Monday, March 27, 2017

Tips for a Church in Transition - #2 Be Ready for Conflict to Surface

Church conflict.  It's something every pastor and congregational leader experiences and should know how to handle.  Unfortunately, most church authorities avoid or ignore it.

During leadership transitions conflict surfaces.  Sometimes it's subtle; other times it's explosive.  It can happen in an all-of-a-sudden explosion; or it can ooze out slowly after years of bubbling beneath the surface.  Regardless of how it surfaces, it's important to know some of issues that can lead to congregational conflict.  Here are some hot-button transitional tensions that Terry Foland addresses in his chapter entitled, 'Understanding Conflict and Power' in the book Temporary Shepherds.
  • Church Identity
    • Defining church values and identity impassion people.  Who are we as a church? What's our place in the world?  When there's disagreement in this area, expect people to push back.  Fear of the church losing status in the community or concerns about the future identity and philosophy of ministry all add to rising tensions when there's disagreement.
  • Who Is In Charge?
    • This may be a struggle between clergy and laity or between formal and informal leaders in the church.  Individuals may feel they have a 'right' to know inside information and have a voice in church governance issues.  When things are healthy this could mean increased involvement and investment, but if trust is low then congregants could run interference in appropriate, orderly processes. 
  • What Do We Believe?
    • The fight may be about how the Bible is interpreted, questionable doctrines, or the curriculum used with the children and youth.  What one individual or group wants or needs may be at odds with what other individuals or groups feel they want or need in the church.  When one person or group pushes their theological agenda beyond the norm then the church will experience conflict.
  • How Do We Worship?
    • Adopting new musical preferences in the congregation creates tension.  That tension has a name: worship wars.  The issue may be the type of instruments used or the kinds of songs the church sings--preferring either traditional or contemporary forms of worship.  Any way this is sliced, it creates conflict.
  • Role Expectation of Leaders
    • How do clergy and staff spend their time in ministry?  Should the pastor act as leader or manager?  Where staff spend their time and resources and who determines their priorities are both possible areas where fights could emerge.
  • Limited Resources
    • When there is a reduction in resources (a reality in a church in transition) then conflict can arise about where the limited resources should be allocated.  Expect people to fight to fund their priorities when resources are limited.
  • Focus Inward or Focus Outward?
    • Should the church focus primarily on nurturing and caring for their own members primarily or focus on serving and reaching out to their community?  Any attempt to change this focus from what the church has been doing will result in tension.
  • Malfeasance or Misconduct by Clergy
    • If a pastor is accused of immoral, unethical, or illegal behaviour, some people will believe the accusations while others will deny them and defend the pastor.  This can create significant tension and conflict in the congregation.
So, if your church is in a season of pastoral transition, you will likely be facing some or all of these tensions.  The best way through the conflict is by hiring a trained transitional pastor.  He or she will help your church address these issues without blowing it up.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Tips for a Church in Transition - #1 Increase Communication

A pastoral transition, no matter how smooth, leaves a huge communication gap.  That gap needs a bridge.  Increased communication functions as a bridge for a church in transition.  So, make sure your church is building bridges across the gap with regular updates during the transition.

Roger Nicholson paints a clear picture of the need for open communication in his book, Temporary Shepherds.  He writes:

Efficient and effective communication is a major concern of every congregation, and never more so when a vacancy occurs in the pastoral office.  Interim congregations often discover that their communication system is very inadequate, resulting in poor decision-making processes and in misunderstandings.  A strong congregation is one in which all information is freely shared and all members are fully informed and aware of church matters.  Power struggles result when information is withheld as a means of controlling the organization.  The interim time is a crucial opportunity for a congregation to examine its practices and ensure that an open system of communication and decision making is in place at the start of a new pastorate. (p. 22)

