“The biggest challenge churches have is casting a vision for ministry that is compelling. And by compelling I mean one that can create enough energy and hope to overcome our addiction to the past.” — Rev. Michael W. Foss, author, Reviving the Congregation
This month at the Patheos Book Club, we’re featuring a new book on pastoral leadership called Reviving the Congregation: Pastoral Leadership in a Changing Context. Bestselling author and Pastor Michael W. Foss visited with us recently to share some reflections on his book and the big challenges facing congregations today. Foss is senior pastor of St. Mark Lutheran Church in Des Moines, IA and a graduate of Wartburg Theological Seminary.
What do you think the biggest challenge churches have in “reviving their congregations” today?
The biggest challenge churches have is casting a vision for ministry that is compelling. By compelling I mean one that can create enough energy and hope to overcome our addiction to the past. Most congregations have achieved a previous vision whose time has passed. Unfortunately, the members often remember that time as “the best” and simply want to recreate it for a new era. It doesn’t work. This addiction to our past success also focuses our attention internally on our members instead of calling us into mission. A compelling vision will both unify and move the majority of a congregation’s membership outward into ministry and mission in the name of Jesus Christ and build a new future.
What are the common mistakes church leaders make in trying to adapt to a changing religious and cultural context?
A common mistake is to believe that a new vision will emerge from the membership of our churches. This never happens. A leader will receive a vision and, through a shared process, the congregation will adapt that vision and, once adopted, actually cast it broader and deeper than the leader’s first vision. A second, common mistake is to mistake an initiative for a vision. A vision will be large enough to embrace many initiatives. But an initiative, once accomplished will not necessarily lead to another. Alignment of initiatives and programs to a vision is critical. Just starting a new program will not revive the congregation. Vision does that.
Another common mistake is the failure to prioritize the work of the church. We cannot do it all…. If we ever could. Increasingly, congregations that are vital are making the hard choices of what they can no longer do based upon a clear set of priorities established to move the church forward into mission. These priorities will provide the strategic direction for our mission (and should be the verbs in our mission statements) the point towards our vision. Trying to provide spiritual CPR for dead or dying ministries drains the members of our churches of energy and subverts vision and mission.
What have you found most successful in your own ministry and pastoral career when it comes to leading in changing times
I have found that leading in changing times requires risk. We have a great theology of forgiveness but many pastors and lay leaders are risk averse because we fear failure. I am grateful for the forgiveness of others when I have made mistakes – and owned them. Fear of failure makes progress impossible because, in changing times, we need to acknowledge that we don’t know what will be most effective so we have to be willing to implement an action – reflection model for our ministries. With the best forethought, acting and then learning from the success or failure empowers us to move ahead.
You say in your book: “One of the central tasks of 21st century Christian leaders is to apply faith to life.” Can you say a bit more about that? How are we missing the mark on that?
I believe that we have entered a time when our culture no longer supports or reinforces the faith we share. This means that there is a disconnect between the ideas of our faith and the practice of our faith in real life. We talk about prayer, but the only modeling of prayer for most people under 60 years of age is a pastor’s or dignitary’s prayer and table grace. The dynamic of Christian Prayer remains just an idea. So, we apply our convictions about prayer to life by modeling a variety of prayers that speak specifically to the lives of our people. One way we do this is through a prayer card that is filled out in worship, gathered with others and a free-from Prayer of the Church is fashioned from these prayer requests. The application of our theology of prayer is direct. There are other aspects of our Beliefs that can be applied to everyday life experience: the Golden Rule can be applied to the way we drive or the patience (or impatience) we demonstrate in the grocery store check out lane or the grumpy neighbor next door. This application of faith, in my experience, empowers Christians for a meaningful life of faith.
How do you recommend we go about handing the church over to the next generation? What’s our role as older church leaders and members in this process?
We are on the verge of a great transfer of ministry. We talk about it and many of us are planning for it. My concern is that we will be burdening the next generation of Christian leaders with churches that are declining because they are stuck in the past. We need to revive our churches and involve the next generation in the process. I believe a revamping of Seminary Education is necessary with a focus on effective leadership, not just pastoral care. Let us train our next leaders with systems thinking and the courage to develop healthy congregations.
You say that we must be prepared to lose members when we are committed to growing the church – that it’s inevitable. Why is that, and what’s a healthy way to approach losing members?
When a congregation begins to move in mission, not everyone will agree with either the need to move forward or the direction. Some of them will disagree strongly enough that continuing to participate in the ministry of the church in a positive way will no longer be possible. But the leadership team of the church will need to make it clear that one person or a small percentage of persons in the congregation will not be able to hold the rest of the church hostage to their discontent. This needs to be acted as well as stated. Our desire, of course, is that all would come along with us as we move into a new era of ministry but that is not likely. So, when someone(s) leave we need to acknowledge our loss but be undeterred in moving ahead in mission. This creates a healthy congregation that, over time, will neither nurture nor tolerate backbiting negativity from disgruntled membership.
What was hardest about writing this book? What was most life-giving about this project?
The hardest aspect of writing the book was to try and balance my passion for revitalized churches with the recognition that none of us are “experts.” We are all in the same situation. I think there are some ideas and activities that are “tried and true” but so much of our ministries are situational – and I recognize that everything in ministry is contextual. I have tried to share my own struggles as a leader so that other leaders and members will be emboldened to try new things. Interesting: this was also the most life-giving. The freedom of not needing to be perfect as a pastor or leader freed me up to share honestly and forthrightly.
What would be your greatest hope for this book?
My prayer and greatest hope is that the book can be useful to congregations working for a new future for the Gospel. I hope the book will stimulate dialogue and action in our churches and their leadership.
Read an excerpt from Reviving the Congregation at the Patheos Book Club here.