The mistake that is causing churches and their ministers to collapse

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Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

This is what they call a “long read.”

It’s about church stuff.

Church leaders (and people who care about church) may get the most out of this post. I think, however, that anyone who leads a mission organization may get something from it, too.

I couldn’t stop thinking about something my dad, a lifelong minister (or what you may call a pastor in your circles), said to me a couple of weeks ago.

So I started writing and it turned into this.

You’ll find three parts in this post.

The first part is the story Dad told me about how he made a big mistake that led to his personal collapse and, perhaps, the collapse of the congregation he served for 22 years.

The second part is my take on Dad’s story and how I think many American congregations and their ministers make the same mistake that Dad made.

The third part is a personal story about how I saw that mistake play out with the leaders of my own congregation and what it may have cost us.

The conclusion asks some “what if?” questions. What if we (church, lay leaders, ministers, pastors, etc.) try to do some things different from the way we learned to do them over the past few generations?

I write a blog for my own enjoyment and to process my own thoughts. I share what I write in hope that someone gets something good or useful from it. I also share what I write because maybe someone will challenge me or point out something that I don’t know or that I misunderstood. In short, I do this to grow. I am not an authority, expert, “thought leader”, or a “voice crying in the wilderness.”

I’m just a pilgrim making note of what I see as I go along.

So, let’s start with my dad’s biggest mistake in congregational ministry…

Part One: Dad’s biggest mistake in congregational ministry (and what it cost him and his congregation)

When my dad retired from 45 years of ministry to local Church of Christ congregations, I couldn’t throw him a retirement party. The pandemic had us in its teeth. Inviting retirement-age people from all over the country to pack a banquet hall seemed neither loving nor wise.

So I started a podcast, Minister in the Making, instead. I wanted to give Dad a chance to tell the story of his life and work.

I wanted to give people a chance to learn what Dad learned along the way.

We recently recorded Episode #31, which lines up with the 28-year mark in Dad’s ministry career.

It is also the year that Dad thought he might quit ministry forever.

In fact, he did quit ministry for awhile.

Here is the story.

In 1981, Dad became the minister to the Steele Avenue Church of Christ in Ashland, a small Rust Belt town in rural northern Ohio.

At the time, the congregation had about 150 members and a whole lot of friendly energy, love, and roll-up-your-sleeves work ethic.

The same year that Dad started his work with that congregation, Church of Christ congregations across America were starting a membership slide that goes on to this day. Between 1981 and 2001, the Church of Christ lost ten percent of its members nationwide.

During the same 20 years, however, the Steele Avenue Church of Christ grew by 135 percent to almost 350 members.

The congregation outgrew its building on Steele Avenue, so it bought several acres of land on Main Street. By 2003, the congregation was ready to start construction on its new 600-seat building with education and multipurpose wings.

Every minister and pastor dreams of working with a congregation that grew like the Steele Avenue Church of Christ grew in the 1980s and 1990s.

Dad was living that dream.

Those of us who were close to Dad, however, knew that, by 2003, he felt trapped in a nightmare.

Dad and I spent a lot of time together during those days. He confided to me that he felt “burnt out.” Mom went into more detail, telling me that she worried about Dad’s mental and physical health.

Dad, Mom, and I talked a lot about what he should do.

Mom and I felt like Dad needed to make some changes, including (maybe) resigning from his ministry or taking a long break.

Dad, however, did not believe that he could let go. He had one child still in college and he wanted to get her through it. He felt the pressure of the building campaign and, perhaps, that 600-seat auditorium that he wanted to fill with new members. He felt a personal responsibility for the emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being of every member of the congregation–most of all those who were shut in or sick–and tried to pay each one of them a personal visit at least once a month.

Dad said to me (back then): “If I don’t do it, who will?”

I worried that he would have a heart attack or stroke.

Then, one day in July 2003, Dad had an episode that may have saved his life. Instead of having a heart attack or stroke, his body and brain just…shut down. He had a “total system failure” that he described as “running out of gas while driving down the highway at 70 miles per hour.”

His body fell into a fetal position on the couch in his basement. He waited for…what? He didn’t know. Coma? Death? Spontaneous combustion?

