Your church in rhythm

A catch-cry of recent years has been the search for ‘work-life balance’. Very few of us would be brave enough to claim achieving such equilibrium. And what is true for individuals has also been true for my experience of church. There are so many things clamouring for our attention and we feel guilty every time we notice that some aren’t getting any. So it was quite a breath of fresh air to read Bruce Miller’s Your Church in Rhythm. In his preface he argues for rhythm as the best picture of a healthy life and critiques the so-called balanced life as being…

…unbiblical, impossible, and toxic.

Here’s some questions to ask yourself right now:

Has our church got everything in balance?
Are we reaching out enough?
Are we giving enough time to preparation of sermons and lessons?
How is our care and counselling ministry?
Are we leading well? Are we developing leaders effectively?
Are we praying enough?
How are our administrative systems and processes?
How are our ministries to children and youth?
Are our small groups vibrant?
How are we doing at following up with our guests?
How is our communication with the church family?
How is our discipleship process?
Am I reading enough to grow personally?
Am I current on email and other correspondence?  (p. xxii)

If you’re a church pastor, elder, leader or committed member of your church, then I’d bet you’re probably feeling guilt, guilt and more guilt after reading this list. We just get one thing humming when another falls apart. We start to feel good about what we’re doing and then realise how much more is not getting done.

Miller gets us asking the question, “What time is it in your church?”. If we understand the times, he believes that our experience of church and ministry will become more effective and enjoyable. There will be less fatigue and burnout, less boredom and apathy, more enthusiasm and engagement, we will work harder and rest more thoroughly, and there will be greater outcomes for the kingdom of God. Does it sound like the kind of book you’d like to read? You can’t lose really. At least you’ll be able to tick your ‘Commitment to professional development’ box when you finish!

Your Church in Rhythm describes two types of time: kairos and chronos. Kairos time is experienced time, shaped by organisational stages and ministry seasons. Chronos time is measured time, it’s cyclical, and can be divided into days, weeks, months, quarters and years. Recognising the impact of the stages and seasons helps you to determine what is most appropriate for now. Understanding the five chronos cycles enables you to pace your ministry better.

By choosing rhythm, you will invite your church to live in harmony with the flow of life – to be content in all circumstances, to make the most of the moments, to rejoice at all times – and to set your hope on what’s to come.  (p. xxv)

A guideline is offered to understanding organisational stages in a church. The life span of a church is broken down into five stages: inception, growth, maturity, decline, death or renewal. This can be complicated further by recognising that larger churches are collections of congregations and ministries which also have their own life cycles. These stages rarely follow a simple straight pathway and are commonly impacted by crises or major transitions. What’s important is that we seek to discern what stage our church is in, to understand the times, so that we can identify what best to focus upon now.

Ministry seasons are shorter than organisational stages. They may only impact one ministry area, they can be experienced more than once, and a church could be in several seasons simultaneously. Throughout this book Miller engages helpfully with other literature and I will be following up various leads. In this chapter he draws on Kubler-Ross’s research on loss and grief cycles and John Kotter’s important work on change management. These perspectives are useful for appreciating what churches and ministries go through over time. If a church loses a pastor, gains a new one, shuts down a ministry, starts up another, builds a property, restructures its leadership, negotiates a difficult crisis, seeks to increase its giving, plants another church, or goes through a period of transition – these are seasons, not simply events. Their impact needs to be appreciated and navigated well.

Miller identifies six strategies for getting your church into rhythm, and then a conclusion that is a must read! The following table (p169) highlights the structure of this thinking:

rhythmI won’t develop each strategy in any detail, as I don’t want to simply repeat the content of the book. The real benefits will come as you get into the book for yourself, identify your own organisational stage and ministry seasons, and consider the impact of the different chronos cycles on your church, people and community. You may disagree with the specific stages or strategies identified in this book, you may disconnect with some of his examples or illustrations, but I believe Miller’s overall thesis is both helpful and liberating. Let’s briefly skim over them.

Release expectations

Releasing expectations involves accepting that we can’t do everything. There are limitations placed upon us by our stage and season. There’s no point envying churches that are in different stages or wishing we were in a different season. Releasing expectations helps us to grow in contentment and focus on the time we’ve been given.

