We all know what it's like to sit in the living room, feel a chill, and get up to adjust the thermostat. In the same way, church leaders must not only monitor but adjust the temperature in their congregations. Every church has a climate, often intangible, but felt within minutes of walking in the door. Some aspects of the atmosphere we enjoy and encourage. Others—quick, raise the windows!
To understand church climatic conditions, Leadership editors Marshall Shelley, Eric Reed, and Craig Brian Larson gathered three pastors who know a thing or two about regulating spiritual temperature.
Gary Fenton has served for nearly eight years as pastor of Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four years ago they added a weeknight contemporary worship service. Gary is co-author of Mastering Church Finances (Multnomah & Christianity Today International, 1992).
Randy Frazee is pastor of Pantego Bible Church in Arlington, Texas, a community wedged between Dallas and Fort Worth. After a severe decline during four years without a pastor, the church has experienced revitalization and growth under Randy's nine years of leadership. Randy has authored a book with Lyle Schaller, The Comeback Congregation (Abingdon, 1995), which chronicles the church's turnaround.
Gary Simpson, a graduate of Union Seminary in New York, has served for nine years as pastor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, New York. The church is more than 150 years old, and Gary's predecessor is the legendary Dr. Gardner C. Taylor.
How do you begin to gauge your church's unique climate?
Randy Frazee: If I had one day with a congregation to gauge its climate, I would do five things.
- Meet with the leaders to hear what they're talking about—is it controlling dissension or reaching out, internal or external issues? Is the prominent focus on evangelism or discipleship? Are their dreams for the future bigger than the memories of the past? What consumes the leaders' thoughts will reveal a lot about the environment.
- Tour the facilities. How the church cares for its property says a lot about the health of its self-esteem.
- Talk to the volunteers to find out why they have volunteered and whether they link their work to the church's larger mission. "I duplicate cassettes because the pastor asked me" or "because we're trying to help people grow in the faith."
- Have visitors fill out first-impression cards. What did they notice first about the church? What did they like most? What did they like least?
- Ask leaders what they are trusting God for in the next three to five years. That's when a plan moves beyond being a general "We want to glorify God" to a specific concept for influencing a city.
Gary Fenton: In addition, the architecture of the church's buildings either shapes us or reflects us. Buildings give you a feeling of how the church sees itself.
One church I pastored had low ceilings in every room. Even in rooms with overhead space, they had dropped the ceilings to save on the utility bill. They were a church that didn't waste money, energy, or ministry. If the ministry didn't produce quickly, pffft.
It was probably the most efficient church I've ever served, but it didn't have the edge of trying anything new. When I pastored in Branson, Missouri, it was the reverse. This was an entrepreneurial community. They weren't interested in efficiency; they wanted maximum return, and the building showed it.
Another factor is the larger environment of the secular community. Churches either reflect or deflect the environment around them. (Some work so hard at being different that they're the opposite of what's around them.)
In Oklahoma I served in a community in which a university was the largest employer. Committee meetings reminded you of faculty meetings. Worship services had some similarities to convocations on campus.
So you're shaped by the broader environment whether you swim upstream or move with the current.
Gary Simpson: The external factors are more alive than we may give them credit for. We can tweak certain things internally, but concerns such as housing and employment opportunities affect the church environment.
As you attempt to create an environment in which people grow spiritually, what dials can you adjust?
Simpson: I want to create a climate in which it is okay for people to try new things and fail.
Some time back a few young people asked if they could play a song in worship. There was a drummer, and the drummer was loud. It was the most horrible musical presentation I have ever heard. But I don't think I heard one negative comment from people in the congregation because they knew it was important for the young people to try.
I let people know how pleased I was that these young people wanted to be involved in our worship.
Fenton: When events like that occur, it's important for the leader to give shape to them—sometimes before the fact, sometimes afterward. Set the context. You can't leave the people going out with two thousand different interpretations of it.
Not everybody is going to buy into your interpretation, but at least you've given them the language and the analogy to think about it. That helps shape the church environment.
Recently we went to dual Sunday schools, which meant splitting some classes that had been in existence for years. To do that we had to bless the past. We talked about how the church had gone to dual worship services in 1955 and how this in 1998 was the logical conclusion.
Frazee: When I came to the church, it had gone four years without a senior minister and had lost two-thirds of its members, two-thirds of its weekly finances, and had dropped from twelve to one full-time staff member.
