I hope you were able to “feel the love” as I did a two-week Wyoming cowboy-themed Valentine’s Day pause in my articles. Before I pushed the pause button, I was discussing the self-diagnosis of your church’s spiritual health. So closing out my cowboy theme, let me say, “Meanwhile back at the ranch” we were talking about making disciples. In the process, we talked about several metrics—a fancy city word meaning, “What are we counting?”
The first metric we talked about was “counting the number of new people who had been identified, recruited, trained, and deployed during the time frame being evaluated.” The second metric we discussed was “How many professions of faith and how many baptisms did your church report last year?” A third metric was “measuring your effectiveness in ‘winning your own’—those who grew up and were baptized in your church.” The latter suggested a look back to see if you are actually able to identify spiritual maturity in those who had grown up in your church.
Today I want to mention a fourth metric: “How many do you have attending?” Here again, we face the reality that COVID has significantly impacted our numbers. But setting that issue aside for just a moment, let me point to the reality that in Great Commission Baptist life I have observed a major shift in the last few decades regarding “what attendance we count.” When I served as the Sunday School Director of a church in the ’70s and early ’80s, THE ONLY attendance that was counted was Sunday School attendance. The church I attended did not count worship attendance. Today, when pastors gather and “compare notes”—and they inevitably will—the number one question asked is, “How many does your church run in worship?”
Stop and think about what that subtle shift means. What does it say about our focus? Or maybe more importantly, what does it say about our lack of focus on disciple-making? Now again, I need to interject a reality check. I have experienced “Sunday School done right” while the vast majority of pastors and Christians have only seen it done poorly. What I would suggest is that the BEST disciple-making strategy in the world will not work when it is not implemented well.
That leads me back to a book I’ve already mentioned: Effectiveness by the Numbers: Counting what Counts in the Church by William Hoyt. It is the best book on church metrics that I have seen. In it, Hoyt writes:
My voice is but one in a large chorus, all singing the same tune, ‘Small groups are essential to the health and growth of churches.’ In more than three decades of observing churches and two decades of church consulting, I cannot recall a healthy, growing congregation where a significantly small group ministry was not present…A universally common factor in the decline of once growing churches is the deterioration of small groups. Yes, you do grow larger by staying small. (Pages 71-72)
To Hoyt’s observations, I can say a hearty AMEN! As I approach three decades of serving as an Associational Mission Strategist, every health disciple-making church I have seen- has had healthy disciple-making small groups. Next week I will begin to drill down into the Biblical principles I have observed in every “healthy disciple-making church” I have encountered.
Until then, stop and ask yourself, “What attendance number is most important to you and why?” Is it worship attendance or discipleship group attendance?
In my previous post, I pushed the pause button on a series about diagnosing spiritual health. I did that so in this season of love, Valentine’s Day, I could speak to two issues. Last week’s article focused on loving “high maintenance” people. In it I suggest that we love them in a way that permits us, at the end of the day, to still love ourselves. I want to discuss the second issue today: the need to feel God’s love even during times when the challenges of ministry are overwhelming.
Everyone agrees that 2020 moved us into a world of uncontrollable change. So, doing “church” is different AND difficult. As pastors we are called to be under shepherds with Jesus who is the Good Shepherd, for a few moments I’m going to ask you to think of yourself as a Wyoming rancher. Now for those who are not rural oriented, sheep and cattle are VERY different and when the Bible describes us as sheep it is usually NOT a flattering analogy. But for a moment I want you to put down your shepherd’s staff and put on a pair of cowboy boots.
Having done so, you have now found yourself staring at an oncoming herd of stampeding cattle—obviously far more intimidating than a herd of sheep. This stampede is the kind you have seen in western movies. So, what do you do? You could ignore that the stampede exists, and the inevitable result will be that you WILL get trampled, and the stampede will continue. Or you could stand your ground and wave your arms like crazy. Maybe even take off your hat or jacket and wave it over your head. You can shout at the top of your lungs, but let me warn you, the result might be a few seconds slower in coming, but it will be the same. “You’re going to get run over, and the stampede will continue!”
Maybe you’re real lucky, and you’re on your trusty steed. And you’re fortunate enough that he’s a fast horse and you can outrun the herd. But that still does nothing to stop the stampede. Now if you’re an experienced cowboy and you’re on a good cow horse, what you’ll be able to do, over time, is get to the outside front edge of the herd and slowly move the cattle into a circle. It won’t be done quickly, but you should be able to get them to settle down. The stampede will be over.
Jesus encountered people whose life circumstances overwhelmed them, and Matthew records His response: “When He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (9:36). When God called me to be an Associational Mission Strategist, one of the responsibilities He gave me was to be a “pastor to pastors.” In today’s world, pastors, who are called to be under-shepherds, are caring for men and women whose lives have become wearied by the ever-changing landscape of life. Plus their own lives have become weary. So let me draw some implications from my stampede analogy in an attempt to encourage you.
