The Most Important Meeting

Nominating CommitteeDr. David Drury, a friend from whom I’ve learned much, wrote a very helpful article a few weeks ago about the most important meeting of the year.  For churches, nonprofit boards, or other organizations that have elected leadership, there is a nominating committee meeting somewhere out there. Dr. Drury shared several reasons why this meeting is so vital. If you haven’t yet read his article, I encourage you to check this out: http://www.daviddrury.com/2015/04/09/the-most-important-meeting-of-your-year/

David makes the case that a well-designed nominating committee process is one of the best ways to set the future agenda, increase diversity in leadership, and protect the core values of the organization.

I enthusiastically agree with his conclusions. His article also caused me to reflect on my experiences with nominating committees. This issue of protecting the core values was one of the criteria that I have prioritized in the past. As I prepare to move into a new leadership role this summer, I will be working even harder to ensure that this is true.

Of special interest, as one returning to the role of District Superintendent, “What criteria do I look for when we are nominating members of a District Board of Administration?”

Before I share my top 3 list, let me add the caveat that I am assuming that each of these potential nominees are Spirit-filled members of The Wesleyan Church in full agreement with our doctrinal statements and lifestyle commitments (and I do know that might make my list of candidates shorter than I wish that it was). So, with that in mind, here’s my top three:

1) Do they model what we say is important as a district?

I won’t neglect the importance of a wide-range of voices, from different age groups, church sizes/styles, and making sure that both women and minorities are well-represented.  But I will not sacrifice the mission for the sake of a photo-op or achieving some quota. The sad reality is that most of our boards are too white, too male and too old. And, yes, I fall into all three of those boxes.

But more important than diversity is unity of purpose. If the district as a whole is going to be committed to the Great Commission and making disciples, then every nominee needs to model that in their respective context.  If a prospective nominee would represent a church that is not making disciples, at least as quantified by 1) professions of faith, 2) believer baptisms, 3) members added by profession of faith, and 4) a resulting increase in the worshipping community, it is not fair to that individual, or the district, to nominate them to a position where they will be asked to set policies and provide accountability to the other churches in the region.

Unfortunately, as Dr. Drury notes, too often nominating committees present a slate of candidates that look very much like those of the previous decade without regard to whether the nominees best represent the vision and values of the team.

2) Do they fully support the team they’re calling others to support?

My second expectation is that these nominees represent congregations that are fully cooperating in the unified ministry of the district. I am not looking for Lone Rangers. Districts were created to serve a region of local churches who organized themselves in this structure to do some things better together than they could do alone.

Local churches send the delegates that elect district officers and set district policies. Local church delegates establish the portion of financial support (District Stewardship Fund) that each church will contribute.

Anyone nominated to a position that decides how the combined ministry funds of the district should be spent, has the right to come representing a church that fully participates. In other words, it is unfair to place any individual in the awkward position of having to explain why other churches should fully participate in USF when the church they represent doesn’t.

That seems like a very basic expectation but I’ve had conversations in the past with DBA members who never thought about those implications and had never been questioned about it. If I was somehow nominated to a district office but my church had not paid 100% USF in the previous year, I would respectfully decline.

I found the same situation to be true when I interacted with members of the Board of Trustees at a Christian college. They were elected and empowered to approve plans to spend the donations of other faithful contributors, but they themselves had given nothing in recent years.

I encountered the same challenge in local churches where members of the elders, deacons, or board of directors were not giving at the minimum expectation level of tithing. (Wesleyan Discipline 460-475).

We have little right to expect God to financially bless an organization or ministry that is led by people are not surrendered to this minimum standard of investment. Where your treasure is, your heart will also be.  And if your treasure is not here in this ministry, where is your heart?

The same goes for church planting. If we say church planting is one of our highest priorities as a district, do our nominees come from churches that have expressed that commitment in practical ways like praying, sending, and giving?

What about world missions? Caring for the poor and marginalized?  If these are priorities in our district, to what degree does our list of nominees represent churches that are uniting as a team to make a difference in our region?

3) Do these nominees represent the widest possible spectrum of voices from our team?

Once these first two criteria are satisfied, then I love to see a nominating committee do the important work of building a slate to make sure all voices are heard at the table.

The Wesleyan Church, of which I am gladly a member, holds out the hope of full participation for women in ministry. Yet, only one woman serves as a District Superintendent (Rev. Anita Eastlack serves as Co-DS with Dr. Karl Eastlack in Penn-Jersey District) and only one of our largest 100 churches is pastored by a woman (Rev. Heather Semple at Red Cedar Community Church in Rice Lake, Wisconsin).  If we’re serious about equal opportunities, surely the nominating committee is the gateway to ensuring that promise.

