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Karl Vaters

Karl Vaters

Pivot is a Christianity Today blog by pastor and author Karl Vaters. He writes about church health and innovative leadership from the perspective of small church.
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Watching someone else build on the foundation you've helped establish may be the most fulfilling part of life and ministry.One year ago this month, I stopped being the lead pastor of our church.Not because I was done, but because it was the right time.Truth be told, I still want to be the lead pastor. At the age of 59, (58 when we made the transition) I’m not too old. I still have the passion, the heart and more than a few important things to say.But I stepped down anyway.Earlier than I thought I would. By maybe a decade. But it happened just when it was supposed to happen.This weekend our church will celebrate the one year anniversary of that transition. So, as I think about all that’s happened over the last 12 months, here are 7 reasons we knew it was the right time for a pastoral transition.1. The Church Is StrongThe reason most pastoral transitions are so dangerous is that we don’t even consider doing it until there’s a problem – usually an avalanche of problems.It’s hard for a church to change its leadership. It’s even harder when the church is already in crisis.Over the 26 years I’ve been at Cornerstone, we’ve learned to look around when things are good and ask, “how can we use this time of strength and health to make the necessary changes?”2. There’s Someone Else Capable Of LeadingToo many churches lose their best people because they’re unwilling to let them operate in their greatest area of strength.Weak leaders are intimidated by strong leaders. Strong leaders make way for other strong leaders.If you look around your church and you see someone else who’s capable of doing your job, don’t be afraid, be happy. You haven’t failed, you’ve succeeded.That doesn’t mean they’ll take your position (or, as in our case, you’ll ...Continue reading...
A word of encouragement to everyone who's felt criticized or left behind when others move on to something new, cool or cutting edge.Recently I heard a pastor say two words that hit me like a punch to the gut.I was watching him in a short online video teaching clip, when he referenced an article he’d read on a blog a couple years ago.Before talking about the content of the article, he off-handedly quipped, “remember blogs?”Remember blogs.He said it as though he was talking about rotary phones, black-and-white TVs, or cars before seatbelts.As far as he and his young audience were concerned, blogs were a thing of the past – something that everyone has moved on from for something newer and better.Life Moves FastRemember blogs?Of course I remember blogs. I’m still writing one. I feel like I’m still in the first few learning-curve years of writing this blog.So here I am, thinking I’m … not exactly on the cutting edge, but certainly near the front of the mainstream of modern communication by writing a blog … meanwhile another pastor is referencing blogging as so old-fashioned that he feels the need to remind his listeners of the bygone days when he used to write one.To the best of my knowledge (thanks to a quick Google search) the last time this pastor wrote a blog post was in 2011. Since then, he’s switched most of his online presence to the short-clip teaching videos I was watching him on.In other words, this pastor was moving on to a new way of communicating a full two years before I was discovering his old way of communicating.Ugh.Just when I think I’m catching on to what’s happening today, two simple words trip me up and make me feel old, slow and stupid again.Sometimes it’s the smallest things that can catch us off-guard and make us question ourselves.Continue reading...
Numbers are not the only way to measure church health and effectiveness, especially in smaller churches.There are healthy churches of all sizes.In recent years there’s been a renewed emphasis on defining health numerically. But that’s not the only way to measure church health and effectiveness.In my previous article, Effective Small Church Metrics: Why Average Results Aren’t Typical Results, we saw that statistics, surveys and comparative metrics are not as helpful in assessing small church health as they are in assessing big church health.So, what’s a small church to do?Today, we’ll take a look at 8 helpful ways to assess the health and effectiveness of a church without using numbers.1. Ask “What Should We Be Doing And How Well Are We Doing It?”Jesus gave us the Great Commandment and Great Commission. That is the mission of every church. But the way one church is called to do that is going to be different than the way another church is called to do that.Every leader of every church needs to know how their church is fulfilling the Great Commandment and Great Commission within their context.We must constantly assess the health and effectiveness of the congregation based on the following questions: Are we a worshipping church? A loving church? An evangelistic church? A compassionate church? A discipling church?But, without a numerical component, how do we assess how well we’re doing those things? That’s what points 2-7 address.2. Talk To The People In The ChurchIn the 1980s, Ed Koch, the mayor of New York City, was famous for walking through the streets of Manhattan, asking everyday citizens “how am I doing?”As you can imagine, he didn’t always hear the answers he wanted, but the fact that he kept asking the question is an important lesson for all leaders. ...Continue reading...
