The pastor as chief encourager

Clergy have been called many things through the ages. We are the “chief among sinners,” after all.

In some ways my own ordained ministry has been guided by the wisdom of my graduate advisor at Duke Divinity School, Bishop Will Willimon. Will has a very deep and abiding theology of ministry based on his years in the academy and in the parish — and I can’t forget the nagging reminder he would often give that as clergy it is our job to “remind the church of her story.”

Rob Lee

The past two years I have served Unifour Church — that has played out in the role of chief curator — it has been my job to remind the church of who it is and who God has called the church to be. It has been telling the story in sermons and in teaching, in pastoral care and in administration.

Yet none of us could have predicted how a global pandemic that took its toll this past year could have rocked our conception of what church should be for the world. As that pandemic has begun to subside at least some in the United States, the church is at a crossroads. For clergy, that means we are at a crossroads as well.

Perhaps it is time for us to move from telling the story to encouraging the story. Are we called to be chief encouragers? Perhaps it is not our job to curate the museum of saints but instead offer encouragement at the rehab center for sinners. If we are encouragers for the work and mission of the church, we move from outside force to active participant in the work of the congregations we love.

As someone who has had wonderful clergy mentors, I know the people who call me to be my best self are encouragers. They remind me to throw everything at the wall and see what will stick; they remind me when all hope seems lost to be of good courage and have faith in the mission we’ve been told since before time began — God does not forsake us.

The story of clergy is to be a testament to that encouragement. After all, clergy should be witnesses to what we have seen and heard, as it has been told unto us.

“I know the people who call me to be my best self are encouragers.”

None of us have the certainty of how this will all play out, but if we trust in the work of God, we know that God will bring all this to completion for the sake of the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no need to curate that which is still living, there is no need to bury that which is not dead. The church may be smaller than it once was, but if your church is anything like mine, you are sensing the movement of a leaner but agile and fiercely resilient congregation.

I was ordained five years ago, and the preacher for the day said if I wasn’t paying attention to the state of the church, I was naïve to enter the ministry. The church is in a precarious position. But in my reading of Scripture God does God’s best work there.

We need only encourage the people of God to be blissful participants in their future. We have our work cut out for us.

Rob Lee is the author of three books and pastor of Unifour Church in Newton, N.C. A graduate of Appalachian State University and Duke Divinity School, he lives in Statesville, N.C., with his wife, two daughters and his poodle.

Get ready: There’s a second wave of church conflict coming

A pastor who works to encourage other pastors recently posted on Facebook that he personally knows 28 pastors who have left the ministry in the past year.

That’s one graphic illustration of what the season of our discontent has wrought in the American church. Between the pandemic and the politics, many pastors discovered they couldn’t win for losing. Nothing they did or said was agreeable to everyone. And they, in turn, became the identified source of the problem to disgruntled church members.

Mark Wingfield

Get ready: There’s a second wave coming.

Many pastors and churches that survived the pandemic and the 2020 presidential election will yet emerge into new bouts of conflict they didn’t see coming. We’re already hearing the stories as churches regather for in-person worship, committee meetings and parking lot conversations.

Church conflict that has been suppressed for more than a year is now bursting forth with greater intensity. The problems that were there before the pandemic have not gone away; they just got shoved underground for a season and now are erupting with a vengeance.

Here’s one way to think about this issue from what we know of how families operate. The divorce rate for couples who experience the traumatic illness and/or death of a child is extraordinarily higher than the national average for all couples. On the surface, you would think the opposite would be true: Couples that endure such an unspeakable trauma surely would grow closer.

But that’s often not what happens. If the marriage was troubled beforehand, experiencing trauma does not wipe away those problems. And even if the marriage was good, the emotions that rise up through family crisis may become destabilizing. Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall, and there’s seemingly no way to put the pieces back together again.

“Many pastors and churches that survived the pandemic and the 2020 presidential election will yet emerge into new bouts of conflict they didn’t see coming.”

During a severe family crisis, couples usually hold it together because they are so focused on the main issue at hand. All energies are focused on the medical issue, the mental health issue, the grief, the recovery. Much like a football team out to defeat a rival, everyone comes together under intense pressure to push through toward the goal.

But when that forced unity is no longer demanded — when the thing applying the pressure to the system resolves — it may be like viewing a landscape recently flooded by a hurricane. With the pressure removed, the old and new obstacles come into plain view.

And yet the frustrations we feel because of the past year most likely are not healed inside ourselves, whether we acknowledge that or not.

Which creates another danger — toxic transference. By that, I mean when we can’t deal with our own anger and frustration or lack of ability to get our way at home or work, we transfer our rage to church, or in too many cases, to pastors. The ways laity or staff act out at church often are not about the presenting issue. And that was true long before the pandemic.

