Tuesday, July 29, 2014

An irreverent look at our pastor search process

I had a guy in one of my churches who was a sausage maker and I made a pastoral visit to him while he was hard at work. As a result, I never ate any of his sausage. Ewww!

Our SBC pastor/staff search process is like making sausage. It's often ugly. While I could live without eating my member's sausage, most pastors and staff cannot stay in the pastoral ministry without participating in the process that we have.

I will admit that my experience is more limited here than many of my colleagues. I served only three churches as pastor and those for longer than normal tenure, an average of about ten years each. Nonetheless, I offer an irreverent look at our process with the understanding that some of my brethren may supplement or correct my conclusions and recommendations.

Hey Einstein, you have to deal with the process we have, not the one you wish we had.

Most of the roughly 47,000 SBC churches are single staff and with attendance averaging around 100 in worship each Lord's Day. This means that most who pastor or aspire to pastor these churches will spend their career in average-sized, single staff churches, ones where they relate personally to every member. Those churches will likely have traditions and processes that preceded the pastor and that will succeed him as well.

It doesn't matter if you think churches have ecclesiology all wrong. You could approach every search committee by informing them that they are unbiblical, just be prepared to preach on any street corner to random pedestrians. Spend all the time you wish deploring the processes and then spend double, triple the time acquiring the knowledge and skills to help you navigate the process we have. The former will profit you little; the latter will prove invaluable.

If you're desperate, you're toast.

You say you have bills, student loans, car payments, and a family and desperately need to land a church staff position? Why not just announce to a church committee that you've got to get some paychecks coming, and soon, so could they step on it and take your word for it that you would be a super pastor.

Money screws up everything in church life but probably does more harm to pastors or prospective pastors who have put themselves in a position of having to move, having to get a church, having to get on someone's payroll.

When you are desperate in this way, it is understandable that you drop kick reason, prayer, wisdom and discernment into the closest body of water and hunger and thirst after anything that will remedy your present situation. There are more alternative income streams available to ministers now than ever. If you are in a desperate situation, try working for a living until the Lord opens the right doors.

You're not Miss America, so don't enter any beauty contests

It's not surprising that some of the thousands of SBC churches have a search process that involves a parade of preachers and the church picking the one they like the best. I don't run into this so much these days as I did earlier but if you find that a church follows such a practice, be kind but say, "No, thanks." You might win the contest but lose in the long run.

You don't have the 'right stuff' so don't act like a fighter ace.

The church has known problems, problem people, but you, Red Baron, think you are bulletproof and have the right combination of irresistible personal charisma, rare pastoral skills, and overwhelming pulpit presence to be highly successful in this church. Think again. You are more likely to crash and burn. God will be with you but problem churches ruin many a minister. Think long and hard, pray longer and harder, before you drag your wife and kids into such a situation.

Keep pulpit committees out of your worship service.

Maybe you could put up a sign, "No soliciting" or "Pastor Search Committees Go Away," on your sanctuary front door. Maybe not. Even if you are a pastor and are open to a church change, you can request churches not just show up unless you are very serious and pretty far along. I hear you can put your sermons online these days for anyone to listen, huh? You have a few committees show up and your church thinks you are unhappy, have already checked out, or are done with them. Maybe you are but you don't have to disrespect the only church God has given you to pastor.

You can't trust the committee and they can't trust you

It's not that either of you are evil but the church search committee is only going to tell you part of what you would like to know and they are going to give you an idealized, sanitized version of their wonderful congregation. Don't get huffy about it. You're only going to give them an idealized, sanitized version of your personality, gifts, experience and skills.

Both of you have to turn to third parties to learn what you need. If they are thorough they will get secondary references from your chosen ones and find out what your three BFF references aren't going to tell them. You will listen politely, ask all the right questions and then go to the Associational Missionary or even a former pastor or someone a friend knows who is in the community and who is more likely to speak candidly about the church.

Mystic is a city in Connecticut, not an acceptable approach to making decisions

Absolutely seek the Lord's will; however, Mr. Mystical, you will be better served if you avoid vague impressions, strange feelings, and stick with concrete matters. Sure, lots of high powered SBC leaders do a lot of "God told me" stuff and "God's man" talk. Ignore them. I don't discount that God can speak to you about your decision but chances are He will use sober, solid facts and principles to do so. If the church isn't a good 'fit' quit. If you are a maintenance guy and the church needs an aggressive pastor, pass on it. If you know yourself and learn enough about the church, you will find God's will easily enough.

Your state convention, seminary, and other entities aren't going to help you much. Deal with it.

Yeah, we pour lots of money into these and they have placement offices, Church-Minister Relations staff and all that but your best help will come from people you know who know you. Better take time when you're in seminary and when you're doing summer projects, when you are an intern or other staff to build relationships, find mentors, and show a genuine interest in the people around you. It is surprising how God uses connections and relationships you are ignorant of in your behalf.

