When you use a word…

Missional…I can hear the groans. In church circles (does anyone else use that word?) the word missional is overused and ill-defined. That makes it practically useless. Yet, it seems church folks insist on using it.

It goes a step further. Often people use the word missional to communicate something important/distinct/etc. while actually complaining that the word they are using doesn’t mean anything – they do this without providing any clear definition of the word.

Missional is a good word. Please keep using it! At the same time, when you use the word missional, please define it so we know what you are talking about. That will help this poor, poor word gain some clarity – and traction – in the church.

Endangered denominations?

As the local church goes, so go the denominations and institutions that support her.

The local church can do without denominations. Denominations can’t do without the local church.

This reality calls for a radical shift in focus (or, perhaps, purpose) for denominations (and the institutions that support the church). We need to shift our focus from internal concerns rooted in fear (how do we survive?) to external concerns rooted in Jesus’ mission for the church (how do we help the church thrive?).

How are we supporting ministry on the ground, in the neighborhood, led by local church pastors and people?

After serving as a pastor in local churches for over 20 years, I’ve spent the last four years in denominational work. I believe we have a role to play. I also believe we need to shift the focus to the point of it all – Jesus at work in the world through the church by the Spirit.

It’s the local church…

It’s the economy, stupid!

James Carville

During Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, campaign director James Carville famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Carville believed that the primary thing that mattered to voters was the economy. If you can’t see that, according to Carville, you’re stupid.

I work for a church denomination(MC USA). I’m often asked about the challenges of leading in a denomination at this moment. Churches are struggling. Budgets are shrinking. Struggles over the place of LGBTQ persons in the church remain. Seminary is expensive. Student debt is real. Churches don’t pay much, so how to you attract young leaders. And on and on.

If often think of the church version of Carville’s quip. If you are wondering how to lead in a denomination or church-supporting institution, I have one thing to say: It’s the local church…

If your denominational work and ministry doesn’t help the local church thrive, you’re doing it wrong or your doing the wrong things (or both).


“It might be that instead of spending more time looking for a louder platform, you could profit from digging in and doing the hard work of figuring out the change you seek to make. If you’re unable to influence one person in a face to face meeting, all the tech in the world isn’t going to help you change a million people.” Seth Godin


This is true in the church, too! As a follower of Jesus in the world, what change do you seek to make? Can you influence one person in a face to face meeting towards that change? If not, a bigger platform, larger church, more followers, will not do it either.

Leadership: The relationship between church and business

If I ran a business the way you run the church, it would be bankrupt

Raise your hand if you’re a pastor or church leader and you’ve ever heard that complaint!  I see that hand…and that one…and that one…

This is a common sentiment that gets expressed when poor leadership practices are clearly hurting the church. Dysfunctional boards. Loose process. Lack of professional standards. Poor communication and feedback loops. Lack of strategic planning. Meetings that last too long and accomplish too little.

The principle, behind the sentiment, underneath the quip is this: Any group, of any sort, that is trying to accomplish anything needs structures that function. This is true for the church.  The appeal of comparing the church to a business is that there are hard realities, rooted in economics, that are at work within businesses which make it hard for businesses that don’t function well to hide for too long. This isn’t necessarily true for churches.

So it is natural for some to think that running a church like a business can be helpful.  And, to some degree, it can.  There are some practices within businesses that can help churches function better. In business they call them best practices. Some of them can help the church.  So keep reading your Bible.  But every once in a while pick up FastCompany, too. You can learn  interesting things about innovation, management, human resources, design, and so on. If you find you’re reading FastCompany more than your Bible, repent. The Bible is still the primary source for church leaders.

The problem with this church is that it’s run too much like a business. 

This is the other side of the coin. This sentiment gets expressed when a church is run too much like a business. What that usually means is that people have  become less important.  Vision is executed by those at the top of the leadership structure. People’s voices are marginalized. Spiritual disciplines, like Scripture reading, prayer and discernment, are put on the back burner.  Too much FastCompany. Not enough Philippians 2.  1 and 2 Timothy. Not enough Jesus (that’s always a problem).

It’s natural for some to think that running a church like a business is the reason that relationships suffer, compassion is lacking and people become secondary to structure, process and management. Therefore it is important that leaders recognize that church is not a business. The bottom line for churches is people, connection, collaboration, participation, and….LOVE!

What is the proper relationship between church and business when it comes to leadership?