Here’s yet another way to think about the bigger issue: When a high school or college or graduate student pushes and pushes to get to the end of an academic year, or when a couple prepares and pushes to get to a wedding day, or when anyone has a huge deadline at work that demands intense focus for months, it is all too common to cross the finish line and then succumb to a viral illness simply out of fatigue.

For such people who have been living on adrenalin, the sudden absence of an intense goal allows them to let down for the first time in months and become vulnerable to illness.

This is why some churches that hunkered down during the pandemic will emerge into new seasons of conflict and illness.

“The stew of beefs people have within the church has been kept on the back burner in a pressure cooker. And now it’s time to let off the steam.”

The sources of that conflict could be the prominent things we’ve been trained now to think about: political divisions that spill over into church and theology, how the pastor and church responded to the pandemic, the influence of QAnon and other conspiracy theories, the national reckoning on racial justice, disagreements on LGBTQ inclusion.

But other old-fashioned sources of conflict also may be at play: The pastor’s leadership style, the need of some lay leaders to get their way no matter what, concerns about church finances, internal staff dysfunction, bullying, pastoral tenure.

Most likely, churches that emerge now into conflict could point a finger at a mixture of many of these things, not just one. What has happened over the past year is that the stew of beefs people have within the church has been kept on the back burner in a pressure cooker. And now it’s time to let off the steam.

From one vantage, the current period of transitioning between online church and in-person church could be the most dangerous because the perceived wounds of the past year are fresh enough and the systems to deal with conflict are not likely ramped up yet. Pastors are extremely vulnerable at this moment.

Added to that, some pastors have delayed retirement plans or rethought retirement plans entirely because of the pandemic. They may have determined to exit earlier than planned or to stay a bit longer to ensure the church recovers from this unprecedented period. They may be confused about what they should do. And in a church, there’s always someone ready to tell an indecisive pastor what to do.

There’s a sage bit of wisdom counselors give those who are grieving in normal times: Don’t make any major life decisions for a year after the trauma you’ve endured. In most cases, that’s good advice for churches too. Give some time to let things settle as the church comes back together. Be gracious with one another as if you’re all learning once again how to be and do church.

“Be gracious with one another as if you’re all learning once again how to be and do church.”

Obviously, there are some exceptions to this advice, especially when faced with gross incompetence of either staff or lay leadership, bullying or other forms of intimidation. Remember that sick people always look for weak moments to insert their agendas for control or retribution. This is one of those times, so beware.

And remember that lazy workers — and yes, that includes some ministers and church staff — thrive when no one’s watching them closely. After 15 months of working out of sight, a new level of accountability is emerging. This, too, could be a bumpy ride at the intersection of reality and expectations.

Once again, we find ourselves at a perilous juncture where old bad habits so easily mix with the new unsettledness of post-pandemic life.

Emerging from a traumatic time always looks attractive from inside the trauma — and it is often a good change in the long haul. It’s the short haul and the transition times that are dangerous. Change doesn’t come easily, whether entering a pandemic or exiting one.

Churches, beware.

Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global. A veteran journalist, he also spent 17 years as executive pastor of a local church.


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Free webinars address five hot-button issues for churches in a post-pandemic world

A new webinar series aims to provide ministers with tools to nurture resilience in the face of congregational challenges such as political toxicity, declining attendance and financial pressures, said Matt Cook, assistant director of the Center for Healthy Churches.

“The purpose is to introduce this concept of sustaining joy no matter what,” Cook said about “The Changing Church,” a six-week series held at 11 a.m. Eastern on Thursdays through June 10. “Each week focuses on a different joy stealer.”

Matt Cook

In the context of the series, joy is the quality that enables ministers to sustain inspiration and perspective despite whatever challenges are being faced. “Happiness is a feeling. Joy is an enduring sense of energy, a sense of the desire to continue forward in our callings and not just gritting our teeth and enduring it.”

The weekly topics were identified in a survey conducted recently by the center in response to widespread anecdotal feedback from ministers despairing from a wide range of threats to congregational cohesiveness and personal well-being. Respondents were asked to rank those difficulties from a list of 15 choices.

“Politics was far and away No. 1 — 58% of respondents put politics in their top five,” Cook said.

Church conflict came in second at 46%, followed by declining attendance at 45%, lack of creative energy congregation-wide at 42%, and church financial pressures at 40%.

Other categories included staff conflicts and departures, and having to endure exhausting decision-making processes. On a personal level, respondents also identified rocky family relationships, financial pressures, low creative energy, and lack of work-life balance.