So I came to a congregation that was not just in crisis but was seriously looking at a tombstone.
Welcome to the deck of the Titanic.
Frazee: This was the first time it ever dawned on me there was such a thing as corporate low self-esteem. When I came to the church, we set the mission of the church as seeing individuals transformed through their relationship with Christ. That got the church off its focus on the perpetuation of the institution and gave them a nobler cause.
One practical way that affects our worship services is, if your mission is to see individual life transformation, then bring people up to testify about experiencing it.
What else can poison the air?
Simpson: Too much success. Having enough money to do everything you want. Too much ego in a congregation is just as dangerous as low self-esteem. A congregation can forget that God is a part of this picture. With too many victories the congregation can start to believe they by themselves are unconquerable.
Grasping to leave a legacy for its own sake is a toxin to a church. For example, the church needs a library, but the church needs a library so that people can become disciples, not so Sister Smith can be memorialized.
Frazee: Another toxin is insufficient communication. As our congregation grew, I didn't upgrade the communication structure. We came to where we were totally insufficient in everything from what's said in the newsletter to what announcements were made on Sunday.
When communication breaks down, all sorts of evil emerges.
Christine Letts of Harvard, in a 1997 lecture for the nonprofit Peter Drucker Foundation, noted that nonprofit organizations have a tendency to expand a program without upgrading the scale of the organization to sustain it.
What happens when communication breaks down?
Frazee: Trust goes.
Fenton: Those who do not receive communication come to one of two conclusions: either you didn't want them to know, so you're trying to control the information; or you were too undisciplined to get it to them. As a result, the situation moves in their minds from a communication problem to a matter of integrity.
Simpson: In my early days as pastor, when we couldn't do something because finances weren't there, my disposition was not to tell about the financial problem. Bad mistake.
So for the last three years I have provided to all the officers in the church a six-month financial report with an executive summary on it. I tell them about every dime. That makes it easier for me to maneuver on the tougher things. Disclosure is key to a toxin-free environment.
Frazee: You have to find the right way to provide information. People say they want information you didn't give, but then when you try to give it, they don't show up to get it.
Fenton: When we put out reports, not many people take them. But the fact that they're available builds goodwill.
We send a weekly mailer that functions as the Sunday bulletin as well as the newsletter. And so our people receive it twice. Some time back we decided to save money and only hand it out on Sunday. There was a rebellion.
After four weeks of that, I stood before the congregation on a Sunday and said, "We heard you." Everybody got real quiet. I continued, "You've asked for Together to be mailed. Come Thursday it will be in your home."
Our church is not a place where applause breaks out, but there was applause.
When does a pastor cross the line from climate control to spin doctoring?
Frazee: To a certain degree, climate control is leadership, but there is a line that's crossed when it's no longer leadership. This delves into the motive issue, and it's hard to understand motives.
John Hannah, a professor of mine at Dallas Seminary, said, "If you can get 60 percent good motives on any given day, it's a good day." Pastors are influencers, and when influencing others you have to ask yourself the question, "Who am I turning this knob for? Should I be turning this knob? This will create that, but should I be turning it?"
Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park says, "We only asked could we do it, not should we do it." That's the dark side of climate control.
So a major component of godly climate control is the minister's individual fellowship with God. When I come into the presence of God, I am laid bare by the Lord.
How have you dealt with unhealthy aspects of a church's personality?
Frazee: Many people want their agenda to be the agenda of the church.
We had a major problem about six years ago with political action movements being established in our congregation. I had appointed them. I finally had to say, "Our principal objective is not political reform. We are not going to jeopardize our evangelism by developing a political platform."
In our church it's well publicized that you'll get confronted if you do any Clinton bashing. The same thing was true when a Republican was in office. I make a big point that God is not Republican or Democrat.
Fenton: One of the TV stations phoned and wanted me to make a statement after the president of the Southern Baptist Convention called for Clinton's resignation. If I make any statement to the press on a political issue, however, I in some way have defined our church. So I never do it, even though I may have strong feelings on a subject.
I am careful about my humor. I do not make political jokes in the hallway or from the pulpit because some will glory in the joke and others will be devastated.
What special challenges do you face as you attempt to build a healthy church community?
Frazee: It is difficult to create genuine community in the suburbs. The wealth of the suburbs has created independence. People hunger for community, but it's on the other side of a glass wall.
