The Pastor appointed by the sitting bishop to serve a congregation is challenged to lead, grow, and develop an unfamiliar group of people with many implied common goals. This task is often entered without full knowledge of the personality, behavior, and history of the congregation. Yet, regardless of the condition one finds the church in, the partnership between pastor and congregation is expected to net a well- rounded, productive, socially aware body of believers who model Christ in witness with service to the surrounding community being the standard practice.
Every standard has an exception. The exception is the congregation that does not function with an outward perspective but keeps their gaze inward. In this instance, the internally beneficial focus puts the congregation in a position that can be identified as inward focused. An “Inward Focused Church” is one that due to their traditions, limitations, and mindsets, intentionally focuses internally toward self-preservation as opposed to embracing and nurturing mutually beneficial relationships outside the walls of the church. The terminology is used for this work as the behavior of my church, and denomination, demonstrated behavior centered on intentional disregard for healthy community involvement to promote church growth. It opted instead to preserve control of the inner workings of the local congregation, impairing the formation of productive outreach opportunities and community relationships.
An “Inward Focused Church” is one that due to their traditions, limitations, and mindsets, intentionally focuses internally toward self-preservation as opposed to embracing and nurturing mutually beneficial relationships outside the walls of the church.
The presence of this structurally suburban styled church sitting within a landscape that is clearly rural is a telling statement as to the importance of geographic and social identity of the congregation. Mt. Zion is a congregation that is determined to maintain their location amid the challenges of demographic and economic changes in the community. Though the area has experienced obvious changes, shifting from a completely rural farming community to slightly more single home, working class community, the congregation has shown a commitment to remaining there though little has been done to adjust to its surroundings.
This skewed vision, coupled with the lack of interest in serving the changing community, has further validated Mt. Zion’s perception of itself as insular with the expectation of passive growth occurring to sustain it.
Self- Assessment Mirroring Tool
“The rationale was to allow each congregation to look at themselves, engaging in dialogue and gathering data per the given criteria, with the hope being that each local church would determine the strengths/shortcomings unique to them. Moving forward the overall goal was to create a strategy to address the local churches areas of concern.”
Since 2012, the Ninth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church has become increasingly aware of the decline in membership. This decline was not only evident within the span of the State of Alabama, where the Ninth District is headquartered, but also across the denomination. As a means of pinpointing the overall causes of this issue statewide, a Self-Assessment/Mirroring Tool was created by a Steering Committee approved by our Servant Bishop for the local church to complete in 2013. This study was distributed to Pastors, who then assigned a committee made up of members of their congregation, to look specifically at the following areas: Geographic, historical, and financial ministry patterns as it pertained to church growth, ministry offerings and community involvement. The rationale was to allow each congregation to look at themselves, engaging in dialogue and gathering data per the given criteria, with the hope being that each local church would determine the strengths/shortcomings unique to them. Moving forward the overall goal was to create a strategy to address the local churches areas of concern.
In 2014, the Self-Assessment Mirroring Study was completed and was revelatory to the Ninth District of the AME Church. The results exposed areas of opportunity for evangelism, outreach, congregational merging and new church planting. Based upon the responses of each local church regarding the demographics, social and community needs, geographic growth statistics, along with specific data addressing congregational growth, finances, and ministry offerings, each congregation was provided with a unique assessment based upon the above for their review.
The study brought to the forefront on the local level Mt. Zion’s personality as a congregation that was successful administratively and financially but had difficulty with social interaction and communication with the surrounding community. The study also exposed the church as a congregation that was not meeting the needs of the community as outlined by local social service agencies. According to the study, we were a church that was visible yet not inviting.
Using the results of the Self-Assessment Mirroring Study for reference, we began the challenge of revisiting the perception of our church from both the internal and external viewpoints. We understood the key areas of perceived weakness were intentional internal focus on matters of finance and power, the lack of relationship with the surrounding community, and resistance to innovative ideas outside of our normal practices. These key areas substantiated the inward focused characteristics. Yet, the congregation had difficulty viewing themselves as such. Mt. Zion saw themselves as a successful congregation because they met their financial obligations, were self-sustaining, had a new sanctuary and had worship on a regular weekly basis unlike many in the surrounding semi-rural area; the Opelika community, when asked in casual conversation, saw them as a pretty church building with little going on that they felt welcomed to become a part of. Aside from occasional programs, the community saw no consistent effort by Mt. Zion to actively engage with them.
