Saturday, February 17, 2007

10 Reason Jack Connell's Class Was The Most Important One We've Taken This Year

We just finished about half of our "Organizational Leadership for the Local Church" with Jack Connell, the current and (unfortunately) outgoing Associate Dean of the Beeson Center. Jack, who is heading off to become a Vice-President of Something Really Important at Houghton College, just recently finished an 11 year stint at as the Senior Pastor of Crosswinds Wesleyan Church in Rochester, New York, where the church grew from about 200 to over 1500 in worship. The entire class dealt with nuts and bolts ministry stuff: budgets, strategy, program, staff hires, and the like. Here are ten reasons I think it was the most important class we've taken this year.

1) It was important because of "when" we took it. Instead of placing it early in our schedule, it is essentially the last class we're taking (although we'll continue the year-long preaching class until its merciful end in May). What this means is that largely we've been taking a lot of classes stating how things ought to be, and we concluded the year with five days rooted in reality. You can talk or even go see the ideal church a million times over, but the fact of the matter is there are a lot of very basic, important, and necessary things that must happen if the church as we know it (more on that later) is to move anywhere in the direction of ideal. Thus, whatever dreams we might have had, came crashing down back to earth the last three days (we do two more days of class in April), which helped us get a foot outside the "ivory tower".

2) Jack is not a jerk. Why bring this up? Well, quite frankly, most (all?) guys I've met who grew churches as fast and successfully as Jack, ended up being jerks. Admittedly, that I'd say this might actually reveal more about me, than them. What kind of jealousy or angst might be coming out as I assess successful pastors as jerks.... it's probably not good. But then again, I've met more than a few jerks, and I was beginning to think believe becoming a jerk was a requirement for growing a huge church. It's good to know that good guys grow big churches, and it's good know what dark side might lurk inside of me given my perception of those pastors who could be deemed as "successful".

Note: Most people reading this right now don't know how much this point changed since I wrote the first time earlier today. Wrestling with this idea has been an exercise in personal growth.

3) One of the things I'm discovering is that when it comes to the conventional church, there isn't too much theory about how to do it out there that I don't know. I'm aware of how that sounds... but let me remind you that there is a difference between knowing all about something, and being able to do it. That's what keeps me humble. I "know", but I have not (for the most part) ever "done". But all the basics about funding, budgeting, visioning, strategic planning, staffing, leadership development, and the like I have all heard, thanks to three mentors who forced me to read, observe, and thinking about all these issues.

I have the model of Joseph's earliest years at Shawnee to get a sense of how to get a vision-less congregation excited about the future. I have the model of Barry DeShetler who is still the best schmoozer and systems pastor I've ever seen (for all the angst I had about my time at Toledo Epworth, I have to admit that Barry had that place running like a watch, and no one was better on a golf course or a restaurant with church members. Considering his track record at Kettering Christ UMC, which went from "troubled" to averaging over a 1000 people a Sunday over the last seven or eight years, you gotta admire Barry's ability to streamline and systematize). I also have the entrepreneurial/evangelistic example of the late Dick Lyndon, who through his work in multi-site ministry and helping people learn how to serve people, has helped revolutionize the church (literally.... you can't measure this guy's impact). It because of them I spent time listening to or reading, Kennon Callahan, George Barna, Herb Miller, Craig Groeschel, Mike Slaughter, Bill Hybles, Andy Stanley, Ken Millard, Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen, James Cone, Reggie McNeal, Rob Bell Jr., Brian McLaren, John Maxwell, Wayne Cordeiro, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Dave Ferguson, Lyle Schaller, Clyde Williams, John Ed Matheson, Bill Hinson, John Domenic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, Rick Warren, Mark Beeson, and a host of others that have forced me to think about the practice of church.

Now, it's just about putting theory into practice... which is the hardest thing to do.

4) Kent Reynolds was in the class. Kent has served in little, dying UM churches, big hopping UM churches, and everything in between. He's been through heart ache, personal transformation, times of great celebration, and moments where just about every important decision that had to be made, was. Now, in is early fifties, he's in this program not as much to learn how to do church, but to figure out how he wants to spend the rest of his life making the maximum impact he can for the Kingdom of God. To have him as a friend and resource, is quite frankly, a huge "plus" for us as a class... and that was never more true than this week. Between he and Jack, we profited from a huge wealth of knowledge.

5) Jack kept the class moving, but was willing to slow down and take questions and promote dialogue, which happened more than in any other class we've taken to date. Sometimes the questions asked were pointed, and other times they were pointless, but he addressed them all. When he didn't have an answer, put it out there for discussion so we could pool our ignorance, and maybe ask even better questions. He handled this bizarre format of intense class work in very short periods better than any other prof this past year.

