Leading With Vision

     If we are serious about Trinity UMC becoming the dynamic church God desires it to be then as leaders with must have vision.  Vision is a characteristic that is lacking in both pastors and congregations that are part of low functioning churches.  There are some folks who argue that leaders are either born with vision or they are not.  These folk argue that there is no way to learn to lead with vision.  I do not buy that argument.  The purpose of this blog will be to make the case for visionary leadership and to offer some steps for the leaders of Trinity UMC to improve the church’s vision.

     I admit that the task of providing visionary leadership falls directly on me as Senior Pastor.  But I am not alone in this task.  According to the Scriptures the Holy Spirit works in our lives to give both young and old, clergy and laity, the ability to dream and vision:

     “In the Last Days,” God says, “I will pour out my Spirit  on every kind of people: Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters; Your young men will see visions your old men dream dreams.” Acts 2:17 MSG.

     In my very first meeting with the Staff-Parish Committee at Trinity UMC I was asked what my vision was for the church and how I was going to move the church forward.  This was a legitimate question as the vision for the church falls on the Senior Pastor.  With this being said it is important to note that I must constantly seek God’s vision for the church.  Yet after this process begins the dreams and visions for Trinity UMC must come from our laity, our ministry teams, and our staff.

     What is vision?  Vision is the ability to the ability to see possibilities, pitfalls, untapped potential, and a preferred picture of what is ahead.  Vision is much like what was a common practice of the military to send out scouts to determine what was ahead for the troops to encounter.  The scouts would return to the unit and then inform them of what lay ahead and help them avoid perils and find a way forward.

     Using this example the pastor is the chief scout, with church leaders and key congregants and the church staff to serve as Trinity UMC’s scouting team.  All these folks are to look at the church’s current position and determine its future.  These leaders must be aware of future possibilities and plans in the community.

     A visionary leader must ask the question, “What does this mean now for Trinity UMC and what do we need to do now to reap the best possible future for our congregation in the years to come?”  This question is rewarding and also challenging.  Many pastor’s look only to the next three to five years thinking that at that time they will move on to another appointment and someone else can worry about the present appointment.  Some churches, like Trinity UMC, have experienced tremendous staff turn-over and as a result have not had the stability to move into the future.  The opposite is also true that churches are sometime resistant to long-term plans because they know that in the United Methodist system that the current pastor will be long-gone before any of the plans occur.

     So how do we develop visions for Trinity UMC?  What is the process?  What can each of us do to assure that we become dynamic?  Fortunately there is a process that can be defined and I believe this process to be one that will assure we move with God’s vision for Trinity UMC.

     First we must pray, pray, and pray again, and then submit ourselves to Jesus Christ.  Please know that Trinity never needs to simply follow John Vaughan’s vision!  Neither are we simply to submit to the vision of The United Methodist Church.  We must determine to follow God’s vision – God’s preferred future – for Trinity UMC.  If we really believe that the church belongs to Christ, and that Christ has a plan for Trinity UMC, then all vision must begin with prayer seeking to accomplish God’s Will.

     Second we must have a bold faith and trust completely in God’s power.  Within mainline denominations the primary struggle over recent years has not been with sociological phenomenon, lack of funding, or even the quality of our clergy.  The problem has been that we have been content to practice a “safe” faith in an God we deemed to be impotent who no longer works in our world.  Far too often we simply become content to dream tiny dreams because our faith in “Greater things are yet to be done,” as Bishop Bill McAlilly‘s blog title suggest, is for the most part weak.  Far too often nothing great happens in our church because we have visions that are too small and that does not take into account the power of the God we proclaim.

     Join me next time as we look further at the process of becoming visionary leaders…..


Unsettled Time: Dealing with Criticism and Opposition

     It has been my experience that the most challenging part of pastoral leadership, as well as being a leader in the church, is dealing with those who oppose and those who actively seek to undermine your leadership.  Beth Fowler in 1997 wrote an article in Supervision journal where she said, “if you can’t remember the last time you were criticized then you’re playing it too safe and missing out on opportunities for improvement.”  Any time that church leaders are unwilling to accept and stand firm in the face of criticism they may be in the wrong line of work or being a leader in a church when they are not capable of showing leadership.