“The key areas of perceived weakness were intentional internal focus on matters of finance and power, the lack of relationship with the surrounding community, and resistance to innovative ideas outside of our normal practices. Yet, the congregation had difficulty viewing themselves as such. Mt. Zion saw themselves as a successful congregation because they met their financial obligations, were self-sustaining, had a new sanctuary and had worship on a regular weekly basis unlike many in the surrounding semi-rural area.”
The fact that the congregation was one who also desired passive growth without the necessary implementation of evangelism plans or committed giving, made the work of transformation a priority for their longevity. Being aware that it would be necessary for us to be in full partnership to recognize the limitations of the current state, refocus our time, talent, and treasure toward achieving balance with the community and re-structuring our ministry practices to facilitate growth was critical. Success in walking through this process together could prove to be productive spiritually, numerically and financially. Otherwise, our congregation was destined to simply fade away without having fulfilled the mission of the church according to Luke 4:18 per the Doctrine and Discipline of The AME Church. It would also be considered a personal and professional failure pastorally (and to the denomination) to allow this historic church to fail at the work of Kingdom building. With neither result being acceptable and after much prayer we journeyed toward producing a more excellent product for God by opening ourselves up to change our spiritual practices and self-perceptions.
Root Causes of Inward Focus
– Power shift by established leadership inside the congregation (i.e. Stewards, Trustees, Auxiliary leaders)
-Loss of Identity as new members bring new ideas that upset balance or replace the skill sets of those already leading auxiliaries,
-Inadequate biblical knowledge
Denial of true condition of congregation- Tunnel vision by internal leadership. The administrative and financial needs are being met yet the mission of the church as a community partner goes lacking because the congregation is not in tune with what is going on outside of the doors of the church.
Sub-culture Resists Change– The “Church inside the Church” is resistant to change. Power Players (i.e. major voices/families) sabotage new ideas that would change the churches focus or widen their view to become more balanced.
Pastoral Leadership Style Mismatch– 1st time pastor had theory but lacked experience.
By transforming these key areas, we would enable ourselves to see how others saw us externally as well as how we saw ourselves internally. This change in scope would clear the way for growth, individually and collectively, while empowering us to maturely acknowledge ways to impact the surrounding community in the process.
Congregational and Pastoral Strategy
“Transformation begins with being able to visualize the positive aspects of a situation and modeling them making collaboration more appealing. The process spoke to our situation with the community and in this instance, it required some refocusing to enjoy a positive result. “
As a vehicle to educate the congregation and encourage transformation, the employment of practices, though seemingly simplistic, that would allow spiritual growth to come forth through the basic tenets of teaching, preaching, study and prayer with the added caveat of intentional focus also positioned the congregation to become accepted by the community as a trusted source of help, hope and encouragement. Working from the understanding that change requires instruction, we employed a collaborative book study with other AME Churches, Tandem Bible study and Preaching Series within Mt. Zion and instituted focused small group prayer to strengthen Mt. Zion’s instructional foundation.
Collaborative Book Study
“Using this form of study and training, the group of pastors saw change in their congregation’s leaders as well. Further, this level of teaching/training served to diminish the comparison of Evangelism practices in our respective churches by parishioners from the same families that served in our congregations.”
In discussions with neighboring AME pastors about their mirroring survey results, we discovered that regardless of size, congregational talent or length of leadership we all had similar plights in our congregations. All of us had issues with change, complacency and being welcoming to those outside of our congregations. The Collaborative Book Study brought together the Officers (Stewards and Trustees) and Auxiliary Leaders (Lay, Christian Education, YPD, etc.) to rightly define the current state of the three AME congregations in the geographic area.
