me. Together we flesh out the specific places where the Gospel is calling us so that we can grow in our commitment to Christ and keep awake to God’s dynamic movement and mission in our own contexts.


Andrew Foster Connors is pastor of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. He serves on the NEXT Church strategy team and is a co-chair in BUILD, a community organizing group in Baltimore.

Field Guide Preview: Theology as Assessment

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

Today, we’re sharing the second sneak peek of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, which we’ll release in full this fall. This preview is from the first movement of the guide: theology as assessment.


It is a theological fallacy for Christians to think of ourselves as victims of post-Christendom cultural shifts beyond our control. It is a lack of spiritual imagination to act as if our faith communities and organizations are without strength or power in the world. It is a misunderstanding of our own history to assume that we are facing unprecedented challenges. The realities of the first-century Roman Empire — which witnessed the exponential growth of the early church — were no less hostile to the way of Jesus than the realities of twenty-first-century North America.[i] In both contexts, the Christian mission remains the same. Now, as then, followers of Jesus are commissioned to make new followers of Jesus and participate in the emergence of what he called God’s kingdom. Jesus was committed to this mission and held his disciples accountable to his radical vision of individuals and societies transformed.

As members of numerically declining denominations, mainline Protestants often find ourselves caught between a false polarity. On the one hand, we long for our culture’s idolatrous notion of success. According to this way of thinking, if you aren’t experiencing significant growth you are dying. Maintaining the status quo is stagnation. Numbers tell the story.

On the other hand, church leaders often take solace in a notion of faithfulness, which downplays numbers in favor of the integrity of our devotion, social witness, and service to others. According to this way of thinking, God is pleased so long as we faithfully do what we have always done, regardless of its effectiveness.

Rather than either of these inclinations, Jesus purposely calls us to bear fruit.[ii] This metaphor evokes consideration of both quantity and quality. Neither a bountiful yield of mediocre produce nor a small yield of sweet fruit are ultimately satisfying. Those charged with bearing fruit — especially fruit that will last — must be concerned with the quantity and quality of their product. Cultivated ministry is therefore a commitment to fruitfulness, which attends not only to the faithfulness of our endeavors, but also to the outputs and meaningful impact of our work.

Cultivated ministry is also a reorientation to the missional goal of kingdom growth. It is noteworthy that Jesus only mentions “church” twice in the New Testament. Both instances are oblique references in the Gospel of Matthew (16:18 and 18:17) and may in fact be editorial additions. By contrast, throughout his ministry Jesus was primarily concerned with the emergence of God’s kingdom. Consider, for example, the first words attributed to Jesus in the first of our gospels to be written down: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”[iii] Jesus’ ministry was urgent. Jesus’ ministry was rooted in the here and now. Jesus’ ministry was about the imminent manifestation of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ ministry was about change and transformation. Jesus’ ministry was — and is — good news for a world all too familiar with bad news.

[i] Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating Apostolic Movements (2nd edition; Brazos Press, 2016).

[ii] Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8; John 15:8, 16

[iii] Mark 1:15, CEB.

Moving Beyond Sexy Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Billy Honor

“Make it sexy!” I hear these three words whispering in my brain every time I’m planning anything pertaining to ministry. It doesn’t matter if I’m planning a bible study, sermon series, worship experience, service project, or leadership meeting, somewhere along the way I’m going to ask myself the question: is this sexy? I know it may seem odd to think about ministry in this way but I’ve come to understand that making ministry sexy is one of the most pervasive ways ministry is practiced today.

Those who pay close attention to the contemporary Christian landscape can attest that a goodly number of churches and ministry facilitators spend a significant amount of time thinking about whether their ministry activities are sexy, i.e. attractive and appealing. One of the ways this is clearly seen is among the churches that call themselves “seeker sensitive.” These are congregations and faith communities that are unapologetically invested in making their activities attractional and alluring to those they are trying to reach.

Over the last couple decades, this attractional approach to ministry has become more wide-spread than many want to admit. Though most churches would never describe themselves as seeker sensitive, the fact is most church leaders are constantly wrestling with how they can make their ministries more compelling.

On a personal level, in my own ministry development, I can admit that I didn’t always have this mentality. In fact, I distinctly remember when and where I learned it. It was during my time serving as an intern at a megachurch while I was in seminary. We would have staff meetings once a week where the leaders and department heads were expected to report their upcoming plans and projections. As we’d go around the table, it was not uncommon for the executive pastor to ask someone in response to their plans, “but it is sexy?” This was her not so subtle way of asking: will this plan bring out big numbers? Will it create mass community appeal? Will it look like a success?