So, if you want to avoid power struggles and misunderstandings, here are a few suggestions:
  1. If you're a transition pastor, give a few brief updates before preaching.  Keep it punchy and concise.  "I have some important things to tell you about this time of transition and I also want to hear from you.  I'd like to invite you to a town hall meeting in the blue room on such and such date and time", or "The search committee has been formed and here's who they are... let's pray for them".  That sort of messaging gives everyone a chance to hear what's going on in the congregation.  If you're church doesn't have a transition pastor, appoint someone to do this on a consistent basis until a consistent pastor (transitional or permanent) is hired.  
  2. Update the church website, social media, and weekly printed bulletin with the same information being presented during the Sunday morning update.  Make sure the messaging is consistent.  Where there's a discrepancy, over communicate to correct the faulty message.
  3. Call a town hall meeting and invite the whole congregation to attend.  Have a potluck.  Or not.  Arrange tables and ask good questions that allow people to engage in conversation about the church with those around their tables.  Share plenty of information.  Then, open the floor for questions and remember to take time to pray.
Remember, transitions are typically times when communication decreases.  Decreased communication raises congregational anxiety, so make sure you take steps to increase dialogue.  It's far better to over communicate than under communicate, especially during times of change.  Augment the messaging and I'll guarantee one thing: your congregation will thank you!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Learning to be well-differentiated

A couple of weeks ago I talked about Christ-centred differentiation in a sermon.  It's a hard but crucial concept to understand.  In fact, it's one of the most important concepts I've ever learned.  And no one does a better job of describing it than Edwin Friedman.  Here's how he defines it:

Differentiation means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life's goals and values apart from surrounding togetherness pressures, to say "I" when others are demanding "you" and "we".  It includes the capacity to maintain a (relatively) non-anxious presence in the midst of anxious systems, to take maximum responsibility for one's own destiny and emotional being.  It can be measured somewhat by the breadth of one's repertoire of responses when confronted with crisis.  The concept should not be confused with autonomy or narcissism, however.  Differentiation means the capacity to be an "I" while remaining connected.
(E. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, p. 27)

When a family member/staff member/board member/church member loses the capacity to be differentiated they (consciously or unconsciously) operate to force the whole family closer.  Individual ideas, opinions, and perspectives that do not align with their way of seeing the world will result in sabotage.

Friedman succinctly spells out they way well-differentiated and not-so-differentiated people may respond in the church to define themselves or subvert the leader.  He writes:

All we have to do is give a talk in which we carefully differentiate ourselves--define clearly what we believe and where we stand on issues, in a way that is totally devoid of "should" and "musts."  The response from the congregational family, no matter what the faith, will always range along the following spectrum.  Those who function emotionally toward the "better differentiated" end will respond by defining themselves: "Father, I agree"; "I disagree"; "I believe"; etc.; or, "Ms. Jones, I like what you said, though I am not sure I can agree with you on..."  Those at the "less well-differentiated" end will respond not by defining themselves but by continuing to define their clergyman or clergywoman: "Father, how can you say that when..."; "Ms. Smith, how do you reconcile this with what you said the other day when you..."; "Rabbi, sometimes I wonder if you are even Jewish."  (E. Friedman, Generation to Generation, p. 30)    

It's tough to maintain an "I" posture when you're confronted with "we" language.  I've sat through many meetings: board, staff, or otherwise and watched how difficult it is for an "I" to stand against the "we".  However, this is exactly what is needed.  This defining action is precisely what separates the best leaders from ones that maintain the status quo.

Be warned!  An attack (sometimes overt, sometimes covert) is lurking at the door of every leader that decides to be an "I" in a family or group that is bent on being "we".  Poorly differentiated leaders act to sabotage well-differentiated leaders:
"We" think "you" should (or must)...
It's the ultimate power play and it's often the moment when the "I" crumbles.

I've crumbled quite a bit in the past few years as a church leader.  I'm not proud of it but I also know God is working my weakness into His strength.  My "I" is stronger now that it has been in a long time.  I give huge credit to three people: my amazing and brilliantly well-differentiated wife, my wise and caring spiritual director, and a cussing prophet who's best friend is a horse.

To all those seeking to live well-differentiated lives, here's some biblical encouragement:

"In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (Matt. 5:48)  

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Toronto School of Theology - Offer of Admission!!!

After months of waiting and wondering I received a letter today.