Using Church Growth Strategist, Rev. Thom Rainer’s Autopsy of a Deceased Church collaboratively assisted the leaders in each church in identifying the behaviors noted and how they applied to their specific congregations. Because this exercise was a group effort with two other churches, the presentation of the information did not seem accusatory to any one congregation while being revelatory to everyone. We discussed each chapter over an 8-week period with others sharing how their church identified with the signs of sickness, I saw recognition in my leaders. This opened later conversations and led to the desire to restructure the way we thought about how our church functioned. Using this form of study and training, the group of pastors saw change in their congregation’s leaders as well. Further, this level of teaching/training served to diminish the comparison of Evangelism practices in our respective churches by parishioners from the same families that served in our congregations.
Tandem Bible Study and Preaching
“Using the lecture-lab combo exposes people to a passage multiple times and increases their familiarity and gives them an increase working knowledge of the Word and biblical principles”
Pastor Larry Osborne
Implementing a method of tandem Bible study and preaching to strengthen the concepts we discussed in the collaborative study was the next step. One of my colleagues calls this process, “My Wednesdays make my Sundays make sense!” This simply means that a weekly Bible study is formulated to work in concert with each Sunday’s message. The subject and text are introduced on Wednesday allowing for questions and conversation. Each study was crafted to include the history, context and biographical information on the key persons in the text to lay a foundation. As the information unfolded and questions arose it became a time where the back stories of the text came alive and took root.
The excitement in hearing the word taught in depth then fully preached expanded the congregations understanding of the text in both teaching and celebration. Using this method, reinforced the biblical concepts and they took root in a more effective way. Pastor Larry Osborne of North Coast Church and author of Sticky Church, uses the term “lecture-lab combo to identify this method because it exposes people to a passage multiple times and increases their familiarity and gives them an increase working knowledge of the Word and biblical principles”.1 This method was viable with every text that it was used it with. The more exposure to the Word and the teaching points, the easier it was to see attitudes and mindsets change. Prior to the implementation of this tandem teaching/preaching model, the text taught/preached had no pattern for the congregants to follow nor life application with which to measure their personal spiritual growth. As they each week saw the lessons build from the week prior, it gave new insight on how the text worked together to enhance their learning as well as their living. The atmosphere on the campus became more positive and less tense. I began to hear and see the learning concepts put into practice in other areas of the church because the application came to life transforming them without their notice. There was a new excitement centered around attending Bible study and there was a new confidence in asking questions to gain clarity each week. In the Opelika community, I was often contacted via email or stopped as I did business in the area by those who were attending bible study and visiting our services. They shared how engaging and life-changing the tandem teaching/preaching had been. Some of my colleagues have begun to employ this system as well with impressive results.
“Within the teaching setting, people became more open to how the Word of God gave instruction, correction, and guidance that could be used in their daily lives because they had the opportunity to question, wrestle, and consider it more broadly. “
An added benefit to me as a pastor was the insight this process provided me to the areas in the text that were misunderstood or had never been taught. Having the opportunity to hear and address their questions, re-frame their study habits, and correct misinformation was vital in our growth together as it gave me a more in depth view of how some of their mindsets had been created. Within the teaching setting, people became more open to how the Word of God gave instruction, correction, and guidance that could be used in their daily lives because they had the opportunity to question, wrestle, and consider it more broadly.
Focused Small Group Prayer
“The intimacy of Small Groups made it easier for focused prayer to become a spiritual discipline. The more disciplined one’s prayer life, the easier it is to grasp other spiritual principles.”
Historically the AME Church used the Class Leader System as a tool. Contemporary congregations call this the Small Group or Cell Groups. It is a method that had not been employed in this congregation for many years. Refashioning the practice using the contemporary model, which groups people by geography, age group and/or interest, we began to use this system for focused prayer. Each group was given a calendar with their prayer focus. For example, one group could have “courage to forgive” while another had “love of neighbor” as their focus. The calendar was distributed to those in the community surrounding the church as well making them feel welcomed to join in. With each group meeting on a different day and time, it allowed for those who could not participate during normal worship, Bible study or prayer services to do so.