“The pandemic didn’t create these issues, but it exacerbated these issues.”

Cook acknowledged that these “joy killers” are nothing new in pastoral life, but he believes they have been greatly elevated by the coronavirus outbreak. “The pandemic didn’t create these issues, but it exacerbated these issues. It was an intensifier of political conflict and an intensifier of a lack of creative energy in the congregation. Trying to get your congregation to do one more Zoom meeting has become extremely difficult for some.”

The center is seeing results of these pressures in the coaching and consulting work it does with clergy, he said. “We are busier right now in transition work than we ever have been in our history, and at least part of that is emerging out of this sense of these joy stealers that already were great before the pandemic.”

In addition to offering approaches for solving or addressing these challenges, webinar panelists also will share methods for keeping in a positive mental framework even when problems persist, Cook said. “They will present ways to keep those issues from robbing you, individually, of joy.”

The guidance provided by panelists is based on experience. In an upcoming session on political toxicity, Preston Clegg, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., and Travis Collins, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala., will talk about how they handle the political pressures in their contexts and how they try to remain personally and pastorally resilient in doing so.

“We are aiming for congregational best practices that are helpful regardless of where your congregation lands denominationally.”

“They are coming from two very different contexts and ways of engaging around political issues, but both will share how they keep it from being a joy killer,” Cook said. “That’s what all the webinars will do — tap into strategies for keeping your joy.”

Over the course of the series, the breadth of that experience will mirror the variety of experts who have been selected to lead the sessions. They range from conservative evangelicals to progressive Christians and represent a number of Christian traditions, Cook said.

That wide perspective also is represented in the organizations that have partnered with the center for the series, including Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity, The Church Network, The Presbyterian Foundation and Baptist News Global, among others. The webinars are free but registration is required.

“We are aiming for congregational best practices that are helpful regardless of where your congregation lands denominationally,” he said. “We are not going to solve huge church problems in a 45-minute webinar, but we can get smart experts who are good communicators and let them bring their insights to bear.”


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Your church after COVID: Restart, refresh or relaunch? | Opinion by Bill Wilson

More churches plan reopenings cautiously, joyfully and with flexibility

New CDC guidelines and a growing number of church members being vaccinated are suddenly opening new possibilities for churches that have been closed to in-person gatherings for 14 months.

“The arrival and availability of the vaccine has been a welcomed unseen guest among those seeing each other in person for the first time since the pandemic began,” said Kyle Tubbs, coordinator for CBF Oklahoma. “The vaccine has opened doors of new possibilities in most of our churches. While one size does not fit all with regard to where and how churches are gathering, there are some common trends among churches meeting in person on Sundays: social distancing, masks, and an overall thoughtful culture of being aware of others.”

“The vaccine has opened doors of new possibilities in most of our churches.”

New guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control on April 29 listed “attend a full-capacity worship service” as something safe for vaccinated people to do if wearing masks. However, attending such a full-capacity service is still deemed unsafe for anyone who is not vaccinated.

Initial reports from those who work closely as consultants with multiple churches indicate a growing return to some form of in-person gatherings. And the openness to such activities appears to be growing by the day as more Americans are vaccinated and COVID-19 infection and death rates drop.

Kyle Tubbs

But that doesn’t mean online options are going away, Tubbs said. “Some of our churches have made their way back into their buildings while others are meeting outside. Almost all our churches are utilizing online streaming for those still connecting from home and are likely to continue to do so indefinitely. There is an intentional spirit of inclusion for those attending virtually.”

As universities end their terms and public schools near the end of the academic year, churches that had not previously reopened are rolling out transitional plans for the summer, often with an eye toward full schedules beginning in late summer or early fall.

Carol Childress

“Transitional” is the right word, noted veteran church consultant Carol Childress, who stays in touch with many of her colleagues working in churches across the country.

“My greatest concern is that pastors and other church leaders are not addressing the transition involved in all the changes they are being forced to make,” she explained. “Change is an event — large or small — and the social, emotional and psychological processing of the change is transition.”

Just as quickly transitioning to virtual worship and small groups last year took an emotional toll on church leaders, so the return to in-person and hybrid settings will take another toll, she predicted. “It is the difference between processing changes in a healthy and successful way or simply adding to existing stress and dysfunction of the situation.”

And despite the joy of regathering, there’s still a lot of uncertainty in the air.

“Pastors are uneasy because no one really knows what the post-COVID life for congregations will look like,” Childress said. “The only sure thing is that it will be different from what it was and we will not be returning to the past. I believe a hybrid environment is here to stay.”

“Pastors are uneasy because no one really knows what the post-COVID life for congregations will look like.”

