Our Specialty Is….

A few weeks ago, I was in Atlanta for the CBF General Assembly. It was a great time to see old friends and be inspired with new visions for ministry. It was also a great time to visit Rosa Mexicano, a tasty Mexican restaurant in Atlantic Station that I love. It is not one of the order by number kind of Mexican restaurants but a fancier kind of Mexican restaurant…the “bring around the cart and make the guacamole at your table” kind of place. It also has a very large tasty gluten free menu and I may or may not have eaten there three times during the course of the week.

At Rosa Mexicano, when the waitress/waiter first comes to your table they ask if you are familiar with their menu and then always say, “We are known for a few specialties I will point out for you. Our drink specialty is our pomegranate margarita and our appetizer specialty is our guacamole which is made table side to your preferences.” Part of this is just smart business. If you order both of the specialties, you have already added around 25.00 to your food bill! I don’t know how they decided these would be their “specialties” but by drawing attention to them, it lets everyone who comes in know immediately what they consider to be the best they have to offer. It also says they are a restaurant that has become an expert at something, their specialities, setting them apart from other restaurants in a tough market.

Scientists tell us that in an eco-system where resources have become scarce, all living things become more specialized. They become more specialized in what they eat or herds with common trait all begin to live and feed in an area that is more specifically designed for their unique trait. There are not resources everywhere so their tastes change in the foods they eat. This keeps too many from one species from competing for one food or water source. It becomes their specialty, the thing that allows them to continue living.  They are not living in the same place they once were or in the same location they once were or eating once they once were.

Scientists call it the competitive exclusion principle, which states “no two species of similar requirements can long occupy the same niche (coexist).The niche of a species includes all aspects of its habitat, how it makes a living, and the physical environment in which it is found.” A study was done on a group of warbler birds that all migrate to the same forest. These birds look very similar to one another but even though they look the same, they are not competing with each other. “A careful study of the foraging behavior of these five warblers found many differences in the way they made use of the…habitat. These species differed in what part of a spruce tree they frequented, whether they captured insects on the wing, from needles, or under bark, and so on. The conclusion was that each species occupied a distinct niche.”*

When the church was a more mainstream aspect of our cultural identity, families attended on at least a semi-regular basis and there was no scarcity. Potential church members were everywhere. Today, there is a scarcity of leaders in our churches, funds to keep them open and running and a scarcity of people attending on a regular basis. So many of our churches want to find ways to get back the numbers they had in the fifties, sixties and seventies. They want to have the family and children ministries they once had that they believe drew young families to the church. They want a youth ministry, they want Bible studies, they want everything they had before but the reality is that the resources are too scarce to recreate what once was. No fancy programming, no going door-to-door, no part time position in youth and children is going to allow the church attendance numbers to go back in time.

However, this is not a discouraging word. It can be an exciting opportunity! Scarcity creates specialization. It allows us to be more precise and effective with the ministry we do. Not every church has to have every type of program. Many churches want to be like the big church in town, only smaller, but why be just like them? They’ve got that niche filled. Why not instead, monopolize on what you do have to offer?

If you are a small church, make the most of that. Whittle down the list of volunteers you are recruiting to just the essentials to keep the church running and do those essentials well. Plan events that you could only do in a small church.

Perhaps your congregation is much older. Bob Dale, a leadership guru here in Virginia, once shared the idea of starting new churches just for retired folks. We have the idea that we need young families to keep a church going, but there are always new populations of retired and older people to keep a church running. Do a ministry to those folks and do it well!

Think about your church’s location, history, special gifts of leaders and ministers. Create your specialty around that. Find new energy in doing what you do well, and do it even better!

Just like the warblers, find new ways to access resources and clearly identify what resources really need to be accessed. Just like the restaurant, find your specialty and make sure your church members know what it is. Each time they describe your church, they should be able to recite what the specialty is. They should have a clear understanding of who they are attempting to reach and what the specialty of the church is.

This is your unique chance and opportunity! Find the menu and find your specialty, find a new way of getting the bugs out of trees and what bugs you want to eat. Create your niche!


