Note: This post was written in 2016 as part of a series about the state of the church (particularly local churches) at that time. I believe that after the pandemic, churches are in a much better state today. I am leaving this post published because the point of researching and reflecting on the state of the church in our society is still valid, although the questions I would ask today are different from the ones below. I will be updating this post in due time.

It’s time for the church to do some R&R. Now, in case you think I’m sending you off to a resort for some rest and relaxation, you should know that I’m writing about another kind of R&R: research and reflection.

My hope is that ministry leaders will ask themselves:

  • What does the new environment in Canada mean for our ministry?
  • How can we ensure we will continue to advance our part of Christ’s mission for his church?
  • How are we doing, really?
  • How can we be more true to what the church is called to be?

I know that ministry leaders are already very good at strategic planning and thinking, but they are often doing so in terms of mission and vision, programs and services. This isn’t as deep an analysis as I am proposing here. For example, there are lots of books on different ways of growing your church, but if they all share the same assumptions (such as the goal being to attract people to your church to hear the Gospel preached) you could end up pursuing a strategy that is out-dated because underlying conditions have changed.

I’m suggesting that leaders go deeper and address the questions from an existential perspective.

Existential Questions

Here are some questions that get at your very being as a ministry:

  • Who are we?
    • How strongly have secular presuppositions, norms and values conditioned the way we think and act in our ministry?
      • Have they compromised the distinctiveness of our faith?
      • Have they distracted us from the priorities of our faith?
      • How would your (hopefully hypothetical) critics answer these questions?
    • How mature in the faith are our members and staff?’
      • Does the way we live give evidence of the power of our faith to change lives?
  • What is really driving us as a ministry?
    • Is our ministry to the world a core activity or is it an add-on to serving our members?
      • If you are a specialized ministry serving Christians, does the content of what you do include an outward focus (eg., devotionals, lyrics, posts)?
    • Have we become too comfortable or inward focused?
      • Have we lost the boldness of the ancient church? Remember Paul’s words, “Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold” (2 Cor 3:12).
    • Based on our recent past, why should God continue to bless our ministry?
      • Are we fulfilling the purpose for which we are called? The author of Hebrews wrote, “Now may the God of peace…equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him…” (Heb 13:20-21). We will be resourced by God as we keep his will as our guide.
  • How do we fit within our society?
    • What is our posture towards those not like us? Our example should be Jesus, of whom his critics could say with justification that he was a friend of sinners, although they seemed to miss the point of his friendship, which was to tell them to “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
      • How conducive is our posture to fulfilling our mission?

These questions are intended to help you do some strategic thinking at a deeper level than normal. They are probing aspects of your ministry that may be taken for granted without even realizing how they are choices that have a great impact on your ability to get results.

R&R is all about:

  • uncovering deep, underlying trends in the world around us
  • placing the ministry in its secular social and cultural context
  • determining our effectiveness in terms of changes in the external world
  • checking the validity of our assumptions, models, and paradigms
  • ensuring our ministry maintains its relevance

A Matter of Perspective

It takes time to do this foundational R&R well, and the reality of ministry leadership is that most leaders have operational responsibilities, such as program delivery or fundraising, and they don’t have time for R&R. They are immersed in the pressing and urgent daily needs of the ministry. I liken operational work to Google’s Street View — when doing operational work, leaders are working at street level, close up to the surrounding world right in the midst of all the busy action.

Research and reflection is also a responsibility, but it isn’t usually as pressing or urgent as operational responsibilities are. Over the short and medium term, people might not notice that the R&R work is not being done. But over the long term, its neglect could prove fatal to your ministry. I liken R&R to Google’s Earth View — when engaged in R&R work, leaders are soaring high above the street, enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the ministry and its surrounding territory. R&R gives you a different, more objective perspective on your ministry.

It’s the difference between working in the ministry and working on the ministry.

A Matter of Time

The challenge for leaders is to carve out enough time to do the research and reflection work well. Leaders simply must make R&R a priority, because this is where strategic leadership begins. R&R shows how well the ministry is doing, and how it must change to continue doing well in the future, given current and projected social and political environments.

It may mean hiring additional help to offload the leader from some of the operational work.

I resisted this for years because I saw having an assistant as increasing administrative overhead. The breakthrough came when I realized that hiring an assistant was not adding any overhead at all. Instead, it was transferring overhead from me to another person, freeing me up to do more of the essential R&R. So hiring an assistant was really an investment in additional strategic leadership capacity.

Depending on how you spend your time, you might find that you would gain time by hiring an assistant, a director of operations to manage the organization, or an additional program specialist.

The board can help with R&R as well. Like leaders, boards may be stretched for time. But they have the primary responsibility for the mission, so they too must carve out time at board meetings for R&R. Boards should review what they spend their time on and how much value that work adds to the ministry. Perhaps more decision authority could be delegated to staff. Perhaps committees could be more active outside of board meetings. Directors will be delighted to have the time to get into the interesting and important work of R&R. In fact, this is where they can and should add high value to the senior leader and the organization, since they broaden the perspectives held by the staff.

Finally, both senior leadership and the board must spend time as they do the research and reflection allowing the Holy Spirit to reflect with them on the research results. Stepping back and looking at the whole picture, ask God what he thinks about all this.

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Download discussion guide

Getting Started

Look for thought-leaders and evidence-based research that apply to the type of organization you are (local church, mission agency, school, etc) and the type of mission your ministry has (relief & development, youth evangelism, local church, etc).

For instance, CCCC is like an association in some ways, so I pay attention to thought leaders in the association industry. But our mission has a large educational component, so we also pay attention to thought leaders in the adult learning world. And, of course, because we are a Christian ministry, we pay attention to thought leaders writing about the church and its mission.

Research and reflection will help ministry leaders actually lead. They will think bigger thoughts, be more creative, develop more coherent strategies, and design more relevant ministry initiatives.

Key Thought: The church needs time for research and reflection

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An exploration of Christian ministry leadership led by CCCC's CEO John Pellowe