Yet maintaining a hybrid presence and keeping up with new people from far and wide who have joined churches virtually during the pandemic presents a challenge all its own, she added. “The essential key is relationships — real, human, authentic one-on-one relationships. Digital community cannot substitute for that.  And there is a lot of research out there to validate that statement.”

Childress cited four traits that will help churches successfully navigate into a post-COVID context: (1) an emotionally healthy pastor, (2) an already existing healthy internal culture, (3) an infrastructure for community built on anything other than the traditional Sunday school model, and (4) already communicating well internally.

George Bullard

George Bullard

For all this second wave of transition to be happening as summer approaches is both a blessing and a curse, said George Bullard, a veteran church consultant based in South Carolina, where he previously was an associational director of missions and state convention leader.

“Summer is a mixed bag of activities. For major on-site and off-site events churches had to make go and no-go decisions before they knew how open things would be this summer,” he explained. “So, some are going ahead with full events, some are not, and some are doing limited events with numbers based on social distancing.”

Whatever path a church takes, a key issue will be recruiting workers, he predicted. “Even churches with a lot of families with children still have a high percentage of leadership and workers age 60 or more, and that is impacting what they can do.”

During the summer, he expects to see churches still using outdoor venues whenever possible and limiting indoor events. And those indoor events are likely to still be dependent on masks in most churches.

Bullard also sees a double-edged sword in how attendance patterns have shifted over the past 14 months. “The 25% of the previous attendance churches do not see coming back yet — if ever — are being replaced by an increase in first-time guests and more people than expected joining than typical this spring.”

Previous research during the pandemic has shown — surprisingly — that most American churches have done fine financially. That’s partly because of reduced expenses due to canceled programs and limited facilities use; for example, churches not meeting in person have experienced dramatic drops in utility bills.

And, Bullard said, it appears that the 75% of congregants that have kept attending virtually represent the bulk of regular givers. “The 25% not coming was not giving money to the church anyway.”

Another sign of return to normal is that specialized church ministries such as weekday preschools are planning to reopen in the fall.

Based on the ever-changing situation of the past year, church leaders may be wary of making hard-and-fast plans yet, Tubbs added. “Our churches remain flexible and adaptive as recommendations and guidelines from the CDC evolve, as people continue to get vaccinated, and as available data teaches us about the vaccine’s effect on variants. Another spike or wave could change course once again.”


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Remembering Bob Dale, who helped us learn to dream again

With the news of Bob Dale’s passing late last week, a torrent of stories, testimonials and heart-felt grief has been flowing on social media and in conversations across the nation. The number of people who have stories to tell about Bob’s impact upon them as a professor, denominational leader, coach, consultant or friend is staggering.

Bob’s interactions with people across 60 years of ministry left us all feeling like we had been blessed by someone who became a lifelong friend. Those who have learned from his three dozen books, his too-numerous-to-count articles and untold presentations, retreats and conversations represent nearly every denomination, tradition and geographical corner of our nation.

Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson

For all of his fame and extensive network of friends, Bob remained a humble, gracious and grateful human being. He made time for people from all stations and ages with a patient and genuine interest that made us all feel heard and appreciated. Whether you were a denominational heavyweight or a rookie student, Bob listened to you and enjoyed you. What a gift.

Every time I talked with Bob in recent months, he minimized his growing physical concerns and always wanted to talk about new acquaintances, projects, ideas or helpful insights for some thorny congregational issue I was dealing with. I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever known who had a more insatiable appetite for learning and new ideas. As much as anyone in my life, Bob connected his past with today and pushed both forward into the future with relentless passion and energy.

He told stories about Missouri until we thought we had grown up there. He knew people in every city and denomination and could talk with authority about what was happening in church and culture with accuracy and insight. He constantly thought about what is ahead for us. Last fall he urged me to join him and attend a webinar on the future that a corporate friend had told him about. Bob knew his past, he understood today and he was fascinated by tomorrow.

Bob’s influence will continue because he invested so heavily in others. As a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and then Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond, he shared his insights into leadership with thousands of seminarians who emerged from those classes with a solid education but also a long-term relationship with a professor who genuinely cared about them. Those insights grew into a library of books he authored that multiplied his influence exponentially. All that writing garnered him invitations to speak and share his knowledge in multitudes of settings. As a result, his lineage in Baptist life and beyond is profound.

“Bob’s influence will continue because he invested so heavily in others.”

In many vocations, there are individuals who spawn other leaders out of their unique approach to their field and out of a personal commitment to invest heavily in the next generation of leaders. Bob leaves a clear “lineage tree” of leaders who looked to him for wisdom and guidance.

