Nervous Laughter

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 Four members of my covenant group were hanging out and catching up with one another late last Tuesday afternoon following the Bishop’s gathering in Lakeland.   “Jeff, did you notice the nervous laughter at two points in your Missional Vital Signs presentation?”

I had.  In fact, the first one really threw me for a moment, because I didn’t understand what was going on.  It happened when the slide reading, “It’s Not About the Numbers” was shown.    I looked around thinking that something bazaar was going on, but everyone’s eyes were on the slide.  Then it hit me:  a bunch of us really don’t believe this.

Just after the gathering, a pastor came up to me and said, “I get it: the website and the Missional Vital Signs are really a tool for local congregations to stay focused on making disciples and for tracking how we are doing.”  And that’s it exactly!  The main intent of the Missional Vital Signs is to help congregational leaders keep disciple-making the main thing in their thinking and to know whether they are making headway at it or not.  The numbers are just an indication– and admittedly not a perfect or complete indication – but a good indication of whether a congregation is keeping Christ’s goals in their sights and moving toward them. 

About six years ago, I finally went to the doctor for the first good physical I had had in about as many years.  When he looked at my blood work, he sent me straight to a cardiologist who said, “Jeff, your weight is creeping up and your blood work is in the top 5% of the worst blood work I have ever seen!  This is something that we need to pay attention to if you don’t want to die of a heart attack at a premature age.”   Okay, he had my attention.  My father died of a heart attack in his late 50’s, so I knew this was serious business.  We talked about the particular metrics that were important and how we were going to address them – some with medication, some by exercise and diet.  We began to meet monthly until the medication issues were worked out and then annually to monitor how I was doing.   This isn’t a numbers game, this is about my health.  Without regularly checking my vital signs, however, and getting some feedback about how I am actually doing,  I tend to slide back into those lifestyle habits that don’t keep me healthy. 

Congregations are the same way.  Over the years we go through missional drift.  Congregational leaders start out clear that their task is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  But as the years go by, the mission actually practiced by the congregation week by week can begin to drift off Jesus’ target.  The Missional Vital Signs is one way our connection is trying to help us all remember what Jesus calls us to do and to measure how we are doing at it.  It’s not an institutional numbers game; it’s about congregations staying healthy and faithful to Jesus’ mission. 

The other moment of nervous laughter was when these words flashed on the screen: “Missional Vital Signs are about the congregation’s ministry – not the pastor.”  After the gathering, another pastor came up to me: “So are appointments going to be made according to our Missional Vital Signs, now?”  It really sounded more like a defeated accusation than a question. 

“Absolutely not,” I responded, “the Missional Vital Signs measure the congregation’s disciple making practices – not just a pastor’s effectiveness.  The pastor’s leadership is only one, albeit, a significant factor contributing to a congregation’s ministry through the years.  The appointive cabinet knows that the effectiveness of a congregation is always a complex matter also involving the congregation’s traditions, style and lay leaders, and the community’s economics and demographics – to name but a few factors. The DS’s know it is not just about the pastor’s effectiveness.” 

The Missional Vital Signs mainly just organizes conveniently data that is already part of a congregation’s profile and record which cabinet members already consider as they enter into any discussion about congregations.  And the situations of congregations are so vastly different, that you can’t really compare one congregation to another without knowing a whole lot more information about them than their Missional Vital Signs.  For example, as pointed out in the discussion after our presentation, you can’t just look at what the average worshiper is giving in one congregation and compare that to another congregation without knowing the economic level of their community.  There is no meaningful comparison if one is in an affluent community and the other is in an impoverished community. 

What pastoral leaders can do, however, is to regularly review the Missional Vital Signs with their congregational leaders as a way of seeing how their congregation is doing in these five key disciple making areas.  Good pastoral leaders can then ask congregational leaders to consider questions like:

 We have had a significant increase in professions of faith this last year; what did we do right and how can we keep doing it next year? 
 What does it mean that only 5% of our congregation is involved in intentional discipling?  How can we involve more people in seriously training to follow Jesus?
 How can we encourage more of our congregation personally to be involved in making a salty Kingdom difference in the world? 
 How can we celebrate that there has been an increase in Extravagant Generosity per worshiper over the last two years?  

Thanks for reading the CT Blog,

Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Office of Congregational Transformation

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