Eco-Style Leadership

A little over a year ago, as I was beginning this new job, I felt like I kept having the same conversation over and over again. Whether it was about the local church, youth ministry in the local church, leadership development, our state-wide youth events, etc. the conversation always went something like this…. “Something needs to change. We are ready for a change.” Me: “What needs changing? Do you have any new ideas?” “No. I don’t know how it needs to change, it just needs to change.” I was fresh out of a church where this cycle of conversation seemed to be the norm as well. We knew things needed to change but had no language for it, no perspective for it. We always wound up using “church” language which limited us. Church language is always steeped in the traditions of our faith. To talk about canceling a program, brings up the decades of fond memories for the group and individual memories of how important that program was for their faith development. We can’t get rid of something so important. To talk about adding something into the schedule, the language always takes us back to the same things we have always done. It didn’t work before, why would it work now? To talk about changing the way we look at our facilities means that others might trespass on our holy places. I felt like I needed a new language to help leaders process the possibilities for the future. It needed to be something natural, something everyone could easily relate to and identify with. Something that would draw people in but also something that was outside of the typical ways we talk about church. As I sat on the deck of my home brainstorming with my coach, I was gazing at this tree. It suddenly became clear to me, what if we could use nature and ecology to talk about the church and leadership? I was a science teacher and have always loved biology, so I connected with this idea. I spent intentional time talking with agricultural educators, farmers, even a peanut expert. Pardon the pun, but the connections between what we are facing in the church today and the natural ecology that surrounds us provides fertile soil for lessons and a new way of thinking and talking. I guess it’s not really new at all though, Jesus knew the importance of looking at the natural world around him to teach the people, but I hope to engage ecology in a new way for a new season of ministry. Certain entries in the blog will be devoted to this idea of eco-style leadership, including one that will follow this soon. This idea is still a work in progress but I’m looking forward to sharing my ideas and thoughts with you as we all grow together.

The Most Important Work

This past Sunday, I drove to church for worship with anxieties and doubts filling my head. Feeling called to denominational life, I worry about the future of the church. Really, I worry about the future of my job or my calling.  If I am called to lead ministry leaders, where do I fit into the future.  It is an incredibly naval gazing way to live out call and these moments are not something I’m especially proud of.

I read a lot of articles and books in my efforts to resource others and it seems to me there has been an onslaught of writers that are now proudly jumping on the bandwagons crying for change in our churches. They are proudly exclaiming to those who are still inside the church walls that they will have to change, have to close many of the church doors and reimagine them. There seems to be a new pride in their voices and they speak to something that really at this point, we all know needs to be changed. It is nothing new to say that church will have to look different in the future and it does not take a vision caster to say that the world of denominations and the Christian religion will look different in ten, twenty, fifty years. But, when I listen to a lot of these bandwagon jumpers, my stress can increase. I get worried about the future and my place in it.

Oh, I will challenge churches to think about church differently. I will challenge them to think about the possibilities outside the walls. The greatest frustration when I was pastoring was that I felt like we were too often just making decisions that would keep the doors of our church open for the members of our church the longest. I am not sure that is really living out the gospel, either.

So, on Sunday, I’m driving to church with all of my doubts about church as we know it rolling around in my head and my gut. The church I’m visiting, First Baptist of Richmond, is having work done on their sanctuary and so this was the first Sunday meeting in the gym for worship.  It is an awkward space to say the least and by the time I got there, I was sitting way in the back. I could not really see the platform.  The sound wasn’t working well in the way back and I had a moment where I felt like all those doubts that had been rolling around were just confirmed.  What was the point of this? Why was I crammed into this awkward space where I couldn’t clearly hear what was going on, couldn’t see what was happening? It was a beautiful morning, I could be worshiping God out there somewhere…getting some exercise, sitting out in the sun, etc.

And then one of the pastors got up to pray. He spoke in his prayer about coming together to do the most important work of the church, worshiping God. He prayed for the important work we would be doing that morning. That we wouldn’t be distracted and that in that time we would be reminded of just who God is in our world and in our lives. He prayed that we would feel the weight of the importance of worshiping God and that we’d feel the value of doing this most important work.

There has been some criticism from folks my age that it doesn’t seem right that we are called to be light in the world and yet we separate ourselves every Sunday morning. I once heard Patrick Johnson, a pastor from Connecticut who has done his pHd work in missional preaching, challenge that the most counter cultural thing we do, the biggest statement we make to our world, is to separate ourselves for an hour a week to worship God. To say in that time that nothing is more important.

I do think there are a lot of changes on the horizon for our modern churches and denominations but the reality will always remain that we need worship. We need spaces to separate from the world and be reminded who God is and who we are and are not. It is the most important work that we do. And in my best moments, in the moments where I don’t listen to the panicky voices or the voices of band wagon jumping “visionaries” that tell me we should close all the doors to the churches and just get over it, I know we will always need church. We will never lose the need to worship our creator. I will always have a place that I can be reminded there is a God who is worthy of worship, who is worthy of praise and who is worthy of my life and calling.