When he finally got up off the couch, he went to see a Christian counselor. That man told Dad that, for his own sake and the sake of the Steele Avenue Church of Christ, he had to resign his ministry within six months.

Dad disagreed. He figured he just needed a break or to find a different way to organize his life. He just needed to find a way to work harder.

But three months later, Dad finally admitted that he was at the end of his rope. In fact, he admitted that he fell off the rope, perhaps on that day in July when he curled into a ball in his basement. He wrote a letter of resignation. In October 2003, he and Mom read the letter to the Steele Avenue Church of Christ elders at their Monday night business meeting.

My sisters and I poke fun at Dad for being a “crier”. He gets weepy whenever he starts talking about people he loves.

Growing up, I also saw him get so anxious about elders meetings that he made himself sick.

So, when I interviewed Dad and Mom for the podcast, I asked them to talk about how Dad felt on the day he read his resignation letter.

I expected them to say that Dad could not eat, sleep, or stop trembling. I expected them to describe how Dad cried several times as he tried to read his letter to the men with whom he worked for 22 years.

Mom surprised me, however, when she said that Dad did not show a trace of his normal emotions or temperament on the day that he resigned.

Mom knew that Dad’s burnout was total when he lost the ability to feel.

She said that by the day that he read his resignation letter to the elders, Dad was “not himself” and was just “a shell of a man.”

It’s not the end that Dad and Mom imagined when they moved to Ashland in 1981. They so fell in love with the congregation and the town that they bought cemetery plots and a house (something Church of Christ ministers rarely did in those days). They imagined working with the congregation for 40 years, retiring, and living out the rest of their lives in Ashland.

The best word I can find to describe Dad’s breakup with the Steele Avenue Church of Christ is grief. Even 18 years later, I still detect deep grief and sadness whenever Dad and Mom talk about what could have been.

Part Two: Where did Dad go wrong in Ashland and what does it mean?

In the podcast, I asked Dad to reflect on his last days with the Steele Avenue Church of Christ. He said what may be the most important thing to come out of our conversations so far:

“I measured the wrong things.”

I measured the wrong things.

He said that if he measured the right things back then, his dream of retiring in Ashland may have come true.

When I asked Dad to tell me what he meant by the “wrong things” he said something that I will put in my own words: He measured the width of the congregation and not its depth.

Then he said: “God makes members (of the church); we (members) are to make disciples.”

In this statement, Dad touched on Acts 2:47: “…and day by day the Lord added to [the church] those who were being saved.”

And also the “Great Commission” of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

So, then, God adds members to the church and the church makes disciples of them, teaching them to obey everything that Jesus Christ commanded.

Discipleship is discipline in a direction. In Christianity, it is discipline in the direction of living in what we call “the kingdom of God.”

These days, I prefer to use the word apprenticeship. I think people in 2022 can understand and visualize this word better than “discipleship” (and it doesn’t come with as much religious baggage).

An apprentice learns how to live and work by following her master teacher everywhere and imitating his life and work. She listens to what he says, but she also practices what she sees him do.

Likewise, a master teacher calls his apprentices to follow (imitate and learn from) him. At first, he gives them only a little to do. As time goes by and he trusts them more, he gives them more of his work. When apprentices are ready, the master teacher sends them out to go work on their own.

As they go, he tells them: “You are master teachers now. Go make apprentices and give them all that I gave you.”

This should sound familiar to “Great Commission Christians.”

If you study the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, you will see this apprenticeship pattern at work. He called a few men and told them to follow him (Gospel of Matthew 4:19, 9:9; Gospel of Mark 1:17, 2:14; Gospel of Luke 5:27; Gospel of John 1:43; and dozens of other passages in which Jesus of Nazareth talked about “following” him). This familiar language in that culture and time made it clear that he, a master teacher (rabbi), meant for them to become his apprentices. The twelve men who followed Jesus for three years understood themselves to be apprentices, which also meant that they understood themselves to be master teachers in training.

As time went by, Jesus gave the Twelve more work to do on their own. Remember the story about the time when he sent them out in pairs to preach the kingdom of God and to use his power to heal people (Gospel of Mark 6:6b-13; Gospel of Luke 10:1-24).

