Why Plan a Year of Sermons?

For pastors, I think it’s smart to have an overview of an entire year of speaking, particularly if the bulk of your messages are topical in nature. The way our leadership team would determine the teaching calendar was preceded by uncovering what we called our yearly strategic initiatives—what we would want our entire staff and key volunteer leaders to be focused on for the next year, typically three-to-five initiatives.

Once those were determined, the leadership team would sketch out a rough teaching calendar for the next year—series and themes would be mapped on a calendar. We would keep five things in focus in this process:

  • Our mission and vision (it would be posted on a wall)
  • Our core values (posted as well)
  • Our proposed new strategic initiatives
  • A gap analysis (Where is there a problem of praxis at our church? What are the felt needs? What needs to be corrected by teaching?)
  • And, of course, what God wants to specifically say to our church (hopefully determined by a guided prayer time with the team)

We would also balance and adjust our teaching calendar through another filter: “Army” talks (series that are mission-centered, “take-the-hill” focused), “School” talks (series that are doctrinal, creedal, or pure Biblical-literacy talks) and “Hospital” talks (growth-and-healing, soul care, self-awareness talks). Why? Because too much of one style can either (respectively) wear a church out, puff it up, or become too inward-focused. And most pastors will subconsciously default to one of these in their teaching style.

One simple reason for planning twelve months in advance is super-practical: other key ministries can plan events and seminars that match the topic. For instance, if we were doing a “Hospital” series—perhaps messages on developing authentic relationships—our Growth & Healing Ministry might plan small groups or classes at that time on that topic to tackle our relational dysfunctions. Anytime you can “preach” the announcements, your “extracurricular” events have more power, better response and provide a clear actionable point.

~Dave Workman | Elemental Churches

The Power Paradox

About four-thousand years ago God spoke to Abraham and said, “Leave what’s familiar and I’ll make a nation out of you. And here’s the Big Deal, Abe: you’ll bless the entire world.”

What does it mean to bless an entire planet? How would I do that?

Would that mean I’d have the power to make people happy? To end all wars? To eliminate disease and pain? To enforce a global shalom? And even at my altruistic best, how would I keep the peace between individuals/tribes/religions/nations who want some sort of power over another? If you’re a parent of more than one child, you know this isn’t simple. Most of us attempt to keep peace by wielding power as in who has the bigger stick. In societies, we grant power to certain people (police, judges, military, etc.) to quarantine bad people who can disrupt the peace.

But Jesus personalized peace in a shocking way: “Come to me—all you who are tired and weighed down—and I’ll personally give you rest.” Then he oddly follows that up with, “…for I am gentle and humble in heart.”

It struck me the other day that I’ve never really thought of God as being humble. After all, he’s omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent… omnieverything. If you believe in a personalized First Cause of any sort, it’s hard not to be awed.

But humble? Really? Apparently, God looks at power—and the way it’s used—very differently than we do.

Perhaps it means that the way to bless the world will never be by power. Be honest: in our moments when we dream how we would benevolently rule the world if we were king, we still have to admit that all the power in the world can’t change the human heart. And that’s the power of Jesus.

Maybe it’s time we leaders reconsider how we think about power. In relationships. In politics. In culture. In organizations.

I’m not talking about abdication. But wouldn’t it behoove us to take some time to wrestle with this question: How did Jesus bless the world? Wouldn’t that be worth emulating? And is the servant (us) ever above the master (Jesus) in terms of practice or methodologies?

That’s a rhetorical question.

“Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the LORD Almighty. (Zechariah 4:6b)

 

~Dave Workman | Elemental Churches

4 Critical Questions to Ask Before Writing Your Sermon

Over the last thirty years, I’ve spoken in some capacity—whether teaching or worship leading—in well over four-thousand church services because of multiple services on the weekends. I’ve spent the bulk of my life trying to learn to communicate the good news of Jesus. And I still feel like a neophyte despite Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” theory of mastery.