     It is important to note that criticism at times can be very important to a church.  The critic may have a good point that the leaders have not considered.  It is always possible that God has led the person criticizing to speak up in order to prevent the church from making a terrible mistake.  Sometimes those who criticize do so for the right reasons.  The role of church leaders is to be teachable and changeable and at the same time know when the criticism is of God.

     With this being said, leaders will also face a significant share of criticism that is neither constructive or helpful.  Knowing why these folks are criticizing is very important to all church leaders.  It is also vitally important that church leaders know how to respond to this criticism.  This knowledge will determine whether the church is dynamic or seeks only to maintain the status quo and continue in decline.  It is also important to know that good church people can be amazingly critical and sometimes downright mean!  There are several reasons for this criticism and meanness.

     The most common reason for criticism and opposition to church leadership is folks resistance to change.  Most folks do not like change.  Statistics show that most people resist change more than anything else they face in life.  This fear of change runs from the very small things to the major things – the color of the carpet, to the curtains, all the way to worship times and worship styles.  Thus, great leaders always expect this criticism and address the potential criticism up front.

     Another reason for criticism comes from a failure to communicate adequately the reasons for the change.  It has been my experience that folks are quick to criticize what they do not understand.  Normally when this occurs it is because either they were not willing to listen or else the leaders did a poor job of explaining it.  Thus, communication is always a key ingredient to any change.

     Most of the time if any proposed change is explained adequately folks will be much more apt to go along.  There needs to be good reasons for the change and those reasons need to be made clear to all that will be affected by the change.  It is always critical that church leadership communicate again, again, and then again.

     The third and most challenging criticism leaders have to deal with is that which comes from personal issues on the part of the critic.  These may arise from the critics desire to gain or control the direction of the church.  These individual are hard to deal with because the real issue is not the plan or proposal, the real issue is emotional, psychological, or relational.

     Dealing with type of criticism must include several components.  First never blow things out of proportion.  It is easy to become obsessed with those who are opposing us and sometimes we make the opposition seem to be much larger than it is.  Second, we should never allow ourselves to stoop to the level of those criticizing.  Third, we should find a trusted confidant that we can talk with in order to get honest feedback.  Fourth, we should know who the influencers are within the church and seek their opinion and support.

     One last note that I would make to all church leadership is that when it comes to important issues, please do not ever leave the fate of the issues up-to those opposing them.  As a general rule church leadership will never bring to the table a proposal that has not already been well vetted and moves the church in a positive direction.  So leadership needs not be swayed by only a few nay Sayers.  Remember that great leaders will always face opposition.  Great ministries never happen when we allow criticism to derail us.  Let’s move forward honoring God and not diminish the great leadership God has granted us.  We can never allow criticism to keep Trinity UMC from pursuing God’s vision and mission.

     Join me next time as we learn how to be visionary leaders of Trinity UMC….

Pastoral Care

     There are many who would argue that preaching is the most important thing a pastor does to minister to his or her flock.  There can be a good argument presented for that belief.  I, however, would argue that pastoral care ranks above preaching in importance to a congregation.  It has been my experience that congregants do not care how much a pastor knows, or how dynamic a preacher they are, or how many degrees they hold, until they first know how much the pastor loves and cares for them.  Pastoral care is one of the most important things we do in church.

     I have considered it the greatest of privileges during my ministry to be with my parishioners during times of personal crisis or need.  Even though I was there for them at those times of need they have always managed in those times to also minister to me.  It is also during these times of crisis that some of the strongest bonds are formed between pastor and congregant.  Yet, as one can imagine, these times are often the most daunting times a pastor faces.

     Any time I offer pastoral care to a congregant my aim is always to represent Christ to them.  Most times I pray prior to visiting someone in the hospital and then I hold the patients hand and pray with them as I am getting ready to leave.  My prayer prior to the visit is always that I may be able to represent Christ to the person suffering and provide love and a listening ear to their concerns.