Statistics, surveys and comparative metrics are not as helpful in assessing small church health as they are in assessing big church health.One of the challenges of pastoring in a small church is that there’s nothing typical (or normal) about anything we do.Our schedule, our skill-set, our facilities (or lack of), our staff (or lack of), our salary (or… you get the idea…). None of it is typical.Our friends and colleagues in big churches are able to collect information, assess data and find numbers that help them understand what a healthy church looks like statistically, but those metrics fall apart as churches get smaller.Here’s why.The Big/Small DifferenceImagine that a collection of large churches sends in their data for assessment. It might be discovered that they have 35-45 percent of their offerings going to salaries, and 50-60 percent of their weekend worshippers involved in small groups on average. If so, almost all the healthy churches surveyed might fall within those parameters, and if they’re outside them, it will only be by a percentage or two. If they’re WAY outside them? That’s a sign of imbalance and ill-health.In healthy big churches, average numbers will be typical numbers.On the other hand, if you collected the data from a bunch of small churches, the averages might show 50-60 percent of their offerings going to salaries and 30-40 percent of their weekend worshippers involved in small groups. (These numbers are used as examples, not based on actual satistics). But that won’t tell you what a typical healthy small church looks like.Instead of most of the small healthy churches landing within those narrow ranges, as we saw in bigger churches, healthy small church percentages will land all over a much wider range.Healthy small churches can have a pastoral salary range from zero percent to 80 percent ...Continue reading...
As the church growth movement enters middle age, it's time to ask some tough, but fair and necessary questions.Recently, I've had several conversations with friends who teach church growth principles. Several of them have asked me some version of the question in the title of this article.“Why is there so much more pushback against church growth principles lately?”I’m noticing it, too.More church leaders are asking hard questions about the church growth movement. And this time it's not just the usual cynics, it's leaders who previously would have – or did – embrace those principles with open arms.This is not because there’s something inherently wrong with the church growth movement, but because it’s been around long enough to see, not just the short-term successes, but the long-term challenges as well.Acknowledging Real-World ProblemsEvery set of principles should be able to stand up to scrutiny, so these new questions should not be seen as a problem, but as an opportunity to learn more about such an important aspect of church life and leadership.For several decades now, the burgeoning field of church growth has relied on learning new ideas, testing them in real-world situations, then promoting the success stories.But as church growth principles come to the half-century mark, they’ve been around long enough to see a sizable number of stories on the other side of the ledger, too – churches for whom church growth principles not only didn’t work, but seemed to create more problems than they solved.This shouldn’t surprise or upset us.After all, facts are our friends. And if those facts are now exposing some previously unseen problems, we need to explore them with eyes wide open. Or we’ll never be able to fix them.Unintended ConsequencesHere’s why ...Continue reading...
As a small church pastor, I have to keep these two tasks in balance – preaching to the congregation, and spending time with members.Preaching is one of the most important responsibilities of the pastor in a small church context.It’s important, not just because it is the most visible function of a pastor, but because it is one of the primary tools for discipleship.As pastors, our primary job is making disciples (Ephesians 4:11-12). And in the Great Commission, Jesus told us that “teaching them” is one way to do that. So the time we have behind the pulpit is the most consistent tool we have to inform, inspire, and equip disciples.Like many pastors, I have found that an annual preaching calendar helps me to prepare a consistent spiritual diet for our congregation. In order to present a well-balanced approach to discipleship from the pulpit, I assign my sermons series for the year into one of four categories: Theological (who God is) Doctrinal (what we believe) Practical (Christian living) Cultural (what is happening around us that is on everyone’s mind)Each year, I try to do 2-3 series from each of these categories.Applying these filters allows me to keep track of what I’m communicating and how I’m discipling from the pulpit.(Today’s article is written by a fellow small church pastor, Jeff Hamilton of Hills Church, Laguna Niguel CA (hillschurchoc.com). When he told me how he organizes his preaching schedule, I thought it might benefit others. - Karl Vaters)Organizing For EffectivenessHaving considered these factors, I begin to plug the sermon series ideas into the calendar (I use a spreadsheet).Then I assign each sermon or series a category: theological, doctrinal, practical, or cultural. This helps me see if I have similarly-purposed series grouped too closely together.This list then goes to my ministry team for their ...Continue reading...
