Pastor Shipley trudged across the vacant church parking lot in the cold Monday morning. Tapping the security keypad, he heard the familiar click and grabbed the door’s handle to pull it open.
The gust of warm air brought a flush to his half-frozen face. His skin tingled and he felt instantly at home in his “home away from home.” He mused about how natural it was for him just to “be in the church’s building.” This was the place of his work, his calling. This was where God’s people gathered for worship and the study of God’s Word; and he had the privilege of being their shepherd. It was a good life, and he was thankful. He had enjoyed this ministry in the church for many years.
As Pastor Shipley entered the church office, Mrs. Petersen, the church’s faithful secretary, was already at her desk busy with her usual Monday morning tasks. “Good morning, Pastor!” she said cheerily. “Here’s my final draft of the annual Parochial Report that you asked me to prepare,” she said, handing him a quarter inch of paper neatly stapled.
“Thank you, Mary,” said Pastor Shipley as he breezed by her desk. “How was your weekend?” he inquired without breaking his pace toward his office.
“Busy, but fine!” She continued, “By the way, on that report … Sunday School is down for the third year, along with adult Bible class attendance. And worship is down slightly for the second year. In fact, Sunday School is in the single digits for the first time. It’s sort of scary.”
“What?!” Pastor Shipley stuck his head around the door frame to look at the source of the news.
“I said, Sunday School is down…”
“No, I heard you,” he interrupted. “I just don’t like what I heard.”
The pastor retreated silently into his office and into his desk chair with a sigh. He paged through the report that Mrs. Petersen had prepared. She had faithfully attached a copy of last year’s report for comparison. Yes, her observations were correct, and he felt winter’s cold chill again. She had also attached the actual department reports from the volunteers tasked with record-keeping for Sunday School, Bible class, and worship. He had seen the worship numbers before as he glanced at those weekly, but he had never taken the time to really process what the numbers were saying: “This is not the same congregation it was four years ago. We are still doing the same things, but we are not getting the same results; and, judging from these more recent numbers, the decline is picking up speed.”
This “home away from home” began to feel less safe and more foreign as he considered these new realities. The happiness with which he had entered the church building five minutes earlier evaporated. Depression and doubt could be felt at the fringes of his conscience.
But no, as frustrating as this might be, the God he served was bigger and stronger and wiser. This ministry belonged to God, and not to him as a pastor. True, as the pastor he had great responsibility, but his first responsibility was to the mission of God to this world through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The stomach punch he was experiencing now was the haunting question: “So, if this is God’s ministry and we are His people and His Spirit is at work through His Word and Sacraments, then why aren’t we seeing more fruit? In fact, why are we experiencing a decline?”
Pastor intentionally stopped, closed his eyes, folded his hands and prayed in a quiet whisper: “Father, I come to You in Jesus’ name. I know You love me and I know You love Your church. I know that Your will is that ‘none should perish, but everyone come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9). You sent Jesus, our only Savior, that ‘the world might be saved through Him’ (John 3:17). Your plans are good. You are powerful. You are faithful to your promises. So then, what’s going on? Why isn’t this working? Why isn’t it working like it used to? Give me your wisdom. I’m powerless without you.”
He continued to lay this all before the God who loved and served him first in Christ Jesus, and who had called him to serve and love His people. Several minutes after Pastor Shipley had run out of words to speak, a fresh thought entered his mind. He immediately reached for his desk file drawer and located a thin file of notes taken at a recent circuit pastors’ conference at which one of the Michigan District CMMFs had given a presentation on “Adaptive Leadership” and the need for it to create and foster “Adaptive Organizations/Ministries.”
There it was, in his own hand-written notes: “Adaptive Leadership happens when we point out the GAP between what people ‘SAY’ they believe and what people ‘BEHAVE’ they believe.” He knew that God’s people valued worship. They valued Christian education for their children. They valued God’s Word. BUT they were living (BEHAVING) differently than what they said they believed.
He continued to review his notes from the CMMF presentation.
“That’s IT!!” Pastor shouted silently. “It’s not that people no longer value Christian education for their children. I know my people. They love God and want their children to know Him too. But there are competing values in their lives. Is it possible that they value Christian education and not Sunday School or Bible class?”
As counterintuitive as it seemed, the answer was “YES!” People can value the gift and the GIVER and not value the method of delivery. There was the significant disconnect! Pastor Shipley realized that he needed to lead differently in nearly every aspect of the congregation’s ministry. They simply could not afford to do “business as usual” anymore.
Missing the Point
What he and his leadership team had been attempting to do was to address an adaptive challenge (competing values in this case) with technical solutions (new Sunday School curriculum, videos, different communication methods), and they were missing the point. They needed to value the parents and children who were no longer attending enough to ask them some direction-finding questions. It would call for prayerful collaboration and teamwork in order to make the necessary changes. The issue could no longer be: “How can we help our Sunday School and adult Bible classes survive?” Rather, the question had to be: “Since we value Christian education for all ages, how might we envision a new delivery system so that both children and adults who are valued and loved by God can learn and grow in the Savior’s love?”
Pastor knew that such thinking would impact every aspect of ministry in the congregation, including worship. But what would be affected most would be his leadership. Leading adaptively would change the congregation’s approach to reaching out with the love of Jesus to their community. In short, the gut check, brought on by an honest look at the parochial report and faith-filled prayer, led to the realization that he had been leading the congregation as if they were in the “church business,” when in reality they were supposed to be in the “reconciliation business.”
He smiled as his ordination text from many years ago came to mind: “Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18 ESV). God’s Mission and purpose for His church have not changed. God’s Means of delivering His transforming power for the salvation of every man, woman, and child in the world has not changed, namely His Gospel of Jesus Christ through His Word and Sacraments. But, as in every age and every culture to which the Gospel is proclaimed, the method of delivery must be adapted and creatively and faithfully discerned.
Pastor Shipley again closed his eyes and prayed a prayer of thanksgiving. Then he completed the review of the parochial report while taking note of the many ministry areas that needed adaptive leadership and thinking for a new ministry context. He still felt a chill of anxiety, but he had hope because he knew he served Almighty God who had called him to serve in His mission of “reconciliation.”
A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope, by Peter L. Steinke, Alban Institute, 2010.
Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, by Tod Bolsinger, Intervarsity Press, 2015.
Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by N.T. Wright, Harper One, 2008.
Choosing Change: How to Motivate Congregations to Face the Future, by Peter D. Coutts, Alban Institute, 2013.
The Concordia Center for the Family promotes and encourages healthy Christ-centered family relationships.