     It has become evident to me over the years that hospital visitation by a pastor or church representative is in many ways just a vital and that of their physician or nurse.  When pastoral care is administered by a pastor or church representative the patient receives hope, comfort, and peace.  Good physicians and nurse provide a degree of this.  But the church family has a unique opportunity to provide something the patient cannot receive any place else.

     Is pastoral care solely the responsibility of the pastoral staff?  As much as I enjoy caring for the folks at Trinity UMC and offering pastoral care, there are times that I just cannot do justice to all that needs to be done.  There are times that with the size of our congregation and the numbers of folks needing care that my ability to be present becomes limited.  In the past there have been times I have had to cut sermon preparation time, not efficiently lead staff, or even to be able to spiritually feed myself.  Every time I try to be “Super Pastor” everyone suffers.

     One of the greatest gifts a church can utilize to assist a pastor with pastoral care that I have experienced is Stephen Ministry.  This is a wonderful program in which lay folks are trained in providing Christian care.  When a church uses Stephen Ministry and has fully trained caregivers anytime a member of the congregation needs ongoing ministry and encouragement they can be connected to a Stephen Minister.  That Stephen Minister will meet with them as needed, listen, pray, and offer encouragement.  The Stephen Minister is also trained to recognize when the pastor needs to be called in to handle those situations that only they can handle.

     We presently have trained Stephen Ministers at Trinity UMC and are not utilizing this great ministry.  I am sure there are a number of folks who would love to see this great ministry utilized and offered to our congregation.  Those who are trained have offered to train others and restart this vital ministry.  If you happen to be interested in becoming a Stephen Minister please let me know and perhaps we can restart this program.

     I would argue that mobilizing laity for pastoral ministry is very biblical.  The idea goes all the way back to Moses, who appointed others (laity) among the Israelites to judge between the cases being brought to him, so that he could do the work of leading.  Making disciples always takes a back seat when a Senior Pastor spends their times serving as a chaplain to a congregation.

     It is my dream that Christ will lead and call folks who have a heart for serving, and providing pastoral care, to step forward and be part of this ministry at Trinity UMC.  The folks at Trinity deserve to be cared for in every way possible and we all need to step up and care for our brothers and sisters who are experiencing a hard time.  What ministry is God calling you to do at Trinity UMC?  Let me urge you to pray about it and yield to His calling.

     Join me next time as we will turn our attention to weddings and funerals…..


Let’s Talk Worship

     It is a fairly safe assumption to say that most first-time visitors to Trinity UMC will come as “consumers.”  If they are considering becoming involved in a local church they will “shop” for a church the very same way they would shop for a dentist, a grocery store, or a restaurant.  For many unchurched and church folk alike the primary “product” they will be evaluating will be the worship service.

     Many of us at some point in our lives have visited worship services different from our own and felt totally lost in the service.  It is truly an uncomfortable experience in a service in which we have no idea what is going on.  This experience is in many ways a reflection of the experience most first-time visitors have in our services.

     A tremendous amount has been written recently about the changing expectations and needs of people regarding worship.  Today’s twenty-, thirty-, and forty-something’s according to this material are looking for worship they can understand and in which they experience truth, worship, and the presence of God.  We can no longer plan worship services with the single thought that “we have always done it that way.”  Reading litanies and singing hymns that speak only to the intellect – and then only if one is paying close attention – is not merely uninspiring to today’s generation of unchurched (and even many of our current members); it is downright irritating.

     One of the frustrations of traditional worship is the way in which it moves.  Most of our traditional worship begins with an opening hymn.  After we sing three verses, it’s time to shift gears (sometimes with a jolt) to the next item on the agenda (often a prayer, creed, or liturgy).  When this is over we shift gears again, nearly killing any flow that might have been present and transition to an anthem or another prayer.  Often the anthem is done really well but the worshipers do not understand the words, or they simply do not allow the anthem to carry them into the realm of God.  Then we shift gears again.

