Biggest Loser?

A couple of days ago, I shared some observations on the idea of the church losing members in a time of transition. After noting that a co-worker and brother had worried about “stopping the bleeding,” I shared my ideas with him. He then shared his ideas with me.

Let me just start by saying that it is good and healthy when members of the body can share their different takes, even in a somewhat passionate manner, and still remain friends. I’m pleased to say that we’re doing that.

I’m also pleased to admit that his response pointed out a significant flaw in what I said–or at least a limitation. After mulling the thing through the afternoon, I’d like to share this.

Who’s Your Gardener?

First of all, it is biblical and understandable that, in a time of significant change, there will be pruning of the church. But actually there will be pruning during other periods as well. Jesus made that clear in John 15.

But here’s the key thing. In that discourse in John, Jesus never hands us a saw and clippers, sending us to start chopping on things. Whatever pruning that gets done should be done by God.

It’s our job to treat everyone the same, showing them the same value that Jesus showed them by offering himself for them. I think the attitude we’re to effect is reflected in what Paul says to the Corinthians, culminating with this verse:

To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some.

1 Corinthians 9:22

Here’s what it boils down to. There will be pruning. There is a gardener. I’m not the gardener.

We’re Not Managers

When I talked about the church needing to lose the fat and keep the muscle, I was piggybacking on Paul’s metaphor of the church as a body. That’s sound, but it is, like all metaphors, limited. Some idiot, who might have been me, suggested something worthy of the most draconian Fortune 500 CEO:

If the church declines by 20% but all it loses is “fat,” unproductive attendees, then who can complain? That’s not bleeding. That’s a fitness plan! Of course, if it loses “muscle,” children’s teachers or deacons or outreach heroes or diligent givers, then we’d refer to that as wasting away.

Really? What pathetic excuse for a servant of God would say that? Sure, if all we care about is the short-term profitability of the organization, then that might make sense, but we’re concerned with more. In fact, that statement was callous and wrong for several reasons:

  • Church members are not static. I know a woman who two years ago was a disaster and today is putting most of us to shame. Who’s to say what other “fat cells” will morph into something powerful?
  • Fat and muscle, while easy to distinguish in the human body are not nearly so easy to distinguish in the church body. God can make that call, but it’s not for me to do it.
  • Finally, this attitude is just mean-spirited. Many people who leave the church will not go to another. Shouldn’t I care about them? Shouldn’t I grieve over them?

The Bottom Line

So to my brother, concerned with the “bleeding,” I thank you for making me look at my own words from a few steps back and realize that while I will stick with most of what that said–especially the personal responsibility we all have to become more spiritually fit and less fat as individuals–I never want to be guilty of taking lightly even one person who leaves us. I think Jesus shared his feelings on those matters pretty clearly:

And whoever welcomes one child like this in my name welcomes me. “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall away—it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea.

Matthew 18:5-6

I’ve Found Our New Pastor (or at least his age)

Having gone sleepless the last two nights, since my church’s pastor announced his upcoming resignation, I’m ready to share my brilliant plan for church leadership, pastoral succession, and the alignment of the stars. Allow me to trot these ideas out for you so that perhaps somebody can suggest any possible flaws in the plan.

First, I’ll note that our intrepid executive pastor and current HGIC (head guy in charge) Jeff shared a podcast from former Lifeway CEO Thom Rainer. In this five-year-old recording, Rainer speaks with church-leadership-search expert William Vanderbloemen, who brings a host of interesting tidbits to the table. One of his suggestions is that church’s tend to “hire too fast and fire too slow.” I’m not sure about the second of those, but when people hear my great idea, they’ll know that we can’t possibly hire too fast.

Vanderbloemen suggests that there are some age issues with pastors. He claims that if he looks at a long-time pastor and the growth chart for his church, he can with fair accuracy identify the pastor’s 40th birthday and 55th to 60th birthday. Essentially, he’s saying that most pastors really hit their stride at around 40 and that their effectiveness plateaus or drops off in the late 50s. Hearing that, despite my sleep deprivation, I had a flash of insight, developing my system.

We start by soliciting applications from any interested parties, but we immediately eliminate anyone who is younger than 36 or older than 40. The perfect candidate will be stepping into our pulpit on his 38th birthday. That will give him two years to get to know the church and make whatever changes he needs to effect before his performance magically jumps into overdrive at age 40. I know that this sort of move has the potential to raise issues of age discrimination, so we might need to create another rationale. Regardless, I think this move is utterly essential.

After we identify our candidate, we do not sign him up with an eye toward keeping him until he limps into his 80s. Instead, we offer him a contract that is understood to terminate when he turns 60. I realize that his peak years might end when he’s 55, but we have to hope that if he makes it that long, even a decreased effectiveness won’t be too bad.

“But wait!” you protest. “What if our pastor is super awesome even into his 60s?” I have a plan for that as well. We maintain the option to renew him on a year-by-year basis. At 61, maybe he’s still good, but at 62, we show him the door. I’m sure he’ll understand. There is a precedent for this. School bus drivers, in Missouri at least, once they reach 70 have to retake their test every year. Given the similarities between pastoring a church and piloting a bus full of unruly kids, this seems relevant.

Clearly, as William Vanderbloemen would surely agree, the way to find the perfect pastor is to follow not the Holy Spirit but data and science. In fairness, I don’t think that’s at all what Mr. Vanderbloemen would suggest, but it was fun to consider the idea.