The institutional placement people are good for advice but not much else. Get your resume online so it will be readily available. Liability issues will only cause denominational entities to do less and less recommending of candidates. Some of these denominational staff will pray for you, will give you good advice, and will genuinely show an interest in your search. Spend time with these. Such may not help in the short run but will in the long haul.

Maintain some dignity. You don't have to put up with committee nonsense.

Some churches create an elaborate questionnaire for candidates to answer. You can deflect this with short answers and references to the BFM and save long answers for later. It is inappropriate for a committee to expect a thesis in reply to their screening tool. Your resume ought to cover the basic stuff anyway.

I once had a church ask for IRS Form 1040s for several recent years. Fahgeddabout that. Do a credit check on me. Do a background check on me. My income tax forms are none of their business. If that sort of intrusive request is a deal breaker, thank God for it. You wouldn't want to pastor that church anyway.

If they don't take care of their facilities they probably will not take care of you and your family.

Take a road trip, unannounced and incognito, to their place. Take your wife. Look the church over. If they have a pastorium, give it a windshield survey. Check every now and then to see if your wife is shaking her head. That will tell you all you need to know.

Look at the committee as fellow followers of Christ and get to know them.

You aren't adversaries, you know, neither are they mere tools in your career path. Here's an opportunity to build relationships with other Christians. You might be their pastor, you know. If you have to be told this then you might reconsider your calling.

Consider that God might slam this door but use you to to help the next guy.

I'm a get-along kind of guy but have talked to search committee members who were brusque and combative. Hey, we just met and you're chewing on me already? After you've given it some thought, maybe they have never been told, bluntly, and candidly how they are presenting themselves. You're the man to do this and you'll never be in a better position to do this. While it might end the process, it will probably help the next guy.

If you are too spiritual to talk frankly about money, you're an idiot.

In most circumstances you shouldn't make this the deal breaker neither should you be too eager to talk salary and benefits (and, please, try not to drool when they offer you more than you're making now). If you are some steps into the process you should have already found out about what their total budget is and you should know where to go to find average SBC salaries and benefits for a church of their size and budget. This gives you something to talk about. Are they less than average? Why? Maybe they had a series of passive pastors who never complained so they figured he was well compensated. Oh yeah, have any figures agreed upon put in writing. If you don't, you're an idiot again.

Don't listen to too many war stories about nightmare committees.

It's not very entertaining to hear a colleague say, "The committee was wonderful. The process was a blessing. I have no complaints." It is entertaining to hear one say, "They were devils. They lied. They were devious. They didn't tell me everything." OK, so search committee nightmare stories are a staple of pastor's conferences and casual meetings. Please, don't have a steady diet of this stuff. It's counterproductive, unhealthy, and harmful.

God is good. Jesus is wonderful. Serving him as pastor or staff in an SBC is a blessing. God bless you in your search.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

You cannot afford to trust your church secretary

If you are the pastor or a church leader and your church secretary handles the church's money, makes deposits, pays bills, has some degree of control over invoices, payments, or church credit cards you cannot trust him or her. Better put, you should not act as if you trust him or her and would be foolish and negligent to do so.

Former church secretary indicted for theft.

This is a sad story on several levels. The lifelong member of an Alabama Baptist church who was the church secretary and who had control over the church's credit card is alleged to have stolen $129,000 from the church over the past 33 months. The amount of theft might be greater, since the statute of limitations on such crimes only goes back to 2011. Authorities are reported to have said that the fraudulent charges may go back another four years to 2007. From July 2011 through April 2014 the secretary made 2,200 transactions on the credit card many of which were determined to be fraudulent. That number of transactions is about three every single working day. The secretary, a mother, grandmother, and widow apparently used the card to pay her personal bills - utilities, gas, travel, etc.

There's no mystery about trusted people stealing - happens all the time. If the opportunity is present Christians who are otherwise perfectly respectable followers of Christ, beloved friends and family, valuable church members and servants of the Lord will shamelessly steal from the church. Apparently, the woman had absolutely no accountability for the credit card. The pastor, deacons, finance committee all of whom are to be held secondarily responsible for the loss, failed the church by not having sufficient financial controls in place. The woman merely shifted around some budget figures to cover herself but every credit card transaction has a record and appears on some statement. Evidently, no one checked the statement, ever, to verify the transactions were for church business. A handful of questionable transactions might be buried in a statement that wasn't checked too closely, but thousands? Utter failure on the part of church leadership.

To its credit, the pastor and leaders of the church decided to press charges. The woman was stealing from every church member who worked hard to earn money part of which they gave to the Lord's work through the church. Whatever sympathy one might have for the alleged thief should be tempered with the sober thought that hardly a day passed when she didn't deliberately steal from her friends, family, and neighbors.

Most SBC churches probably do not have a business credit card for the church. Those that do should have regular audits no matter how trusted the church financial secretary is or how long they have been around. A sensible financial secretary would insist on regular audits of some sort. This isn't brain surgery.

Money is important. There are around 46,000 SBC churches which handle tens of billions of contributions. In the great majority of these churches employ only one clergy staff, the pastor. It is his job to see to it that there are sufficient and proper money handling policies and procedures. The church involved in this case, depressingly similar to many others, was a large, multiple staff church. It is shocking that such a church failed to have control over its finances.