     Many folks enter our sanctuaries on Sunday morning carrying tremendous baggage.  There are spouses present who have just had a heated argument, children who are thinking about a fun Sunday afternoon outing, or those who just barely made it in time for the service who are exhausted.  None are ready or prepared to just jump into worship.

     With this in mind it seems imperative that we not torture these folks further with a difficult, confusing order of worship with poor transitions between its differing elements.  This is the reason that most really good contemporary services begin with three to six hymns or songs at the beginning of the service, designed to promote focus, spiritual centering, and genuine God-centered worship.  Taking time to help move people in worship and developing smooth transitions that link the elements of worship together are critical in offering excellent traditional, blended, or contemporary worship.

     It has been my experience that far too little thought goes into worship planning.  It is my opinion that worship planning should be a primary focus among staff and those directly involved in the service.  There needs to be an evaluation of each week’s service.  What went well?  What could have been done better?  What needs to be tweaked to make the service a more spiritual experience?

     Everything we do in worship deserves and should be done with as much perfection as possible.  Readers should be familiar with and able to read whatever they are reading.  Musicians should perform with excellence whatever they are contributing.  Choirs should be rehearsed and warmed up ready to sing to their highest abilities.  Clergy should be well prepared to deliver a Word from God in the clearest possible terms.

     As we consider our weekly worship services, how do you think the unchurched persons in their twenties, thirties, or forties describe Trinity UMC’s worship?  What are our weak points?  What are our strengths?  Do we even really understand the significance of the various symbols we use in worship?  Do we really understand the sacraments?  How would the average worshiper describe their experience as they leave our worship each Sunday?

     Join me next time as we talk about pastoral care within the church….


Expect Great Things!

     One of the common threads to emerge in the late-twentieth century from experts in church growth has been the that most mainline churches have a very low expectation from their present membership.  History has taught us that if one expects little they usually reach it.  The same is true with the church, if we expect little from the membership, they will perform very much in accordance to the church’s expectations.  To make matters worse, experts tell us that when a church has low expectations of their congregants there is generally a perception that the church is irrelevant or nonessential by their members.  Thus, it becomes very easy for existing members to drop-out or exit through the backdoor.

     When anyone joins the United Methodist Church they take a vow at the altar of the church stating that they will support the church with their “prayers, presence, gifts, and service.”  How many really take these vows seriously?  How many church leaders take these vows seriously when preparing people for membership?

     We are currently living in a time when the Tennessee Annual Conference is paying very close attention to numbers.  The Annual Conference, Districts, and local churches are making a much greater effort with statistics.  With this increased emphasis there are pastors who now go out and make a concerted effort to list new names to the church roster.  Does this fulfill the vows we took when we accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior?

     One of the first things I noticed and appreciated about Trinity UMC was the strength of the Sunday School program.  One doesn’t have to be at Trinity UMC long to find out that folks are passionate about their Sunday School class.  After visiting the adult Sunday School classes it became obvious why there are such strong feelings about these classes.  First, they are taught by excellent teachers who are truly dedicated and have a strong desire for their members to learn.  Second, these Sunday School classes don’t just meet for one hour as a prelude to something else, they also stay closely connected and spend quality time together outside of Sunday morning.  They function as a family unit and truly love and care for each other.  Church growth experts would call these classes “small groups” focused on discipling.  They would also say this is a great indicator of church health.

     So what is church membership?  What does the Bible teach about membership?  Jesus never spoke about membership.  Neither did the apostles.  When Jesus invited people to be his disciples he did not ask them to take a membership class and then he would determine if they were ready to become disciples.  He simply said, “Come and follow me.”  Even when Peter preached the first Christian sermon on the day of Pentecost his invitation was simple, yet profound.  “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

     Membership should be viewed as a tool that helps individuals move toward true Christian commitment.  We must help those who are nonreligious and nominally religious develop a growing desire to see themselves as Christians and to express a growing desire for being totally committed to Jesus Christ.