Small Groups assisted in allowing leaders to become more empowered to use their gifts while giving the community a glimpse of the kind of teaching that was going forth inside Mt. Zion. Pastor Larry Osborne, author of Sticky Church, states, “A strong small group ministry can also help a church become more authentic in its relationships are far more disciplined in its spiritual disciplines.”2 The intimacy of Small Groups made it easier for focused prayer to become a spiritual discipline. The more disciplined one’s prayer life, the easier it is to grasp other spiritual principles. As these groups began to pray about subjects like commitment, tithing, maturity, growth, and sharing the Gospel, a change in how they fellowshipped with one another and with visitors became apparent. These groups became a vital part of the transforming process as those who participated not only had the opportunity to observe the process but became an integral part of it by their participation. The Opelika community felt welcome to participate and the congregation embraced them in such a seamless way that they became one unified body without even realizing it.
By calling the congregation back to the methods the church was founded upon, teaching, preaching, study and prayer, we retrained our thinking away from self-centered, inward behavior to a mindset that embraced God centered thinking. The implementation of intentional focus was the transforming factor for this congregation. Much different from the prior teaching methods that used a more random teaching/preaching style, the structure of this method provided a strategic methodology that had been absent in this context. These practices gave the congregation a new confidence in how impactful the Word of God could be in their lives. It also helped them understand their responsibility to share it with others to build the Kingdom. Because they began to attend Bible study and church focused on God as opposed to out of ritual, their true engagement in worship allowed God to become so real to them that sharing the experience with others became more natural. Experiencing the actual building of the intimate relationship with God allowed them to tear down the walls in their hearts and minds making it more appealing to share their experience with others.
“A pastor should develop a tough skin, have a heart surrendered to God, a teachable spirit and a confidence that borders on arrogance but is balance by humility. Lastly, every pastor must have the willingness to serve without the need to be served.” Bishop William P. DeVeaux
Wishing to become a successful change agent, required I learn to be a differentiated leader. The work of Family Therapist and Leadership Consultant Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, assisted me in understanding how important the skills of the leader are in crafting change in a group who are resistant to change. Friedman defines a differentiated leader as one who has “clear goals and vision for an organization yet is not anxious when challenged to speak, act or make decisions that go against the underlying power culture of the congregation. This is a leader who can be separate, yet connected and maintain a modifying, non-anxious and challenging presence.”3 A differentiated leader can manage their own capacity to react emotionally to take the risks that may be displeasing yet necessary for the group.
This leadership style allows me to think less about displeasing one or two and more about the progress of the whole. Realizing that what was needed to move forward shifted my focus toward continually working on my own differentiation to “optimize my objectivity and decision making capacity.”4 The focus became the greater good, an unpopular mindset in an inward focused congregation, but one needful to bring about consistent, upward progress.
“A differentiated leader as one who has “clear goals and vision for an organization yet is not anxious when challenged to speak, act or make decisions that go against the underlying power culture of the congregation. This is a leader who can be separate, yet connected and maintain a modifying, non-anxious and challenging presence. A differentiated leader can manage their own capacity to react emotionally to take the risks that may be displeasing yet necessary for the group.” Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, Failure of Nerve
Looking at the practices of former pastors, uncovered a pattern of situation based preaching and teaching that helped nurture the ingrown behavior the congregation exhibited. This teaching capitalized on preaching in reaction to current issues within the congregation as opposed to a well-planned, proactive strategic preaching model that was encouraging and instructional. To be fair, this style may have come about as a means of avoiding resistance and conflict within the congregation. The Self-Assessment Mirroring Survey, coupled with my comparative analytical research, prompted me to retrain myself to facilitate change in the congregation after discovering I had fallen into the reactive pattern as well.
As the research revealed the unique tensions Mt. Zion lived in, it became clear that I needed to view this context under a new lens. This lens allowed me to see Mt. Zion through the eyes of a pastor who by stepping outside the established pattern of teaching could journey with them to introduce new twists to the basic tenets of the church in a manner that transformed all of us in the process. Knowing that the ability to diminish my emotional reaction to the self-centered behavior assisted me in becoming more able to respond confidently and consistently without the concern of making everyone happy with my decisions. Coming to grips with the knowledge that the way the leader functions directly effects how the church functions, made the issues clearer to see. As I continued evolving, the congregation began to follow suit gradually transforming into a church that understood its obligation to be not just visible but vital in the lives of those they touched.