The church has never found unity through sameness, but by celebrating how Christ uses the gifts of different parts of his one body.There are two churches in America. The church inside the Bible Belt and the church outside the Bible Belt.The ones inside the Bible Belt often look at the ones outside as compromised and soft on sin because of their rejection of long-held traditions.Meanwhile, those outside the Bible Belt often look at those inside as behind the times and irrelevant because of their insistence on long-held traditions.Neither side is seeing the other one accurately – or kindly.Is This The Biggest Unaddressed Schism In Christian America?Over the past several years I’ve had the chance to travel to every region of the country, spending time with pastors and church leaders from almost every denomination and tradition. Fresh startups, fundamentalist Baptists, Mainline, Pentecostal, rural, urban, suburban, ethnic, non english-speaking, messianic... you name it.But the most noticeable differences I’ve seen have not been the ones I was expecting.While the theological, ethnic and political schisms are real and problematic, perhaps the biggest rift in the American church is between those inside the Bible Belt and those outside it. In fact, that division is often the driving factor that makes those other schisms more severe.I don’t have a lot of answers for overcoming this division, but I think we need to be more aware of it if we hope to address it.Here’s what I’ve been seeing.(One quick note: The Bible Belt is typically defined geographically, with the greatest concentration being in the southern and some midwestern states. Northeast and western states are considered to be outside the traditional Bible Belt. But every state and every big city has Bible Belt churches and non Bible Belt churches. It’s often ...Continue reading...
A plea to my fellow pastors: The body of Christ wants you healthy and whole more than we need you to perform numerically.There’s something very sad and scary about the way too many pastors are leaving the ministry lately.It’s never been unusual to hear about pastors dropping out of full-time ministry when the demands of the calling are different from their expectations. Especially in the early years of ministry.That’s nothing new. Pastoring is definitely not for everyone.What is different lately is how many long-time pastors are burning out (from exhaustion and stress), flaming out (from hidden sins catching up with them), or even making the horrific choice of opting out permanently (from suicide).Of course, just one pastor going through any of that is too much – or any person, of course. But recently, it seems like barely a week goes by without hearing another sad report of lives ruined, families torn apart, and churches devastated.Bigger Fixes NothingWhat’s also notable is that these pastors are as likely to be from a large, vibrant and growing church as a small, struggling and shrinking church.Despite all the expectations we put on it, church growth is not necessarily a reflection of congregational or pastoral health.Church growth may not have caused any of those problems, but it didn’t fix them either.To be fair, I don’t know of a single church growth proponent who even hints at such a correlation – in fact, they regularly caution about the need for a solid emotional, spiritual, moral and theological foundation.But there’s a perception among many of my peers in ministry that church growth will solve a lot of our problems.Asking Too Much Of Church GrowthNo one dares to say it out loud, but for many of my small church peers there’s an unspoken, underlying expectation that a bigger ...Continue reading...
When we require the promise of numerical increase to motivate us to behave biblically, something is wrong.If a church wants to break growth barriers, here are some of the principles pastors need to follow: Equip church members to do ministry, not just have ministry done for them Train the people you have to reach out to the people you don’t have Be friendly and welcoming to your guests Preach in a way that is clear, biblical and action-oriented Simplify your ministries and your discipleship process so they’re easy to understand and follow Have a clear understanding of what your church is called to do – then do itWhy Does That List Look So Familiar?On the other hand, if you want a church to be healthy, missional and effective, whether-or-not you break growth barriers, what do you need to do?The same list.Why do we need the incentive of numerical increase to inspire us to lead our churches according to sound biblical principles?Shouldn’t we all be leading our congregations to be healthy, loving, Bible-believing and evangelistic simply out of obedience to God’s Word?When we require the promise of numerical increase to motivate us to behave biblically, something is wrong.Faithfulness FirstA healthy church always contributes to the growth of Christ’s kingdom, even if they don’t experience numerical congregational increase from week to week.That should be enough incentive for us to break bad habits, establish new ones, keep learning how to pastor better, and continue equipping church members to live more worshipfully, compassionately and evangelistically.If a church growth book, conference, podcast or blog can remind us of the need to keep applying healthy church principles, I’m grateful.But as we mature in our faith and in our leadership, breaking attendance records should matter less, faithfulness ...Continue reading...