Before crafting a message, I’d ask myself 4 critical questions:

1.  What’s the form? If it’s topic-driven, I study as many scriptures as possible relating to the subject…via memory, word searches and conversations. If its text-driven, I want the passage to preach itself: what did the author intend, what was the context, who was it written for, and what’s our cultural application?

2.  What is the one action-oriented “take-away” I want the listener to get? I’m convinced that listeners can’t assimilate multiple points into any actionable follow-up. So what is the One Thing I want them to leave with? In other words: what is God saying to you in this message and what are you going to do about it?

3.  Who is my audience? I considered the wide spectrum of people listening, such as:

Demographics. How will the single mom, factory worker, or executive hear this?

Political spectrum. Don’t assume a monolithic political view in your audience. As Andy Stanley says, “I’d rather make a difference than a point.”

Age. Consider the average age of your audience; what references will they understand and what’s their generational bias in terms of style.

Cultures. I once watched Tony Evans masterfully speak to a group of white leaders with their notepads and pens poised. He spoke in a style radically different from his own church, accurately assessing how they would best hear him.

And even if your church isn’t diverse, you’re probably podcasting or posting audio on your website. Please, please, please consider your potentially wider audience…and don’t embarrass the Body of Christ with an offhanded, insensitive remark.

4.  During the writing of the message, I have to consciously slow down my brain and ask, “Father, what do you really want to say this weekend?” It sounds simple, but that would calm my furious typing and spare me from many a rabbit trail.

And last, remember this: How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Isaiah 52:7 (New International Version)

You’ve either got a great podiatrist or a calling from God, my friend.

~Dave Workman | Elemental Churches

Do You Like What You’re Doing Now?

After being in some outreach-oriented ministry from the time Jesus captured my heart way back in the seventies (the Mesozoic Era) and pastoring in an outward-focused church for nearly 30 years of that time, periodically I’ll run into folks who ask, “Do you like what you’re doing now?

When I co-founded Partnership Advisors and we subsequently launched the Elemental Churches approach to measuring church health and leadership development, there was really only one goal: to help as many churches possible be as healthy and effective as God intends. And here’s why:

A few days ago I was in our local Trader Joe’s buying a half-case of inexpensive wines (okay, cheap…). The twenty-something at the cash register was a tall, chatty, overly friendly guy who seemed to be genuinely thrilled to serve the customers. I was not in a particularly talkative mood and felt a bit sensitive for the woman behind me who was holding a pile of supplies in her arms, waiting for her turn. At the same time I was internally processing how effective Trader Joe’s employee training system must be: every cashier seems to enthusiastically greet shoppers!

“How are you doing this fine Friday evening, sir?”

“Doing well,” I smiled, slipping my Discover card into the reader.

“It’s a good day, isn’t it?” he said, pulling out each bottle and scanning them while simultaneously exchanging friendly banter with a passing fellow employee. He looked up at me and suddenly queried, “Let me ask you something: if you could do one thing to change the world, what would it be?”

I was totally caught off guard; I wasn’t expecting an existential question from a Trader Joe’s cashier. I said, “Seriously?”—just to buy a little time to actually contemplate what I’d say.

He grinned and said, “Yeah.”

And here’s what came out of my mouth before I had time to really think about it: “Well, honestly, I wish I could figure out a great way to tell everyone in the world how good Jesus is.

He closed his eyes, slid the last bottle back in the carton, and walked around the counter to me. Motioning me toward him, he said, “Bring it in.” And we hugged. Not the half-bro handshake hug, but the full-bodied-heads-on-shoulders-patting-on-the-back kind. An old white guy and an African-American millennial. The woman behind me with her arms full just stared.

He said, “That’s the answer, man. You know, our policy here is that we’re not supposed to talk about this kind of stuff…”

“I totally get it,” I interjected.

“…but that’s what I like to hear. I’m with you. I just like to ask questions like that to hear what people say and what they’re feeling. You know, my generation needs a lot of help. You take care, my friend.” He smiled and handed me my half-case of wine. “And have a great day.”

Which brings me to my point: the Big “C” Church is both the expression of the Kingdom and proclaimer of the Kingdom message. The Church is Plan A; there is no Plan B. It is the way of telling the entire world how good Jesus is. And the local church is the best representation in whatever corner of the world it’s in of the now-and-not-yet Kingdom.