     Membership expectations should never be about strict requirements.  It also should never be viewed as being a requirement to participate in church activities.  New folks should be allowed to visit and participate for as long as they choose and be welcomed by all.  New folks should, however, be told up front that church membership has no privileges, only expectations.  I can assure you that I never look at the membership book prior to visiting anyone from the church that is in the hospital.  I also never look at the membership book prior to performing a wedding or funeral.  New folks are simply welcome to be a part of any or all of our programs and services.

     My dream for Trinity UMC is that we simply help people become deeply committed Christians.  Adam Hamilton, at Church of the Resurrection, says he asks folks to not join the church until they are prepared to make the following commitments:

  1. Attend worship every weekend unless you are sick or out of town.
  2. Participate in at least one activity each year aimed at helping you grow in your faith apart from worship attendance.
  3. Give of your time in Christian service at least once each year through the ministry of the church.
  4. Give financially in proportion to your income with the goal of tithing.

     It is vitally important that we have a clear understanding of the product we are aiming to produce at Trinity UMC.  In the Great Commission Jesus told us that we are to “go…and make disciples.”  If this is our goal, then we had better understand two things.  First, what does the finished product look like?  And what is the process of making a disciple?

     John Wesley answered this question by saying that Christians are those who love and serve God with their head, their heart, and their hands.  How do we answer those questions?  Do we have clear plans to help people grow in their faith?

     Join me next time as we talk about traditional worship…..


Follow-Up Strategies Continued

     Over the years I have witnessed many follow-up strategies churches have used to reach first time visitors.  Some of these work well and some do more harm than good.  It is my opinion that the leadership of the church must work, pray, and seek God’s guidance in how it reaches out to visitors.  In the end whatever the church settles on must be done with perfection.

     I remember serving a church one time that decided that it was going to deliver a homemade pie to all first-time visitors on the Sunday afternoon of their first visit.  Great idea right?  Who would not like to get a fresh baked pie just for attending church?  The problem came when those who were baking the pies realized that there was no way to know which Sunday’s they would have first-time visitors and which Sunday’s they would not.  Their answer was to bake the pies and freeze them so there would be pies available on any given Sunday.  As it turned out there were times when the pies that were delivered had been in the freezer for a long time.

     Once while delivering one of these pies to a first-time visitor I was told to take the pie back with me to the church.  I asked why and they said, “we will be glad to become regular at your church as long as we do not have to take one of those frozen pies.”  The point is that whatever we do we want to present a positive response and a memorable experience.  We never want to offend those we are trying to entice.

     From that experience we entered into a serious time of soul-searching and changed our tactics.  Ultimately we decided that even if the pies had been freshly baked the day they were delivered that after they had been eaten there would be nothing to remind those folks of the visit to our church.  Thus, we decided to purchase ceramic coffee mugs with the church’s logo on them with the message, “You’ve been mugged at . . .”   Most everyone appreciates an item they can use and the church’s logo is there reminding them of their experience each time they use it.

     It is also very important that the church, either during the first-time visit, or on the first contact the church has with them after that first visit, that all pertinent information be attained so that the first-time visitor can be placed on all church mailing lists.  It is through the church newsletter that new prospects will readily have before them all activities of the church to plan their next visit.

     It is also very important that established members of the church make an effort to contact new folks and invite them into small groups to which they are a part.  Most folks would quickly argue that their particular church was a friendly, welcoming church.  Reality is that many times folks come into our churches and are never even spoken to by anyone other than perhaps a greeter or the pastor.  It is such a blessing to see a large number of folks at Trinity UMC who make a point to see new faces and then make a effort to introduce and get to know new folks.

     There are two final points I would like to make about follow-up with first-time visitors.  If you have ever been involved in sales you already know that the best salespeople are those who develop a relationship with their potential customers and who follow-up with these prospects after an initial contact.  It is my opinion that every member of Trinity UMC is in sales.  Each of us is trying to persuade people of their need for Christ and for the ministry offer by Trinity UMC.  What we are really offering is eternal life.  We truly believe God genuinely cares about our visitors, and that their lives would be radically changed for the good by being at Trinity UMC.