Rethinking Ministry as Sexy

Initially, I thought this was a very effective way to lead and supervise – especially given the fact that most of what I’d seen growing up in a very large congregation gave me the impression that ministry effectiveness is about the numbers. However, as I grew and became more experienced as a ministry leader, I started to become ambivalent and increasingly weary with the “sexy ministry” approach.

I can vividly remember how I felt when I started pastoring and I realized that most of the shortcomings of our church could be mitigated by the fact that we had people in seats and money coming into the accounts. Whenever I’d fill out our annual denominational assessment forms, I’d get this unsettling feeling about having to deal with a report that was so numbers-driven. Each year, the same questions. How many people were baptized? How many people made a profession of faith? How members are active? How many participated in Christian education? How much is the yearly budget?

Quickly it became apparent to me that our numbers (though consistently growing and exceeding our projections) did not tell the most important story of our congregation. From my viewpoint, the more significant story was how we as a church were faithfully participating in the Spirit’s movement in the world and this was a story that could not be told by numbers alone. Rather it had to be told by a narrative articulation of how the Divine is moving in the lives of those who share in the church’s ministry.

Eventually I transitioned from pastoring that church to accept a call to organize a new urban church. Part of my reason for choosing to do this was my desire to shape a ministry from the inception that assessed church vitality by its faithfulness to the stated mission and not merely by the numbers.

A Different Way of Assessing Ministry

Now, after almost two years as a church planter, though I still think about how to make ministry sexy, this is far from my primary concern. To be sure, we still count the numbers, but our primary focus is whether we as a faith community look like our stated core values. In other words, no matter our congregational statistics, if we look and function like our mission statement, then we are being faithful.

Leading a new congregation with this approach has been refreshing – but it’s also been very challenging. There have been times when I felt like we were just spinning our wheels without any clear measurement of our work together. This is why I’m so thankful that I was asked to participate in the NEXT Church think tank on ministry metrics. It has been a great opportunity to consider new models of assessment that make faithfulness to God’s mission in the world the primary concern. It’s also been a great way for me to seriously reflect on how our church can be more intentional about understanding the ways our activities contribute to the Spirit’s work.

In the days ahead, our think tank will have the opportunity to take our work public. I’m excited about this because I know it’s desperately needed. Very often the conversation around the mainline church is saturated with narratives of decline but I’m hopeful new insights on church vitality and “cultivated ministry” practice can help shift the conversation.

If nothing else, I’m hopeful this will provide an opportunity for churches and ministry leaders to slow down and ask critical questions about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we can do it better.


Billy Michael Honor is a minister, public scholar, and social critic who writes and speaks about issues in faith and culture. He is also an ordained PC(USA) minister and the founding pastor of Pulse Church in downtown Atlanta.

Cultivated Ministry at The Board of Pensions

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Frank Spencer

Jesus never said check your intellect at the door and forget what you have learned outside the Church. Jesus praises the good manager in parables and chides those who waste or steal. We are obligated to make good use of our time, talent and treasure. Thus, we are called to excellence in all we do while extending the hand of hospitality and living in the grace of compassion.

Here at the Board of Pensions, we often say that the numbers can never define our values, but analytics must always inform our stewardship.

Jesus also talked a lot about vineyards and the hard work that goes into growing good fruit. He used that analogy to talk about fruitfulness in our lives. NEXT Church has furthered that analogy to explore new ways of assessing ministry effectiveness. A cultivated ministry exhibits the following four principles: theological reflection, constant learning, mutual accountability, and storytelling.

Asking the theological “why?” has transformed the Board and its programs. We began the change three years ago by developing a Theology of Benefits. That work allowed us to understand our mission as a vital part of enlivening the body of Christ in the PC(USA). It led us to understand benefits as wholeness, rather than a financial proposition. This theological understanding is embedded in everything we do, seeking well-being for those who serve Christ’s Church in the four critical arenas of health, spirituality, finance, and vocation. Those who have experienced the CREDO program know these focus areas well.

We believe in constant learning, evaluating and re-evaluating everything we do. To learn from past errors and identify future possibilities, we have had to be brutally honest about the current state of things. Some things like care for our members and investment of our assets we did really well and we affirmed that excellence. Other things, like information technology, flexibility, and cost control were not as good. By facing these challenges, we have dramatically improved how we serve and expanded whom we serve. But we are only just beginning because there will always be more to learn. Knowing that we can and will improve keeps us energized and hopeful for the future.

