I was invited to speak to a seminary class at Emmanuel College at the UofT a few weeks ago, on the theme, “Entrepreneurship in Ministry.” It was fun. The students asked good questions. Just before I was ready to go, I shared this list of “ten true statements” that ministers need to keep in mind, these days—and parishioners, too, if they have any interest in the future health of their congregations. So, here goes:
One: Being a minister, here and now, is perhaps not harder than ever before. We are not being persecuted for our faith, after all. And we’re not laying it all on the line like the Reformers did.
Still, being a minister now is really, really challenging, because the playing field is changing incredibly swiftly. The listening skills audiences bring to preaching, the secrets people live with, the values of our society, the time constraints everyone struggles to undo, the wealth we take for granted—it is all fascinating, but it is also a minefield for both minister and parishioner.
Meanwhile there is only one person in any congregation with the stated, paid responsibility to lead in this situation. The minister.
Two: Ministers (or someone they can work very closely with) must be entrepreneurial. By entrepreneurial, I mean that church leadership must be dedicated to growth along with all the other goals healthy churches have, from social justice to relevant preaching. This is Biblical (if that matters a lot to you—I’m thinking the Great Commission here, and the example of Paul’s preaching). This is also practical. Refusing to prioritize or take smart risks for growth is to volunteer your congregation for a short lifespan. Why do that? Toronto needs the United Church’s witness and example!
I have some more ideas about entrepreneurial wisdom. It is a spiritual thing, a refusal to bury your or your congregation’s talents in the sand. Entrepreneurial wisdom does not mean that you have chosen to fall for a “health and wealth” gospel sort of faux Christianity that pervades the airwaves—and it better not mean that. If ministers are not entrepreneurial themselves, they must nurture that sort of leadership in others, and support it like crazy-which isn’t so different from the minister who can’t play an instrument or hold a tune but who supports the Music Director 100 percent.
Three: Faith in entrepreneurial wisdom adds up to a refusal to be a church “decline theorist.” Decline theorists are those who say things like, “well, of course, if we stand up for what we believe in, we’re not going to be popular and of course we might die.” Even if this was true, wouldn’t you look for ways to work a little resurrection into that equation?
Four: Many churches have hidden resources. Some churches can mortgage their property, for example, to make an investment in ministry geared to church growth. Why not? If you don’t invest, you won’t change, and your slow decline will accelerate, and you will close. Once you are closed, the church's resources cannot be used by that congregation anymore. Why not access those resources, if possible, before you close? Some city churches might be able to sell their buildings and relaunch in rental space, or some other kind of shared arrangement. If your program succeeds, great!
A mortgage isn’t the only alternative resource. Not all these resources are available to everyone, but spend some time doing research. The United Church has grant programs. Volunteers may do work that is often paid--from janitorial to accounting to pastoral to youth to babysitting. Some people in your congregation may have deep pockets. The government offers grants for summer job programs. Rent your facilities. Consider amalgamation. Seminary students may do great work for less cost. Don't presume that everyone has considered every option till you've called a meeting of the congregation with the express purpose of thinking outside of the box.
Five: A church made up almost entirely of elderly people (let’s call them “Boomers,”) can survive indefinitely if it brings in a steady stream of new elderly people to replace the ones who die. I’m not being facetious. A sixty-year-old person can easily contribute twenty or more years of his or her life to church community. Church community is great for elderly people. They key is to grasp this as an opportunity if it is the one that works for your church, and then intentionally pursue it.
Six: One of the largest costs of doing “business,” in the UCC in Toronto and other large Canadian cities is ministerial wages. Many Evangelical groups don’t have these high costs because they pay less. That means they need fewer resources to launch new churches in promising city neighbourhoods, or they can divert more resources to outreach. Many Evangelical ministers are happy to engage in tent-making ministries, to earn lower wages because of spousal support, even to work for nothing until a church grows to the point that it can support them. They do so because they believe in what they are doing. I’m not sure what to make of this. Should we pay less? Is a fair wage worth a church’s dying for? Can we promote tent-making as an option? Or, are we just to old, to set in our ways, too tight with our privilege to respond to innovations happening elsewhere in Christianity?
Seven: If you are going through a mid-life crisis and want to (and can afford to) find yourself spiritually by going to seminary, great. But the ministry is not a place for people looking to find themselves; it is a place for growing, nurturing churches that can make a difference in the city and country by offering those churches leadership, vision, encouragement, and wisdom. It is for building Christ-like communities so compelling that people see God in them, even from a distance. This is hard work for people who know who they are and what they want, not for people who see their primary goal in life as remaining a pilgrim.
Eight: Beware of guilting. We love social justice. We live for the least, the last, the marginalized. But if we get into the pulpit and make it a steady stream of “you must,” “do this,” “get on with it!” you will drive your parishioners to spiritual depression. Don’t forget to speak of other things from the pulpit, of gratitude, and grace. Don’t just crack the whip, but offer perspective, teach the story, laugh, and poke fun at yourself. Guilt is what we as Christians are supposed to get rid of, not cultivate.
Nine: Do not, for a moment, underestimate the value, importance, absolute necessity of great preaching. It is harder than ever to hold an audience’s attention. To do so, one must become a student of narrative, an astute observer of how contemporary media works (and doesn’t), and one must be willing to spend a lot of time crafting something that will surprise and delight—at least on a regular basis! Boring people is a sin.
Ten: Minsters must have sincere and enduring affection for everyone who comes to worship. That affection needs to be worn on the shirt-sleeve. If, on the other hand, you suggest, as a minister (or even as a parishioner) that “I’m not really that interested in you,” or, “I don’t like you,” or, “you are not making the grade,” they will leave. It is by our love for one another that people see Jesus—but it is also a huge motivation to belong. And the congregation will always look to the minister to see how it is done. That also means, by the way, that in the church the minister—and the rest of the leadership—needs to be the first to say, “I’m sorry.” Such powerful words, those. But entrepreneurial too, because they advertise a community that is not only relevant and interesting and engaged—but a community that is safe.