For me, when it comes to management, process, visioning, innovation, etc. there is a lot churches can learn from business. When it comes to people, church leaders need to take their cues from Jesus, as well as Paul and other Old and New Testament leaders. Joseph. Moses. Jeremiah. Peter. James. to name just a few.

In that way, both quips are right and wrong. The key is balance. The church is not a business. But that does not give churches permission to run poorly in ways that hurt the mission, vision and direction of the church. If learning from business can help the church run more effectively from a structural standpoint, I don’t see the harm. In the end, however, Bible trumps all else.  A good business practice that is inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture is a bad church practice.

Avoiding the idol of unity…

I hear the world UNITY a lot in Mennonite Church USA these days. I suspect it is because the possibility of division rooted in disagreements looms large. In order to hedge against that reality, there are many calls to unity.

It’s not that I don’t believe unity is God’s plan and purpose. I believe it is. I believe that the trajectory of God’s work is towards unity as all things are gathered under the lordship of Jesus.

With all wisdom and understanding, he[d] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.  (Ephesians 1:9b-10)

Rather, it’s that I believe that unity – as it’s often talked about – has become an idol. By idol I mean something that is placed above God or higher than God. To go further, I mean that unity becomes a principle that is above God to which even God has to submit. In my view, this is a serious theological error.

In Ephesians 4:3 Paul writes,

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

The way that unity becomes an idol is through a simple turn in the order of Paul’s words. Paul says that we are to maintain the unity of the Spirit. Too often, I hear people say that we are to maintain the spirit of Unity. These are very different things.

In Paul’s original teaching, he is saying that as followers of Jesus we are stewards of the unity of the Spirit, which he explains by saying…

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  (Ephesians 4:4-5)

There is unity in the Spirit.  There is only one body. There is only one Spirit. There is only one hope. There is only one Lord. There is only one faith.  There is only one baptism. There is only one God and Father of all. We don’t create a unity that doesn’t exist without our effort. It isn’t up to us to submit to a spirit of unity as if this spirit of unity is our Lord. No. We are simply stewards of a unity that is real and present and a part of who God is (Father, Son and Spirit) and what God is up to – gathering all things under the Lordship of Jesus.

Our real work, then, is being good stewards of the unity of the Spirit. That requires working against the forces of fragmentation and division which are contrary to God’s nature, will and work in the world.

The spirit of Unity is a fine idea that many people can get behind. It would be better if all humanity was on the same page.  But that is different than the unity of the Spirit. The unity of the Spirit is essential to God’s nature, will and work. To monkey with that – either actively or passively, positively or negatively – is serious business. The kind of business that can find one fighting against God.

MC USA: What’s at Stake for You in This?

What’s at stake for you in this?

The first time someone asked me that question, I did the avoidance two-step. I didn’t know how to answer the question. I had never been asked that question before. I wasn’t sure I even understood the question. The more I thought about it – and the clearer the question became – the more I was really sure I didn’t want to do the kind of personal exploration that might produce an answer.

I was afraid.

What’s at stake for you in this?

It’s an unnerving question. It’s a revealing question. It pushes you to go deeper. It asks you to see what you might not want to see. It forces you to articulate your personal bottom-line.

It is also a question that opens up new possibilities. These are possibilities that are rooted in truth-telling.

It’s a question I like to ask people – especially when there is a conflict.

What’s at stake for you in this? 

Recently, I’ve been asking this question in the context of an ongoing conflict within the church denomination I call home: Mennonite Church USA.

The conflict is over how to be a church together amidst differences in how folks understand Jesus’ call to the church regarding gay people in our midst. (even the formulation of the issue is problematic, but that’s the best I can do right now)

In a public meeting yesterday, one participant said, “We’ve been dealing with this for forty years. I’m discouraged that we have made no progress.”

I have friends, and Christian brothers and sisters on both sides of the conflict. A question that keeps coming to me – which I haven’t had an opportunity to ask – is: What’s at stake for you in this?

I desperately want to know.

What will you lose if the conflict is resolved in a way that is not what you wish?

The answer to that question would be fascinating! Worth ruminating over! Potentially healing! Full of reconciling potential!

It’s a question the Holy Spirit is asking me!  So I’m asking you.

For those of you within MC USA – who are passionate and engaged and, perhaps, entrenched in this conflict – what’s at stake for you in this?

The answer, from both sides of the divide, might reveal a way forward.