The evolution from being self-directed to differentiated, required that I tap into not only the advice of Dr. Friedman but also the wisdom of my now retired ordaining Bishop, Rt. Rev. William P. DeVeaux, Sr. In a course on AME Polity Bishop offered the following as traits an effective Pastor should possess. “A pastor should develop a tough skin, have a heart surrendered to God, a teachable spirit and a confidence that borders on arrogance but is balance by humility. Lastly, every pastor must have the willingness to serve without the need to be served.”5 These qualities are ones that are now constantly growing and have made a tremendous difference in how I continue the work of ministry in the office of pastor. Using more structured practices to meet the needs of this congregational context, and overcome their obvious resistance to change, revolutionized my pastoral relationship with them.
“Coming to understand the culture of the congregation helped me make the adjustments I needed to as a leader. This revelation guided me to refocus myself away from pressure of performance to please higher leadership and toward loving the people in a manner that made them want to love others as well.”
Uncovering the systemic causes of congregations being inward focused helped shed light on how vital it is that leaders understand the history and culture of their congregations, as well as how the skill set and style of leadership the pastor possesses drives the work of achieving transformation.
No church chooses to be inward focused but rather adapts to the behavior to protect themselves from further disappointment, defeat, being overlooked or unrecognized, criticism or any combination of other soul hurts. In many cases, inward focused churches simply do not know how to begin to refocus and fear the failure of not accomplishing it will cause additional issues. Consequently, they remain stuck in behaviors that are comfortable, safe and continue seeking self-validation. This kind of tunnel vision impedes growth and sets an unhealthy model in place for stagnation to continue. It is cultural more than it is behavioral. Church Leadership Consultant Dr. Samuel Chand defines culture this way, “Culture, not vision or strategy, is the most powerful factor in any organization. It determines the receptivity of staff and volunteers to new ideas, unleashes or dampens creativity, builds or erodes enthusiasm, and creates a sense of pride or deep discouragement about working or being involved there. Ultimately, the culture of an organization–particularly in churches shapes individual morale, teamwork, effectiveness and outcomes.”6 Coming to understand the culture of the congregation helped me make the adjustments I needed to as a leader. This revelation guided me to refocus myself away from pressure of performance to please higher leadership and toward loving the people in a manner that made them want to love others as well.
The possibilities for transforming the congregation appeared daunting yet through a change in my leadership style and understanding of the congregation’s culture, a difference in their mindset became apparent. Our conversations became more open with both parties listening for ways to work together for the strengthening of the congregation and the Opelika community. It has been refreshing for us as a collective to become more aligned with the mandate to “love neighbor as self” that we so proudly ascribe to as part of our AME liturgy each week.
As the process of turning the focus from inside toward outside continues to progress, we have been able to visualize the restoration of this congregation to a productive place in the Opelika community. Coming to understand the culture of the congregation helped me make the adjustments I needed to as a leader. This revelation guided me to refocus myself away from pressure of performance to please higher leadership and toward loving the people in a manner that made them want to love others as well.
As the process of turning the focus from inside toward outside continues to progress, we have been able to visualize the restoration of this congregation to a productive place in the Opelika community and denomination.
1Larry Osborne, Sticky Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 65.
3Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 26.
4 Ibid, 14.
5DeVeaux, William P. Sr. “Qualities of an Effective Pastor.” Lecture, AME Polity from Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA, September 2008.
6 Samuel R. Chand, Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code: Seven Keys to Unleashing Vision & Inspiration (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2011), 2
Chand, Samuel R. Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code: Seven Keys to Unleashing Vision & Inspiration. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass, 2011.
DeVeaux, William P. Sr. “Qualities of an Effective Pastor.” Lecture, AME Polity from Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA, September 2008.
Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve. New York, NY: Church Publishing, 1999.
Osborne, Larry. Sticky Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.
Rainer, Thom S. Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Your Alive. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2014.