We practice mutual accountability with many levels of constituencies. We are of course accountable to our Board and have developed a culture of openness and honesty that has allowed us to work through problems together and take bold steps for improvement. We are accountable to members whom we serve in a consultative framework. We are accountable to the larger Church through the General Assembly and to each congregation. We have adopted a posture of complete transparency and have spent the past three years unmasking hidden subsidies and telling the Church honestly what benefits cost. We have scrapped hundreds of administrative rules trusting each congregation to make decisions that best fit its unique context.

And oh do we love the stories! We know our members personally because they call us and write us and meet with us. Some of these stories are wonderful triumphs of healing and wholeness. Others speak to the deep grief and disappointment that is a part of all of our lives. We always try to say “yes” but sometimes we have to say “no” and those stories are always the most painful. There is rarely a month that goes by without my being moved to tears of joy or sadness.

Cultivated Ministry implies a never ending cycle of assessment, reflection, input from constituents, and sharing of personal stories. Just as the vineyard is always in need of tending, so it is with every ministry. Staying centered in the face of constant change is a challenge. For us, prayer is an important part of staying centered. Every Executive Team meeting and every Board committee begins with prayer. We pray in thanksgiving for the honor of serving Christ’s Church. To remind ourselves of the community we serve, every prayer ends by lifting up another agency or organization of the PC(USA).

What a wonderful thing it is that sisters and brothers care for each other in the name of Jesus Christ. If you count all the active members and their families, retired members and their spouses, surviving spouses and children, and vested former employees, PC(USA) is caring for 61,000 individuals through the Board of Pensions. This ministry is well-planned, theologically grounded, ever reforming, and abundantly fruitful.

It is indeed a well cultivated ministry.


Frank Clark Spencer is the president of the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and served on the initial strategy team for NEXT Church. Before turning to full-time ministry, Frank had an outstanding business career which included leading his company to its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange and being recognized by Ernst and Young as 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year in the Southeast. Frank is the past Chairman of Montreat Conference Center and former President of Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte. He was a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, a Baker Scholar at Harvard Business School, and earned his M.Div. at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. You may listen to Frank’s sermons and find out about his latest book at www.fspencer.com.

When Numbers Become Our Identity

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Becca Messman

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

This phrase, attributed to management consultant Peter Drucker, captivated the heart of the business world just as torrents of new data became available. The frenzy to make sense of the entrails of their own corporate data gave rise to an army of analysts and consultants, modern-day sooth-sayers, who help leaders make decisions based on metrics.

The metrics for churches have long been the ABCs: attendance, building, and cash. Pastor Jones will tell Pastor Smith, “We are a church of 500, and we worship about 250 on a Sunday.” And Pastor Smith responds, “Oh, we have 1,200 in membership, and we worship about 700.” In that common exchange, we learn three things: First, most churches have a large gap between the number of people on their rolls and the number who show up on a Sunday. Second, most churches use these numbers to negotiate power, effectiveness, and even worth, in comparison to one other, and to some degree, in comparison to the past. Finally, in the way we structure that sentence, we might just worship some of our numbers.

When we worship a set of numbers, they become our identity. We are rewarded or punished by what we believe these numbers say about us. We are a big church, a mid-sized church, or a small church. We are a wealthy church or a struggling church. We are growing, stagnating, or dying. But that’s misleading. A wealthy church can be flabby and stuck, just as a tiny church can be lean and powerful, and churches change over the years, even over a few months, just like people do.

Numbers are important. Some churches have become so discouraged with the numbers that they ignore them altogether and say, “Who cares if only 6 people came, it was faithful. Who cares if the place was mostly empty, the people who came were happy.”

We can’t disregard the numbers. Imagine if I pulled into the church parking lot after a great youth mission trip, and 20 exhausted, happy youth returned to their parents. Some parents begin to yell and scream at me: “Why only 20? Why not 25?” I grow frustrated and say to them, as pleasantly as I can, “Well, churches in our day in age are experiencing decline, culture is against us, and we shouldn’t focus on the numbers so much. The 20 who are here had a fantastic experience!” Then they’d say, “Yes, but you left here last Sunday with 25 kids! Where are our children?” Yes, that would be a different story.