6) Jack was real. He talked about his mistakes, and not in an aggrandizing way (like John Maxwell does.... that dude can make the biggest flop he ever made sound like the most inspirational kingdom story you've ever heard, in the end make himself look even bigger-than-life than he did before). I never got the sense that in the eleven years his church went from a sleepy little suburban chapel, to something that was really kicking, he ever thought he had it all figured out. Instead, he just went with the best advice or information he had, and took the next step after the one already taken. Thus, he adjusted on the fly, and kept moving forward, in a very practical way. That he was willing to discuss where he believed he fell short was important in understanding the importance of recovering from mistakes. Good stuff.

7) Jack never tells you how to do it. He tells you how he did it, but not how to do it. Maybe that's because the way he did it was to collectively work with the church body at large, and navigate with them where to go next. His is an egalitarian model that doesn't discount the need for someone to say, "Hey, let's think about this" or "OK, enough talking let's keep it moving" or approach the congregation at-large about things that may not be all that pleasant but necessary. Since this is his approach, the message I received was that developing a vision for a church is as much about listening as it is anything else. Listening to church members, lay-leaders, staff members, other pastors, the best of whatever is out there in fields applicable to our situation, and most especially, the Lord, and then making some decisions that will impact the future. To listen, and act, and not spend too much or little time doing either... that's what I got from Jack this week.

8) We talked about money. I mean, let's face it, cash is the elephant in the room in virtually every church. Asking for it, spending it, accounting for it, borrowing it, paying it off, allocating it.... it is always a major issue. Jack, I thought, addressed the issue of money head on, with no flinching, and gave us the forum to voice whatever it was we had been thinking about fiscal management. He helped us understand where it might be wise for us to re-think some of our pre-conceived perceptions, and affirmed us when we seemed to be on the right track. Capital campaigns, stewardship campaigns, mortgages, tithing, preaching and money, people who think all preachers want is to get rich... nothing was off limits.

9) Jack didn't pretend to know what might be "next" in terms of the future of the church. Now don't get me wrong... I've got great respect for people that are experimenting with new forms of church and shared Christian life. House churches, virtual churches, emergent churches, etc... I've a sense that a revolution in how people live out their lives as Christians is taking place right now (although, to be honest, I wonder if in some of these ways we're simply seeing the end-point of an individualistic ethos that wants no accountability to anyone), and some people are going to be on the cutting edge of that revolution.

But as for me, I'm too far gone as far as identifying myself with modern, institutional church to really do anything else very well. If I tried, for example, to plant a "house church", everything I would do would be in relation to my own mainline denominational church experience, as opposed to thinking about things, fresh and new. That's why when I read young seminary students blog postings (like Shannon, a former intern of mine, now at Union Theological Seminary in the Big Apple) or on bulletin-board services (like the one here at Asbury) express a desire for something more as far as church life, and their role in it, I read their words somewhat wistfully (and chuckle a little at the idealism) knowing that this will not be my lot.

I'm an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church... that's the way God raised me up as a Christian leader, and with what little time I have left (20-25 years... maybe?) that's where I'll be.

Thus, for all the theoretical talk about the "attractional church" versus the "missional church" we've done this year, and the need for post-modern forms of worship and praxis, we focused on our reality as pastors who will serve in congregational settings shaped by modernity, filled with moderns and post-moderns, and attractional in nature. Jack taught and led discussion about the kind of church most of us are going to serve for the remainder of our careers as institutions that aren't necessary evils (like some of the authors and profs we've encountered this year), but as places vital to the unfolding of the Kingdom of Heaven.

10) And finally, I think the class was important because it got me thinking in systematic ways about what I want to do when I get back to Shawnee this spring. Not just NOT messing up this leadership transition, but thinking about areas of ministry that need some goal setting and futuristic thinking. I realized, maybe again, that I will make mistakes. I will say or do the wrong things, and yet we must keep moving forward as a community of faith as best as we can. I thought about the future of the Haiti ministry and of Harvest, the creative ways we might "attract" some folks in the community into our family, and what kind of staff hires this might eventually take to make this happen. I thought about the role of lay-leadership, the need for collective discussion. I made mental notes of some people I need to visit when I return, and begin praying for people who will help us manifest God's calling for our church who aren't yet with us or might just be sitting quietly in the seat or pew.

I'll need to do a lot of listening.

It got me excited about coming back, getting to work, and spending whatever time I've left to help people find themselves in Christ.

All in all.... it was a great class. I couldn't have asked for more.

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