Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Most Important Ministry of All

Each day, countless people wake up feeling lost or lonely. They yearn for greater purpose and meaning in their lives.

Feeling this way, they sometimes come to church, hoping to find one kind of salvation or another. They may come reluctantly, or possibly even fearful. Going someplace where you don't know anyone can be scary.

All too often, first-time visitors have a negative experience. Current members often sit far away from visitors in the pews. Few members, if any, speak to visitors, even during coffee hour. If visitors experience loneliness on their first visit, they won't want a repeat performance.
Your church has lost a potential new member forever.

I can't tell you how many times people have said to me, "When I was new here, it was one person who made the difference, one person who said hello to me when I was a stranger.
I've never forgotten it."

Anyone can be that "one person who makes a difference," whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, or somewhere in between. Congregations truly wishing to make a difference in people's lives can demonstrate this by making the stranger feel welcome.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Window in the Minister’s Office Door?

Should the minister’s office door have a window or not?

Those in favor of windows claim that clergy are vulnerable to allegations of improper conduct behind closed doors, sometimes made by unstable parishioners. Once an accusation has been made, whether valid or not, it’s impossible to put that genie back in the bottle.

Those in favor of no windows suggest that parishioners in need of counseling desire privacy, and may not wish it known they are seeing the minister.

There’s no right or wrong answer to this question, but the subject does warrant discussion. Clergy and lay leaders will need to make their own judgment call on this one.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Give Away the Sunday Offering

The Sunday offering can be an extraordinarily powerful ministry. Committing the offering plate to those less fortunate beyond your own four walls ensures the congregation will be successful in its mission every time people gather together.

Church treasurers may blanch at this recommendation, concerned about losing that line item in the budget. They may claim vociferously that the church cannot afford to do this. Not to worry. Most congregations that give away the offering see a three to fivefold increase in plate contributions, and experience an increase in the annual pledge drive, as well. You will not rob Peter to pay Paul.

By Sunday offering, I mean the “loose offering.” This includes cash and checks that are not designated for other purposes, such as pledge payments.

I also recommend that a representative from the charity that receives the offering make an appearance to accept the money. This puts a human face on the congregation’s mission. One church gave the offering to a veteran’s home, and an 85-year old vet in his World War II uniform showed up to receive the money. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and no one was going to stand up and say the congregation should have kept that money for themselves.

Giving away the Sunday offering is just the right thing to do.

If children are present when the offering is received, it is a magical experience for them to see the collection plate overflow with money. What a wonderful example that is.

Two final points. First, if visitors show up on Sunday morning and the plate passes them with only a few one-dollar bills and some spare change in it, this reflects very poorly on your congregation. Second, most parishioners can put in $5, $10, or $20 on Sunday mornings and this will not affect the quality of their lives later in the week.

Please note: Church members who have already made their annual pledge do not get a free pass on the offering plate! This ministry is for everyone.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Publishing Sermon Titles in the Newsletter or on the Website is Not a Good idea. Except for Special Occasions.

Theologically conservative readers may be surprised that sermon titles are actually published in advance. Churchgoers of multiple faiths attend Sunday services regularly and have no idea of what the sermon will be about. And that is just fine with them.

Many ministers preach from the Lectionary, and their sermons are based on the lesson of the day. As one moves leftward along the theological spectrum, ministers rely less on Scripture and may preach about secular topics such as the environment, politics, or other topics of civil life.

Thus, liberal churchgoers often wish to know what the sermon will be about, and are accommodated by sermon titles that are published in the newsletter and on the website. This is not a good practice. Such a policy creates a “pick and choose” faith – I like that topic so I’ll be there, I don’t like that one, so I’ll stay home.

Published sermon titles can also discourage potential visitors from attending services. If church shoppers are seeking meaning and purpose in their lives, a sermon on the separation of church and state is likely to discourage them from attending -- forever. If the website stated, "Services at 9 and 11" they would probably show up.

Small miracles occur in church every Sunday, and do not depend solely on the sermon topic or the minister. People need to gather together regularly. Besides, coming to church and not knowing what is going to happen adds a bit of excitement to the routine.

The hitch in this scheme is churches whose members have become accustomed to knowing sermon titles in advance. Taking this away from them is a precarious business, not for the faint of heart. Who in your church could make such a decision?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Why the Minister’s Day Off is a Myth

Ministers routinely work 50-60 hours a week, at all times of the day and night. If a parishioner passes away on Wednesday and a memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, that can add another 25 to 35 hours of time and effort, not to mention the emotional toll.

Then, said minister may be in the pulpit for two services on Sunday. Some church boards meet on Sunday evenings. This may total a 75-80 hour, highly stressful week. The minister then gets Monday off?

Methodist minister Bill Easum claimed that one day off did not allow him time to wind down, let alone gear up for another long week that lay ahead. Instead, he would sometimes work eight or nine days in a row, then take three consecutive days off.

This scheme may not be every minister’s cup of tea and would require some planning. But I think itís on option that clergy and lay leaders should explore.

Ministers (and their families) live in goldfish bowls, and are on-call to an extent that secular workers rarely are. Ministers are also more vulnerable to criticism about their job performance than most working professionals, especially in regard to being available to church members.

Most ministers I know work far more hours than their contracts call for. Rearranging days off for their professional and emotional well-being is well worth the slight inconvenience that some church members may experience.

How Not to Answer the Church Telephone

A recurring theme of this blog is whether church practices are decided with current or potential members in mind. Progressive churches, regardless of theology, weigh heavily toward the visitor or newcomer.

The outgoing message on your church’s phone is prime example. Most potential visitors call to find out the time of the Sunday service. This should come first.

Thus, your church’s outgoing message should be along the lines of:

You’ve reached Old First Church. Sunday services are at 9 and 11. We offer childcare up to age four, and Sunday school for kids and youth. Some people wear jeans and some wear their Sunday best. We’re a lively and engaging, multi-generational congregation that believes we're here for an important reason.

Come visit. You’ll be glad you did.

Everything else comes after this, such as, “Press 1 for directions on how to get here, Press 2 for office hours and a staff directory, Press 3 for building rentals, and Press 4 for whatever.”