This is master teacher-apprentice stuff.

Finally, just before he disappeared into the ether, the Christ announced to his apprentices that they would now be the master teachers and, as such, call people to follow them as apprentices (Gospel of Matthew 28:19-20).

What we Christians call the “Great Commission” is not an invitation for our best preachers to go find crowds and spotlights.

It is a call to each Christian to show and tell the life of the Christ through close personal relationships with people who choose to be apprentices to that life. It is a special call to leaders (the master teachers in local congregations of the church of Christ) to make apprentices who grow into master teachers themselves.

American Christians–and especially their preachers–tend to marvel at big numbers in the Gospel story. Jesus preached to audiences that numbered at least 5,000 and 4,000 on two occasions (Gospel of Matthew 14:13-21, 15:32-29; Gospel of Mark 6:30-44, 8:1-9; Gospel of Luke 9:10-17; Gospel of John 6:1-15). The apostles baptized 3,000 converts to Christianity on the Day of Pentecost (Acts of the Apostles 2:41).

Church leaders in America–where everything is bigger–tend to look at big numbers as proof that they are “getting it done,” that they are acing the Great Commission.

Dad came up in that “school” of Christian ministry.

In one episode of the podcast, he told me that he bought a little journal when he started working with his first congregation in 1975. In that journal, he tracked church attendance, church membership, the number of people he baptized, and how much money people put in the offering plates each Sunday. He recording numbers in the journal every week with the seriousness of a monk writing the words of Scripture on fresh parchment.

Dad kept that journal for decades until the numbers in it began to drive him crazy. Until he curled up in a ball in a dark basement and waited for oblivion.

When Dad started his ministry with the Steele Avenue Church of Christ in 1981, the congregation had 150 members. In those days, he thought a lot about getting that number to 200. When the congregation reached 200 members, he started thinking about getting it to 250. Then 300. Then 350. When the design came out for the new church building, he started thinking about 600 (the seating capacity of the new auditorium).

I can tell you (because I was there) that Dad took personal responsibility for getting every single one of those new members.

And that is why Dad burned out and his ministry in Ashland ended.

It is also why the congregation nearly collapsed.

Just a couple of years after Dad left, the Steele Avenue Church of Christ moved to its new campus on Main Street and became the Ashland Church of Christ. According to plan, the new auditorium could seat 600 people.

But not long after the congregation moved, Sunday morning attendance sometimes dropped to less than 100 people. After 135 percent growth over two decades, the congregation suffered 135 percent shrinkage in just a few short years. Membership fell to below what it was in 1981.

Why?

When Dad ministered to the Steele Avenue Church of Christ, he measured numbers like 150, 200, 250, 300, 350, and 600.

But, as he said to me in the podcast: “I measured the wrong things.”

What he meant is that the number that should have mattered to him was 12. Or even just 3.

Jesus of Nazareth called just 12 men to follow him as apprentices and he gave just three of them (James, John, and Peter) more personal attention.

Dad now sees that, in ministering to the Steele Avenue Church of Christ, he did not follow the example and pattern of Jesus. He did not make apprentices–disciples–as Jesus did.

Back then, he thought his job was to fill the pews and get people into the baptistry by the hundreds. He did that part well.

Today, however, I think he would say that his job was not only to preach the Gospel, but to mostly teach and train apprentices to the Christ of that Gospel. Instead of thinking about 350 people in the pews, Dad wishes he focused on finding even just three people to follow him as apprentices in his ministry and pastoral work.

Dad’s job was to work himself out of a job by raising up people to do more Christian ministry better than he could do on his own.

Just like Jesus of Nazareth did (see Gospel of John 14:12-14).

Dad’s job was to feed a culture of constant calling, apprenticeship, and commissioning among the members of the congregation.

Instead of raising up many ministers to carry on and multiply the work of ministry in the congregation, Dad kept most of the ministry work to himself. He took God’s job of making members and missed the commission to make disciples. When he left, he had no apprentices to commission to “be fruitful and multiply” in the work that he started. Within a few short years, this mistake revealed itself when the congregation nearly collapsed from a lack of members who knew how to use their ministry gifts as Dad used his.

