Whenever we think about growth in the local church, we typically think about it in two threads: Transfer & Conversion. There's a third as well, which is what I affectionately call "The Great Commission 9 months at a time" where families in the church add through children. But for purpose of this let's think along the Transfer & Conversion.
Transfer is where someone from another church attends and joins yours. They have already made a profession of faith, they've been baptized, and they come with a "letter" (if your denomination practices that) affirming their membership in good standing. These are folks who have been Christians for years and may have served in a number of areas. Their reasons for changing churches could be a relocation for work, they wanted to attend closer to home, they have family in your church, or there may have been a reason to leave their previous church home.
Conversion growth is where someone is brought into the membership through salvation (and baptism) as a result of a personal connection, invite, or some other introduction to the Gospel and to the church. Conversion growth where people are discipled from spiritual infancy, are mentored, and many times are introduced to the culture and practices of a church.
All conversion growth is good. It means your church is reaching into its community and sharing Jesus with neighbors. It means you're doing your mission. At the same time, not all transfer growth is bad. Sometimes you'll have people join because they want to be part of a church doing something. Sometimes they'll join because they got mad and left. Sometimes it's because they can't make the long commute. Sometimes it's because they lost a power struggle. Not all transfer growth is bad. It can be really good.
Perhaps the best way to draw the analogy is to look at college basketball (I'm from Kentucky, if you're not from there you have no idea how big it is). In basketball, a team can get new players two different ways: graduate transfers and recruiting classes. Graduate transfers are players who have finished their degree at a school and can transfer for one year of eligibility at a new school. Recruiting classes are the players brought in as freshmen who coaches have built relationships with for years. Both help a team, and both carry over into church growth.
Graduate transfers can immediately contribute, and so can transfer growth - What I love about transfer growth is that it brings in people who know how churches work, who have a heart for ministry, and who many times have years of experience in previous contexts. They can, in many cases, be an immediate help to meet needs. In the same vein, graduate transfers don't have to learn college officiating or unlearn AAU tendencies. Many times, they immediately start and can contribute.
Recruiting classes are hard work, so is conversion growth - The thing that sets apart college sports from pro sports is that in college, coaches recruit. They can build their team. And many of them spend more time & money on recruiting trips and visits than they do on practice and game prep. Not every player recruited will commit. Some will back out. Others will sign with a rival. Sometimes a coach will spend months working on bringing in a player only to lose out. Conversion growth is hard work. Sometimes people will reject the message. Other times they might not want to talk further. Sometimes it can take weeks or months to get them to make the first visit to your church. One thing I've noticed is that it can take more than a year to assimilate from conversion to active membership.
Graduate transfers are short-term, recruiting classes are long-term - As much as I love good transfer growth, it's not sustainable. You can't constantly depend on others to drop in your lap. A college coach can't chase the graduate transfer route year after year. They aren't able to develop a healthy culture or long-term success. Conversion growth in the church is the sustainable option. Churches that engage in mission, that have people sharing Jesus with their friends and neighbors, that are baptizing regularly, are churches that see long-term fruition.
Losing people is hard, but you pick back up - Graduate transfers are a zero sum equation. If your school gets a player, another school has to lose a player. Transfer growth in the church is like that as well. If someone joins your church, they left another. If someone joins another church, they leave yours. It's tough. Sometimes you'll spend months or years investing in people and they get a job transfer or something happens and they decide to leave. It's hard for a coach when a player decides to leave the program. But they can't delay, because the season is around the corner. In ministry, we can be sad when people leave. But it doesn't take away from our responsibility to serve and minister and invest in our community.
How have you seen transfer growth help your church? How has your church been blessed by continued conversion growth?
Last week news resounded throughout college basketball that the University of Louisville had self-imposed a one year ban on postseason play. Instead of entering the NCAA tournament as a sleeper Final Four pick, the season will end without much fanfare on a March afternoon in Charlottesville Virginia. There have been teams who've self-imposed bans before (Syracuse basketball and Miami football most recently), but those teams lacked the potential that this year's Cardinals team did. At the center of the story were two fifth-year graduate transfers, Damion Lee & Trey Lewis. They joined the team to get the chance to hear One Shining Moment, and to hear their name called on a tournament court. And when the team heard the news, reports from the locker room focused on how crushed these two were. Because they had been named team captains and had carried themselves with class the whole season, they were made available to the media that evening. This is what that scene looked like.