History has regularly shown us that any time we equate bigger with better in the kingdom of God, it leads to problems. Big problems.Bigger churches aren’t necessarily better. Smaller churches aren’t necessarily broken, stuck or ineffective.Effective churches exist in all shapes and sizes. Including churches that haven’t grown numerically in a while.But the myths persist. Especially the myth that if a church is healthy it will get bigger. And the corresponding myth that if a church isn’t getting bigger it’s either a problem to be fixed (at best) or it’s beyond fixing and needs to be closed.It doesn’t matter if there’s other evidence of health outside the numbers. For too many of us, church size is the primary (or only) factor in determining the health and value of a local congregation.This thinking is not just mistaken, it’s dangerous. History has regularly shown us that any time we equate bigger with better in the kingdom of God, it leads to problems. Big problems.Today, there are a handful of unintended consequences that result from the almost universal and seldom questioned assumption that church growth always means bigger churches.Here are just a few.1. It Blinds Us To Bigger IssuesImagine a town in which there are 50 small churches with 5,000 attendees – an average of 100 people per church, with the biggest church at 500 people.Then imagine that the church of 500 starts exploding with growth. Before long, they have 2,000 people attending.Great news right? Maybe. Maybe not.What if, while that church was booming, the total attendance in all churches in town dropped from 5,000 to 4,500?That’s not church growth. That’s a problem. Now, the problem may not have been caused by the growing church, but we’re likely to be so enamored with the explosive growth of one congregation ...Continue reading...
When I'm pushing for numerical growth, I minister differently than when I'm caring for people. And not in a good way.When it comes to pastoral ministry, I've discovered an interesting (and sometimes frustrating) paradox.The more I care for people, the less concern I have for increasing the size of the crowd – while the more I work to increase the size of the crowd, the less caring my ministry becomes.Does anyone else in pastoral ministry find that to be true for you?Living In Numerical Growth ModeThis isn’t about scaling for numerical growth. It’s about how we behave when we’re doing ministry to care for people compared to how we behave when we’re pushing to get the size of the crowds up.We’ve convinced ourselves that any pastor can do both. In fact, we’ve been told that if we really care for people we will inevitably see an increase in the size of the crowd.To those who have been able to do that, I say “way to go!”Seriously, if you‘ve seen a significant increase in the size of your church crowd without compromising your message and methods, you have my full admiration and respect.But I have never been able to pull that off.When I’m caring for people, I preach, teach, disciple, manage and minister a certain way. When I’m pushing for numerical growth, I preach, teach, disciple, manage and minister an entirely different way. And it’s not better a better way.In fact, I don’t like myself when I’m in numerical growth mode.Keeping Our IntegrityEven when it comes to writing this blog, when I concentrate on writing the best, most helpful content for readers, I write one way. But when I’m trying to get the number of page views up, I write differently.It’s more trendy, more controversial, more fleeting and more confrontational. But it’s ...Continue reading...
How long should a sermon be? As long as it needs to be.People don’t hate long sermons.They hate boring sermons. Irrelevant sermons. Impractical sermons. Uninspiring sermons. Unprepared sermons. Over-prepared sermons… You get the idea.A bad sermon can’t be short enough, but an engaging sermon can go longer than you think.However, before you let your next sermon drone on and on, make sure it’s everything it needs to be.A Tale Of Two SermonsRecently, I heard two sermons that went well over 45 minutes each. Both were good. They had great content and I was moved by them.One of them, while good, would have been even better with some editing. The speaker could have dropped up to 50 percent of it and a very good sermon could have been a great one. The other sermon, though long, felt rushed. It could have gone 10-15 minutes longer and no one in the room would have complained.The issue wasn’t the length, or even the quality of the sermons, but the fit. One sermon was the right fit for the content and left us wanting more, while the other was too long for the content and left us wanting less.A better question than “what’s the right length for a sermon?” is “what’s the right length for this sermon?” or “what length of time will help it do everything it needs to do in the best possible way?”Make Room For What Needs To Be SaidToo often, we limit what we can do with a sermon by the format of the church service.Why not give the sermon the time it needs by putting a little wiggle room in our Sunday service format?Got a short sermon? Let the worship go longer. Got a long sermon? Maybe get to it earlier in the service than you usually would so the worship and announcements don’t crowd it out.People have longer ...Continue reading...