Another problem is the fragmentation of the American lifestyle. People either have to devote their lives around the life of the church, which few do; or they're trying to manage several worlds—work, school, sports, music, family, church—that do not connect.
They come to church, and it's like Six Flags Over Texas. They're at the event with all these other people, but they don't know anybody. It gives the appearance of community and excitement, but in reality, community doesn't exist.
We've analyzed our small groups. They meet every other week, and the attendance of most people is perfect for the first three months. Then it drops to once every seven weeks. Yet, we tout that this is the place where genuine Christian community is experienced.
Fenton: The work place is now the source of community for most people. It's the provider of income, health care, and a number of social events each year. At work people are interested in your health, because if you are not well it impacts their lives. At church your health does not impact their lives as much. This is not what should be, but what is.
Frazee: We either have to restructure our paradigms or we go to the cultural model that says we are isolated people with cash. We'll pile people in on Sunday morning, give them some suggestions, and let them live in isolation.
Our solution right now—the jury is still out—is to develop neighborhood communities based around elementary school districts.
The elementary school district is the remaining geographical means by which a suburban community flows. You vote there. You go to the store near there. Most of the kids' sports are based in the school district. We tell everyone in our church from a particular district that the number one priority after you come to our worship service is to get into that community. We have pastoral leaders who are over these zones.
We have seven things we think the church needs to be about, and we seek to fulfill those things through the geographical communities. The attempt is to consolidate people's worlds.
Fenton: The need for connection is why there is a returning to some of the traditions in worship. While everything is changing in our world, it's comforting to know that the same words spoken at our great-grandparents' baptism in 1890 were spoken at ours, "in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."
Although their parents may have never been baptized, I am finding that younger couples, especially after the birth of a child, want to connect with a long community of faith. They do not want to know church history or denominational history, but faith history—knowing that I am part of something that was before me and will be after me.
Even in our contemporary service, we have questions about the Lord's Supper and baptism scenes they've seen in movies. These folks do not want traditional worship, but they do want a connection with a long heritage of faith.
How have you seen your personal life affect the church environment?
Simpson: My children are the first born to a pastor of our church in over 70 years. Seeing the pastor being a father who has to get diapers was foreign to our people.
The Sunday after my son was born, I preached, but I concluded the sermon by saying, "Now everybody stick out your hand. Do like this [hand shaking motion]. You just shook your pastor's hand. I'm going to get my wife and son out of the hospital. I'll see you."
Balancing your role as a family person and as a pastor is a difficult thing for people to wrestle with.
My message to the people is "Your family is your first ministry. If something we do in this context conflicts with something central to the fabric of love in your family, I want you to do the family thing, and you get back to us when you're finished. If your daughter is in the hospital, you come here for fueling, but your responsibility is to be by the side of the people you love."
I received an anonymous letter from someone who was perturbed that I'm a good father. (Laughter) Is it not important to the climate of our church for people to see an example of a good father?
When it comes to climate control, are you more of a responder or an initiator?
Fenton: For most of my ministry, I did much better at reacting, but now I'm having to learn how to be an initiating leader.
In my first year at the church, I preached a vision sermon, and in my mind it was electric. But a lady called me that evening and said, "Great service this morning. What am I supposed to do?"
I realized we had no structure to fulfill the vision. As a result, I've had to learn how to be a leader, not just a good motivator.
But responding well is still important. When we changed that newsletter, we were at the same time working on the major shift to the dual Sunday schools. We had already announced it to the church and staff. We were afraid the error of eliminating the newsletter may have sabotaged our shift to dual Sunday schools.
But standing before the church and saying we were wrong, admitting it and laughing about it, in some ways contributed to the success we're having with dual Sunday schools.
I think the people realized, "They're listening to us. We can trust them."
As you work on your church climate, what gives you hope?
Simpson: My children are seven and six, and we have probably used 15 baby sitters. We tried baby-sitting services. These were the best baby sitters money could buy, but we were never satisfied—until we got people in the church to look after our kids.
The reason we tried those other baby sitters is we didn't want church people in our private business. But the people who didn't worship with us talked more about us than the people in our congregation.
If having members of our church baby-sit for our kids worked for me, why can't I look out for the other new parents who come in and make sure somebody in the church is taking care of their children?
So community is built by meeting practical needs.
We should expect people who worship together on Sunday to care for one another during the week.