Four Questions for Congregations

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., says vital congregations are clear about their mission, outwardly focused, oriented toward the future, and concerned more with results than processes. He outlines four questions that can help keep a congregation on track when it comes to these essential attributes.

“How are we doing?” is a question that all leaders within a congregation need to keep before them at all times. Below are some questions that you may find helpful in determining the current vitality of your church.

Are our mission and values clear and differentiated?

Thriving organizations know their mission and their values and know the difference between the two. Declining organizations often confuse mission and values. Mission is what we exist to do. Values are those commitments we honor as we do our work to accomplish the mission.

In declining organizations everyone tends to forget the mission they are called to serve. We spend so much time arguing about which stanza of the hymn we are going to sing that we all forget the tune.

Both mission and values are essential, but mission is first and is the guide. Organizational values do not have life apart from how they impact the mission. Values do not compete with mission, but rather shape how the mission is fulfilled.

For example, having a church in which “everyone knows every other person” is a value. However, one can have such a church and still not necessarily be fulfilling the church’s mission, which might be “making disciples.”

In declining organizations, people often begin choosing those values they like most and defending them against competing values. Then everyone tends to forget the mission they are called to serve. We spend so much time arguing about which stanza of the hymn we are going to sing that we all forget the tune.

As people cling desperately to those organizational values they most appreciate, while ignoring the overall mission, the organization continues to decline. As the organization declines, people become even more uncertain and uneasy, so they cling to those values they most fear losing in a possessive and defensive way. In the end, such behavior only hastens the organization’s decline.

Is our view long term or short term?

Thriving organizations have a long term horizon. Declining organizations tend to focus on the short term. Declining organizations put most of their energy into current operations and do not develop plans and strategies that will serve the organization well over the long term.

In the church, we tend to plan for only one year at a time instead of asking “What are the issues that are most pressing for us to address that will impact the church five years from now?” or “What are the factors that will most determine the vitality of this church fifteen years from now?”

Our questions tend to be “How do we get officers recruited for another year? How do we get the stewardship campaign put together this year? How do we get the new budget prepared and approved? How do we get the current budget raised? How do we get denominational commitments paid?”

These are important questions, but as soon as we finish asking these questions, it is time to begin again for another year. And we never get beyond these one-year questions to ask questions that will influence and shape the future.

Is our stance outward or inward?

Thriving organizations begin with an outward focus on serving. Declining organizations have lost their original missional direction and increasingly turn their primary attention inward.

Peter Drucker says vital organizations practice “outside to inside” thinking rather than the more common “inside to outside” thinking. The key difference is the starting point. Do we start with our needs, values, and goals, or with the needs, hopes, and dreams of those we exist to serve? In outside to inside thinking, one always responds out of one’s mission and values, but the outwardly focused beginning point can make all the difference in the world.

One can see an inward focus in local churches in the language sometimes used to raise their budgets before the end of the year. Even though parts of these budgets serve others, the language used in the pleas tends to appeal to loyalty and the need to “support the church.”

One could easily get the impression from such appeals that people are being asked to do something for the church. No church is established to give people an organization to serve. The clear message should be, “This church exists to speak to your needs and to give you an opportunity together to meet the needs of others near and far in the name of Christ.”

Is our focus on results or procedures?

In thriving organizations, one always keeps a clear eye on whether the intended results of efforts are accomplished. In declining organizations, the procedures themselves become more dominant, with little attention directed to monitoring the actual results of activities.

Good and clear procedures are essential. But the process, planning, and implementation procedures should always be in the service of the mission. In declining organizations, there is an inordinate concern with the process, apart from whether it is helping to achieve the mission.

The question that should preoccupy us is, “Are the process and procedures serving the mission?” In a declining organization, this question tends to get lost. People spend all their time asking, “Has the process been followed?” as if the process is an end in itself. Or, “Have the procedures been followed to accomplish the task?” as if simply doing an activity is all that matters. No one is asking of every process and procedure, “Are they actually producing the results required by our mission?”

Related Resources

About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

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Discovering God’s Future for Your Church

Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turn-key tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. The tool kit features videos, leader’s guides, discussion exercises, planning tools, handouts, diagrams, worksheets, and more. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.