If your church is small and your budget is non-existent, new technology may seem out of reach. But it's not.We are living more of our lives online than ever before. And our online time will increase for some time before it levels off.While there are certainly a lot of downsides to this, there are also huge upsides that every church can take advantage of. With people spending an average of five hours a day on their mobile devices, technology is a helpful tool for churches as they fulfill their mission within their communities.If your church is small and your budget is non-existent, new technology may seem out of reach. But it’s not. There are a lot of great apps and websites available to help churches without spending a penny.Here are a few:WordPressYour church needs a website. It’s your most important tool for promoting your ministry. Your Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts are important, but none of them matter nearly as much as your website.As far as potential church members are concerned, if you don’t have a website, your church doesn’t exist. There are a lot of website companies that do great work for a fee. But what if your church has literally no budget for it?WordPress is your answer.Through WordPress.com, anyone can choose from a wide array of templates and set up a website surprisingly easily. Unfortunately, in exchange for WordPress making the site setup process easy, your website will be www.YourChurchName.WordPress.com.To get rid of having WordPress in your URL, use Wordpress.org. Through them, you can set up a URL that’s simply www.YourChurchName.com (or .church, .org, and so on).The downside of WordPress.org is that while it is technically free, you need to go elsewere to buy your domain name (about $10 a year) and host your site (about $4 a month). Plus, it’s not as easy ...Continue reading...
Small church ministry isn't about following trends, it's about knowing people.In a couple recent articles, I wrote about current trends in church worship music. (You can read them here and here.)If you worship or serve in a smaller church, you may have read those articles and shrugged, or maybe you saw the titles and didn’t even bother to read them.I don’t blame you.While our brothers and sisters in bigger churches look for trends, compare notes and learn from the latest innovations, small churches usually let those trends pass us by without a ripple.It’s not because small churches don’t care, it’s because current trends almost never apply in smaller churches the way they do in bigger ones.Here’s why.The Unique DNA Of The Small ChurchThe smaller the church is, the more unique their DNA is.Especially in a church of 75 or fewer (that’s over half the churches), the mix of personalities makes every church a unique place.The bigger the church becomes, the less each individual personality affects the whole, so it becomes more helpful to know the latest trends. Not necessarily to keep up with them, but to have the ability to speak into them.But when a church is small, it isn’t nearly as important to know the latest trends as it is to know the individual people in your congregation and your surrounding neighborhood. To know their needs, their histories, their strengths, their personalities and their relationship with Jesus (or lack of).Knowing People, Not TrendsIf you pastor a church of 50 in an agricultural community, you don’t need to use the latest social media app. If you oversee a small denominational church in a once thriving, but now dying inner city, you don’t need to study blogs about the latest church trends.In both situations, you need ...Continue reading...
An encouragement to widen our musical tastes, expand our emotional range, renew our melodic emphasis, and incorporate other artistic expressions.In the last few years there have been a lot of articles written about what’s wrong with worship music, and how to make it better. So many that they've been labeled the Worship Wars. This isn’t about that.Instead, I want to suggest four trends that are not happening in most churches that I think we’re ready for. And if we aren’t ready, we need to get ready.The starting point for these potential trends is not what’s wrong with Christian music, but taking the positives (as seen in my previous article, 5 Positive Trends In Today's Worship Music) and building on them.1. Let’s Incorporate More Musical Styles – Especially Across Ethnic And Racial BoundariesDespite the massive number of new songs being written, what’s missing is the spice, the soul … the variety.Virtually the entire list of the most popular worship songs are from the soft-color palette of 4-chord, middle-of-the-road soft rock, in 4/4 time, following the template of verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus.There are a lot of great songs being written within that format, but there are so many other options that we’re not opening ourselves up to.We need a broader range of musical styles to make their way into the mainstream of church culture. We need more soul, more salsa, more funk, more bluegrass, more country, more … color.It’s all a little too beige right now.I’m not nostalgic for the good old days in any way at all. But here’s one trend from my childhood that I’d like to see make a comeback.In the 1960s and 70s it was normal to sing songs from various racial and ethnic backgrounds all in one service. Many Sundays we’d start with an upbeat song from soul artists ...Continue reading...
Not all current worship trends are positive, but there are far more good ones than negative ones.It’s easy to criticize today’s worship music. Too easy.“It’s repetitive!” “It’s too loud!” “It’s theologically shallow!” “And it’s repetitive!”Similar criticisms have been made for every generation of new music. When harmony was brought in, when instruments were brought in, when hymnbooks were brought in… Everything we love about worship music was criticized when it was new. (Click here for a quick history of some of these criticisms.)But every new era of worship music also brings some great developments, too. This era is no exception.Here are some of the wonderful trends I see happening.(This is the first of a two-part series. Click here to read my follow-up article, 4 Positive Trends That Could Make Today's Worship Music Even Better.)1. A LOT Of Songs Are Being WrittenIf you don’t like the newest song your church is singing, wait a week. There will be another new one coming along. This excess of new songs is something that many in my generation (Baby Boomers and older) tend to be very critical of, but I believe it’s a positive step.Every generation needs to write their own worship songs. And this generation is taking advantage of that opportunity.The flood of new music may feel overwhelming and confusing to some, but the potential confusion is overwhelmed by the amazing array of choices.More music may mean more mediocre songs, but it opens the door for more good ones too, since it acts as an encouragement to other songwriters who might not otherwise offer their gift to the church.2. Younger Generations Have A Voice In The ChurchJust as the best books tend to be written by older people, the best music tends to be written ...Continue reading...
