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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

A New Openness to Change

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The congregations where I work as a consultant show a surprising, almost shocking openness to change. Over most of my fourteen years as a consultant, I’ve seen many Boomers with their heels dug in against change in congregations where they worship. I see promise in the possibility that we might try new things, some of which might work!

As a Boomer, I have found my generation’s resistance to change discouraging at best, hypocritical at worst. Hypocritical because so many Boomers advocated change, at least until they reached midlife. Student protestors on college campuses today are drawing analogies to what generation? Boomers—when we were in college. Boomers pushed to eliminate discrimination against women, African Americans, and other groups. We were change agents—and then we weren’t.

What has changed so many Boomers’ attitude toward change? My guess is that they finally see the handwriting on the wall. Their congregations are filled with other Boomers and almost no one else. As a result, they have a likely future of about 10-20 years. If something doesn’t change and change fast, a lot of congregations will die because we Boomers failed to replace ourselves with millennials and Gen Zers. To attract those younger generations, Boomers will have to accept change. Too often, this is not happening.

So how can we proceed to take advantage of this new openness to change? First, I’d recommend the advice Rabbi Edwin Friedman gave me many years ago when I was an associate pastor in Bethesda, Maryland, where he was the rabbi of a small Jewish congregation meeting in our church. Ed would tell me, “John, we know what doesn’t work, don’t we? So let’s stop doing what we know doesn’t work!” In today’s congregations, I suggest that we know of at least three big things that do not work:

1. Bloated, Time-Consuming Governance Systems

Too many congregations have governance systems that were designed in and for the 1950s. “Being involved” at church or synagogue meant serving on a committee or board. Meetings were held once a month whether the group needed to meet or not. Meetings started with a reading of the prior month’s meeting. You know the drill.

In today’s world, where many family units have a single parent or multiple income-earners, time is of such importance. A lot of church members will gladly devote time to a Saturday Habit for Humanity or other mission project. But few want to devote time to church governance, especially when much of it consists of “show and tell” reports at a church council meeting or a meeting when there is no pressing reason to meet.

A lot of congregations say they’ve changed to a “team” system. Too often, though, the change is in name only. The “teams” still meet the third Thursday of the month whether they need to or not. True teams meet on an “as needed” basis, for the most part. They are focused on productivity, not governance. We need to change to teams but let’s change organizational behavior, not group names.

Interestingly, it isn’t just younger generations who refuse to serve in our time-consuming governance systems. Even the Boomers have figured out that, too often, they are a waste of precious time.

2. Staffing Plans for Another Time

When a staff member leaves a congregation, too many churches simply start a search to fill the position. But is the position still needed? Are there better ways to do the work? These are essential questions if we are going to change effectively.  

Classic examples of our dysfunctional approach to staffing are in the areas of children and youth ministry. Leaders regularly tell me, “Our children’s and youth ministries aren’t working. We need a better educator/youth minister.” Do they? Or is the problem that the idea of full-time children and youth ministers who build large Sunday morning education programs and attract large numbers of teenagers to Sunday night church activities is totally and completely outdated?

Before replacing or hiring staff in these key areas, we should ask: What are the realizable outcomes for children and youth ministries in an age when Sunday morning is booked with soccer matches and teenagers are busier than some corporate CEOs? I’ve seen congregations develop education programs for children on a late weekday afternoon that are successful. I’ve seen congregations attract significant numbers of youth to one-time retreats or service and mission projects. But the old models for ministry in these areas don’t work. Says Ed Friedman, “Stop doing what we know doesn’t work.”

Once there is clarity about what a congregation wants to try in these areas, a staffing plan can be created. Given the reduced number of children in our congregations, these will most likely call for part-, not full-time positions. Or maybe there is a need for full-time. But let’s not assume that staffing models from the past work today. Because, too often, they don’t.

3. Remaining Inwardly Focused

Pick up almost any book on organizations that grow and succeed in accomplishing their mission and there is a common denominator: they are externally focused. A successful for-profit corporation focuses obsessively on its current and future customers. A successful non-profit is hyper focused on serving a particular population in need. A successful congregation is focused not on “saving itself” but on helping God heal the world.

We know what works. Can we please focus, not on ourselves, but on those God calls us to serve? Can we please try what works?

Today feels like a God-given chance to get some things right that haven’t been working for a long time. As a Boomer myself, my wife and I just sold the D.C. house where we lived for 48 years. It was amazing how many things we had collected that we didn’t use or need. It took a couple of large trucks to get rid of it all. Congregations, too, are filled with things we don’t use or need to throw away because they no longer work. Let’s get rid of them and lighten our load so we can move into the future unencumbered.

John Wimberly is an experienced pastor and consultant. As a consultant, he has worked with congregations and judicatories on strategic planning, staff designs for the 21st century, and congregational growth as well as financial and administrative management. He has MBA, MDiv, and PhD (theology) degrees. His books focus on effective management and leadership. John believes congregations can have a bright future!

Books by John Wimberly

Wimberly, Managing Congregations in a Virtual Age
The Business of the Church, by John W. Wimberly Jr
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