A heart at peace gives life to the body,
but envy rots the bones.  (Proverbs 14:30)

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
(Philippians 4:11)

Consider a church that has just been planted and is getting underway. Now is probably not the time to worry about developing lots of ministry programs, you don’t need detailed systems in place, and you’ll manage fine without a sophisticated newcomer follow-up process. Just work hard at getting to know each other, invite people to your place for a meal, set the tone for your church community, relationships, and gospel priorities. As you move into your growth stage, as you add staff and become more complicated, then you will need clearer processes and systems so that you care effectively for the church and continue to reach your wider community. But there will be a time for this, it can wait for a while!

Likewise, recognising the seasons you are experiencing will help shape your focus and enable you to release expectations. If you’re falling well behind budget and encouraging your regulars to give, it’s not the time for embarking on a new program to reach all the local schools. If you’re transitioning between members of staff, it’s probably not wise to introduce a bunch of new ministry ventures. If the church has been impacted by a season of grief, then it’d be wise to forget the rah-rah and allow people the space to work through things carefully.

Seize opportunities

Open your eyes to the opportunities around you. Sometimes we can be so locked into our longterm strategic plans and goals that we fail to take up valuable opportunities before us. We need to discern whether to hold to the plan and pass on the opportunity, or to alter the plan and seize the opportunity. Evaluate your motives, ask what’s at stake. Most importantly, weigh things in the light of God’s agenda.

Any opportunity worth pursuing should advance the cause of Christ. Will this opportunity advance the Gospel better than the current plan and better than any of the other opportunities we could pursue?  (p77-78)

In the inception of a new church, people are more open than they will ever be. Seize the opportunities to establish culture, mission, vision and values. Focus on the unique low-key relational opportunities. It’s a time of firsts – make the most of them. It’s a busy period, but pause, catch your breath, and delight in what God is doing among you. Likewise, later stages and ministry seasons will offer you special opportunities to advance the cause of Christ. Look out for them, explore them, critique them, and weigh up the best way to move forward.

Anticipate what’s next

We need to live fully in the present stage or season, but looking forward fuels hope with anticipation. You can work hard for a season if you’re looking forward to the outcomes and you’ve planned for a time of rest afterwards. Change can be a difficult season in the life of a church, so it’s important to emphasise that it’s temporary, and for leaders to shepherd their people through the processes. Anticipating what’s ahead is a key to this.

It’s also important to consider all our stages and seasons in the light of the big picture. As Miller writes:

All stages and seasons will culminate in the final stage of all history: the new heavens and new earth. Our ultimate hope is the return of Christ who will make all things new. We do our work in anticipation of what God will do in the near future. We can persevere knowing these are temporary seasons. Our role in these seasons is to announce and demonstrate the Kingdom that has come and is coming.  (p94)

Some seasons can feel like they’re never going to finish, or that they will destroy our church. A building project can cause all kinds of stresses and grief. False teaching or moral failure by a leader can mark a terribly difficult time for the whole church. Anticipate that there will be better times ahead. And whatever our particular church may experience, it’s important to remember Jesus’ promise that nothing will destroy his church (even if our particular organisation struggles or dies).

Pace your church

Pacing is the technique of spreading out your strength over time so that you do not burn out before the end. (p111)

Athletes are acutely aware of the importance of pacing, but it doesn’t stop with them. It applies to many areas of life and work, and it’s important for organisations like churches. Church leaders need to pace themselves so that they run well for Christ, rather than burning out and quitting. Congregations need to pace themselves well, so that people don’t migrate from church to church, or drop out altogether.

It’s worth asking, what do we expect of people every day, every week, every month, every term, every year. There is a time for many things, but when everything happens at once we clearly haven’t paced things well. Miller suggests using the five chronos cycles as a foundational grid for identifying and assigning appropriate frequencies what what we do as a church. If we’re expecting people to come to church each week and to participate in a small group, then how much and how often can we expect more from them? Pacing our planning around terms and years assists people to grasp the bigger picture of where church is heading and what we’re trying to achieve. Giving people time out and time off on a regular basis helps them to remain in the game for the long haul.

Being aware of the natural rhythms of the community will help you to pace things more effectively also. Some coastal churches don’t run Sunday morning family services because many families are caught up with the surf programs running at that time. When we were preparing to plant a church in Darwin, we recognised the impact of the dry season, the build up and the wet season on community involvement and activities. There’s no point cutting across these natural flows if we intend on connecting with those around us.