They were surrounded by every. single. member. of. the. team. If that's not team chemistry, I don't know what is. On what could have been a day everyone mailed it in, the entire team stood by their teammates who just had the worst day of their lives. Chemistry is so important to teams, and it can be the difference between an OK team and a great team. Who knows what this team could have done? I don't know if the program will be hit with more sanctions beyond this. But for a moment, we saw what chemistry is and how important it can be to maintain a team.
This chemistry displayed itself through friendship, unity, and trust. The players all season displayed more than a shared uniform, they shared life. They laughed together, hung out together, and truly liked each other. They were also unified, and that comes from the culture that emphasized the name on the front of the jersey rather than the back. They played hard, dug in on defense, and looked to find the open player. Lastly, they trusted each other. It's a beautiful picture to know that during your worst moment, someone has your back. The scandal may impact the program for years, but these guys did nothing wrong and proved they lived out the mantra of being a "Louisville man."
Chemistry in ministry is important because ministry is personal, the body connects and intersects, and ministry is hard! These kinds of crisis moments can be a time where chemistry is forged among a team, if there is intentionality among the team to bond together as a "Band of Brothers" to get through those difficult times. Unfortunately, if there hasn't been much work done before the crisis to build a foundation for that chemistry, crisis moments can often prove divisive. So what are you doing to develop chemistry in your ministry? I dedicated an entire chapter to how important chemistry is in ministry in my book Dream Teams, available on Amazon. Pick up a copy and see if it doesn't change the way your ministry operates.
This past week I was supposed to be out of town at a conference, but we had a sick baby at home so I had to cancel my trip. I’d already gotten a substitute for our weekly Bible study, so I thought I’d change it up and be a part of being fed rather than be the one up front leading. I have to admit, it was one of the most refreshing things I’ve done in a while. One thing we can too often believe in leadership is that we have to always be the one leading, that’s just who we are. But if we don’t take time to be fed and encourage others to take the lead, we’re not doing our job as leaders—instead of leading a culture, we’re creating a dependency.
Think about it for a second. If you’re the only one who ever leads, teaches, and speaks, what happens when you get the flu or another opportunity comes up? You’ve done a disservice to your ministry because you’ve not equipped others to carry the mantle for you. Our leadership is best used when it’s distributed to others. If you invest in 5 volunteers who are leading in your ministry, you’ve multiplied your leadership by 6! You can in theory do six times more than you could by yourself. If you intentionally invest in an intern or associate leader, you’ve doubled your capacity to reach the entire ministry, and you’ve set up someone else for success when God moves them (or you) to a new place of service.
If you’re a leader, I want to encourage you to occasionally take a step back and let someone else have the spotlight. Of course this assumes you’ve built someone up to be in that spot! If you’ve not and you take a step back, you’ve not distributed leadership you’ve dumped it. There’s a huge difference.
1. It allows your people to hear from another voice – One thing that can happen when you’re the only voice is the Charlie Brown phenomenon. Remember the teacher’s voice in Peanuts? That’s how you can sound after time. Give them a break and let them be fed or led by someone else.
2. It gives you a chance to sit back and evaluate – When you’re up front you only get a limited perspective. But when you take a step back you can see how all the moving pieces interact and if what you’re doing is being effective. Actively listen, take notes, and don’t leave any sacred cows unturned. It also helps you to give feedback to the leader filling in for you, especially if they’re new or inexperienced. Your feedback is invaluable to them!
3. You need to be a learner – I’m convinced leaders who stop learning are leaders who can’t lead. It shows pride when you think you can’t learn something from someone else, even if they’re new or inexperienced. God still speaks through His Word, and when you sit back and let yourself learn from someone else’s perspective, you’re honoring their preparation and God’s design for you to work and rest.
4. You’re training up Kingdom workers – So many times churches assume their ministry leadership will just do the work of ministry, that they’ll basically do everything. And that’s partly true, ministry leaders should be willing to do whatever it takes, but they shouldn’t be expected to do everything. Ephesians 4 shows us that the task of ministry leadership is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. So when you’re letting others lead and helping build up people to do ministry.
Do you have any success stories on stepping back and letting others succeed in leadership?
Yesterday I read a great article by Thom Rainer (CEO of LifeWay) on two major changes in the landscape of the American church. These changes have been subtle, but their impact is starting to resonate. The two major trends are: Decentralization of Leadership, and Decentralization of Facilities. I loved this article. It was a huge encouragement to see a shift in how churches in America operate and engage their communities for the Gospel. Church leadership should be encouraged as well, because it marks a change towards biblical faithfulness for the local church and her pastors. I specifically noticed 6 implications from the article.