They were there–ministry gifts come from the Spirit who lives in every believer and who never leaves the church without the gifts it needs for growth and health–it’s just that Dad didn’t train anyone to discern those gifts and put them to work for the church. He didn’t prepare and promote even three people to succeed him.

When Dad eventually went back to congregational ministry, he changed everything about the way he did it. He made sure that he devoted most of his time to helping members of the church discover their gifts and put them to work. He called them to follow him into apprenticeship until they were ready for their own commission to go and make apprentices of their own.

Part three: How I saw Dad’s mistake play out in my own congregation

My family belongs to a Church of Christ congregation that once topped out at around 1,000 members. We had three services on Sunday mornings so that everyone could find parking and place to sit. We raised money and added education and fellowship wings to the building. At one time, we had (by my count) as many as 12 people on ministry staff.

But at the peak of our congregation’s size and strength, the elders seemed to sense trouble.

One Saturday morning, my wife and I went to a breakfast meeting that one of the elders hosted in his home. A few more elders were there as well as two members of the ministry staff. The rest of the guests were “young couples,” “young professionals,” and “young singles.”

The agenda for the meeting was a question: “What can this congregation do to involve (and keep) its young men and women?”

I recall that one of the elders in the room let slip that the church leaders saw signs that young people like us were slipping away. Some were “marginal” members who slipped away without anyone noticing they left. Some, however, were active members and leaders.

I listened to what turned into a 30-minute spaghetti throwing session (i.e. just throwing ideas at the wall to see what stuck). I heard ideas about changing worship style or starting new programs.

I spoke up.

I told the story of how, a few years before when I was still single, I felt a strong need to grow and mature as a Christian. I knew all the right facts from the Bible, but I felt less and less like I knew how to live a Christ-like life. When I compared myself to the world around me, I didn’t see anything about my lifestyle that set me apart as a man of faith, hope, and love. I wanted to see the Christ-life in real life. I wanted someone living that Christ-life to show and tell me how to do it, too.

I wanted to be an apprentice to a master teacher.

I asked around for a few months, but didn’t find anyone who seemed open to the idea of sharing his life with me that way.

Finally, in desperation, I put up flyers around the church building announcing that I was looking for an older Christian man to “take me under his wing” and let me follow and learn from him. I just wanted someone to pray and study the Bible with me and perhaps invite me to come along with him as he practiced the Christ-life in and out of the church.

I knew it was a tall order, but in a congregation of 1,000 members (and more than 20 elders and ministers), I thought at least one person would call me.

No one called me. No one.

I felt like a failure and a reject. Was I not good enough for even one Christian man to see enough potential in me to let me learn from him?

I told this story at the elder’s house.

I said: “My experience tells me that the thing to do here is not to change the songs on Sunday morning or launch a new program for young people. If you’re asking me–and you are–I recommend every leader in this congregation call three young men or women to follow them as apprentices. Show and teach us how to live life and how to serve the church. Get us ready and then commission us to do as you did for us. Make disciples.”

From what I saw over the next 15 years, they did not take my advice.

Today, that congregation has less than half of the members it had back then. Of the young men and women at that breakfast, I believe my wife and I are the only ones who are left.

I am not saying that the elders’ choice to not take my advice is the cause of our congregation’s fall-off. Many other factors are in play. I maintain, however, that the strength and sustainability of a Christian congregation does not come from buildings, ministry staff, programs, or worship style.

It comes disciples making disciples making disciples.

Conclusion

What would it look like for a congregation to stop counting butts in the pews and start encouraging each member to count her or his apprentices?

What if our leaders stopped trying so hard to fill auditoriums and classrooms on Sunday mornings and turned that energy and focus toward calling three, six, nine, or twelve members of the church to personal apprenticeship?

What if, instead of measuring the growth of attendance or offerings, we had the faith to leave those things (and the glory for them) to God? What if we instead tried to measure the growth and maturation of those we are mentoring and training?

What would happen if we measured the right things?

How many leaders could we save from burnout?

How many congregations could we save from collapse?

When I look at all the empty pews on Sunday mornings, I think the time is coming when we will have no choice but to find out.

Grace and peace.

 
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