I won the United Kingdom National Lottery the other day, at least that’s what the email said, and suddenly realized I don’t have to work anymore. I won £891,934 pounds sterling. I can do anything with my life that I want to do. Fishing with Bill Easum in Guatemala, skiing in Aspen, or be a perpetual beach bum in Palm Beach. It’s all open to me. What would you do?
Now, before you read another word, I’m asking you to do something. I want you to take a piece of paper and write this down: “If I won the lottery, I would ___________.” Fill in the blank with what you would do with your life. What would you do? Not how would you spend the money … we all fantasize about that. What would you do with your life?
Done? Okay. Now read on …
Look at your answer. If it’s anything besides what you’re doing right now in ministry I beseech you, I beg you, I implore you, for the sake of the church … quit. I’m not joking. I really mean that. Find another job. Chase another dream. If you’d be doing anything other than what you’re doing in ministry then, sadly and truthfully, you’re the problem and not the solution for the future of the church. I know that’s painful to hear, but it’s nonetheless true. If you’re not 110 percent sold-out to what you’re doing, you are not the church leader your church needs in a post-Christendom twenty-first century culture.
I’m currently in an extended consultation with a church (that shall remain nameless and placeless) that has suffered from nearly twenty years of career ministry leaders. These leaders, and there were several of them, were committed to “doing the job” at the church, but they all perceived that “job” as maintaining the church’s status quo, keeping conflict to a minimum, and above all, keeping their employment/pension. None of them were willing to do the tough work of leading. And so today this church is struggling and may not survive the transformation process. Not because the church is unwilling to make the changes necessary, but because it may simply be too late to make the changes that would bring the transformation.
Now, some of you may be feeling a bit disheartened because you’ve entertained the idea of doing something else, sometimes anything else, rather than keepin’ on keepin’ on in the ministry. Well, you’re not alone. In fact, according to nearly every scrap of research I’ve seen lately, the majority of folks who are seminary trained and who are still young enough to do something besides professional church-leading are either considering leaving church ministry or else they’re already making plans to leave. Indeed, there are some studies saying that as many as 80 percent of seminary graduates leave (quit) the professional church ministry within five years of their graduation. I’d say that’s a bad thing, but I don’t really believe that. Successful church transformation is hard work. It’s risky work. And it’s costly work. Those who are not spiritually grounded, committed, passionate, and willing to be in partnership need not apply … or continue.
Transformation is Hard Work
I don’t think I’m saying anything that’s a surprise here. There is no more difficult church job than trying to pull off a transformation. Churches are notoriously “stuck” and frankly most of us church folk (or any folk, for that matter) aren’t all that comfortable with change. And when you start messing with tradition, well, you’ve got a recipe for trouble, strife, and difficulties. I’m convinced that when Scott Peck began writing The Road Less Traveled, he had transformational pastors in mind when he wrote, “Life is difficult.”
Transforming a church is not a job for the lazy or indolent. Someone who wants to take it easy so they can write a book, finish a doctorate, or further their career opportunities should consider another line of work. Transforming pastors can count on long hours of praying, planning, and putting their strategies and tactics into practice, often to find they have to start over because transformation is only 10 percent science and 90 percent art. That kind of starting, restarting, and starting again wears down even the most optimistic church leader and both frustration and depression leer from the shadows of defeatism.
Make no mistake, this kind of work is as stressful and difficult as any on earth. I’d like to tell you that it’s all worth it, but …
Transformation is Risky
In North America, risk is not one of the top ten phrases that gets mentioned when talking about the church. I mean, what’s to risk? Well, let me remind you what you’re putting on the line when you take on a transformation project.
First, if you’re married and have a family, you’re risking your marital and familial bliss. Transformational churches are famous for demanding so much time from their leaders that home life becomes more a memory than a reality. But wait … there’s more. Church bullies and terrorists have been known to use the pastor’s spouse and even worse, their children, to try and manipulate them in order to achieve their own ends. Think I’m exaggerating? Not only have I experienced this personally, virtually every transformational pastor I coach has their own version of how an antagonist in the church inflicted deep and painful wounds through the family.
But that’s not the only risk. If you’re committed to transformation, you’re putting your job and even your pension on the roulette table. The fact is, in general transformational pastors don’t get a lot of support from their judicatory officials. When push comes to shove, their loyalties tend to remain with the church rather than the pastor because pastors come and go, but the church remains—except we all know that if transformation doesn’t take place, the church’s future is in jeopardy. Nonetheless, the prevailing attitude is still to dismiss the pastor in order to keep the peace.
And finally, at least for this list, transformation is risky because it is so seldom successful. For every one church that survives the transformational process and becomes healthy, eight will fail to transform. Why? Because …
Transformation is Costly
I’ve already mentioned the possible costs in terms of family and job. But those are just possible costs. Let me share some of the costs associated with transformations.
To begin with, those who are members of the church are going to have to give up many of their preferences. Depending on what the transformation process calls for, good church members may have to give up their music preferences. The organ, and maybe even the piano, may have to go. They may have to give up their preferred worship style. Traditional worship may need to become contemporary. Contemporary may need to become praise and worship. Praise and worship may need to become cowboy, rock-n-roll, hip hop, or horror-of-horrors, no singable music at all. If the transformation demands a second (or third or fourth) service, church members may need to give up their preferred worship time. Ten-thirty is just about right for couples with young children—they’re not coming en masse to a 9 AM service (too early to get the kids up and ready). Church members will definitely have to give up their desire to “know everybody” and give up their need to be “kept informed” about all the going’s ons at the church. The list goes on and on.
But those changes are minor costs compared to what happens in virtually every transformation. The church will loose a number of their current long-term members, and could ultimately lose as much as 60 percent of their membership—and some lose more. This is one of the reasons most church transformations fail: the cost is simply too high in terms of loss. Never mind that the church will likely have to close its doors in ten or fifteen years because those members who were appeased will be gone or dead. Never mind that the younger generations who would have come if the transformation process had continued and been successful won’t be there because they either found a church that spoke to their hearts, or else they gave up on church altogether.
If you’re still reading, you’re to be congratulated. It means that you’re at least willing to look at the reality of transformational ministry. Many aren’t because the work is too hard, too risky, and too costly.
Those who take on a transformation project do so to their own peril. If you’re either in a transformation, or considering getting into one, you will need to ensure you are spiritually grounded. Prayer is often the only thing that will get you up in the morning, and it is definitely one of the only things that will help you sleep. You’ll need to be committed. It’s hard, risky, and costly work and if you give up in the middle of a transformational project, you may be damning the church from its future mission and ministry. You must be passionate. If you’re not, you won’t have the energy to get up in the morning to keep on keepin’ on in this difficult work. And finally, if you’re going to be successful, you need to be in partnership with others who will walk with you. Hire a coach—someone who understands this stuff and knows how to ask the right questions. Join a listServ or email group that has others who are like-minded and committed to transformation (you might want to try the Advanced Leadership List at Easum, Bandy, and Associates). Put together a peer-coaching group that will encourage one another is this tough work. Do what you have to do; whatever you have to do.
Winning the lottery probably isn’t in my future and the odds are its not in yours either. But whether you win or lose, my hope is that you’re so committed to the ministry you’re called to that even big bucks couldn’t drag you away. (And if they could, reread the first four paragraphs.)