While I was preparing my application (back in the fall) I found reading successful PhD applicants' Statements of Intent very helpful.  Here's what I wrote to the TST Admissions Committee:

TST Statement of Intent - Jason Mills

If my denominational colleges are any indication of broader trends in Christian higher
education, then Canadian Bible Colleges and Seminaries are undergoing radical changes
in how they train leaders. The two denominational colleges of the Evangelical
Missionary Church of Canada—Rocky Mountain College, Calgary, AB and Emmanuel
Bible College, Kitchener, ON—are making sweeping changes in curriculum and format:
fewer full-time faculty members, more options for non-resident students (R.M.C. has
done away with residency altogether), more courses designed and delivered online by
American faculty, etc. These changes affect pastoral formation. The main rationale for
the shifts appears to be financial with very little consideration given to student formation.
That concerns me.

I am interested in studying the impacts that changes in curriculum, class format, and
faculty involvement have on pastoral and congregational formation. My purpose for this
focused study is simple: I see a need for a renewed, clear, and effective educational
philosophy as a foundation for training leaders for the 21st century church. My research
methodology will focus on examining the shifts in educational philosophy within my own
denominational colleges specifically, and Christian higher education institutions in
Canada generally. I plan to hold Jesus’ ways of teaching and training His disciples in one
hand while holding traditional Christian educational models, including the current
Canadian cultural and educational shifts and tensions, in the other.

My extensive leadership experiences give me a strong basis for my research. As part of
my undergraduate experience, I was granted access into college administrative and
disciplinary meetings. That gave me a glimpse into the organizational functioning of the
college. Immediately after graduation a church called me as their full-time pastor. After
four years I returned to the academy with a firmer grasp on the practice of ministry.
Seminary allowed me to bring my pastoral praxis into my coursework and thesis research.
I focused on postmodernism’s impact on church ministry and its implications for pastoral
leadership in the 21st century. My thesis drew on my experiences in church ministry and
the need for change in Canadian church leadership. I completed my M.A. and served for
twelve more years in pastoral ministry—including leading a multi-staff church in the
midst of significant staff turnover and a shifting congregational ministry philosophy. I
also stepped into the undergraduate classroom and distance education department where I
taught the next generation of pastoral leaders how to think, write, and practice Christian
faith. As a result of my varied professional opportunities I am well equipped to
understand the present shifts in educational philosophy as well as the reality of
congregational ministry.

My language qualifications include six years of French language training in the Ontario
French Immersion program at the elementary and secondary education levels—an asset
when researching Christian Higher Education methodology in French language
institutions in Canada. Additionally, the four semesters of biblical Greek I studied as an
undergraduate pastoral ministry student make it possible to study the life and ministry of
Jesus in the original language.

The Toronto School of Theology is an ideal context for my research. TST’s consortium
of theological schools and relationship with The Ontario Institute for Studies in
Education and The Centre for the Study of Ministry is a near perfect fit for researching
both educational philosophy and ministerial training. My hope is to gain admission to the
University of St. Michaels College in order to work directly with Dr. Mario D’Souza.
His research interests in the philosophy of education and religion in education—as
evidenced in his recent public lecture, “The Catholic University and the Unburdening of
the Real World” would make him an excellent primary supervisor for my research. In a
recent phone conversation he commented that my research interests intersect with his
own. Additionally, Dr. Doug Blomberg has been teaching, administrating, and
publishing in the field of Christian higher education for many years. He is retiring in
June 2017 from the Institute of Christian Studies but he directed me to some helpful
books on the philosophy of education and pastoral praxis. He has agreed to consider
sitting on a PhD advisory committee.

In conclusion, I am pursuing PhD studies because God is calling me. I hope to one day
teach and/or serve in the administration of a Christian higher education institution with
strong pastoral formation programs, backed by sound theological and educational
philosophy. I also plan on staying engaged in church ministry, implementing research 
findings and engaging in pastoral formation at the ground level.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Transitional Ministry

One of the most important seasons in the life of a church takes place during pastoral transition.  Roger Nicholson's helpful book, Temporary Shepherds: A Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry provides and excellent overview of the important tasks congregations should implement on their way from pastoral departure to calling a new leader.

Here's a summary of the 5 tasks from the book:

Task #1 is coming to terms with history.  This, according to Nicholson, is probably the most difficult time in the life of a congregation.  The church needs to come to terms with the loss of their pastor without losing sight of the future.  Nicholson asserts, “Painful experience in many congregations has shown that unless conflict is resolved and healthy communication restored prior to the call of a new pastor, the chances for the success of the new pastorate are substantially reduced.” (p. 7).  This is a time to gain perspective on the recent and distant past—highlighting both the victories and the painful times. 