There are this very Lord's Day probably dozens if not hundreds of SBC churches where some trusted individual is stealing from the church. This sort of thing is so common I don't even look to blog about a case of such theft unless it gets into six figures.

Hey you, Spurgeon! You might spend less time preaching on stealing from God, the standard approach to preaching on tithing, and more time ensuring that proper financial controls are in place. It's your responsibility.

Need more?

Woman steals $130,000 from Baptist association (Nice round figure, $130,000, and in Alabama also.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Will one in four SBC churches be closed by 2030?

Occasionally, I run across an assertion or a statistic that stops me cold. Here is one that did just that:
"Fear of change is one of the reasons one in four congregations will close during the next 15 years..."
Let me digest this: Twenty-five percent of American congregations will not be present fifteen years hence?

Jeff Brumley of Associated Baptist Press has an interesting article on the future of churches, Experts seek balance between optimism and pessimism in future of congregations, in which he quotes Bill Wilson, founder of The Center for Healthy Churches, as making the assertion above. I have found Wilson's material to be quite insightful and helpful generally but do not know where he got this figure. In the same piece Thom Ranier says that 20% of American Protestant churches will close in the next two decades. George Bullard, who was a South Carolina Baptist Convention executive when I served in that state, is featured in the article. I have read a good bit of his material and find that he has some astute observations about churches and denominations. You can find links in the ABP piece for all of these people.

There are about 46,000 SBC churches. If Wilson is correct then we can expect to see 11,500 SBC churches disappear by 2030. I suspect that the 25% figure was for all US congregations and rates of closing would differ among the different groups. Almost certainly, we will not be seeing two SBC churches per day closing their doors; however, I suspect that we will see increasing numbers in the years ahead. (Note here that we are not talking about net growth or loss. We are starting churches so no one expects the total number to decline by one-fourth.)

Which brings me to the concept of church revitalization, a perennial topic and thrust in SBC life and one that everyone favors. The various SBC and state convention organizations have church revitalization programs and personnel and have for decades. Alas, I am unaware of any effective top-down revitalization program. There is no national or even state convention program for revitalization of congregations that I see as holding much promise. If your state has one, and has a track record of success, I'd like to know about it. It makes sense to me that the most effective program for church revitalization would be found at the level closest to churches - the association. My local association has a program that is very attractive. It is also very new and without any history, so there are no results to evaluate, but I like what I know about it.

I've preached in a few very small churches whose future is extremely precarious. I'd not be surprised if some of these go defunct but, who knows? With our recipe of local church autonomy (and the fact that churches have no tax bill to pay every year) it is not difficult for a couple of dozen people to hang on to their building and church for years and years. You can always get a supply preacher cheaply.

The question is do these churches desire to be healthy, effective, ministering churches?

Some do. Some don't.

We should put some resources in those that do and let those that don't die a natural death. Things change. Demographics change. Geographic population distributions change. Churches should change as well. Some should close.

If we have sums of money to spend it is more likely that our best results will come from starting new churches rather than trying to resuscitate old ones. One of the points that all the experts agree upon is that it is extremely difficult to revitalize a church and few are successful at it.

I see nothing that dissuades me from agreeing with that.

Monday, June 30, 2014

In the next 20 years the SBC will be smaller

I do think that we're going to see a winnowing. We're going to see a clarification of who we are and I do believe in twenty years we're going to be a smaller denomination, maybe less number of churches but I think that we're going to be more focused. I think we're going to be more serious about joining together and reaching the world for Christ.

Frank Page, CEO, SBC Executive Committee, Fault Lines Within the SBC Panel, June, 2014 (go to the 24 minute mark at the end).

If we look down the road at what the SBC will be like two decades hence, what do we see?

Frank Page sees a smaller denomination but one more focused on reaching the world for Christ.

I don't think any of us can see clearly what we will look like, what we will be like twenty years down the road, but it is somewhat remarkable that Frank Page, our day-to-day SBC leader is honest and forthright enough to state candidly that we are going to be smaller. Give a tip of the hat to demographics, cultural and religious trends, and old fashioned realism.

As for being more focused on reaching the world for Christ...perhaps. The jury is out on that but I see churches less interested in denominational structures, less interested in creating and maintaining the denominational infrastructure, particularly buildings, staff, and budgets than in placing and supporting church planters here in North America, and enhancing authentic Christian witness overseas.

It is noteworthy in this regard that in his address to trustees last month Tom Elliff, lame duck CEO of our International Mission Board, signaled his belief in "new avenues" for sending and supporting missionaries. More on this later, but if there is a vision for the SBC future, it likely will be led with something in this form. Make note here that our grand denominational funding program, The Cooperative Program, which is responsible as much as any  factor for the SBC that we have today is singularly uncaptivating to a new generation of ministers. Our goal with the CP at this stage is to find an acceptable floor for giving; hence, Elliff's exploratory remarks about "new avenues."

Any optimists among us who see a larger denomination?