Risk Quotient: What is Your Church Prepared to Attempt?

Calm seas belie swift currents just below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. I remember flying home from San Diego where I enjoyed the Children’s Pastor’s Conference last winter. The sky was blue and the seas seemed tranquil. As the jet rose above the harbor and headed north toward Los Angeles, I took many photos of the beautiful scene below. I began to notice what appeared to be streams within the vast waters. My best guess is that those patterns revealed currents. Whereas one spot on the ocean might seem becalmed, another is located in the midst of swift currents. As we flew farther north, storms could be spotted.

I liken church life to that of the sea, at least in some respects. There are varied currents according to the personalities, relationships, and networks of people both within the church community and extending beyond it through connections with attendees. Things may seem calm on the surface so long as feathers are left unruffled, sacred cows are allowed to gleam according to the wishes of an influential few, and toes are not stepped on in decision-making cycles. In some congregations the dynamics prove more volatile than in others. In many congregations there is a resilience against corrosive factors due to a pervasive ethic of love and forgiveness. But even in the most stable church there can be a potential for problems if issues or people are not correctly handled.

This brings me the point of my topic line: risk quotients. What is your church prepared to attempt for the sake of obeying Christ’s mission for them? To what degree are risks tolerated? Are there certain kinds of risks or risk-sets (combinations of two or more specific risks) which fall beyond the acceptable parameters of your church’s risk quotient?

I am finding that the decision-making process regarding any major initiative must be characterized by several key elements.

First, prayer must be paramount from the outset and through all stages of the process, regardless of the final outcome. Prayer is not a ritual addon to the real business of running a church. Prayer IS the real business of the church by virtue of seeking God’s face as a church community and hearing his heart and direction.

Second, leaders must bring others in the church community along with them in the process. This is not an issue of sticking the wet finger to the wind to see which way the political currents are flowing. It is a matter of helping others gain an understanding of your thinking process and allowing them to add their own unique perspectives so that they gain ownership of the final decision.

Third, have brain-storming sessions in which participants are asked to dream outloud, regardless of risks, costs, or pre-existing limitations. The nutty (I am thinking of frivolous ideas) and undesireable ideas can be culled later. Notice I did not mention unrealistic ideas just yet. After all, is anything too hard for God? Are we dreaming according to the potential of our own ingenuity, or are we dreaming according to God’s heart for the community? Meditate on that for awhile.

Fourth, share the one idea which comes to the surface for you as the leader. If you are the children’s pastor, it ought to be something which is in agreement with the larger vision of your pastor. If you are the pastor, this is your opportunity to voice outloud to a select few the daring dream which is percolating in your heart. You may want to do this first with your elder team or staff. Then later introduce it in the setting I described above so that it is a bit more refined. Let the people interact with the idea. What concerns them? What energizes them? Who will bear the brunt of the daily responsibility? Weekly? Who will benefit? Concerning benefit, it helps if some teaching has been done about giving without expecting in return, helping without expecting repayment. For example, I do weekly outreach to a local apartment community. It takes a lot of time and it does occasionally incur costs. As far as I know, none of those families tithes to the church. After all, we are reaching out to them. Yet, is the cost worth it? YES! We perceive the greater value and are willing to pay the price of time, energy, resources and risk of disappointments.

Fifth, when a decision has been made and the process undertaken for a particular initiative which has a certain amount of risk, be sure to communicate clearly, often and via multiple methods concerning the initiative. I am vague regarding the actual decision-making process because every church is different. There are some church governments which require votes of members for many kinds of decisions. Others have committee structures. Still others rely on a skilled few. Many small churches rely fairly heavily on the senior pastor or parish priest. Follow the process which is appropriate for your church, but be sure to garner broad support from the membership.

There is one exception which is important to note. Sometimes, as a pastor or a board of elders, you need to make decisions which are in the best interests of the spiritual lives of your church family. And, you will need to do so in the face of some resistance. One hopes that these kinds of situations can be overcome through prayer and relational dialogue, but still they can happen. As spiritual leaders we sometimes have to act much like the shepherds of old who would use their staffs to redirect wayward and rebellious sheep.

Sixth, evaluate what occurs with the initiative. Was it as much of a risk as you first thought? Were there related unforeseen risks which jeopardized the initiative? Was communication loving and clear on all fronts? Were there strong points of resistance? Why? How was it handled and by whom? Were those who disagreed treated lovingly and made to feel as though their concerns are heard? What would you do differently next time? After three months, what stage is the initiative in as you progress toward the long-term goal? Did the initiative lose steam? Why? What surprised you in terms of what worked well? Is there a person who surprised you?

Conclusion: I tend to be a low risk person. Risks are risks because they have great potential for leading to failure if all or part of the initiative does not occur as hoped. So, I tend to err on the side of caution in order to minimize risk to the church and to individuals. I am now at the beginning stages of taking one of the greatest risks of my ministry experience. Indeed it will become a two-pronged risk.  Already there has been resistance and doubters on both fronts. Yet, I know that in some form our church will come together to create a way forward which is best suited for our families and the community to which we are reaching out. I have written often here about both aspects of the risk, but I have not framed them in this blog as a risk until now. So, it should come as no surprise I am referring both to family ministry which returns rightful primary responsibility of nurture to parents, and mission in the local community which is actually remniscient of real missionary work, rather than simply a marketing endeavor to get people to attend our church, so long as they can conform to our culture and follow our rules in a timely manner (Does that sound cheeky? Good, it was intended that way.). Time will tell what both of these will look like in the coming year. I have my ideas, but I first must follow the process above as well as some additional elements not yet detailed.

Will you pray for me and my church so that God will have his way for his glory?

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