Task #2 is discovering a new identity.  Congregations tend to think of themselves as changeless and static but nothing could be further from the truth.  Self-study during the interim time allows the present realities to surface rather than fond remembrances of bygone days.  Coming to terms with the 'actual' present also allows the search committee to accurately describe the church to potential candidates.

Task #3 is addressing leadership changes during an interim.  It is not unusual for a change in pastoral leadership to bring about a change in lay leadership as well.  Change at the top may have a ripple effect as overworked leaders tap out.  Those vacating leadership roles make room for new people to step up.  In healthier congregations this can go relatively smoothly.  But in conflicted and struggling churches this can create power struggles.

Task #4 is renewing denominational linkages.  Interim times are wonderful opportunities to re-establish a connection with the denomination.  Denominational resources are available to help with times of transition and the church has a chance to reflect on denominational identity and how relationship between church and denomination could be strengthened for the future.

Task #5 is commitment to new directions in ministry.  As the interim season draws to a close, and the first four tasks have been embraced and worked through, the church is in a place of greater unity and prepared to receive a new leader.  Nicholson says it like this, “Differences and misunderstandings have been resolved; closure of the former pastoral relationship has been completed; a new mission has been discerned; and members are eager to go forward.” (p. 12)


Unfortunately, not all churches have the luxury of hiring a temporary guide (transitional pastor) to help them accomplish these important tasks.  In my current church we were able to hire a seasoned guide to help (yay!) but he got sick (boo!), the tasks we not completed (uh oh!), and the ride got quite bumpy (conflict! it's one of the indicators of a poorly executed transition).  Here's what it looked like:
  • The lead pastor left to take on a denominational role (after 10+ years of ministry at that church) 
  • An intentional interim pastor was hired
  • The intentional interim pastor had a stroke
  • The most senior leader (a trusted and longstanding 15+ year associate pastor) stepped in to fill the gap
  • The longstanding associate pastor retired
  • I stepped in as the interim pastor 
  • Later I was hired as the permanent lead pastor
In retrospect, if you're looking for a healthy church transition, I would highly recommend hiring a specialized transitional pastor who can walk your church through the five tasks (or some form of them) from beginning to end.  I would not recommend my experience.  One day soon I'm hoping to use my experience, reading, and training to help churches make their transitions a healthy and enjoyable experience.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Babies and Bad Teaching

Yesterday I preached on 1 Timothy 2.  If you're not familiar with this portion of Paul's writings, there's a part there that calls women to not speak or have authority over their male counterparts (1 Tim. 2:12).  It's bad teaching to interpret this text literally.

Here's part of the story that's often untold:

1.  Instability between men and women the Ephesian church (as well as other parts of the Roman World like Corinth) created chaos in worship.

2.  That instability had to do with false teachings based on speculations about Old Testament genealogies (1 Tim. 1:3-4) that led people to believe and teach deception and lies about marriage, food, and other things (1 Tim. 4:1-3).

3.  Since women's education was not highly valued in the patriarchal society of the New Testament, women were particularly vulnerable to false teachings--like the ones in Ephesus at the time of Timothy's ministry.

4.  The false teachers were going house to house and taking advantage of the uneducated women.  They were "worming" their way into these homes and gaining control over "weak-willed women" (2 Tim. 3:6-7).  In those homes they found women of means (perhaps young widows or married women whose husbands were away on business) that were leading house church gatherings.

5.  Those women embraced the false teachings--likely a radical agenda: to be 'free' from their husbands and children, become sexually liberated (hence the appeal to dress and act modestly in 1 Tim. 3:9-10), and abandon their roles as wives and mothers.

Perhaps that's why Paul calls the Ephesian women to learning in silence rather than teaching.

In a bizarre chapter ending twist Paul adds that women will be saved through childbearing (1 Tim. 2:15).  What was the apostle Paul thinking?  Rather than interpreting this to mean that Paul has given up on the Gospel of grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, he is more likely intending to turn the radicalized 'free women' back to their husbands and families.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Coming this Sunday...

An egalitarian perspective on 1 Timothy 2:12.

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