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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 co-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.

A Challenge to the Church

We continue to reap the harvest of the 2015 National Gathering and hope you continue to be inspired by creative ministry, challenging ideas, and deepened relationships. NEXT leaders are continuing to process places of tension in the gathering so that we may learn and grow from them. Today, Rebecca Messman’s blog piece offers some reflection on the last presentation of the gathering, offered by George Srour, a ruling elder at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. There were strong feelings expressed at the time of the presentation and some difficult conversations in the wake of the conversation. What Becca does in this piece is take a step back from the intensity of the moment and respond to various constituencies with thoughtfulness and grace.

 

The church is getting lapped by secular organizations doing the work church started. And they’re doing it better.”

In that one statement, George Srour, one of the Forbes Top 30 under 30 for Social Entrepreneurship, said what most of us know to be true though we don’t know what to do about it. When Srour was in college, he learned that 900,000 children in Uganda had no school at all to attend. In response, over the last ten years, he has started a non-profit, Building Tomorrow, and built schools for 6,700 children, with more schools under construction. Those are impressive numbers. Srour grew up at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, the host church for the very first NEXT church conference. I felt certain that Srour would get a good hearing, even generate some pride, from those of us at this year’s NEXT conference.

The intense response he received, however, focused more on his appearance as potentially someone with a “white savior complex,” despite the fact that he is Lebanese-American, or conceivably someone dealing in “toxic charity,” despite his emphasis on local leadership, long-term partnership, and the use of donated land.

Srour was gracious in responding to our questions without a whiff of defensiveness, but I wonder if we have genuinely considered his challenge to the church, the Presbyterian Church that he, and we, love.

  • Make it real, he said. Non-profit organizations do a better job in communicating concrete goals. He made it real. $1.81 is what it would cost to build a school in Uganda, if all 5,500 students at William and Mary contributed. The ALS ice bucket challenge made it real, and we poured ice water on our heads and donated $100. Heifer international makes it real, and we buy a goat for a hungry family for Christmas. Churches know this! Last Thanksgiving, when I asked the congregation for $18 to purchase a turkey for the community banquet, saying that we needed 20 turkeys total to feed 300 people, we received 20 checks. And what blew me away, 15 of those checks were from individuals purchasing all 20 turkeys at once. Whether it’s the shoe drive or the angel tree, ministries that make it real work in most any setting. Why, then, are our congregational goals come October so tepid, so fuzzy, by comparison?
  • Be bold, he said. “Would you be you without a school?” Srour posed that agitating question to college kids, and set an enormous, but real, goal. 900,000 students in Uganda do not have a school. He didn’t say, “Millions worldwide.” That would have been true, but demoralizing. He didn’t say, “these 28 children.” That would have been manageable and impressive for a college student, but less inspiring. Churches know this! We have demographic data and statistics at our fingertips, but we don’t necessarily use it to set our goals. We may set goals that are catchy and even aggressive, but we don’t always stick with those goals long enough to realize them, which makes our big goals less trustworthy the next time around. Sometimes our goals are so small they are not goals at all, they are more about survival and status quo, less about our faith and more an expression of our fear. They start to sound like my marathon goal: “Start off slow, and ease up.” “Not dead, not dead last.”
  • God sends many teachers and many teammates. We should learn from non-profits. Jesus drafted fishermen to be his disciples, because they knew how to move where the fish were, without being tied to the land like farmers, or proud of the product like carpenters. Jesus pulled in tax collectors, prostitutes, beggars and blind people, perhaps because they weren’t too concerned with popularity or perfection in the hard work of discipleship. The harvest is plentiful, Jesus said, but the workers… they’re few! I am starting to think that there are more laborers in the field with the church than ever before—caring for the sick, binding up the brokenhearted, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked—non-profits, government organizations, community groups, school groups, other churches—and we have much to learn from each other.

 

I’ll never forget when I was in the car with my dad as a teenager, and I heard a song on the radio, maybe by Belinda Carlisle or Sinead O’Connor, and I quipped, “Uggh… This song is so cheesy, I could write one better than this.” And he quipped back, “Yes, but have you?”

It’s easy to pose a fiery question at a conference and muse on how we’d do it better or differently. But we need to be prepared for the question, “Yes, but have you?”

 


Rebecca Messman is a pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia. In a previous life she was in the corporate leadership track of Home Depot.

 

Congregational Power (Relational) Analysis

By Rebecca Messman

Power copyChristians often shy away from the use of the word “power” because it is seen as bad: power over, corrupted power, violent power, greedy power. Goliath bad! David good! Jesus blessed the meek, after all. God’s power is made perfect through weakness.

However, Christians do not shy away from conversations about the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of prayer. I remember the old gospel song that crooned, “There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder workin’ pow’r, in the blood of the lamb!”

Power is defined in community organizing simply as the ability to act on one’s values, from the Latin word poder, which meansto be able.” Power in organizing is not coercive power but relational power, the engine of relationships that are at work inside and outside of a congregation.

What is a power analysis?