And so when a local church is healthy, everyone wins. The congregation, the city, and all those who don’t yet know how good Jesus is. And if our team can play a small part in helping any church get a little healthier, a little more on point, and stronger organizationally and missionally, then my little life feels pretty full.

So, yeah, I pretty much like what I do.

Now go listen to this old song by All Sons & Daughters and dream. This is what the local church can do best.

~Dave Workman | Elemental Churches

Are You An Elemental Leader?

Over the decades, I’ve had some good bosses and some not-so-good bosses. And conversely, in my own leadership history, at times I was a good leader and other times a not-so-good leader. But after many years of observation, study, and reflection, it seemed to me there were four simple but elemental factors balanced in every great leader: integrity, passion, servanthood, and imagination. What’s more, these leaders ensured that those same traits were reflected in the organizations and teams they led. They may have been doing it in non-articulated, intuitive ways, but it was evident those factors were the major players in their effectiveness…as well as their organization.

For the sake of simplicity and retention, I use the foundational elements the ancient Greeks reduced the world to—earth, fire, water, and air—to represent those four vital traits as explored in my book Elemental Leaders.

Earth | Integrity:  The earth element connotes something solid, rooted and grounded in the elemental leader’s character. What’s more, they build a similar integrity in the organizations they lead. They are driven by principles and values and a deep desire for praxis in their personal lives, their teams, their organizations and their work.

Fire | Passion:  This catalytic element fuels inspiration and energy; elemental leaders bring heat to others and situations in order to enable things to combust. They make stuff happen. Every successful leader I’ve known had a fire in their belly for a mission or cause that ignited in others a sense of empowerment and accomplishment.

Water | Servanthood:  Elemental leaders deeply understand that the organization (or family or team) is not about them—as a matter of fact, it’s more important than oneself. Elemental leaders innately grasp they’re part of something bigger than themselves. They shake off any sense of entitlement. They’re outward-focused and feel as though they are being poured out for others.

Air | Imagination:  There’s a certain amount of blue sky-ing elemental leaders enjoy with their teams and leaders. They have no problem grilling up sacred cows or questioning organizational methodologies. There’s a “what-if” factor that fires their neurons regularly and a certain amount of calculated risk that cultivates organizational “room-to-breathe.”

Of course, no leader is perpetually functional in all four areas, but learn to recognize and compensate for the gaps. They exercise the weak muscles. Highly functioning leaders learn to balance all four in ways that feel semi-predictable yet surprisingly fresh to their organizations and followers. They learn to recognize why and when one of the elements needs to be amped up.

I’ll venture you may already have a sense that one of those elements is currently atrophied in you or in whatever context you lead. Is there a lack of passion or fire in your organization…your family…your team? Or does it seem like it’s been a long time since creativity played any part in the strategy, structure, or processes of your company or ministry? Or has a cancerous negativity or unhealthy entitlement crept into your staff, co-workers, or team? The good news is: you can turn it around once you identify it.

Although geared toward church leaders (I believe the principles apply to any organization), the Elemental Churches website at www.elementalchurches.com has a free personal assessment to help you discover your primary element…and identify weaker ones.

~Dave Workman | Elemental Churches

Is Your Church—Or Organization—A One-Generation Effort?

The New Testament doesn’t say much about leadership succession. The apostle Paul describes the selection and appointment of pastors, but is curiously quiet about when pastors are succeeded.

Leaders must spend time thinking about the future of their organizations. In one of my favorite leadership books, The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner write:

“The domain of leaders is the future. The leader’s unique legacy is the creation of valued institutions that survive over time. . . . In fact, it’s this quality of focusing on the future that most differentiates people who are seen as leaders from those who are not . . . It’s something to which every leader needs to give more time and attention.”