Some numbers are heavier or louder than others. When we lose someone who attended for many years, it may feel heavier than when we gain someone whom we don’t know very well, at least for awhile. When we lose youth who grew up in our church, there is often grief attached to our numbers, more so than we bid farewell to the beloved family who was transferred to Iowa because of work. These numbers ask us to seek phone numbers, to make contact, to hear the longer story, to stay in touch, to follow up. They challenge us to think of the shepherd in Jesus’ parable who leaves the 99 sheep to go after the one.

Focusing only on some numbers can blind us to others. According to our Presbyterian annual statistical report, our church has lost about (well, exactly) 123 members over the last 10 years, from 850 to 727. Worship attendance has slipped from 290 to 215. That hurts. People feel that, and we miss the great saints who have moved, passed away, or gone somewhere else. And, by the way we cleaned our rolls in 2007, it looks like most of them stormed out at once.

Nowhere in our official numbers, however, are the 60 men and women who worship in Spanish on Wednesdays, nor the 50 Presbyterians who worship in Urdu on Sunday afternoons, nor the 80+ Ghanaian Presbyterians who worship downstairs on Sunday, with a jubilant drum beat that usually kicks in right after I have invited people upstairs to a moment of silent meditation. Our metrics say we have lost 123 members. Our building says we have gained 190 people per week. Who is right?

Even though these other worshippers have been historically “counted” differently, since they don’t pledge or are titled an “immigrant fellowship,” we have begun to pay attention to them. And slowly, we are becoming more of a “we,” rather than “us” and “them.” We started worshipping together on Easter, World Communion Sunday, and Rally Day. There was Fufu and RedRed from Ghana in the Fellowship Hall right next to deviled eggs and breakfast casserole. We have begun to share childcare and Sunday School. And with a new sense of who “we” are, there is a new spirit about us, and, as it says in Acts, “the Lord is adding to our number.”

Some people are with us but won’t join. Some people who join are rarely with us. Nowhere in our official statistics are the visitors who have attended for years, who have won the chili cook-off, who make food for funeral receptions, but have not joined. Nowhere in our membership are the former Catholics or Mormons who have been part of our church their entire adult lives, but fear “breaking their mom’s heart” if they join our church officially.

What about the 145 people who listen to the sermon every week from somewhere else? Who are they? I know one is my mom, but the rest? Are they truly “with us in Spirit?” Are they our extended campus? Are they our “online community?”

We need some new numbers. Jesus asks repeatedly if people had “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” We need new ways of seeing and hearing, and assessing what “counts” in our churches and what does not.

Consider the Biblical account of the feeding of the 5,000. The number did not include women and children, though it mentions specifically that they were there. With eyes to see what was really going on there, the miracle itself is even greater than it sounds by the numbers.

What if we paid more attention to:

  • Small group membership, including small groups like choirs and committees. Christian education enrollment numbers used to reflect our strongest connections, but it is no longer the only vessel for deeper affiliation.
  • Community action participation, hospital and jail visitation, mission projects, and mission giving. We understand ourselves as Christians as a “sent” people, sent to serve God in the world, rather than a people gathered in a building.
  • Non-member giving, loose offering, and attendance vs membership percentages. This would tell us more about how well we are connecting with people in our building than placing ever-upward pressure on giving units and membership rolls.

Paying attention to new numbers is hard. It gives clerks of session heart palpitations. The funding of much of our denominational structures is tied to membership numbers. But it is liberating and illuminating to see the bigger picture, and perhaps, we will behold a greater miracle in what we thought before were dry, stale, or even sad numbers.

“Information without action is overhead,” as Ron Griffin, the former Chief Information Officer of Home Depot used to say. The numbers should not just make us feel good, become a project in and of themselves, or sit on a shelf. They should make us better stewards of our time and efforts. They should hold us accountable and equip us to serve.

Take heart. Peter Drucker also knew that not everything could be held to the “if you can measure it, you can manage it” standard. “Your first role…is the personal one,” Drucker told Bob Buford, a consulting client then running a cable TV business, in 1990. “It is the relationship with people, the development of mutual confidence, the identification of people, the creation of a community. This is something only you can do.” Drucker went on: “It cannot be measured or easily defined. But it is not only a key function. It is one only you can perform.”

May it be so with us, dear church.


Becca Messman is the associate pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia.  She leads “Lunch for the Soul” – a ministry with Hispanic day laborers.  Her other passions are preaching and offering pastoral prayers, leading retreats, energizing church leaders to serve the community around them, youth and young adult ministry, and cultivating the “fear and trembling” holy journey of parenting.  She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband Dave, her two young children, and her dog Luna.