Build mission-enhancing rituals

Mmmm! Coming from an independent church with very few of the trapping and rituals of traditional churches, I had to think hard on this one! But the key is ‘mission-enhancing’, not ritual for ritual sake. What patterns, practices and habits will help people to appreciate and engage in building Christ’s church? Some annual rituals or weekly practices can carry power explicitly by their repetition. Repetition can be mindless and meaningless, but it can also highlight what’s really matters.

Miller illustrates this with an example of how his church changed how they approached personal, small group and church-wide Bible study and preaching. The goal was to see people transformed and impacting others as they engaged with the Scriptures. They adopted a study → listen → discuss → share strategy. Everyone in the church was given a guide that helped them to study the passage of scripture during the week. Then on Sunday the sermon was preached from that passage. Small groups met in the following week and discussed the application of the passage, and people were encouraged to share and encourage one another with what they’d learned. This pattern increased alignment in the church and helped deepen people’s understanding and personal ministry to each other.

Oscillate intensity and renewal

Too many church leaders are not oscillating, and neither are their churches. We are neither working hard enough nor resting deeply enough.  (p140)

Life is not a marathon but rather a series of sprints and rests. If churches try to keep a constant pace, they build up higher and higher levels of stress.  (p141)

Miller argues that in each of the chronos cycles, we should experience an oscillation between intensity and renewal, work and rest. This is not the same as work-life balance, it’s about rhythm. God built this type of oscillation into his creation. Working six days, resting on the seventh. Sometimes we need to put our foot down on the accelerator, at other times we need to coast. There’s no place for workaholism and there’s no place for laziness. But there can be a time for climbing mountains and a time for lying on beaches, without feeling guilty for doing either!

Holidays, breaks, doing something different, changing things around. They can all help us to stay the course. Giving our leaders time out, refreshment, and encouragement will help them to want to do the work again. Encouraging our congregation to join together every week, but acknowledging there will be things that keep them away from time to time, can reduce guilt and increase enthusiasm for meeting together. Pastors taking a day off each week, protecting their annual holidays, having some study leave or taking a sabbatical, can decrease burn out and aid perseverance. Sleep matters, so does exercise, so does having other interests and so does working hard when we’re working! Oscillation is built into the rhythm of life – go with the flow!

Conclusion

Miller has written this book to be used. Each chapter contains a case study and a worksheet. There’s a ‘next step’ summary plan at the end of the book. I recommend we approach this as a workbook and take the time to apply it to our lives and gather with others to apply it to our churches. It’s about leveraging insights into the times and cycles we experience, so as to advance the cause of Christ. And it’s up to us what we make of it.

I appreciate the way this book recognises the ups and downs, seasons and stages, needs and opportunities in life. I’ve been persuaded that rhythm, rather than balance, is a better picture for describing the good life. Most of all, I’m warmed by the bigger picture that frames this book. As Miller writes:

It is the rhythm of eternity that empowers us to be steadfast and immoveable, giving ourselves whole-heartedly to the work of the Lord.

We can endure difficult days when we remember that ultimate rest is coming. A focus on the ultimate future sustains us today with vivid hope. Understanding the ultimate rhythm can help us release false expectations. In this case, we can – and should – release the erroneous expectation that this life will ever be paradise. Seize opportunities to do that which will last forever. Anticipate eternal joy to come. That is the source of true and rich hope. So in view of the eternal rhythm to come, we want to flow our ministries as well as possible in the earthly kairos and chronos rhythms.  (p157-158)

When crisis changes to chronic

It began with a crisis. Taken to hospital, rushed through Emergency, hooked up to an ECG machine, off for x-rays, back for a CT scan, a massive fluid build up around the lung… looked like there could be a tumour. A whirlwind of people, activity and emotion. Within hours people were visiting, offering help, gathering to pray, preparing meals, picking up cars, contacting children. Within days I’d become the centre of attention, everywhere, it seemed! It was confirmed that I had cancer and the prospects didn’t look good. So many people from so many places turned up to see me. The nurses complained that there were too many people. Letters, cards, Facebook greetings, emails, came in from all over. Meals kept turning up at the right times. A small army of people unpacked our belongings and refurnished our house. Fifteen hundred students gathered in small groups at a conference to pray for me! It was intense! It was life and death in our faces every day.

I’ve seen our family cope pretty well with a crisis. We’ve had a few now! We made some very big decisions very quickly. We put new plans into place. We made the adjustments. We had the tough conversations without too many problems. We just did what we had to… and coped. We enjoyed the support from others. We were conscious of God’s strength and comfort and we prayed a lot.