Way back in 2001, I was in Los Angeles for a conference and decided to visit the Crystal Cathedral, home of the largest glass building in the world. In the mid-1980’s at the height of their television ministry, I—like millions of other baby boomers—had seen the “Hour of Power” show. As the service started, I was stunned: the sanctuary was less that half-filled with a sea of whitecaps: people in their senior years. I remember turning to my wife and saying, “This church isn’t going to survive the next ten years.” You didn’t have to be prophetic to see that—a dozen years later they held their final service after declaring bankruptcy earlier.

The Quaker author, Hannah Whitall Smith, writing in the late 1800’s, penned a fascinating essay late in life:

“People talk a great deal about the duties the young owe to the old, but I think it is far more important to consider the duties the old owe to the young. I do not of course say that the young owe us old people no duties, but at the age of seventy I have learned to see that the weight of preponderance is enormously on the other side, and that each generation owes to the succeeding one far more duty than the succeeding one owes to them. We brought the younger generation into the world, without consulting them, and we are bound therefore to sacrifice ourselves for their good. This is what the God who created us has done in the sacrifice of Christ, and I do not see that He could have done less.”

Is your church, ministry or the organization you lead a one-generation effort?

~Dave Workman | Elemental Churches

The Art & Science of Changing Church Service Times

Recently in coaching a great church in the Columbus Ohio metro area—The Church Next Door—we suggested to senior pastor Doyle Jackson that they considering changing their service times. The Church Next Door accommodates about 1000 people each weekend in four services: two on Saturday night (5:00 and 6:45pm) and two on Sunday morning (9 and 10:45am). The first one on Saturday night was okay, but the second one was super-sparce. The common theory on two Saturday night services is it’s easier to piggyback services and retain volunteers (serve one, attend one), but I think a larger issue is the lack of energy and sense of momentum when a new person enters a barely-filled large room: the vibe is, “No one really wants to be here.” And for my user-friendly, invitational bent, creating welcoming environments is a big deal. We suggested merging the two Saturday services into one and creating a more enticing and energized context.

Sunday morning was okay at 9:00am, but certainly had a lot of room to grow. The 10:45am was the heaviest attended. Our suggestion was to cut about 10-15 minutes of “fluff” from their often 75-minute services (in most churches, every service and sermon have unnecessary fluff: redundancy and over-information) and then readjust their times to 9:30 and 11am, making them more attractional and receptive to invitation and balanced time-wise.

The problem was: how to communicate this to the congregation. Will it feel like a take-away? And for notoriously consumeristic American Christians, what will convince them it’s for the better?

Here’s the email I sent Doyle for suggested communication:

Regarding changing your service times: be bold and brave. Don’t worry about the complainers. You want to mention (1) your church’s history, (2) values related to that history, and (3) why this is important. It could sound something like this:

“We have some exciting news about our weekend services. From the earliest days of The Church Next Door, we wanted to create a place that ANYONE could come to—a safe place to hear the dangerous message of Jesus and His radical love! Even this new series—“Finding Home”—is all about wanting everyone to find their home in God’s heart. And because of our deep belief that all people are valued by God, we want to make sure that our times to invite people are optimal.

“Since Sunday is typically when most people check out a church or to explore the faith, we want to shift our services so that we can reach as many people as possible who are apt to come during that “prime time.” So in two weeks, we’re shifting our times to 9:30 and 11. We want to make it as easy as possible for you to invite your friends and family…and we believe those are the optimal times—not too early, not too late.

“And then on Saturday nights, we’re combining our two services into one to make it as exciting and energized as ever so that new people who come in see how awesome it is to be in a room filled with people who actually want to come to church—people like you! The whole reason for doing this is to make a much more inviting and motivating environment for you to bring the people you know who don’t yet know Jesus. It’s really all about creating the best possible context for those exploring the faith. And as we’ve always said, “It’s not about us; it’s about God and others”…this isn’t a private party. So in two weeks, we’ll be having one room-filled, energized service at 5pm.”

And then add at the Saturday 6:45pm service:

“So for the 6:45 gang here, please join us at the 5pm service and make it a more energizing, welcoming service. Invite your co-workers, family and friends to 5pm and then take them out for dinner. Let’s use this time to bring as many people to Jesus as possible!”