In my own life, I have been impacted by such men and women across the decades. I have been the undeserved recipient of grace-filled gifts from names like Buddy Shurden, Molly Marshall, Reggie McDonough, George Bullard, Julian Pentecost, Linda Bridges, Larry McSwain, Don Mattingly, Lloyd Cornell, Daniel Vestal, Bill Leonard, Ira Peak and a host of others. At the head of that list is Bob Dale.

I knew of Bob when I was growing up in Nashville. My dad was pastor of a growing church in the city and was pretty savvy about denominational employees who could and couldn’t contribute to the complex task of leading a burgeoning congregation. I remember Bob and my dad talking regularly and my dad’s admiration for the young man at the Sunday School Board who seemed to know what he was talking about.

About 35 years ago, when I became a pastor for the first time, I quickly learned how much I didn’t know. It was humbling and disturbing all at once. There was a day when dad sent me Bob’s new book To Dream Again and told me to put down whatever I was reading and read this book. I was floundering, so I did as I was told. I was amazed. It was as if Bob had been reading my mail. I soaked up that book like a sponge and began to think differently about nearly everything I was doing.

“It was as if Bob had been reading my mail. I soaked up that book like a sponge and began to think differently about nearly everything I was doing.”

Fortunately, I was serving in Virginia and Bob had just come to our state as part of the leadership group for the Baptist General Association of Virginia. He began to teach, mentor and lead in his gentle, humble, yet brilliant way, and we began a friendship that grew and grew through the years. What I found was that I was joining hundreds of others on the ministerial journey as Bob Dale fans and grateful recipients of his wisdom.

Those women and men are a huge part of Bob’s legacy. Over the last several days, I have read hundreds of individual tributes from leaders of all ages, stripes and types who claim Bob as part of their ministerial lineage. All of them say something similar: “Bob was brilliant, insightful, caring, humble, and believed in me.”

When we formed The Center for Healthy Churches, one of my first calls was to Bob to ask if he would join our team. I was beyond grateful that he immediately said yes and was willing to help us in our formation of the group.

One of our first efforts together was a book Bob had in mind about how leaders are formed. We were about to launch a Healthy Church book series and he agreed to make the book a collaborative effort with me. What emerged was Weaving Together: How Leaders Grow Down, Grow Up and Grow Together. My small contribution was to react to his insights and ideas and generally stay out of Bob’s way as he spun his tales and reflected on a lifetime of growing leaders.

“More than 300 dissertations had utilized the ideas in the book.”

We urged him to update and revise To Dream Again, in the hopes that a new generation of leaders would benefit from the timeless wisdom in that book. He did so, and three years ago To Dream Again, Again! emerged. Bob told me the original book had been the best-selling book by Broadman in the 1980s but had been pulled when the denominational wars broke out. More than 300 dissertations had utilized the ideas in the book. I continue to believe it is one of the finest books on how to understand the life of congregations and their needs that we have at our disposal. I am beyond grateful for his willingness to make it newly available to us all.

Bob’s devotion to his craft was only exceeded by one thing: his devotion to his family across the generations. One of his private projects in recent years was to write the story of his life by decades. He wanted to record the amazing stories and insights from a lifetime of living fully so that his family would be able to know all the seen and unseen influences on him and them. Perhaps one day a biography will emerge that will share even more light for the fellow pilgrims Bob inspired.

What a remarkable gift. What a remarkable man. Thanks be to God for the gift of his love and learning to so many of us.

Bill Wilson serves as director of The Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C., and is a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors. Bob Dale was part of the team from Virginia who led in the formation of Baptist News Global in 2013 through a merger of Associated Baptist Press and the Religious Herald.

How the male-centered image of God marginalizes women and disabled persons

Many Christians believe all people are made in the image of God. However, this belief is not so simple when you dive into church life and begin to look at how different people are treated based upon their unique physical and mental characteristics.

The study of what it means to be a creature with both a body and a soul teaches that as embodied creatures, all humans are subject to the inevitability of embodied life. Likewise, if all bodies and souls are unique, but all humans are made in the image of God, we must recognize that the diverse “image of God” exists within everyone and is not exclusive to any one standard.

Mallory Challis

Despite theologies that affirm diversity in the image of God, many churches still maintain gender and social hierarchies based upon who they view as closest to this image. Often in Baptist church life and polity, able-bodied, neurotypical men are viewed as the ones who are most like God both in image and in social roles.

We can see this when statements like the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Faith and Message affirm the subordination of women in marriage because the leadership of a husband is comparable to the leadership of Christ. Statements like these, although they will not say it plainly, support the nuance that because men are the most like Christ, women must be less like Christ.

