First the Bad News…

There is a lot of doom and gloom with respect to the future sustainability of traditional ministry practice. I think that it is important as ministry leaders to understand the trends and dynamics that underlie a national phenomenon unfolding in our post-modern society: 4 out of 5 church organizations in North America are in decline or have plateaued. While these stats are disconcerting, it is vital that we understand WHY this current trend has so dramatically emerged as the new normal for our 400 year old  ministry practice (minister-centric). When you think about it, given church declinethe rapid pace and advancement of science, technology, and the emergence of new organizational paradigms, the institution of the church has not evolved much beyond the inclusion of enhancements linked to technology, social media, and spiritually motivated social action.

Failure to innovate, evolve, and align with integral (2nd tier) practices, the traditional model of ministry is on the way out like fossil fuels. Its only a matter of time. And when it’s too late, it’s too late. Like the deniers of climate change, it can be tempting to ignore the signs. Yet, the inevitable is on the horizon if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Once we truly grasp our predicament, we arrive at the crossroads where we can choose to evolve and grow into a more contemporary ministry practice that transcends the unintended consequences of our current way of doing ministry.

First, we need to understand why our current ministry practice is not sustainable. Then we can consider alternative and innovative ways to avoid the common pitfalls of business as usual.

I have created a list of eight issues that impact the well-being of our ministries today and profile the dis-ease of our current paradigm.

The Nones: These are people who indicate that they have no Nonesreligious affiliation (but likely consider themselves spiritual). Twenty years ago the percentage of Nones was only 2% of all adults in the United States. Currently, the trend is 20% – 30% of surveyed adults reporting no religious affiliation.

The Dones: These are typically Baby Boomers who have left the church. They report not leaving due to conflict or dissatisfaction, but rather being tired of the “plop, pray, and pay” format of the worship experience. I have to admit that for the last few years I have considered myself a member of the Dones, transferring my affiliation to the Church of AMC (America Multi-Cinema). The Dones also remind us that our established core of loyal Baby Boomers and Traditionals are aging out. In the next few decades how we DO ministry will change by necessity as Millennials and Generation X’s drive our ministries toward greater innovation, technology and social outreach.

Giving Trends: According to Giving USA 2007, giving to churches in 2006 was 32.8% of all charitable contributions, having fallen from 53% in 1985. The number of non-religious non-profit organizations increase 5 – 7% each year, while the amount of charitable donations has stayed the same for the last 30 years. Religion is no longer the charity of choice. The bottom line is that we now compete more and more for market share in an arena that is being trolled by highly efficient and progressive charities that are donor savvy and steeped in best practices.

Herding Cats: New Thought people enjoy the “herding cats” designation. What many say they like about New Thought is that we are not “organized religion”. Some New Thought people have an aversion to taking on organizational disciplines such as accountabilities, qualifications, and anything that speaks to requirements, standards, herding catsand rules. This resistance to adopting systems, practices and standards prevents a movement toward greater organizational complexity–a necessary component of organizational evolution.

Ministerial Turnover: According to PEW research, 1500 – 1700 clergy leave ministry each year due to burn-out, depression, or dissatisfaction. This trend is linked to the dysfunctional nature of the minister-centric model of ministry. When the minister, rather than the mission is center stage, the pressure for the credentialed leader is to be all things to all people. When the cultural centrism is the mission, however, the focus is about who we have come here to be as a ministry and our efforts to make a difference in the world. This is a different kind of organizational effort when the ministry is mission-focused rather that minister-focused.

Ministry Turn Under: Ministry leaders (especially Board / Council members) cycle through their terms of service without structures to support a smooth continuity of leadership expertise. New leaders assume their organizational roles with little or no orientation and training. This, coupled with a lack of systematic leadership development, translates into people with organizational roles, who are not equipped for those responsibilities. At Unity Spiritual Center, we will have an annual Board training program, that is open to anyone in the ministry, PRIOR to the Nominating Team process. With this system, prospective Board candidates understand the qualifications, role responsibilities, and accountabilities before running for a vacancy. Potential leaders know exactly what they say YES to, with respect to financial commitment, spiritual practice, meaningful service, emotional and spiritual development. In addition, community members learn about Board service and understand their role in holding the leadership accountable.