Simple steps to help you prepare better, preach stronger and have a greater impact.One of the greatest challenges of pastoring is coming up with something fresh to say to the same people week after week.As a pastor, I’ve been preaching for over 30 years. Over 4,000 messages. For many years I would regularly run out of things to say – or, more accurately, new ways to reinforce the same foundational truths - but Sunday was coming whether I was ready or not.If you’re a preaching/teaching pastor, you know the Saturday Night Dread. The “what am I going to say this week that they haven’t all heard 100 times before?” panic.It still happens to me occasionally, but it doesn’t happen as much as it used to, because over the last three decades I’ve learned a few tools that reduce the pressure and make Preacher’s Block a little less frequent.What To Talk About?The main issue in Preacher’s Block is coming up with a subject. An idea valid enough to be worth saying, but fresh enough to keep people’s interest.That’s easy when the audience is new. Or when you’re new to them. But when you’ve been at the same church for years, even decades, you can’t keep saying what you’ve said before – even (especially) if you’re reinforcing the same foundational Bible principles you’ve taught dozens of times.Over the decades I’ve discovered a handful of tools that help in this task. They’re not the “right” way to preach and/or prepare. They’re some tools that work for me. And maybe they’ll help you, too.1. Preach In A SeriesYeah, I know. This is not exactly a new idea. But of all the ways to reduce the “what am I going to preach about?” panic, this is the best one, by far.By preaching ...Continue reading...
Good leaders never make their decisions based on personal preference. They make decisions based on the mission.Good leaders have strong opinions.And they should.But our decisions should be guided by the mission, not by our opinions.This is especially true in church leadership. The importance of Christ’s mission should be communicated in everything we do and say. Including in subtle cues that often remain under the surface.The Importance Of Saying “No”One of the most important aspects of leadership is the courage to recognize and stop bad ideas so that better ideas can thrive. Saying “no” is hard. If it’s done badly it can lower a team’s morale, and even lose good people.But it must be done. So it’s essential that we learn how to do it well.Unfortunately, one of the easiest and most common ways we express our disagreement with a new idea is also one of the worse.Saying “I don’t like that” is one of the fastest ways to kill innovation and stifle a church’s mission – especially when it’s said by the person in the lead position. In a church, that’s usually the pastor.Here are five reasons “I don’t like that” (or something similar) should be banished from the vocabulary of every leader.Saying “I don’t like that”...1. …makes it more about the leader than the missionGood leaders never make their decisions based on personal preference. They make decisions based on the mission. “What are we trying to do and how well will this idea get us there?” is all that matters.The reason we don’t like something may, in fact, be because it doesn’t move the mission forward. If so, we need to say it that way. When we phrase our disagreement as if it’s a personal preference, we subtly divert the ...Continue reading...
While it may seem counterintuitive, thinking bigger and on a longer timeline is often a better way to get things done.You won’t succeed at your New Years resolutions this year.Sorry for the bad news, but it's highly unlikely, statistically speaking.But here’s what you can do. You can start.Want to write a book? Start writing every day.Lose weight? Start a healthier lifestyle.Grow in your faith? Start a purposeful discipleship process.Bigger Goals, Longer TimelineIt’s been said that we overestimate what we can accomplish in one year, but underestimate what we can accomplish in five years.I have found this to be overwhelmingly true.This may be one of the main reasons New Year’s resolutions fail. By trying to get something of lasting significance done in a year, we’re trying to accomplish too much in too short a time. So when we hit a snag or two (as we always will), we see the dream fading away and we give up.The Complexity Of AccomplishmentFor instance, imagine your goal is to lose a certain amount of weight this year (probably the most common New Year’s resolution – at least in the USA).To do so, the gyms of America will be packed on January 1. But by the end of the first week, they'll be much less packed. And by the end of the month? Back to December levels.Why such a sudden drop-off? Because we're trying to do too much too soon.The discipline required to lose weight is multi-faceted. It requires a stunning combination of factors, from finding inspiring long-term motivation, to landing on the right eating plan, to establishing a workout regimen that fits your lifestyle and interests, to finding friends and/or a coach who will provide the right mix of motivation, encouragement and knowledge. And so much more.Take The Time To Do It RightImagine, instead of saying "I'm going to ...Continue reading...