This teaches believers that men are made in a more similar image to God than women are, meaning men’s bodies, minds and spiritual lives are more important than women’s simply because we think they are like God in a way that we think women are not.

This view that women’s bodies are made less in the image of God also facilitates the marginalization of another group, persons with disabilities, because it sets a standard for how the image of God must look — devaluing bodies, minds and spiritual lives that deviate from that standard.

“These beliefs create a hierarchy of the image of God, in which able-bodied, neurotypical men are at the top.”

These beliefs create a hierarchy of the image of God, in which able-bodied, neurotypical men are at the top, women are below men as the caretakers of society, and disabled persons, who often are in need of necessary care and attention, are at the bottom because they both deviate from the standard image of God and often are in need of care.

However, this hierarchy denies the great spiritual gifts and contributions that both women and persons with disabilities can offer church life and refuses to acknowledge that as embodied persons made in the image of God, there should be no hierarchy in the first place.

The diversity of God’s church is what allows spiritual gifts to prosper. If every person in the church was an able-bodied, neurotypical man, we never would appreciate the loving bond of motherhood or be able to fully meditate over worshipful moments when persons with physical disabilities take a few seconds longer.

Although it may seem like this hierarchy is something tucked away in church doctrine, it is visible in everyday church life. Many churches do not allow women to be deacons and pastors despite their spiritual gifts. Most church stages or chancels do not accommodate wheelchair users, and church pews often are placed very close together, making it hard for wheelchair users, or any person who struggles with mobility, to sit comfortably.

“Most church stages or chancels do not accommodate wheelchair users.”

These seemingly small aspects of church life all stem from views of subordination, and they cause many churchgoers to feel unwelcomed or excluded by the church because their embodied presence and spiritual gifts are not properly appreciated.

What do we do about this? It is certainly a disservice to church life and theology to perpetuate this idea that able-bodied, neurotypical men are made most like God’s image. And to continuously keep women and persons with disabilities from experiencing faith in the same ways that others do is contrary to God’s love for the world.

As churchgoers, we must bring visibility to those who are marginalized and engage in conversations that affirm the diverse image of God that exists within all embodied persons to create a more inclusive and loving church environment, working toward the mutual edification of all God’s people.

Mallory Challis is a student at Wingate University, where she works in the office of Student Ministries. She is a religious studies major who is planning on pursuing a master of divinity degree as preparation for Christian Ministry. 


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Barna: Racism a reality even in multiracial churches

Multiracial churches are growing in the U.S., which may seem like a good thing. Unless you are Black.

“Almost three in 10 Black practicing Christians in a multiracial church (29%) say they have experienced racial prejudice on some level,” the Barna Group reported in a release titled “Do Multiracial Churches Offer Healthy Community for Non-White Attendees?”

The article presents the results of focus group and survey research conducted by Barna in cooperation with the Racial Justice and Unity Center and sociologist Michael O. Emerson, co-author of Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, published in 2001.

The researchers noted that the goal of racial diversity shared by a growing number of U.S. churches may offer little in the way of a solution to the rising tide of racial injustice under way in American society.

And that’s especially the case given the treatment African Americans and other ethnic groups said they have encountered in those “multicultural” sanctuaries almost always led by whites. “Christians of color often face barriers to sharing their opinions, whether as a congregant or leader,” Barna said.

“Christians of color often face barriers to sharing their opinions, whether as a congregant or leader.”

This is a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly widespread as churches actively seek diversity in their pews.

A 2020 study by Baylor University sociologist Kevin Dougherty and other scholars focused on churches in which no one racial or ethnic group makes up more than 80% of the congregation.

“We do see this slow-but-steady rise in the percentage of congregations in the United States characterized by racial diversity — about one in four Americans attend a multiracial congregation,” Dougherty said in a Baptist News Global article published in December.

A study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found the trend is particularly noticeable among megachurches.

“We’ve known for some time that the larger the church, the more likely it is to be racially diverse, but the growth in racial diversity in megachurches is now of headline-making character,” authors Warren Bird and Scott Thumma said in “Megachurch 2020: The Changing Reality in America’s Largest Churches.”

“Two decades ago, only 21% of megachurches were multiracial, but that it not true any longer. More than half of them (58%) report being multiracial today, defined as having 20% or more minority presence in their congregation.”

But Dougherty said he and his colleagues did not determine if racial diversity translates into multiracial relationships within diverse churches: “Just because people are worshiping in multiracial spaces does not mean they are on the forefront of racial justice.”

“More than one-quarter of Black practicing Christians feels pressured to give up part of their racial or ethnic identity in a multiracial church.”