First, let me say that standing and waiting for the stampede to stop so that you and your church can get back to normal is not a winning strategy. You and your sheep are weary today, and no one knows if, or even when things will be “normal” again. Second, we can cry out against the darkness that has consumed us. But simply denouncing or complaining about our circumstances will not help either. A third option is to run from the difficulties. Because of the stress placed on pastors today, I believe we will see an unusually high number of resignations in the months ahead. But my prayer is that if you are considering this option, remember you are not a hireling (John 10:12), but a man called by God. My prayer is that you will pursue a fourth option. Make a commitment to address the stampede. Then prayerfully and lovingly begin to apply the basic ministry and pastoral skills and principles you have used throughout your ministry.
Let me expand my analogy for just a minute. Even if you’re a good cowboy and you’re on the best cow horse that’s ever lived, you’ll never get a large herd of stampeding cattle turned by yourself. Too many pastors try to do ministry Lone Ranger fashion. In the book Finishing Strong, the author points to research done by Dr. Howard Hendricks in which he identified three key reasons pastors fail. One of them is that they were not involved in a small accountable support group with other pastors. Don’t try to turn the herd alone!
Cowboys who can get the stampede stopped are those who are simply doing what they have done hundreds of times. They learned in Herding 101 class to make sure the cattle out front are headed in the right direction and that the stragglers aren’t wandering off. Researchers tell us that it takes 10,000 hours of experience to master a task. If you’ve been pastoring very long, you know the basics. They are second nature to you. And getting back to the basics is THE BEST thing that you can do in times of duress.
When things get dark and difficult, stop and look up to God until He refreshes your call. Then look out unto the fields that are white unto harvest and unto the sheep that are weary and scattered. Then reach within yourself and find the strength to keep doing the things you already know need to be done. Get back to the basics. Keep the main thing the main thing. Being “exciting and exotic“ might be something God can use in a different season, but TODAY is not that day. My prayers are with you.
I'm going to hit the pause button on my discussion of metrics for self-assessing your church’s spiritual health. One reason is that it’s Valentine’s week, and a good pause would be to ask you to redirect your focus and ask yourself, “How can I demonstrate Christ-like love to members of my church?” Another reason I wanted to push the pause button was that I needed to acknowledge that the basic tools I have mentioned the past few weeks have overwhelmed some pastors.
Let me lean into my Wyoming ranching heritage for a couple of analogies that speak to the realities of life in which many of us in ministry dwell. So let me address two broad issues. The first relates to how we love people in our world who make it hard for us to love. The second is how can we respond better when we are faced with overwhelming and unmanageable circumstances.
To address the first issue, I will use a verse that everyone who has been around me the last few years has heard me quote: Proverbs 14:4. Some of you even have it memorized: “Where there are no oxen the stall is clean, but great gain comes through the strength of an ox.” I can remember growing up on a ranch the times when the loafing shed needed to be cleaned out. Now we didn’t have a big fancy ranch, so I didn’t have to learn how to handle a skid-steer or a tractor and front-end loader. I just had to know how to use a shovel. But I was blessed with the fact that Wyoming is a low humidity state, so what I handled was dry. And of course, we couldn’t afford a spreader, so I got to load the pickup and then spread it with the same shovel that I had used to load it. Even though it was dry—it was a messy job.
A very loose paraphrase of Proverbs 14:4 for a pastor and church leaders would be, “Ministry would be great if I didn’t have to deal with messy people; however, ministry ‘by definition’ is caring for the messy people God sends my way.” Every pastor can name the “high maintenance” people that are part of his world. Some of them are constantly making bad choices, and until and unless they begin to make better choices there is NO ONE in this world who can help them—not even God. The soft heart of a pastor can make it difficult for him to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). A pastor’s response for those individuals should be something like the concept found in the Hippocratic Oath of “doing no harm,” or the phrase “benign neglect.” So, in love, quit hitting your head against the brick walls that are the hardheaded people in your world. When they are ready to listen to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, then you can be of help to them. But until that takes place, stop beating yourself up and stop thinking that you are a failure.
At other times it is hard for a pastor to be direct with “high maintenance people” because doing so would offend a family member or friend who has enabled that person for years. In these situations, my task-oriented personality would recommend an intervention. The admonition “Speak the truth in love” does require us to “speak the truth!” But to do that correctly, it means things are going to get messy! My caution here is that until and unless the family and friends are willing to support you in a Biblically-based intervention, your efforts will fail.
There are other situations where people find themselves in the “high maintenance” category through no fault of their own. In my small world, there are several who have recently found themselves in this category. I know of a pastor whose wife is struggling with severe, chronic, and disabling health issues. In this situation, the primary causes for those physical circumstances are their genetic makeup. I also know of a young mother of two who was the victim of a violent drive-by shooting. She is confined to a wheelchair and is doing long-term rehab. Her father happens to be a pastor. I know of a mother of three whose house burned to the ground. They escaped with their lives, but only with the clothes on their back. Her father also happens to be a pastor. I also know a young church planter and father who started chemo treatments this week to deal with his Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis. Again, a physical challenge linked to his genetics.