“Today I want to talk about…” and launch headlong and energetically into your message.

PS: Pastor Doyle got zero pushback afterwards. Good, thoughtful communication is critical because people want to know why something changes. If you don’t communicate, they’ll assign their own reason to it…and it may not be flattering or accurate.

~Dave Workman | Elemental Churches

Are You Creatively-Challenged?

I’m convinced that the power of imagination and creativity is too often overlooked in leadership circles. Many times we relegate imagination to the exclusive domain of artists and creatives, forgetting that we are made in the image of God…the epitome of creativity. We have the same spiritual DNA, regardless of how artistically-challenged we consider ourselves.

Ed Catmull, the president of the creative powerhouse Pixar, began his leadership life in front of a computer with a dream: creating animation with zeros-and-ones. As a child, he worked his way through the comic-book-advertised Jon Gnagy’s Learn To Draw art kit. But over time, he discovered he would never reach the talent arc of Disney’s animators. Eventually he turned his attention to computer science and graphics.

Twenty-five or so years later he would help lead the creative team that developed the industry-changing movie Toy Story. He writes tellingly that after they released the movie, he “felt adrift”. Is this really what he wanted to do—manage a complex, messy company mixed with insanely creative people, bean-counters, bottom-line investors and now skyrocketing expectations? Would he miss using his own artistic, creative abilities?

Catmull ultimately made a paradigm shift in his thinking: he transferred his artistic juices to thinking innovatively about organizational structures, systems and culture. Management didn’t have to just be about maintenance and metrics; he began to see a larger picture for developing a culture of creativity. In his book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, he writes:

. . . Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture—one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality, and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable that became—wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job. . . . My hope was to make this culture so vigorous that it would survive when Pixar’s founding members were long gone, enabling the company to continue producing original films that made money, yes, but also contributed positively to the world. . . . That was the job I assigned myself—and the one that still animates me to this day.

How is your imagination being used in leadership? What kind of “what if?” questions are you mulling and tackling with your team? How much time do you allot for creative “organizational-thinking”?

~Dave Workman | Elemental Churches

What Does Leadership Demand Emotionally?

If you’ve ever had a boss that you enjoyed working long, hard hours for, what made them worth working that hard for? After posting that question on Facebook, I got a barrage of comments. Generalized, they were: “They noticed me. My work, my contribution, my hours. There was genuine appreciation. And it was stated over and over that they felt their boss was “in the trenches with me.” That means at an emotional level as well.

Healthy leaders often subjugate their own needs to the service and needs of their people in order to accomplish a higher mission. Remember King David in the Bible?—David’s family is a case study in dysfunction. Following a coup staged by his son Absalom, David prevailed in a subsequent backlash and war. But though David asked his military general to capture Absalom alive, his general was so angry that Absalomhad created such havoc and loss of lives that he killed Absalom himself. David’s army won at a high, exhausting cost.

When news of the victory got back to King David, he was only concerned for his son and wept, “My son, my son. If only I had died instead of you!”

How emotionally debilitating that would have been for the national psyche of Israel and the returning vets. What should have been celebrated as a victory from being ruled by the self-consumed, narcissistic Absalom, King David was instead overwhelmed with grief and lost his “leadership objectivity”. It reads that “for the whole army the victory that day was turned into mourning…”

But his general risked everything to tell David bluntly that he had humiliated the men who had saved David and his family, stating:

You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you. I see that you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead. Now go out and encourage your men. I swear by the Lord that if you don’t go out, not a man will be left with you by nightfall.” . . . So the king got up and took his seat in the gateway. When the men were told, The king is sitting in the gateway,” they all came before him… (2 Samuel 19:5-8a)

They needed to be, they wanted to be, encouraged and inspired by their leader. Noticed. They needed to know that their sacrifice was recognized by him…and that he was still passionate for the kingdom, their kingdom. They needed his emotional leadership.

Leaders have personal needs and organizational demands that must be reconciled on a regular basis, and both must be dealt with appropriately. But passion—that inner suffering for something—has to be about more than our personal needs and wants. If you don’t have a passion for a mission that’s bigger than yourself, I can almost guarantee that when life slams you with something that seems overwhelming, you will be overwhelmed.