That is a point confirmed in the Barna study, which found that authentic relationships in multiracial church settings are difficult to establish: “More than one-quarter of Black practicing Christians feels pressured to give up part of their racial or ethnic identity in a multiracial church (27%) and finds it difficult to build relationships here (28%).”

Barna noted that the original racial makeup of  congregations may influence those experiences. “Multiracial churches are often previously predominantly white churches that have made an intentional effort to become more diverse. Some of these churches have mostly white leadership.”

The survey found that a quarter of multiracial church leadership teams is no less than 75% white, while 12% are totally white.

“As a result, the existing norms, traditions, preferences and structures of the church have not significantly changed — except people of color are invited to join,” Barna said. “This invitation often comes with an expectation, explicit or implicit, that people of color also assimilate, or fit in, by embracing songs, styles, messages, structures and communities which may be very different from those in their own racial and ethnic culture or previous church tradition.”

“The existing norms, traditions, preferences and structures of the church have not significantly changed — except people of color are invited to join.”

Focus group interviews revealed that people of color often alter their dress, speech and other behaviors to “code switch,” or mask, their ethnic identity in predominantly white settings. That’s a situation that does little for their spiritual and emotional health.

“Interviewees’ accounts show that such compartmentalization of behavior on an ongoing basis can be demoralizing or exhausting for individuals in the racial minority; in trying to fit in this way, they cannot authentically belong,” Barna reported.

Nor can they lead. Barna added that a third of practicing Black Christians, or 33%, said they have encountered difficulty moving into church leadership positions in multiracial congregations. By comparison, 16% of those who attend “monoracial” churches reported similar experiences.

And in cases where a person of color attains a leadership role, it is usually in a limited capacity. “Even if a multiracial organization brings in leaders of color, these individuals are not usually given real authority or ability to make change,” researchers found.

Barna said these issues raise a challenging question about how multiracial churches, especially as they relate to African American Christians.

“If they don’t work well for Black individuals, for whom injustices in the U.S. have been deeply felt and particularly injurious, how well do they really work?”


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Moving churches from risk management to risk-taking

On this one-year anniversary of the start of the COVID pandemic, it seems appropriate to take stock and assess the American church.

For many of us, the year has been the challenge of a lifetime in ministry leadership. The obstacles and demands of dealing with the pandemic have stretched us in ways we never thought possible.

Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson

We have done things we thought were at best optional (technology), and we have done without things we thought were indispensible (hospital visits).

We have realized how much of what we did was meaningless repetition (endless meetings), and we’ve come to appreciate how much we took for granted the most basic parts of congregational life (human touch).

We’ve seen people step up and flourish in hard times, and we’ve seen hard times wipe out people we thought were redwoods.

One phrase continues to hang over many of the churches and ministers I engage with: Risk management. Opening and closing buildings, limiting or eliminating in-person events, monitoring our health and our interactions — all have led us to become keenly aware of our risk management obligations.

Early in the pandemic, we wondered about legal liability if someone were to become infected while participating in events at our church, and so we severely cut back on those events. We sterilize. We wash our hands. We’ve become adamant and diligent about infecting others and so we wear masks and keep our distance from one another.

Risk management has become a prioritized way of life for us. That’s what a pandemic does to us; it heightens our awareness of our vulnerability and forces us to grow more risk-averse in the process.

“We are about to enter a season of life in the American church that cries out for churches to embrace risk-taking.”

All that is fine with regard to the virus and its transmission, but there is another reality at play for many churches. Our risk management awareness and wariness may well bleed over into our corporate spiritual life and cause us to become so risk-averse that we miss the opportunity before us.

I believe we are about to enter a season of life in the American church that cries out for churches to embrace risk-taking. The pandemic has launched a potentially creative disruption of the norm that we desperately need if we are to enter the future with a creative and innovative mindset.

This is a moment we may not see again for many years. The rupture of our former model of doing church has opened doors for risk-taking that wise leaders will recognize. Rather than revert back to “normal” when restrictions are lifted, thoughtful leaders will recognize this is our chance to reverse the ominous trends of the last 20 years.

The data is overwhelming. Nearly every denominational body in America shares a trend line that predicts imminent threat to the long-term viability of many local congregations.

If you’re brave, pull together the data for your own church over the last 20 years and you will probably find a similar reality. We are entering a decade that many predict will see a significant percentage of local churches go out of existence. If there ever was a time to be open to risk-taking, this is it.

