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Discipleship Community: Where to Start?

When it comes to building discipleship communities, inevitably, the question comes up, "Where do we start?" I wish I had asked that question of Bill Easum and Tom Bandy when I first attended their workshop in 1999. It would have saved a lot of heartache and headaches in my home church.

At a subsequent workshop, I did ask the question of Easum. He stated unequivocally that you don’t start by reforming your constitution, or restructuring your council and committee structure. You begin with spiritual leadership.

You see, effective leaders live out the values of the organization. You can't expect your membership embrace discipleship if their leaders haven't. So, pastor, if you have come to realize that the existing membership model of church is unsustainable, and you're feeling the call to discipleship, how do you proceed?

We are talking about planting a new vision at your church, a vision of discipleship, gift-oriented ministry teams and permission giving. Jim Collins, in his book “Good to Great,” lays out the steps a leader takes in moving from mediocrity to greatness.

The principle Collins explores is "First who, then what." Collins found that the best leaders first get the right people on the bus, get the wrong people off the bus, and get the right people in the right seats. Then, with the leadership team in place, they decide where to drive the bus. You must build a core team of spiritual leaders before pressing ahead with visioning.

Most pastors I've met think the Council is THE leadership team, and that they are restrained in the shaping and forming of this team. Indeed, most churches have some sort of nominating process for the election of Council. Sadly, spiritual leadership is not the typical criteria for choosing candidates. More often it becomes a matter of checking for a pulse, and whether their breath will fog a mirror. Councils now operate so ineffectively that in many instances, the question becomes, "Who will say yes?" And real leaders run from a dysfunctional process and refuse to be nominated.

If you are ever to build a discipleship community, you must raise the bar on what it means to be a leader. No longer do we say in Nominating Committee, "We need someone for Finance and Management. Well, Jerry is an accountant--let's ask him." We look for two key characteristics: Are they leaders (people whose opinion matters), and are they personally committed to discipleship, to deepening their spiritual journey?

So, at the same time you begin to preach a sermon series on the Marks of Discipleship, you lay out the expectation that the leaders make a commitment to the Marks. If Council members are nominated from the floor at your annual meeting, then you should communicate this expectation and ask that nominees indicate their willingness to meet it before they go on the ballot. Perhaps you display a large banner with the Marks, and you point to it before the election, and say, “This is what it means to be a leader here.”

At that workshop Easum said to me, "You start by preaching on Discipleship, and then you invite those interested to join you for coffee after the service." We must find whom the Spirit is touching with a call to a deeper faith walk. Mike Breen would call these people persons of peace, who's hearts have been prepared by God to hear the message. One of the mistakes I made at my own church was trying to pick people for a transformation team. Easum says, let the Spirit pick the team.

You can do this by creating an informal leadership team. As you surface people who are feeling called to something more, draw them close to you. Start a small group to study discipleship, and let those hearing the call be inspired by the faith of others. This informal group can be a pool of leadership that can surface on Council as the formal process moves forward. I have a pastor friend who invites twelve people into a yearlong discipleship process each year. They spend 2-3 hours together each week.

Confront Reality

John Kotter, in his book, “Leading Change,” lays out the steps to a change process. First, you build a sense of urgency. Building a sense of urgency requires you to see reality clearly. Often, reality is blurred because we don’t step back and look at the trends in play. (See the Iceberg Model for a deep look at this challenge) Looking at the report on your congregation will show some of the trends affecting you. (The Lutheran Church-ELCA posts these trend reports for every congregation on their website’s Locate a Church feature.)

Principle number two in Collins' book is "Confront the Brutal Facts, yet never lose faith". You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail, regardless of the difficulties AND, at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality. I have found churches to be inoculated against seeing reality clearly. 80 percent of denominational churches are stagnant or in decline, but most members are not willing to acknowledge that something is amiss. Mike Foss says the main reason churches do not achieve their desired vision is that they misdiagnose their starting point, their current reality. (See this article for more on a healthy visioning process.)

Kotter's second step is to build a Guiding Coalition. That's the step we are talking about here. If your current Council is unwilling to commit to a discipleship journey, start building the coalition outside the council, and move to grow a council of disciples through the steps already laid out. Once you have a sense of urgency, and a guiding coalition, you are ready to cast a vision and create a strategy.

Culture of Discipline

Finally, according to Collins, you must create "A Culture of Discipline." For us in the church, the discipline we are talking about is the practice of our faith, the Marks of Discipleship:

Pray daily

Worship weekly

Read the Bible daily

Serve within and beyond the congregation

Relate to people for spiritual growth

Give the tithe

A culture of discipline, for us, discipleship, along with an ethic of entrepreneurship will foster great performance.The sad fact is that there are few entrepreneurial leaders among the clergy of most denominations.

Statistics tell us that a population of any significant size will fall into a normal distribution, the dreaded bell curve that we all found out about in school. 16% of the population are early adopters, 34% are the early majority, 34% are the late majority, and 16% are not coming along. So, you have to find the early adopters, and help them see the vision. Since they might not be on council, we suggested creating an informal team of leaders who are ready for discipleship. Once the early majority sees the early adopters moving to discipleship, they won't want to be left behind. So, creating a discipleship community begins with getting a few trusted friends on board, and then let them bring their friends along, and so on.

Discern Spiritual Gifts

Beyond that, you need to bring a focus on spiritual gifts. Once you create a clear statement of mission, vision, values and beliefs, you can build a permission-giving church. This model is based on building ministry teams rooted in peoples’ gifts and passions, and turning them loose within the boundaries set by mission, vision, values and beliefs. This goes way beyond the old, tired Time and Talents form. Most churches do not have a system in place to help people discern their gifts and be equipped for the call from God rooted in those gifts. This topic we will explore extensively in another article.

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