Decentralized leadership leads to a team ministry mindset - One thing that stood out to me was the shift from "Senior" to "Lead" pastor. The change in terminology, while functionally keeping the position the same, showed a flattening of the pyramid. Think of a round table, no one is at the head, each has a contribution. The leadership comes through influence, and in a team ministry mindset everyone buys into the vision/direction of the lead pastor.
Decentralized facilities turn church from attractional to missional - When the hub of activity is the church facility, and everything is directed towards a "come and see" mindset, what happens often is congregational isolationism--where everything becomes an "alternative" for the church. In a decentralized approach, the church is released to go into the community and put less emphasis on having to come to the church property.
Decentralized leadership changes staff focus - In many churches, staff are expected to do the ministry. In a decentralized leadership model, staff are free to cast vision and handle the administrative aspects of ministry, while putting their primary focus on equipping others to carry out the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11).
Decentralized facilities reduce overhead costs - It costs a lot to maintain a big building, and much of that money in annual budgets is frozen, which keeps additional funds from being released for ministry, missions, and recruiting new leadership. By putting less emphasis on the grounds and multiplying campuses rather than adding square footage, a church becomes more cost-effective in how their money is stewarded.
Decentralized leadership gets more done - One person doing ministry is limited by their time, energy, and lack of sleep. But if one person equips 10 to do ministry, the impact is exponential. When we shift away from leaders doing ministry to leaders fostering a ministry culture, we're able to see more Kingdom impact happen. Imagine what could happen in your church if you could equip, disciple, train, and release 10 people to do what you're doing by yourself now.
Decentralized facilities allows for greater community impact - A few weeks ago I got to interview an executive pastor in a multi-site church in an urban setting. I asked him specifically about how each campus interacts with their communities, and that was an a-ha moment for me. By placing campuses in different communities, each with a different feel (some were in the suburbs, others were in the yuppy/Millennial areas), the Gospel can be contextualized in such a way that speaks to the hearts of the people, serves in a uniquely beneficial way, and promotes a culture of missions that shows how Jesus loves that community in its own way.
How have you seen decentralization in your church? What was effective about it? How could we continue to move further?
Check out this ad from 1991 for Radio Shack (yes kids, that's where we went to get gadgets in the Dark Ages). Look at how everything in how we communicate, play, and share electronically has changed. What was once cutting edge is now on display in museums. One thing we cannot escape is that the way we do ministry is going to change. Twenty years ago in student ministry it was fueled by caffeine overnight trips, Red Rover, Chubby Bunny, and lock-ins. The way we connect with and invest in students has changed because times have changed, we've become more aware of the importance of safety, and we've recognized that lasting fruit happens when it's intentionally pursued.
Making any change in student ministry needs to be something carefully thought out. I'm indebted to John Kotter from Harvard Business School for his work on leading change. His Eight Steps have proven invaluable to me over the years, and have formed the basis for how I lead change processes in student ministry. I've adapted some of his list, but here are some ways to go about leading change in your student ministry.
Have a "Dream Picture" - Kotter calls this a "strategic vision," which I've amended slightly. In the Dream Picture, you start with the end game at graduation by asking 3 questions: What do we want our students to know? What do we want them to love? What do we want them to do? These three questions help define what would be the Dream, an ideal student who graduates from our student ministry. Knowledge involves the forming of a biblical worldview, Love involves a growing and deepening faith, and Do involves missions and service within and outside the church.
Build a Team - I'm intentional about who I bring in to help serve in our student ministry, because I want people who are team players, committed to serving, faithful in their church involvement, and who want to see great things happen. It's important to bring these people in to the Dream Picture and help them construct it. I often ask parents, grandparents, and young couples to serve in our student ministry so that we get a variety of perspectives. Also I think it's important to include in that team students who have proven themselves and have the maturity to get the big picture.
Identify Roadblocks - When I first got to Westside, I made it very clear that we were going to make things intentional and we were going to have a plan. And that might include removing some things that didn't fit the plan. With your Team, work to identify any roadblocks in your ministry strategy, calendar, or philosophy that don't help you achieve the Dream Picture. It doesn't mean you make any change yet, it just means you've identified some areas to work through.