What, then, does risk-taking look like for a church? I think it means at least these five things:

  1. We acknowledge that we are in the midst of a crisis that is larger than we have realized. For many of us, a sense of urgency that has been lacking needs to be fed and funneled into some hard conversations.
  2. We spend time reconnecting with our reason for being and reconnecting with those priorities. We go back to Acts and devour those stories and lessons.
  3. We confess that much of what we do and how we do it is simply preference and not gospel priority. We humble ourselves and acknowledge we’ve drifted far from the focused church Jesus envisioned.
  4. We put aside personal comfort and preference and embrace the idea of being part of a gospel movement rather than a member of a church club.
  5. We personally pledge to engage in and participate in some form of risk-taking that makes us uncomfortable, so that our church may not only survive but also thrive. We commit to criticize less and pitch in more.

What all this will look like will vary greatly from church to church. However, it inevitably will involve something that challenges you and makes you uncomfortable and pushes you out of your comfort zone.

It will mean you don’t simply insist that your church “go back to the way it was,” because that way is a shortcut to irrelevance for many of us. Instead, we will discern our way forward by clinging to our valued principles while embracing sanctified imaginations that cause us to be risk-takers, even while everything screams to be risk managers.

Like the early church, we may find that our crisis moment actually becomes the catalyst for more profound meaning and purpose than we knew possible.

Bill Wilson serves as director of The Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C., and is a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors.


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What will we see less of and more of in America’s churches in the 2020s? | Opinion by Bill Wilson

Church leaders, please don’t waste your transition crisis | Opinion by Bill Wilson

How to shrink your church

There are few things in life one can guarantee. Nevertheless, here’s one for which I’m very close to issuing written guarantees. When your aspiration is to shrink your church, there’s one strategy that stands head and shoulders above all others. Employ this approach and you will see people slip away, taking their offerings with them.

Here it is: Make your church’s institutional needs first priority.

Mark Tidsworth

That’s it. It’s that simple and straightforward. To shrink your church, make this one concern your top priority and I can guarantee (99% maybe) you will succeed in shrinking your church.

Here’s what I mean by “institutional needs.” They are what’s needed to run your church using your current church paradigm. For most, what’s needed is people and money. Most everything in church requires these two.

To shrink your church, elevate your metrics around participation and money to the rarified air of top priority. It will take a little while to devalue the mission of God for institutional concerns, but when you stay with it, your church culture will adapt. Since other American organizations function in similar ways, people are used to mistaking organizational metrics for the mission. Persevere in making this first priority and your church will shrink.

Now, you will need to reinforce this top priority through teaching certain principles while avoiding others.

Here’s a list to get you started:

  • Train your church to value newcomers for what they can do for you. They are giving units and bodies in the pews. They are assets to integrate and manage.
  • Train your church to ignore the fact that newcomers tend to bolt when they realize they are being used in the name of Jesus. Describe them as unfaithful or spiritually immature. This will help you to continue using people as assets to serve the top priority.
  • Train your church to ignore the fact that self-serving institutional motivation is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ, who calls us to love others as Christ loves us.
  • Teach people to believe that focusing on the numbers is how we grow churches. Teach them that number attainment means we are a successful church. This helps them avoid the messiness of having to actually love and serve people.
  • Teach people to believe that church vitalization results from setting numerical and financial goals. Teach them that growing numbers means we are a vitalized church. Those kinds of goals don’t motivate for long, leading to shrinkage.
  • As COVID restrictions ease, suggest that snapping church back to exactly as it was before will give you the best chance for meeting your institutional needs. Since these are first priority, many will be on board with snapping back when you make this suggestion. This helps you lay aside the adaptation and innovation gained during this pandemic so that you can continue the shrinkage.

One final word. By all means, do not teach or otherwise suggest in any form to people in your church that it’s not about their needs, preferences or desires. Keep communicating that it’s all about them. This is the primary driver behind the institutional need priority. We want church the way we want it, the way we like it, requiring strong participation and giving levels. If those decline, then we don’t get what we want. So by all means, keep telling people the purpose of their church is to please them. This will keep the shrinkage trend moving forward.

I can’t guarantee much in this world, but when you want to shrink your church, this strategy is found on page one of the best practices playbook. Good luck.

Mark Tidsworth is founder and team leader for Pinnacle Leadership Associates. He has served as a pastor, new church developer, interim pastor, renewal pastor, therapist, nonprofit director, business owner, leadership coach, congregational consultant, leadership trainer and author. Ordained in the Baptist tradition, Mark is an ecumenical Christian minister based in Chapin, S.C.


Related articles:

Four viruses of the pre-COVID church and their vaccines | Opinion by Mark Tidsworth

Your church’s purpose is not to make you happy | Opinion by Mark Tidsworth

Church leaders, please don’t waste your transition crisis | Opinion by Bill Wilson

Church leaders, here’s your new vocabulary word for 2020: ‘Liminal’