Episode 46: “How Can Churches Thrive in a Time of Cultural and Institutional Change?” featuring David McAllister-Wilson

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 46: "How Can Churches Thrive in a Time of Cultural and Institutional Change?" featuring David McAllister-Wilson

How can churches and church-related organizations thrive in a time of rapid cultural change and deteriorating institutional structures? In this episode we speak with David McAllister-Wilson, President of Wesley Theological Seminary, about new models of church, new ways of preparing people for ministry, and the importance of a renewed vision that engages nontraditional leaders.

Listen on Apple PodcastsListen on StitcherListen on Google Play MusicListen to more Leading Ideas Talks episodes


Announcer: Leading Ideas Talks is brought to you by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Subscribe free to our weekly newsletter at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

Leading Ideas Talks is also brought to you by is brought to you by Discovering God’s Future for Your Church. This turn-key video tool kit helps your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for your church’s next faithful steps. Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is available on download and DVD at  churchleadership.com/shop.

How can churches and church-related organizations thrive in a time of rapid cultural change and deteriorating institutional structures? In this episode we speak with David McAllister-Wilson, President of Wesley Theological Seminary, about new models of church, new ways of preparing people for ministry, and the importance of a renewed vision that engages nontraditional leaders.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is the Rev. Dr. David McAllister Wilson, the President of Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the author of A New Church and A New Seminary and our focus for this podcast is guiding institutions during times of struggle. David, welcome to Leading Ideas Talks.  We’re glad to have you here today.

David McAllister Wilson: Thank you Doug, good to be here.

Doug Powe: Let’s begin with talking about challenges that institutions face in the 21st Century. What do you think will be different about institutional life for congregations as we move forward in the 21st Century?

David McAllister Wilson: Well, in some ways I would say that nothing will be different. For over 2000 years now, there’ve been some ways in which Christians and would-be Christians gather. And we’re always going to see those elements.  So, wherever I go in the world, and all the different kinds of worship I experience, I see that people need to gather.  They sing. We study the ancient texts.  There’s viable study in worship. And we take communion together and have the Lord’s Prayer. So, in some ways, nothing will be different institutionally. But of course, things are having to change a lot, especially here in the United States. And there are some things that aren’t working anymore. I think if we look in the 21st Century what we’re going to find is an increased diversity of churches. The medium-size church of the 50’s is not going to go away. There will still be that kind of experience. The megachurch, which has been so much a phenomenon in the last 25 years, that won’t go away. And, the new church starts won’t go away. There’ll be many different kinds of churches coexisting together, perhaps more than ever before. But I think the biggest change that all of them are going to go through, is a change from being essentially a member-services organization to being one of an association of people seeking meaning and trying to be disciples of Jesus Christ. What that means, inside, is that we can’t assume a baseline of knowledge and experience. So, a lot more insight has to do with the basic work of forming people as disciples. What it means for the outside is a different relationship between the inside and outside. And I’m going to use the word mission. When I was growing up in Southern California, when we said mission, we meant the money we sent to our missionaries in Mexico. But the work of the church was to be on a committee, to be a choir member, all of the internal work.  And mission is what we did when we had enough leftover funds. So mission is what church did when it was strong enough. I think the change that’s happening in all of these churches now is that mission is what you do to get strong. You ask the mission question first, before you ask some of the institutional questions. You know, when I teach leadership, we often talk about the difference between management and leadership. And we talk about management of institutions and leadership of movement. And that’s a meaningful distinction. But I think what’s happening now is that any church that’s lasted for more than three months, is both an institution and a movement. And so they have to figure out how to be both of those things.

Doug Powe: Picking up on a few threads that you name, you talked about the medium-sized church, the megachurch, but do you think, particularly in mainline denominations, the real challenges are going to be smaller churches? How are mainline denominations going to be able to sustain, keeping congregations with 7 people, 5 people moving forward? Are they going to have to think differently about how these congregations can exist? Or, “can they exist?” might be the real question.

David McAllister Wilson: I don’t think that is the question. Not the question “how will mainline denominations serve smaller churches?” Because I think smaller churches of varying varieties are in some ways self-generating. The question is, will we be able to maintain them as a denomination in the way we have before? When I came to seminary in 1982, I think the idea still was, in my denomination, the United Methodists, the idea was a Master of Divinity in every pulpit. A chicken in every pot. An MDiv in every pulpit. Well that had never been the case in America.  That had never been the case anywhere. Instead, we’re going to see an increased diversity of leadership among these kinds of worshiping communities and that’s going to have to adjust itself to economic realities. Denominations themselves clearly are weakening. So, it’s no longer going to be a question of how does THE denomination from its headquarters or its regional offices serve these congregations.  The much more interesting question is, how will all these congregations thrive?