Communicate Clearly with Parents - One of the biggest regrets I've had is that I wasn't more intentional about communicating change processes to parents. But they are the stakeholders in your ministry, not your students. They are the ones who trust you with their students. So anytime you make any change, you need to be clear in your communication. You also need to make sure that communication is two-way. Just giving information won't help win the change process, they need the opportunity to ask questions and give feedback. Sometimes they'll stop you from stepping on land mines!
Be Ready for Pushback - Some of the things that you and your Team will identify as Roadblocks to the Dream Picture may be things your students love and are attached to. To prepare for this, you need to make sure you have talking points for your Team, trusted students you can enlist to help communicate, and some thick skin for any criticism you might get.
Replace Losses with Gains - Whenever you remove a roadblock, it's going to be a loss for someone. The change process can go smoother when you are able to build in some wins/gains for students. One thing I said early on was no lock-ins, which is met with resistance every time I answer the question with the same answer. In order to replace that perceived loss, we build in late-night activities and I've asked those most resistant to removing lock-ins to help in the decision-making process.
Work Slowly unless it's an Emergency - Leading any change process can be costly if it's done too quickly. Student ministry is no exception. I've followed a "1 Year" rule, that no roadblock will be removed for at least a year. This enables a new crop of students to come up who aren't emotionally attached, a chance for those who are to graduate, and a chance to work with the Team to develop the process and strategy. The exception is when it's a big deal that needs to be dealt with quickly. I've only done this twice. The first was create a process of financial management because our snack bar was unchecked. The second was to remove from our student ministry library the NOOMA videos by Rob Bell because of some heretical views he had taken towards salvation.
Enlist your senior pastor and children's minister - The two biggest allies for a student minister are the lead pastor and the children's minister. One is your mouthpiece to the entire church, the other is your feeder for your ministry. Any significant change process you do needs to be something they are both aware of and on board with. It's good to have your lead pastor in the discussion because you want to make sure your ministry strategy and philosophy is lining up with his direction for the church, and so your children's minister can help you lead the transition to student ministry.
Cheer for Change - One major change I did recently was move our camp, from one 4 hours away to one 30 minutes away. Every chance I got I took time to hype up what the new camp had to offer, how much bigger it was, and how many more friendships our students could make. I also took time to talk to a number of parents about it who quickly became cheerleaders for it. And the message was always communicated in a way that reinforced how this change was for the best and how it helped us achieve our Dream Picture.
What ways have you worked to make change in your student ministry that you'd like to share?
This weekend we officially entered new waters: we are now soccer parents. Fear not, the window sticker is coming. We will be those people, no matter how many times we tell ourselves otherwise. And when Sam scores his first goal, we'll probably have to be held back from running on the field.
In so many ways, leadership is like running a soccer team made of 4 year olds. Here's 5 things we heard from the sideline that carry over to leadership:
"Point to the goal" - Coach used every break in play to ask the team which way they were headed. In soccer that age, they know to kick it in the goal....whether it's the right one is secondary. Leaders need to constantly reinforce the vision and direction they want to take. If they don't, chaos ensues. At first a leader has to show the way, then reinforce it and encourage it. If we as leaders don't know where we're going, how will anyone else?
"Pass the ball!" - Teamwork doesn't come naturally. We are built selfishly, when the ball comes near us we want it. During the game it didn't matter who had the ball or which team had it, every little leg was going for the ball. So the leader has to always be the chief encourager who has to push towards the team working together. It also means that we celebrate accomplishments but we value the assist as much as the goal.
"Take a break" - Leaders have to be aware of when they need to give their team a break. The game was hot and coach knew to get everyone in the game he had to give players a break. One of the saddest stats today is how little time off we take. Leaders need to recognize that for long range effectiveness, team members need off time, refreshment, and shade.
"Get your snack before you leave" - So I think the kids were more excited about the juice box than the game, must be nice to be 4. Leaders have to be givers. We give of ourselves, our effort, our time, our energy, and our credit to those we lead. Just like our coach who gave his Saturday morning to coach kids and spend time investing in others, he went above and made sure they had juice afterwards. The best leaders are the ones who give to rather than take from their team.
"Remember to have fun!" - I get sad thinking about the day sports no longer is fun, and I hope that our boys never get to that point. But so many kids find themselves in a sport that's not fun anymore and they do it because they have to. Our work should be enjoyable and our responsibility as a leader is to make sure that the environment we're creating is one people want to be a part of. When we do that, we build a team setting that not only builds productive results but healthy people.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.