In a smaller church, we can't equip others to do hands-on ministry unless we're hands-on ourselves.If you want a church to grow, you need to become less of a hands-on pastor.That’s what I’m constantly told. But it’s not entirely true. At least not for most congregations of a typical size.The go-to Bible passage most church leaders use for this idea is the story of Moses and his father-in-law, Jethro in Exodus 18.When Jethro saw how much time Moses spent judging every petty dispute among as many as 2 million ex-slaves, he suggested a system of under-shepherds for groups of 10, 50, 100 and 1,000. This way, only the most difficult cases came to Moses.That’s a wonderful model for leading massive groups, which is why Moses adopted it and the Bible tells us about it. Churches of 500, 5,000 or 50,000 can practically cut-and-paste Jethro’s method onto their church leadership template.But Jethro would not have suggested that model if Moses had been leading 50-100 people – as in the average church size.One of the reasons we know that is because Jesus never suggested any version of Jethro’s model for the early church. Neither did Paul or any of the early church leaders.Equipping and Delegating Requires More Hands-On, Not LessEvery pastor needs to delegate the work of the church to as many people as possible, no matter what size the church is.It’s a vital element in developing a healthy church and discipling the congregation. And it’s something that most small church pastors admit we aren’t doing as well as we could – certainly not as well as we’d like to.But when you’re pastoring a small church, the Jethro model, while helpful, requires some serious adaptations. And those adaptations are not easy to come by.Moses was a shepherd. That was his heart and ...Continue reading...
Church growth principles are important, but we need to know what great small churches look like, too.Most church leadership principles focus on how to prepare your church for numerical growth.That’s an important aspect of leading a church, for sure. One I want to learn more about.But it’s just one aspect of church leadership. It shouldn’t be the entire menu.We can’t teach church growth principles at the expense of another set of principles that will be even more important for most churches – how to be a great church while we’re small.There’s A Lot Of Small Out ThereMost churches in the world are small. Always have been. Always will be.As many as 90 percent of churches are under 200, and 80 percent are under 100. (In America it’s closer to 65% under 100 – still a huge number.)These stats are true in places where the church is in revival and where it is in decline. Whether healthy or sick, successful or failing, effective or anemic, most churches have been, are, and will be small congregations.Small churches also dominate the landscape in places where church growth principles are known, taught and practiced. Many of those small churches have sought, studied and used those principles to try to grow numerically, but have been unsuccessful at doing so.What do they do then?That’s why we need to teach church leaders not just how to grow numerically, but what to do if the church gets healthy, strong and missional, but still doesn’t grow numerically.(Yes, that happens. A lot.)Unfortunately, we’re not teaching that aspect of church leadership very well.More Options Than Grow Or Die“Grow or die” seems to be the only message a lot of church leaders are hearing. So when the expected, anticipated, supposedly inevitable numerical results don’t come, ...Continue reading...
Money touches everything we do, but most pastors haven't been taught as much about it as we should have been.Most pastors get a lot of training before we go into full-time ministry. We learn about theology, preaching, counseling and more.But the one aspect of ministry that most of us get the least amount of teaching on is one that touches everything we do. Money.Because of this, most pastors learn about church finances the hard way – by making mistakes as we go along.In a recent article, I wrote about 5 Church Budgeting Lessons I Learned The Hard Way. Here are 4 more lessons I’ve learned the hard way about church finances:1. Trust, But VerifyI don’t want to minister in a church in which people don’t trust each other. And I refuse to work with leaders I can’t trust.But trusting each other doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put proper financial checks and balances in place.For instance, from the moment the offering is received until it is deposited into the bank (or into a sealed bank envelope) no one should be alone with the money.Not only does this make theft and mishandling less likely, it also reduces the likelihood that innocent people will be accused of impropriety.Also, if you have an in-house person do the bookkeeping, have a qualified person outside their congregation take a look at the books at least once a year. This keeps the records clean and stops potential problems from being overlooked.And no, this doesn’t have to cost too much (or any) money. If you’re in a denomination, ask someone in their finance department to go over the books for you. If not, ask the pastor at another church in town if their treasurer or in-house bookkeeper can give your books the once-over. You might be surprised at their willingness to help out.How I Learned The Hard WayOn two occasions, we’ve ...Continue reading...