Michael Gecan, one of the leading community organizers within the IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation), wrote,

“Many leaders of congregations operate without a clear and honest picture of the relational terrain in which they function – both inside the congregation and with the surrounding community. A basic understanding of which leaders have followings and influence, how they relate to one another, who determines what decisions are made and how money is spent, is what we call a power or relational analysis. At bottom, a power analysis is a relational map of the way an institution really functions and how that institution actually interacts with other institutions in the real world.” (Effective Organizing for Congregational Renewal, 13.)

Why do a congregational power analysis?

Without knowing who the true influencers of a congregation are, it is nearly impossible to do anything. The dynamics are constantly shifting, so this is not a “once and done” process. Most importantly, a power analysis grounds organizing to the world as it is rather than the world as it should be. The powerful people within a congregation may not be the ones whom the pastor thinks should be the leaders. Pastors or any would-be change agent cannot be held captive to stereotypes or wishful thinking. Leaders may not be the same from one Presbyterian Church to the next. For example, PW may hold significant sway at one church and be sidelined at another. The Session at one church, or even a subset of the Session, may decide everything at one church, while at another church, nothing moves forward without the support of the pastor.

How to do a congregational power analysis?

First, mapping out relationships and doing a power analysis require trust and sensitivity. There are always egos to be managed, antique grievances and hurts to be understood and either buried or ignored, and there is spin to be un-spun, as Gecan cautions. So, those best positioned to study the congregation are the leaders themselves. It cannot be done by outsiders. It is a confession about how things really happen, within the church and in its connection to the outside world. Second, it is based upon many trust-building individual meetings. Until church leaders and members know each other, through sitting down and listening to each other’s stories, there is not enough trust or knowledge to identify current leaders or tap future ones. A church that is acting as a transactional body, where leaders are only seen as committee chairs who run programs, misses many contours of its own life, and the leaders it does have get pigeonholed and eventually burn out. Finally, a power analysis needs to be done repeatedly, because all relationships are fluid. These shifts in congregational understanding are naturally done when a pastor leaves or arrives, which is why those can be such ripe moments for a church to change. But, it can paralyze a congregation and doom a pastorate if this is the only way major change occurs. People are constantly, whether blatantly or quietly, stepping up and stepping down, forging new connections and severing them.

Tapping new leaders.

For our congregation, a power analysis revealed to us that we could not rely upon the Service and Mission committee alone to do community outreach. The committee of deeply committed leaders was simply too small. We had exhausted their bandwidth. With training in community organizing, we embarked on a season of relational meetings, a relationship campaign of sorts, starting with Session and Deacons. In the summer, we incorporated these conversations into worship. Instead of a sermon, for two Sundays, the congregation spoke in small groups about what they believed broke God’s heart in the community around us. Where were we called, even gifted, as a church to speak to those needs? Those relational meetings were like a giant spoon stirring up energy and affecting the chemistry of our congregation. New leaders surfaced.

Before doing an individual meeting with a woman I’ll call Margaret, I – her pastor – knew her only through fellowship events and through the pastoral care space in the death of her aging family members. So, I noticed my own inclination to tap her for the fellowship committee or the congregational care team of deacons. But after hearing her story, of being a first generation American, of her passion for education, and her ability to organize just about anything she approached, I saw her differently. Now, she is leading our congregation’s new partnership with the elementary school across the street and has become a leading advocate for immigrants in our community.

What we can really do.

The flip-side of a power analysis is that is grounds a congregation in hard reality. It is easy to talk about justice, making an impact, loving our neighbor, speaking truth to power, and feeding the multitudes, but a power analysis forces the questions, “How?” “Who would do that?” “What impact are we hoping to make?” “What kind of coalition would we need to even be noticed by the ones really making the decisions in our municipality, in our county, in our state?” But it has been energizing for a group of faith communities in Fairfax County, Virginia to talk in these stark terms, but then to realize, if all 13 of the faith communities that we had already gathered, talked to 13 other specific faith communities with whom we already had relationships conveniently, and we worked together, we would have the power to get to the table with half of the Board of Supervisors of our county, one of the largest counties in the country.

Those relationships are allowing us to do more than talk about homelessness or feed the homeless, which we have all already been doing, but to find homes for them and prevent others from losing their homes as a new Metro line makes its way to our area and threatens to expunge our region of affordable housing. Alone and disorganized, we did not have the power to do this. But together, we were able to preserve one particular affordable housing community called Crescent Apartments. That victory was documented in the Washington Post. That effort fueled our imagination and brought out more new leaders.

Our communities were ravaged during the foreclosure crisis. Alone and disorganized, we would have raged against the machine, preached until we were blue in the face, and homes would have still been blighted and vacant, full of broken bottles and broken promises. But together, we were able to highlight the issue, gather congregation members from nearly 60 faith communities, 500 people packed into high school gyms or sanctuaries, over and over again, which got all sorts of media attention, and over the course of two years of pragmatic and deliberate action and agitating leaders, we were able to deliver $30 million dollars for mortgage modification and community investment.

And as the Bible says over and over again, seeing what the power of the Spirit can do, “we were amazed.”