If it were not for the rapid increase in Hispanic congregations, The Wesleyan Church in North America would be showing a net loss in the number of local churches. Yet, how many pastors or lay leaders of Hispanic congregations serve on the District Board of Administration?

Leaders from ethnic and multi-ethnic congregations have a valued voice that must be heard if we are going to be effective in reaching our communities for Christ. The nominating committee must be proactive in opening that door to more diverse representation.

Then there are age considerations. Not just the age of the nominees, although I would observe that the average age of most district boards is two, or even three, decades older than the average age in our congregations. I am also thinking about the age of the church itself. Often, the long-established congregations are disproportionately represented in district boards and committees.

If a district team is going to be serious about launching many new congregations, then there need to be leaders at the table from those new congregations. The challenges they face (i.e. dealing with temporary facilities and attenders who have little or no sense of denominational connection), are realities that need to be in view as the district leadership team makes decisions about the future.

That’s my short list of expectations for nominees to the DBA. What makes your list?

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“To Close or Not to Close?”

Old church

That’s the question a colleague asked me this week. What are the factors that should be considered when a district is faced with the decision of whether or not to close a church. This was not a rhetorical question. As a district superintendent in The Wesleyan Church, first in Wisconsin and then in West Michigan, I worked through this with local leadership teams and district boards more than once.

I wrote these notes for him and will take some risks sharing them here for your feedback. The first risk is that I already know my list is not complete. There are likely other and better factors than I have offered.  The second risk is that even some of the items I’ve listed here are wide open to interpretation and there will be plenty of territory for people of  good will to disagree.  I’d love to hear back from you and really want to learn how I can be more helpful in such a consequential decision.

I also have to acknowledge the real possibility that I played an official role in calling out the time of death when one more jolt of electricity might have revived what seemed to be a lifeless corpse. On the other hand, my experience has been that most churches have resisted intervention so long that they missed a window of opportunity when that same decision could have been made more redemptively, with less emotional and spiritual trauma.

One thing I concluded from my experience is this: districts don’t close churches. Churches close themselves. Churches close themselves not just in that final vote but in several years of decisions that turned the church more and more inwardly, away from the mission of God.

In such cases, the district leadership team is like the doctor in the ER who finally calls out the time of death to be written down in the medical records. But the patient is usually on the table for a long time with feverish effort from the attending staff before that final call is made.

And any such decision should be soaked in prayer, lots of prayer.  Prayer by the congregation and their leaders. Prayer by the district team that is accountable for the final decision. PRAY!

Now, with that brief introduction to a very complicated discussion, allow me to offer these 10 points for consideration:

1) Is the Kingdom of God better advanced by this church remaining open even if attendance and financial solvency are at an all-time low? Are people still coming to Christ, being baptized and discipled, growing in their faith and service to God, even though the overall attendance and financial solvency are trending negatively?

2) Is the church bringing a reproach to the name of Christ? Are there spiritual, doctrinal, moral, financial or legal issues that are unresolved after multiple approaches?  Are unreached/unchurched people in this community more or less likely to have confidence in and respect for the work of God if this church stays open?

3) As fewer people are left to carry the load, is the spiritual well-being of faithful members being drained by the spiritual, emotional and financial toll of trying to sustain this declining congregation?

4) Is the internal dynamic of the congregation toxic for pastors? Can I in good conscience appoint another pastor to serve this congregation? Would I appoint my brother or son to pastor here?

5) Are there external factors in the community (a rural community with declining population, etc.) that have disproportionately impacted this congregation and are not likely to change in the next few years?

6) Is this congregation diverting resources (time, money, energy) of the district away from serving congregations who are or could be generating a better return on those investments?

7) If we didn’t already have this congregation in this location, does the surrounding community have enough potential that we would be drawn to plant a new church here in the next few years? If not, what does that lack of potential, as we assess it, say about the likelihood that this congregation can be revitalized?

8) If this ministry wasn’t already here and we would likely plant a new church in this location, is this existing congregation blocking or fighting that possibility?

9) If we would plant a new church in this location, is the value of the property and land (for which we have to give an account as stewards) better leveraged to launch that new ministry than to preserve the existing one?

10) Are there other healthy evangelical churches in the vicinity that these members could attend, if this congregation was closed, or is this the only viable option for them to worship and serve?

These are some of the factors I’ve prayerfully considered when faced with this question. What considerations would you add?