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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Nine Ways to Reimagine Your Church's Ministry

Many churches are finding it harder and harder to sustain full time paid ministry. The most common response is to reduce ministry hours, or look for a cheaper alternative – student supply, for example, or only calling ministers in salary Category A or B.

These responses often end up being short term gain for long term pain. They take the pressure off the budget now, but usually contribute to the long-term process of decline. Fewer hours means less ministry. And it becomes harder to attract ministers who need to make a living.

When we’re faced with an urgent situation, we look for a quick fix. But there is no quick fix. The warning signs of decline have been with us for thirty years. It didn’t happen overnight. It won’t be fixed overnight.

Preparing for the future is more about transforming deeply entrenched attitudes and habits than it is about finding some magic button we can press. That change in attitude can only happen with patience and persistence over time – which is hard to do when anxiety about the future is high. But it’s what is called for.

Here are nine ways that even the smallest congregation can reimagine and refocus its ministry.

Start with Why
“Why are we here? What is our purpose?” These are the basic questions every church should ask.
These are deep questions of identity and mission. They can’t be answered with nice-sounding generalities (“We seek to be an inclusive community, welcoming to all”) but with clear specifics. What exactly are we here for? What difference does it make that we are here?
Management guru Peter Drucker says that the purpose of a church is to produce “transformed individuals.” Whose lives will be changed and in what way because of the church? That’s what churches need to wrestle with honestly, imaginatively, courageously and prayerfully.

God gives the church its purpose -- to carry on Christ’s work through the power of the Spirit. But each community needs to work out for itself what it means in practical terms to be faithful to that purpose. We need to create as many opportunities as we can think of to talk about this question. It’s number one because it’s the most important.  

Look at Assets First

Assets are all the things we have that make ministry possible. They include buildings and money, but they also include less tangible things like the abilities of our members, accumulated wisdom and experience, connections to the community, the faith we have inherited and the presence of the Spirit.

Even the smallest community has a wealth of assets, many of which they may not recognize. When we are struggling, it’s easy to see only deficits – what we don’t have rather than what we do have. The church begins to regard itself a problem to be solved. And because it sees only what is lacking, it looks outside for an “expert” solution, which makes it feel even more inadequate.

Focusing on assets can open our eyes to the potential of the community to creatively address its challenges.  While outside knowledge and experience is valuable, the answer is found first of all “in here” – in the assets and capacities already present in the community.

Be realistic about your deficits. But start with your assets.

Gather in order to Scatter

We’re conditioned to think that “church” happens when people come into the building, for worship, meetings or activities. Therefore, we see our main job as bringing more people in. It’s important to bring people in, but in our time, the impact of the church will felt be less through the programs and activities within the church, and more when people are equipped to live out their faith in their daily lives – in their families, workplaces, neighborhoods and communities. We need to see the church as the place where we gather in order to be equipped to scatter into God’s world.

Distinguish Means from Ends

A church’s “end” is its mission or purpose (not to be confused with a “mission statement.”) One way to discern our ends is to answer three questions suggested by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann:

Who are we?
What is God calling us to do?
Who is our neighbor?

The church’s means are all the ways it puts the answers to these questions into practice, which includes money, buildings and staff.

It’s common in churches to talk about a means – a balanced budget, a beloved building, a longstanding program – as if it were an end in itself. We need to be sure we are putting our means at the service of our ends – and be willing to find other means if the ones we have aren’t doing the job.  

Rethink Why you need a Minister
Churches often think of ministry as a list of tasks -- preaching, visiting, going to meetings.
Many churches with part time ministers expect the minister to show up for worship every Sunday. Since most people’s primary experience of church is Sunday morning, this shields the congregation from the full consequences of part time ministry because there is no time left for mission or outreach.  

Maybe having your part time minister spend most of his or her time preparing for a one hour Sunday service is not the best use of their time. Maybe there are other, more important things your minister should be doing. Start with your “Why?” and ask how the paid staff you have can best serve that end.

(An interesting example is Cariboo Presbyterian Church in British Columbia. This church is a network of house churches in small, scattered communities. The paid ministry staff train and equip local people to lead worship, prayer and pastoral care in each house church. See )

Commit to Collaborate Upfront

Cooperating with other churches sounds like a good idea. But if you wait till you’re looking for a new minister, it’s too late. Your immediate needs of the moment may not line up with those of neighboring churches.  

The commitment to a cooperative vision should be made now so that you can respond to future ministry needs out of that commitment rather than trying to patch together an arrangement on short notice.

And – your potential cooperative partners may not be United Churches!

Think Bi-Vocational

Part-time ministry may save the congregation money, but it doesn’t provide the minister with a living income. Congregations need to be proactive and innovative in thinking about what other sources of income could be available to potential candidates. This might mean seeking a minister who has marketable skills in an area where there is need within the community and making that part of the search process. We can no longer assume that full time ministry is the norm, but it should not be entirely up to ministers to bear the burden of that reality.

Your Church is not Your Building

The largest churches in the New Testament had around fifty people. That’s how many would fit in someone’s house. And the vast majority of churches in the world today have fewer than fifty members. The problem is not that our congregations are too small to be effective. It’s that many of them are struggling to maintain aging and costly buildings.

Ask what the life and ministry of your church could look like apart from the building in which it is currently housed. This is hard, because we’re so used to thinking of the church as a building. Closing the building usually means closing the church.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Imagine how your church could still be a vibrant Christian community if you didn’t have your building.

Adapting to change is a spiritual, not just an organizational challenge. Change is a journey of the heart. Find ways to invite as many people in your church as possible into that journey. Discover ways for them to participate in the long-term spiritual discerning of your congregation. And trust that God is not finished with the church.

Rev. Paul Miller


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hey Paul - thanks for this excellent article. Really ties into some of the work that Al Reeve and I are doing under the "Hosting Sacred Conversations" banner.