What's the Dirty Secret?
Minister, you are not the most important element in your church member's spiritual formation. As a matter of fact, you are probably not the most important reason people will be in your assembly this weekend.
I was visiting with a friend of mine last week and he said, almost apologetically, "Honestly, I get much more out of the group, morning bible study time than the sermon on Sunday morning."
He nervously talked about the great sermons he is privelaged to hear from his preacher every week, but quickly went back to the value his "group" of friends play in his spiritual formation. Why?
They know him (good and bad)
They speak into him (blessing and challenge)
They have spent time with him (joy and suffering)
They authentically care (time and...well...um...time)
Honestly, I was not surprised at my friends' priority.
It has been my experience, professionally and personally, that the greatest influencer of spiritual growth, positively or negatively, are the relationships we choose to be a part. I have heard a lot of great lessons from the pulpit and currently blessed to hear one of the greatest preachers of my life time every week, Rick Atchley. Still, the effect of key relationships on my spiritual journey trumps all that great teaching. I could drop in a whole lot of research from the Fuller Youth Institute and other great organizations to further support this truth. However, I am certain most minister's know this truth and should use their public platform to not only give life changing information but leverage their position to encourage the type of community my friend was describing in our conversation.
Why did my friend feel like he was being "offensive" when speaking his heart?
Why do some minister's act like the greatest spiritual formation takes place when they are on the stage?
Why do Church leaders want to hide the Secret? Is it:
I am certain, because I have experienced each of these, they all play a role.
In my opinion, the key reason the man was uncomfortable sharing, why minister's struggle to keep their role in the body in prospective and why Church leaders want to hide the Secret is found in the way church leaders measure ministry effectiveness.
They are important, but church leaders place a lot of significance on numbers and budget. Again, both are strong indicators that a spiritual marker is being achieved. Even so, when a minister feels the pressure to deliver the numbers and budget, he or she can begin to rely too heavily on their own ability to generate such growth that they lose focus on the necessity for members to build relationships with other believers "outside" assembly time(s). Insecurity, pride, comfort and control raise their ugly head in a minister's life leading to burn out and/or disenchantment with the way the institutional-business side of church functions. It makes sense that church leaders question and challenge a minister when the numbers and budget drop. However, the dirty secret highlights the problem may not rest on the quality of the "stage" performance but the quality of relationships within the church body. In other words, numeric and budget growth issues are not always the minister's fault.
While experiencing the pull to attribute too much credibility to the "stage" of ministry performance, I have been blessed beyond measure in working with leadership groups that strive to look beyond the numbers and budget in determining ministry success. In each case, the leadership had to first come to the realization that the weekend or gathering stage event was important enough to deliver at the highest of quality but did not possess the power to develop long term discipleship formation. I am sure it came from some "small group church" based minister, let's say Andy Stanley (He's a popular minister who understands the dirty secret), the simple, yet profound truth that "spiritual growth best occurs in circles not rows."
Crazy thing, it has been my observation that once a minister embraces the dirty secret of spiritual growth and lowers the importance of their "stage" performance, the Lord actually increases the effectiveness and draw of their "stage" ministry (the least will become greatest, last to first words of Jesus echo in the ears of such leaders).
Here are a few action steps ministers and other church leaders can take with the knowledge of this Dirty Secret :
- Embrace the truth that you or your minister is not the most important element in your church member's spiritual formation. Here is a hard truth we minister's need to remember. More than likely, even though "churched" people may have heard of your ability to preach or teach, the "un-churched" visitor sitting in your assembly is there because someone they knew invited them. Ouch! Your ability to communicate was an added bonus to their visiting your gathering.
- Find ways to measure ministry effectiveness beyond the easy to identify numbers and budget. Numbers and budget do not necessarily equate with fruit of the spirit growth! My friend is able to measure the effectiveness of his bible study accurately because of time and involvement with these people. When we count numbers and budget in the typical ushers with clipboard fashion we may feel good about the 500 attendees that attend ever weekend. But they are probably not the same people every week! We don't know who is in our assemblies. We need to start looking at growth longitudinally. This is a fancy word for "over time." There are great church management programs that help church leaders track a person from the parking lot to conversion to worship participation to service to giving.... These programs have the ability to track over time and keep the overall number and budget counts in proper context. Even so, the greatest accounting program is people in meaningful relationship! People notice when the people they are living life with are missing. Therefore, the third action step. Before we leave this action step, I believe the greatest way to evaluate ministry effectiveness is through story. Ask for and share stories that illustrate ministry is happening in your church family! Stories inspire and focus ministry.
- Provide opportunity for relationship building in your church community. Depending on your context determine what best suits your church member's needs for "circle" type relationship building. Leaders have to determine how to provide and support environments where relational safety and vulnerability occurs while also providing relationship building opportunities where those outside the church walls and new members feel welcome and wanted. This is difficult work. Classes, Small Groups, Classes with Small Groups are all options in the appropriate settings for this to happen. A word of caution. Please do not simply copy another church's programming without first examining your own ministry context. This could lead to lots of trouble.