More and more churches are recognizing the need for leadership to assist them in working through various kinds of impasses, crises, and times of pastoral transition. At a meeting of pastors this week, I was surprised to learn that so many struggle with how to work effectively with Elder Board leadership, for example. Young emerging pastors it seems are not always well-equipped with how to balance preaching ministries, effective administration, and pastoral care — the three essentials, in my view, of what pastoral ministry is all about. After working in church pastoral ministry for more than 40 years — the last seven in transition ministry — I am more convinced than ever that churches and pastors get into difficulty because of how hard it is to keep these three elements in balance. Besides spiritual issues, which are often many and significant, there are practical leadership matters that are overlooked. This is where some outside pastoral expertise can be helpful. Sometimes a third pair of eyes can see things that escape the attention of local leaders.
In working with a church during a time of transition — getting to know its culture, its leadership idiosyncrasies, and the nature of its general ministry — I like to prayerfully enter into a kind of evaluation/assessment period. This usually follows a more general get-aquainted time of several months of pulpit and personal ministry. The assessment period usually takes three or four months of intentional investigative work digging into a church’s history as well as it’s ministry highs and lows. A small representative team of 5 or 6 is assembled by the leadership Board for this purpose. The task of this assessment team is to study the history and culture of the church for the purpose of creating a concise analysis of the church’s health. The team prepares to ask questions that seek to evaluate the church’s ministry and growth against the biblical mandate of effectively communicating the good news of the kingdom and making disciples.
Questions have to do with how the church began, what characterized its initial growth and development, whether it grew by conversions from the community or by attraction of Christians from other churches. There are several tools that I have found helpful in seeking answers to this kind of analysis. The first is a written survey circulated among as many of the congregation as possible. Besides asking questions of the person’s identity and ministry involvement, the survey also asks open-ended questions about the person’s perspective on the overall effectiveness of the church in its ministry and community outreach. It may also ask about recommended needs or changes from that person’s perspective — spiritual/theological factors, attitudinal and administrational factors. Undoubtedly, it will also conclude with a question that invites comment on the kind of pastoral leadership that may be needed for the future. Even though surveys of this nature do not usually yield a large response, when all the answers are collated, common themes from the results do emerge.
A second tool consists in what I call listening meetings. These are meetings with various groups within the church to answer questions about the positives and negatives of the church’s ministry. The idea in this, as well as in the survey, is to seek to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. One way the Spirit speaks is through the members of Christ’s church. Often I may introduce a session like this by referring to Christ’s view of the churches in Revelation 2 and 3. I go on to say that He has feelings and opinions about today’s churches as well — and that each has good qualities and then others that may not be so good.
Members seem to love the opportunity to voice their views about where the church has been effective and where it has not. It seems people appreciate the opportunity to express their views when they are able to offer them in a constructive environment. As the leader, I like to use a flip-chart, summarily recording people’s responses to various questions — What were especially good times that you remember in your time of participation in this church? What have you appreciated about the church’s ministry? What do you identify as more difficult times in the life of the church? What do you think the church needs to do to be more effective in the community? etc. There may be a dozen or more groups — identified by age or ministry — that can be assembled for this purpose. Each meeting begins and ends with a prayer for God’s voice to be heard, His will to be accomplished.
It is up to the assessment team to assemble the responses and prepare a summary report for the church leaders and then the church body. The team looks for common themes in the responses citing that which is commendable as well as those features that have tended to keep the church from more effectiveness in terms of Christ’s mandate. It may well take into consideration spiritual/theological issues as well as those that are of a more practical and cultural nature. The report will also seek to identify, at least in general terms, the kind of pastoral leadership that may be required for greater progress in the future. Assessment reports typically employ an approach known as appreciative inquiry, as well as a realistic look at the facts. Though success in church ministry is not merely a record of numbers, it is difficult to ignore the biblical idea of fruitfulness that also includes numerical growth.
For that reason, another aspect of the assessment process will undoubtedly also include a study of the numerical patterns of the church — demographics, professions of faith, baptisms, membership, and financial matters. Here again, the objective is to correlate the numbers with other factors in the life of the church — leadership, crises, economics, migrations, and so on.
When such a process of assessment is honestly and objectively initiated, a church can learn a lot about itself and hopefully discern in a clearer way what God thinks about it and what needs to change in order for it to be more effective in accomplishing God’s purpose. Rather than opinions being haphazardly thrown about from time to time, this assessment approach is an intentional effort to arrive at a more objective conclusion about why a church has grown or is stuck in its ministry. It is an attempt to proceed with wisdom and tact to help the church be all that God intended it to be.