In these situations, another Biblical passage comes to mind: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (II Corinthians 1:3-4). Yes, praying for them. Yes asking the right people, “How specifically can we help in this situation?” Yes, stepping in and stepping up as God provides an opportunity. And yes, doing so will require us to get messy!
In my next post, I will touch base with the situations where ministry becomes overwhelming. But until then, use the season of love, Valentine’s Day, to show love for “high maintenance people” in healthy and helpful ways. Do it in ways that don’t enable their bad decisions. Do it in ways that support and encourage those who genuinely need a loving touch. Do it in ways that permit you to feel God’s love and affirmation of your call to serve messy people
In last week’s article, I talked about what I believe is THE quickest and easiest way to self-diagnose your church’s spiritual health: Ask yourself, “Do we have enough spiritually maturing leaders?” Before I mention several other simple diagnostic questions, let me share two areas of concern.
The first is, “What happens if you wait too long before you discover you have a spiritual health problem?” How many people do you know who went to the doctor for a routine physical, and then they walked out of the office with a diagnosis that they only had a few months to live? Don’t let the day-to-day and week-to-week challenges of ministry keep you from taking time every few months to step back and ask yourself critical spiritual health diagnostic questions. Do it before it’s too late!
The second relates to the limitations of self-diagnosing. In this day and age, when we have physical ailments, our first response is to check out our symptoms on the internet to identify what might be causing them. Or there are some of us who listen to commercials we see on TV that are run by drug companies, class action lawyers, and various disease advocates, and we suddenly discover we are sick. In either case, the next call we make is to our primary care doctor to let them know what is causing all of our symptoms. My guess is that most doctors prefer to listen to your symptoms and with their education, experience, and personal knowledge of your health history suggest what the underlying health issues might be.
In our information overload era, what I have observed is that the primary challenge for pastors and church leaders isn’t getting enough information. The problem is understanding what information is actually relevant for their context. Biblical principles transcend time and culture; however, the application of those principles will look very different from one church to another. If your self-diagnosis reveals that you have spiritual health issues, let me exhort you to invite an objective, spiritually mature, and experienced consultant to help you further process your issues.
The best self-diagnostic resource I have seen is William Hoyt’s book Effectiveness by the Numbers. In it, he notes, “The actual metrics involved in measuring your church’s effectiveness in developing leaders is infinitely easier than the task itself. You simply count the number of new people who have been identified, recruited, trained, and deployed during the time frame being evaluated.” But beyond that Hoyt discusses the following vital statistics areas that should be monitored. Just like the nurse takes your temperature, blood pressure, and weight when you go for an appointment, these are vital statistics you should know about your church.
Hoyt states, “If you could count only one thing, you should count conversions. On the day of Pentecost, they did not count attendance. They counted conversions measured by baptisms (Acts 2:41). So a simple self-diagnostic question is, “How many professions of faith and how many baptisms did our church report last year?” As quickly as I typed the question, I heard you say, “But 2020 was not normal!” So let me ask you to look at the last five years in your church and ask yourself, “What was the average number of professions of faith, and what was the average number of baptisms per year?” You might also ask, “What has the trend been?” “Have they increased, decreased, or stayed about the same?”
In the chapter on counting conversions, Hoyt writes, “The rule of thumb I hold up to the churches I coach is a minimum threshold of one conversion per ten worship attendees. If a church has an average weekly attendance of 300, it should aim for thirty conversion baptisms.” He then notes, “Functionally what this means is that, on the average, each attendee would have to be used of God to help produce one conversion every ten years. Is this too much to expect? Is it enough to expect? The good news is that the God who wants all people to come to faith in Him will gladly help us overcome our failure and make our evangelistic efforts bear fruit.”
The first time I read the book, I was deeply challenged by two follow-up metrics he suggested. One related to measuring our effectiveness in “winning our own”—those who grew up and were baptized in the church. Hoyt suggested:
“The ultimate way to measure our effectiveness at winning our own would be to track the children you baptized over time, recognizing evidence of lasting Christian commitment. Imagine how informative it would be if we were to measure, at five year intervals, just four things:
In the area of penetrating the lostness in our community, Hoyt suggested we could do an in-depth self-diagnose in two additional ways. The first is one many pastors have used and seen: “What is the ratio of church members to baptisms.” Because many churches emphasize worship attendance versus membership, you will note above that Hoyt suggested the ratio of attendees to baptisms. Hoyt suggested an additional metric I had not previously used. With my undergraduate degree in economics and with a deep passion for being a good steward, it really hit me hard. He suggests you divide your annual church income by the number of baptisms per year. He gave three examples in the book that ranged from $72,340 to $270,554! Now Hoyt wasn’t, and I am not suggesting you think in business terms of improving your return on investment. What I am asking is, “Are you stewarding “the widow’s mite” well?” and, “Are you investing God’s resources in the things that produce the greatest fruitfulness?”
Stay tuned for more self-diagnostic tools. But until then, consider using the self-evaluation tools mentioned above. Then prayerfully ask God to give you a discerning spirit to know what the next right step should be.
Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.