~Dave Workman | Elemental Churches

Five Key Questions Boards of Growing Churches Must Ask, Part 6

Question 5: How will Board members be chosen, and who will be involved in this process and in what ways?

 Once you’ve worked through the first four questions about the role of your Board and its composition (see https://elementalchurches.com/blog/five-key-questions-boards-of-growing-churches-must-ask/ ), it remains to determine how new Board members will be chosen. What process will be followed, and who will be involved in that process?

Ignore the Bylaws

Well, you can’t ignore your Bylaws, even if you might want to. For both legal and ethical reasons, and to act fairly toward the congregation, all stipulations in your Bylaws regarding the processes for selecting and seating Board members must be followed.

The same will also apply if your congregation is a member of a denomination, convention, or association that stipulates that members must follow certain processes for seating a Board.

But Bylaws and denominational regulations are not written on stone tablets. Nor can they rise to the level of the authority of Scripture. Like all regulations, your Bylaws reflect the spirit and concerns, and probably real challenges, of the era in which they were produced. They need to reflect the needs and concerns of today.

If they don’t, change them. Seek legal counsel if you need help determining how best to do this in a fair and ethical way.

The Voice of the People

In many smaller churches, and in some larger congregations that have outgrown their Bylaws and some processes, Board members are selected through typical Western democratic processes. Sometimes anyone in the congregation can nominate anyone for any position. Sometimes the congregation at large votes to seat a Nominating Committee that forwards and reviews candidates. Sometimes the current Board advances candidates for a congregational vote.

This system has weaknesses, but its strength is that it gives the congregation formal input into the selection process.  Congregational input is critical for at least two reasons.

First, it’s possible that someone in the congregation may know something important about a candidate that the staff and current Board members don’t know. Even if this doesn’t disqualify a candidate, it’s important to be aware that the perception exists.

Second, whether your church adopts a “representative” or “technical” approach to building the Board (see https://elementalchurches.com/blog/five-key-questions-boards-growing-churches-must-ask-part-5/), at the end of the day Board members have some level of pastoral responsibility for the congregation. You can’t lead people who won’t follow you. It’s a good idea to find out whether the congregation will trust and follow a Board member. If they won’t, effectiveness will be impossible.

In some churches, this congregational input takes the form of a “vote” for Board candidates. Since this is cumbersome in larger congregations, many larger churches opt to announce candidates and then invite the congregation to comment on them during an established vetting period.

The Voice of the Staff

A key issue in Board selection is whether or how paid staff members will be involved in the nominating and vetting process. In many respects, the involvement of the staff is a classic “catch 22.” On one hand, staff members may be most aware of the personal strengths and limitations of prospective candidates, and thus best able to speak into their potential as Board members. On the other hand, if staff members are involved in the selection process, they can potentially manipulate the system to create a situation where they choose their own boss. In that case, the Board may naturally enlarge the staff’s blind spots.

As noted above, in many smaller churches the congregation nominates Board members at large or through a nominating committee. This means that anyone could potentially become a Board member, even if the paid staff would not want that person.

But because this process is cumbersome, as churches grow they often adopt a model where sitting Board members sitting choose new candidates for the Board, in dialogue with the staff. There are advantages to this system in terms of streamlining the process. But it can also create a self-perpetuating culture within the top-level leadership, whereby no one who disagrees with the status quo can ever rise to a position where they could really challenge it.

Here again, the best system will invite and account for input from the paid staff while also preventing the Board from simply reflecting the staff’s interests and weaknesses.

Do What Works

Here as always, since there are biblical precedents for several different approaches, the best choice is to do what works best for your congregation. As your church grows, it will likely become necessary to streamline the Board selection process. At the same time, it remains critical that the congregation’s at-large input play a role. And of course, no system that allows the Board to become inbred and self-perpetuating will be healthy for the church in the long-run.

Tom Thatcher, tom@partnershipadvisors.com

www.elementalchurches.com