Monday, March 4, 2013

Church structure is key to its growth

This past weekend a colleague of mine and I had the privilege of meeting with leaders of six churches to discuss the importance of church structure on its ministry effectiveness.  Each of these churches average less than 100 people on Sunday morning.  Many of them are pastored by bivocational or retired pastors.  Each of these are older, traditional Baptist churches that are involved in an eighteen month process to help them experience renewal and revitalize their ministries.  They found they shared many common characteristics regarding how their churches are structured, and that those structures often limit what they are able to do.  None of those present struggled with the discussions and exercises they worked through as they examined how they might make changes in their structures, but it might be a different story when they return to their congregations and begin to talk to the larger bodies about those changes.

At the outset we talked about how a church is structured is a tradition that is often sacred to the congregation.  Each of these churches are older congregations, most I would imagine more than 100 years old, and for many of them their current structure is the only one the church has ever known.  For some in those congregations their current church structure is almost on the same level as the inerrancy of the Bible.  What these churches came to realize is that their structure, as defined by their church constitutions and by-laws, were written for a much earlier churched culture that no longer exists.  New structures are needed that will enable churches to better respond to the rapid changes occurring in our society and that reflect the way people think and work today.

What are some of those changes?  Due to the hectic pace in which many people live today they value their time much more importantly than people did in earlier times.  They are not willing to spend endless hours in meetings discussing things that make little difference in the lives of most people.  They are also not going to commit vast amounts of time to the church to sit on committees and boards.  In fact, growing numbers of people will not even join a church even if they are active in its ministries.  People want to able to respond quickly.  While many churches were discussing having a special offering to assist those impacted by hurricane Sandy and deciding when to best have that offering multiple thousands of dollars were being immediately raised through the Internet and cell phone texts.  People are also accustomed to working in teams with specific goals to accomplish.  Churches seem almost reluctant to set measurable goals so we ask people to serve on committees whose primary task appears to be to endlessly discuss things.  Since few of these committees work with specific, measurable goals no one on the committee can experience the joy and satisfaction of completing those goals.  Many feel they have committed themselves to this committee or board for life, and in some churches they have.

Churches that fail to take these changes into account when they look at how their church is structured are likely to continue to decline in both their numbers and their ministry effectiveness.  They will continue to find that fewer and fewer people are willing to serve on their boards and committees, and the numbers of empty slots on their Nominating Committee report will continue to grow.  Many of these churches will blame the lack of commitment on the part of their newer members, but in reality the blame will really be on the church's unwillingness to take into account the realities mentioned above in its structure.

How does a church begin to change its structure?  V-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.  Trying to make wholesale changes immediately is almost sure to be a recipe for failure.  Again, in many churches their structure is holy to many people.  It will be critical that leaders address why the changes are needed before talking about the changes that are needed.  Only after the majority of people recognize that changes do need to be made will it be safe to begin discussing what changes need to occur.  One of our churches suggested that pastors need to address this in several messages while the church leaders who recognize the need for these changes talk it up with other leaders in the church.  There needs to be prayerful discernment about what changes do need to occur and a consensus reached that God is leading the church to make such changes.  This is not something that should be forced upon a congregation once a 51 percent majority agrees to it.

I am familiar with several larger churches that have made some major changes in their structure, and these changes did not happen overnight.  In some cases there were lengthy discussions and much discernment before the decision was made to make the changes.  Most of the time the changes were made on a two or three year trial basis after which the congregation would evaluate if the changes were positive or negative on the church.  If they were deemed to be negative the church would revert back to its old structures.  So far, none of the churches I am familiar with went back to their old structures.  In every single case, the changes were seen as positive.  This is a model that smaller churches could follow as well.  It is much less threatening to make temporary changes that can later be reversed after a sufficient trial period.

Your structure is perfectly designed for the results you are getting.  If you are not satisfied with those results it may be the result of a structure that is limiting your church's ability to effectively minister to your community.  If so, a leadership team needs to begin exploring what changes might be needed to make that structure more conducive to ministry.

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