     With this said it is my expectation that all our members be involved in timely methods for reaching out to first-time visitors.  We can promote that which we believe to be superb.  We are not going to catch many fish (fisher’s of souls) if we constantly talk down things happening at Trinity UMC.  We will have much better success when we look for the best of Trinity UMC and get that message out.

     There is no doubt that Trinity UMC is the best kept secret in Murfreesboro and within the Tennessee Annual Conference.  Let’s get that message out there!!!

     Join me next time as we learn about “great expectations”…


Following-Up With Visitors

     Last time we looked at some strategies to get our name out and some ways in which we might invite folks to join us at Trinity UMC.    We also talked about the need for us to pay close attention to details so that our building, programs and our membership work together to present an image to our neighbors that makes us welcoming.  In this blog I would like us to consider some of the ways in which we can adequately follow-up with those who visit us for the first time.

     Almost every church has the occasional first-time visitor.  Every time a person walks through our doors for the first time Trinity UMC is presented with an opportunity that is unique.  The first-time visitor or family has taken the time to worship with us for some reason.  More than likely that first-time visitor has a need that they are wondering if we can satisfy.  It is fairly certain that if a person is visiting Trinity UMC for the first-time that they more than likely do not have a home church.  If they were already involved in a church it is likely they would not be visiting with us.  This means that there is a fairly good chance that this is a person that Jesus intends to reach through Trinity UMC.  The question thus becomes what kind of follow-up will we do to encourage these folks to come back?

     My dream is that each time someone new walks through our doors that we will treat these folks as if they are unchurched, and that we treat them in such a way that they will never want to be anywhere else and will become a part of our family.  Last summer when I was doing the “home meetings” I was told over and over about how individuals visited Trinity UMC and was so loved by the membership that they simply could not leave after the first visit.  Wow!  What a testimony that is to the health of Trinity UMC.

     According to Barna Research Group this is the way unchurched folks become churched.  47% of folks who join the church do so because a friend invited them to attend with them.  27% join a church because the pastor or a church member visit and tell them about the church.  24% joined a church because someone from the church called them on the phone and told them about the church and invited them to attend.  21% join a church because someone from the church stopped by for a visit and a survey.  18% joined a church because the church had a significant online presence.  18% join a church because of a newspaper ad or TV ad they saw.  16% joined a church because of receiving a mailing from the church.  14% joined a church because of a billboard advertisement within the community.

     Clearly one can see that by far the most effective evangelism a church can do is to encourage current members to invite their friends to attend with them.  This we talked about when we talked about being backyard missionaries.  It should not stretch our imaginations to know that we must do a great job following up with folks who visit Trinity UMC.  So let’s take a look at some ways we can follow up with those who come through our doors.

     One of the very first things we have to do is to make sure that we get the name and address of first-time visitors.  In order for any church to have an effective follow-up with visitors we must acquire the person’s name, address and phone number.  Just this morning a church leader from Trinity UMC and I were discussing a lady who had attended last Sunday.  The church member greeted the visitor and ask them to make sure they filled out the attendance sheet with their information.  On Monday morning there was a name on the attendance sheet but no further information.  It is impossible to follow-up without any pertinent information!

     Presently at Trinity UMC the ushers place the pew pads at the end of the aisles and leave it to chance whether they get passed during the service; too often they do not get passed and we miss out on folks signing the pads and even our regular members often fail to sign the sheets.  Perhaps it might be more prudent if we passed the attendance pads in the same manner as we do the offering with me or someone else making a statement urging the importance of signing the sheets.   Most churches do a pretty poor job of collecting attendance and this is sad since our Annual Conference is using this information to determine the health of the congregation.  It stresses the fact that we need to be better stewards of tracking the lives God has given us care of.

     Join me next time as we look at other ways in which we might do follow-up with our visitors…