Rebecca Messman is the associate pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, VA and a leader in Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement. She is a regular blogger for the Presbyterian Outlook.

Curing Presbyopia

By Rebecca Gillespie Messman

prebyopia“One in five Americans is now a NONE.”  It’s a clever word to describe those who when asked their religious affiliation respond simply – none. Not surprisingly, what jumps out to Presbyterians is the decline in mainline Protestantism in the last ten years, especially in people ages 18-35.

We grieve what was. We wring our hands about the future. Presbyterians start sounding like Eeyore, the sad, gray donkey-friend of Winnie the Pooh who always has a rain cloud over his head. It’s hard to bear good news when all you talk about, all you see, is bad news.

Do you know the technical term for the eye condition that develops as we age? The one that means you lose the ability to see things that are close?

It’s called presbyopia. It means “old eyes.”

We, as a church, have developed old eyes, presbyopia.

We see the distant past…when every sermon was masterful and coffers spilled over and there were traffic jams of Dodge DeSotos cramming into church parking lots.

We see the distant future…when we fear moss will overtake pulpits and raccoons will take up residence in the organ.

Grief, fear, difficulty moving forward.  These are symptoms of presbyopia.

The cure for presbyopia, I’m told, is either better eyes or longer arms.

Jesus models both. He focuses on what is near and he reaches out in ways that are uncustomary.

Diana Butler Bass, in her book Christianity After Religion, suggests that within the statistics about those who no longer affiliate with churches are some hopeful signs.

These “nones” appreciate what they know of Jesus and his teachings; they just don’t know that much about him.

  • They claim to pray daily.
  • They yearn for community.
  • They value the spiritual life and connect with God in nature, music and art.
  • Very few of them self-identify as atheists or agnostics.

To cure our presbyopia – first, we need to see them. Then we need to reach out in courageous and creative ways.

Research from the Vital Churches Institute says that the main difference between churches that are thriving and churches in decline is not number of staff or the geographic location. It’s not buoyant balance sheets or genius pastors.

The main difference is doing ONE new thing. In the community.

One Thing that draws church into the community.

I have seen that to be true.

I came to serve a church that had been divided by a clergy sexual misconduct case in its history. I came a town that was divided. The immigration “issue” landed the town on the front page of newspapers across the country. The church was caught in the middle. At my second Session meeting one of the elders said, “I think we need to have a lunch here at the church, bring those day laborers here, and I think our new pastor – who speaks Spanish after all – should lead it.”

Gasp.

The meeting got pretty stormy.

Folks were concerned that boots from the day laborers might damage the sanctuary carpet.  Folks were concerned that with our preschool… well, folks might not want their kids to go to a church with those kinds of people in it.

One woman took a deep breath and her words changed the conversation: “I wouldn’t want my child to go to a church that DIDN’T have those kinds of people in it.”

The Holy Spirit moved. It was unanimous. Lunch for the Soul was born. That was seven years ago.

Lunch for the Soul is a ministry of three churches, working together. We feed up to 200 people every week. As a result we have planted a church – 100 people – worshipping every week in Spanish.

There is a man in my church named Dan.  He tears up when he talks about the sacrifices people made at Normandy. He grieves what is going on in our country, in our denomination. He was rabidly against the Day Laborer Center that was at the center of the firestorm that led to the inception of Lunch for the Soul, so you can imagine my surprise when he showed up to help at Lunch for the Soul one day.

I’ll admit I was concerned he was scoping out the ministry to find fault… that was my sin speaking out.

I saw swarthy Salvadorans leaving his shiny white Oldsmobile… Dan stood in the back and ducked out early. We debriefed the experience later. While others benignly shared their insights on serving together at Lunch for the Soul, Dan stood up and said, “You all know my feelings about immigration…..[we sighed, yes, we do….] But, if members of our church were HALF as excited to get to church as those men were to come their church… this church… we would not be talking about decline in the mainline.”

One Thing that gave us all better eyes and longer arms. It started changing the way we saw ourselves as a church. No longer a divided church, a dying church, but a church that reached out. It was contagious. Folks want to reach out more.

Folks said – you know who else is near? The elementary school across the street. We formed a partnership with them. So, now, we do a coat drive each winter. Folks have signed up to help with tutoring. With mentoring. One lady in our church was laid off and instead of atrophying in front of the computer, she got up early twice a week to take two little girls to school – because their mom works and the bus doesn’t come that early. It’s an awakening. It changes the story we tell.

Colleen had been a ghost on the church rolls for years. But she is a Fairfax County School teacher, and she heard about this partnership. Now she is at church again. In her gravelly voice, she offered, “What can I say… you came to my doorstep.”

We are – each of us – bearers of holy possibility because we see this world through God’s eyes. When our arms are long and open wide, we may see what Christ proclaimed: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.  The kingdom of heaven is near.”


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Rebecca Messman is Associate Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, VA. Want to learn more about Lunch for the Soul? Listen to the webinar led by Becca and Edwin Andrade.

 

Image credit: shutterstock/paul prescott