But…

Things have changed. The pace has slowed. The crisis has gone and left us with the chronic. It’s become three weekly by three weekly, rather than day by day. Life is now shaped by chemo cycles. One week sick, two weeks better. One week sick, two weeks better. On and on. It’s exhausting and we don’t seem to be achieving much else in life. Sometimes we feel like we’re just drifting with the current or stuck in a rut going nowhere. It’s not so much action that’s needed now, but patience and perseverance and gentleness and self-control. And that seems so much harder. It doesn’t come naturally. We absolutely need the help of God’s Spirit.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.  (Galatians 5:22-23)

In many ways the excitement of the crisis has given way to the mundane of the chronic. The daily grind is hard work. Perhaps, even more challenging than the mountain climb. In the crisis I think to pray. In the chronic I’m more tempted to forget. Gratitude easily gets replaced with grumbling. Matters of eternity give way to matters of trivia. Urgency steps aside for complacency. I can forget to number my days and begin again to take for granted my months or even years. Oh, how slow to learn I can be!

I think it’s harder for others also. Initially, people were making every effort to visit, bending over backwards to offer support… as we tend to do in a crisis. But as time goes on it’s harder to sustain the effort. Life fills up, another crisis gets in the way, we have our own lives to look after. We forget to drop in, make the call, check up on each other, see if there is anything we can do.

To be honest, it can be rather lonely having a chronic illness. You feel just as sick and powerless and needy, but you’re pretty much left to manage on your own. There’ve been times when I’ve felt disappointed in people. Why haven’t they called? It wouldn’t be too hard to drop in. It’d be awesome if they’d just ask Fiona if there’s anything they could do to help. I long to hear what’s going on in people’s lives. I’m interested in knowing about work or family or the latest sporting achievement. I’d love to have people offer to come and pray with me, or read the Bible and talk about stuff. Hey, I’d even be up for a regular game of real Scrabble! Even a quick phone call just to say they’re thinking of me!

I shouldn’t whinge. Fiona tells me I shouldn’t write posts when I’m feeling revolting from chemo and she’s probably right! I have so much to be thankful for and I keep being overwhelmed by how many people tell me they’re praying for me. But, I’m trying to be honest and I’m learning lots about myself as well. As I reflect on many years of pastoral ministry, I don’t think I had begun to appreciate what it was like for some people struggling with chronic issues. People with physical or mental disabilities, people with CFS unable to get out of bed for much of the day, women with debilitating pregnancies, people without transport or living in nursing homes. I had so many opportunities to be an encouragement to others that I simply overlooked. As a pastor, I was always up for putting on my superman cape and dealing with a crisis… but the chronic was often forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind perhaps.

Jesus is the Pastor Supremo. He came to overcome our alienation from God, which is the biggest crisis we will ever face. He did so at enormous personal cost, sacrificing his life on the cross to bring us reconciliation. But we also see Jesus caring for those with chronic disabilities, people who are outcasts and isolated from others. He was willing to hang with lepers, prostitutes, tax cheats, and those despised by the religious leaders of his day. Jesus had a pastoral heart that didn’t overlook the needy and he called those who follow him to have the same attitude.

12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  (Luke14:12-14)

Here’s a thought. Next time you think of putting on a BBQ, think about people you know who might rarely get invited out. Are there lonely people at work or church who’d love an invitation? Perhaps, there’s someone who’s not well and you can make a special effort to include them. Maybe even offer to take the BBQ to their place if that’d make it easier!

On another occasion Jesus told a parable to describe those who belong to him and those who don’t. They’re challenging words.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’  (Matthew 25:34-40)

The mention of brothers and sisters shows that Jesus especially has in mind the way Christians are called to treat each other. If we’re part of the same family, then we’re called to love our siblings. There’s a lesson here for those of us in churches to care for one another in our times of need. It should never be out of sight out of mind. But, I wouldn’t be too quick to say this stops with how Christians should treat each other. We’re called to do good to all, as we have opportunity. Do you know someone needing a place to stay? Is there neighbour down the street who never gets visitors? Is there someone at work going through a difficult divorce? Is there old friend with CFS who’s been doing it tough for so long that they’re embarrassed to even mention it? Do you know a single mum who never gets any time to herself? Would a friend appreciate you doing some shopping, spending time in the garden, running a few errands, taking the kids for a while? Is there someone you should get onto right away, just to check they’re doing okay?

How can you make a difference?