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3 Things Judicatories Can Do Best - Renewing the Church

     Most mainline denominations are in need of renewal and retooling. In fact, in most denominations less than 10% of all congregations are growing now. The rest are either flat (but often aging) or in decline. It is no secret that something needs to be done to change this trend or these churches will be disappearing at an increasingly fast pace.

     More and more it is clear that the primary renewal of the church has to happen in the local congregation. It is only at this point in the church system that communities of people can actually encourage, teach, mentor and interact on a personal level with any rate of real permeation. Yes, judicatories and national church bodies can do some of this with a few people, but only in the congregation is actually possible to engage every participant in some meaningful way.

     It is also clear that almost nothing changes without some outside influence. Systems are bred to maintain themselves. The culture and habits of people perpetuate the system, often to its own demise. Systems know how to defend themselves – but they don’t always know how to transform in order to thrive. That takes someone or something to intrude or agitate. In the church, if change is going to happen, that intrusion and agitation rarely comes from within the local congregation alone, no matter how essential it may be.

     That’s where judicatories are now essential. Judicatory leaders oversee a small enough number of pastors and other leaders to know who they are and what they are capable of. They view a number of congregations and know how well or not well they are doing. They have the ability to relate to them and to try to agitate and intervene in helpful ways. But not all judicatory leaders have this as their number one priority. Not all judicatory staff are prepared to be interventionists in the life of the congregations with which they work.

Every judicatory needs to have the following three things operating all the time:

  • General equipping and motivating functions. These are regular workshops, conferences, and seminars to help people focus on the key elements for mission and ministry in the 21st century. These should be helpful but also give judicatory leaders the chance to meet and observe which people are really serious about doing ministry in new ways.
  • Scouting for openings and opportunities. This should be happening all the time. Watching for the people who are not only attending the generall equipping kinds of work but actually seem excited and engaged with it is one key. Every week, make a list of who you saw in the last few days who impressed you. Pay attention and work with these people – something might actually happen in this group!
  • Invitational and Targeted training (WITH COACHING!). No real long-term changes will happen without long-term processes. Change takes time. That requires people who will stick with it. Offer processes over multiple years with invitation and applications to get in, clearly designed trajectories for leaders to follow, and one coach per congregation to walk with teams through the long journey to renewal. 

     Any judicatory that wants effective congregations, strong resources for mission, and vibrant engagement with the world around it must do all three of these things well. Most judicatories provide some things in the first (general equipping) area. Few are hyper-intentional about scouting out and engaging leaders to raise the bar. Almost none offer invitational and targeted training processes with coaching to accompany leaders and the congregations they serve.   
     Most local congregations will not change quickly enough on their own without outside intervention.

     National church bodies can do the critical work of research, process development and can provide training and equipping for judicatories wanting to use their work to make a difference. But national church bodies are too far removed from the many places that need to be engaged to be the best or logical point of engagement.

     But only regional judicatories can actually intervene in the ministry path of any given congregation and its leaders to invite and encourage new ways of doing ministry.

Dave Daubert 2/20/2018 3 Comments
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Tim Thompson

I appreciate your work, Dave, and I think you're on target in this aspect: If we want to see change across multiple congregations then we'll need to be operating at the "meta" level. Middle judicatories, such as Synods in our ELCA, fit that bill, as do para-church organizations. And working form that level "down" towards the congregation, I think you're right to emphasize the importance of scouting and invitational/targeted training. (Provided that the training has multiplication in view, i.e., a "train the trainer" strategy that wont be rate-limited by the number of people the judicatory staff can personally train.) HOWEVER... I'm afraid that the efforts in those areas will bear little fruit unless the "equipping functions" are focused on the right tasks. You refer to "regular workshops, conferences, and seminars to help people focus on the key elements for mission and ministry in the 21st century." In my experience, what gets offered is not, in fact, focused on the "key elements for

admin 2/22/2018

(continued) this shift before we lack the critical infrastructure and capacity to be able to do it. It is time to paint or get off the ladder!

admin 2/22/2018

Tim, Thanks for the comment. I agree that judicatories like synods will need to not only take on the roles, but also train and multiply in order to change our capacity. And I also agree that the training offered is not strategic and targeted around the issues needed for renewal but often a random mish-mash of various topics that seem to have no cohesive strategic function. If a judicatory is to actually make an impact it will have to be clear about its priorities, staff to succeed, stop being distracted by maintenance issues, and raise the bar on leadership training, provide coaching for congregations that is high quality, etc. I wrote this blog article to raise these issues because in the judicatories that I see in our ELCA at least, only a few are actually trying to do this with any real focus. Most wish something will happen but lack the clarity, will and focus needed to transform their role. I would guess the ELCA and most other mainline denominations have less than 10 years to mak