Small churches can teach us lessons about ministry that can help us lead better in any context.Small companies are fueled by passion, innovation and risk-taking. Small churches should be, too.As companies get bigger, passion is often replaced by profits, innovation by budgets, and creativity by quality control. Big companies tend to take fewer risks because they have too much to lose.Unfortunately, small churches don’t have the same reputation that small businesses have. Instead of being a nexus of passion, innovation and risk-taking, we try to behave more like we're big companies - or big churches. But without the resources.When we should be at our most innovative, creative and risk-taking, we tend to play it safe.Safe is boring. Safe is static. Safe … isn’t.The Opportunities Of SmallnessIf you are pastoring a small church, I want to encourage and challenge you with one simple plea: don’t spend so much time trying to become big that you miss what you can only learn when you’re small.Instead of seeing our size as a problem, small churches need to see their size as the opportunity it is.Whether a start-up church, a niche church, or a shrinking congregation, we need to take advantage of our small size, not fight against it.Emphasize relationships over systems, passion over process, and creativity over consistency.How Big And Small Are DifferentFor instance, when you’re on staff at a big church, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that paying for a new program means writing out a check request form. Or that recruiting volunteers is as easy as putting out a signup sheet.When you minister in a small church, you get to learn other lessons.If you want to launch a new program you learn how to raise the funds yourself. And because you have to do that, you become better at ...Continue reading...
Money isn't the goal of ministry. But it is a tool – and an important one.Some lessons come easy. Some lessons come hard.For many, maybe most of us, the practical financial lessons of ministry often come hard. We learn by doing – and by making mistakes. I wish I was the exception to that rule, but I’m not.Over the years I’ve made more than my share of money mistakes while overseeing a church budget. But I’ve learned not to repeat them.Here are 5 hard-earned lessons about annual budgeting in a church, including the mistakes I made that taught me each principle:1. Don’t Spend More Money Than You Bring InThis is so important, I’ve called it Job One of biblical stewardship.Any church that plans a budget with the expectation that they’ll bring in more money next year than they did last year isn’t living by faith, they’re practicing bad stewardship.How I Learned The Hard WaySeveral years ago, when our church was on a significant growth curve, we budgeted on the expectation of projected growth. When the growth slowed, then stopped, then reversed, the pain was made exponentially worse by our poor budgeting.Since then, we budget conservatively, so any increase in funds is a bonus, not a necessity.2. Do Not Hire Ahead Of GrowthNew staff members won’t bring in enough money to cover their salaries as a result of the growth in their ministry. It never works out that way. Ever.Instead, invest in discipleship. Raise your leaders from within. It’s cheaper, longer-lasting and more biblical.How I Learned The Hard WayWhen our church had a short-lived, but dramatic growth spurt a few years ago, we hired staff for the size we expected to be soon. When the attendance stalled, then went in reverse, the financial and emotional toll was made exponentially ...Continue reading...
We don't need bigger churches. We need better churches. Then we need more of them.More isn’t always better.No one wants more heartache, more tragedy, or more loneliness. Unless you’re trying to write a hit country song.In fact, it’s not just bad things we don’t want more of. No one wants more of an average meal, a typical day, or a mundane job, either.More is only good when it’s a byproduct of being better.It’s the same in the church.Is It Worth More?For so many years, the main (only?) metric we’ve used for measuring church success has been attendance at our weekend services.We’ve been taught how to break growth barriers, how to duplicate the numerical success of other churches and how to adapt our methods to prepare for numerical increase.But we seldom ask ourselves if what we’re doing is worth having more of.More Of The Same Is … The SameI don’t want to broad-brush this issue. Most church growth proponents emphasize health first, and I’m grateful for that. But when you’re pastoring a church, it’s easy to overlook the value of putting church health first, and convince yourself that more of the same will fix things.More people, more money, more staff.But more never gets us where we need to go.More of the same is just ... the same. Only more. (Profound, right?)It has to be better first.Better Is Always PossibleWe don’t need bigger churches. We need better churches.And we need more of them. Better churches. Of all sizes and styles.The great news is that, while getting bigger is a complicated, uncertain process with no guarantees, any church can always get better.Do the Jesus stuff. Love God. Love others. Share our faith. Honor God’s Word.Any church can do more of that. And more of that is all that matters.Continue reading...

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