Millennial Madness: The traditional church dynamic is misaligned with Millennials that are put off by the plop, pray, pay approach. They perceive the practice of tithing (tithe to where you are spiritually fed. It’s the church, right?) as a gimmick. Their interests and needs are other worldly with respect to church elders (Traditionals and Baby Boomers).

owlThe Owl Syndrome:  There was once a man who lived out in the country. He had an evening ritual of sitting on his back porch listening to the sounds of the forest. One evening he heard an owl in the distance hooting. He decided to hoot back at the owl. To his amazement, the owl hooted back. Each evening, at the same time, the man conversed with the owl.

Meanwhile, the man’s wife had morning tea with a neighbor down the road. The neighbor reported that her husband also had the evening practice of hooting to a distant owl when suddenly they both realized that their husbands had been hooting at each other for the past year! When confronted with the obvious, the two husbands nonetheless continued their nightly practice of hooting at each other.

This story is illustrative of the fact that when faced with the obvious, it is sometimes our nature to continue behaviors that are unproductive if the alternative is to alter one’s identity. We have heard of urban spiritual communities refusing to give up their attachment of their spiritual home even in the face of population migration to the suburbs. We have seen how ministry leaders are reluctant to “rock the boat” or “buck the system” fearing upsetting the established financial core. The compulsion to maintain the status quo at the expense of innovation and thinking outside the box is a stranglehold on many ministries that while being capable of reversing the downward trends, are yet unable to because of the inability to press for transformation instead of translation (see earlier post).

All of this so called “bad news” can be reframed as evolutionary drivers, helping us to dismantle the outmoded structures, practices, and systems of the old paradigm of ministry. However, it will take effort and courage to lead a minister-centric organization into a mission-centric second tier ministry dynamic. This effort will be described in detail as we begin to introduce the Integral Ministry Model. More to follow.

Blessings, Gary

2 thoughts on “First the Bad News…”

  1. Gary, you have hit the nail on the head with this post. The failure to diagnose the issue is often the cause of inaction – we don’t question what we are doing, we just question what’s wrong with the congregants who are not responding the way they used to.
    After the diagnosis, must come the prescription, and your model is the best I have seen so far in terms of applying the best of what we know (Integral through a New Thought lens) to creating what is next.
    So how to steer the ship toward the horizon in something like a coordinated manner?

  2. Things keep changing. I, too, have been fascinated by the research conducted by the Pew Research Center–the ones who created the term “nones” back in October of 2012–but it is already 3 years old and while it seems packed with potential, it doesn’t tell us what the new way of doing church looks like.

    But perhaps some of Pew’s latest research released 7 months ago does give us a direction. They say:

    “The earnings gap between young adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher and those without has never been greater in the modern era, despite soaring student debt and high youth unemployment. In 1979, when the first wave of Baby Boomers were the same age that Millennials are today, the typical high school graduate earned about three-quarters (77%) of what a college graduate made. Today, Millennials with only a high school diploma earn 62% of what the typical college graduate earns.”

    When we add to those data the facts that
    * the number of students getting a Bachelor’s degree is dropping;
    * that according to the research above that means in spite of the recovery, more and more people are making less and less;
    * and that the schedule that “everybody” works–Monday through Friday 8-5–is a relic of a bygone era.

    That all tells us that the church of the future needs to understand that a tremendous number of their potential congregants work on Sundays. Churches need to have a wider range of meeting times for services. The church of the future needs to understand that their potential congregants have less and less money, especially at younger ages. To be able to convince a millennial who is still living at home that he or she needs to make a minimal member contribution is going to be a challenging proposal. That church of the future had better be demonstrating in crystal clear ways that there is something pretty darn good about being a member of the church and even paying for the privilege of voting. And that brings us to being driven by a mission–a real mission, a concrete mission, a mission that we can point to and touch and feel and hold up for all to see. That’s a worthy challenge!

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