Doug Powe: Picking up on the interesting question, you say “how will they thrive?” But do you believe, rightly or wrongly, that there’s still this mentality of waiting for a top-down approach? How do you get people in those congregations to think about “we have to be creative ourselves to thrive and not wait for manna from on heaven?”

David McAllister Wilson: Right. I think those congregations that wait for that are going to die. And I think new small congregations will arise. They may be meeting in the pizza parlor. They may be meeting in the park.  Or at work. So there will be small congregations.  But the ones that are waiting for the day before yesterday to come back again, they’re not going to thrive. And, instead, they’re going to have to find the internal resources and a change in the way of understanding themselves, so they thrive as a community of disciples. But I think that’s true of congregations of almost any size now.

Doug Powe: Sticking with this just a little bit longer, do you think, as you talk about new faith communities, you know, talking about pizza parlors, whatever, small congregations may decide to do as a faith community, they will be looking to models for how to exist outside of where they have traditionally within mainline framework? So, it used to be, you said, “An MDiv in every pulpit.  A chicken in every pot.” Now it might be my main job is an accountant, but I also now become the pastor of this faith community at the pizza parlor, or I’m doing something else.

David McAllister Wilson: Well, if you look at, really, all denominations in the United States over all of our history, that has been, if not the norm, a common form of ministry. Now you may have been a farmer and a pastor.  Now you may be an IT professional and a pastor. A doctor and a pastor. So, the nature of the two sides of bi-vocational ministry, I think, is going to change in churches of that size. And, even in churches of a larger size, which can afford the fulltime, seminary-trained pastor, there are already many other people now doing the work of ministry in the church, who are bi-vocational. My daughter is very active in her home congregation. And she’s a social worker. She gets paid for one thing.  She doesn’t get paid for the other. That’s the model of ministry, I think, that’s emerging.

Doug Powe: So, as we think about that model, let’s start thinking about economics and let’s start with seminary. So, this impacts seminaries, obviously, because it means now, where it used to be you could count on a flow of Master of Divinity students because that was the expectation — under this new model, there will be less Master of Divinity students. So, how do seminaries have to rethink the work they’re doing?

David McAllister Wilson: Well, we’re all scrambling. And, I think we’re doing the right work, if we’re asking the question about ourselves connected to the question about the future of the church. So, the first thing we should be asking, I know we do at Wesley, is, what does it mean to serve the church? Not just today, but in the latter half of the 21st century, what’s ministry going to look like? How can we deliver theological education in a way that’s powerful and viable for the varieties of ministry that emerge? And it’s causing us to use a “both-and.” We’re going to continue to emphasize traditional, residential, classic theological education. But we also have grown tremendously in our offerings of nontraditional, nondegree kinds of delivery of what we have to offer, maintaining what’s important at the core, which is a faculty and an ethos of mission and an orientation that will serve the church.

Doug Powe: Let’s go from the other side now and think about congregations. So, what do you think, in terms of leading a congregation, especially one that is struggling financially? What is it that they need to?  We need to be helping those leaders think in terms of being prepared to be able to resource those congregations.

David McAllister Wilson: I’m very much captured by the image of the delta region. In a river system, the delta region is that point at which a river, which may have been flowing straight and fast down a deep gorge, approaches the ocean and comes into a flat area and breaks into two, maybe thousands of tributaries.  And you can get lost in that delta region because you don’t know where the main stream is.  You don’t know how to keep going in the direction you were going. You don’t know how to get to the ocean. And I think we’re in a delta region in history, not just in the church but many other organizations. Here in Washington, in politics, we’re in a delta region for sure. And so, the leadership question is, how do you navigate in a delta region? How do you maintain a certain sense of direction? And in the process, how do you build resilience? I’ve come to understand the importance of that word as I’ve taught military chaplains. In the armed forces, they’ve been involved in over 15 years of active warfare. And the word resilience is very important for them. How would you build a resilience? I think in my own case, as I think about the seminary and look at churches I’m familiar with, the challenge is, if I might say, how to strike a balance between being the bluebird of happiness and chicken little. In other words, it’s easy to try to tell everyone everything is going to be okay with soothing words and just chirping along. It’s also easy to let your own anxiety about the economic challenges overcome you and to constantly warn people about all the changes that have to happen. But in the one case you’re not preparing people to change. In the other case, you’re raising their anxiety, increasing their fear to the extent that they’re not able to change. So I think an important thing is transparency. But along with transparency, building a shared vision, a shared sense of mission and values, so that we can say “together, we have these challenges, but we have a shared understanding of who we are and where we’re going.” So as to build resilience.

Doug Powe: Do you think that pastors and we can move it too? Because you were mentioning with your daughter, people who play key roles in churches as leaders, do you think that there will be places where the seminary will be able to do specialized training for them as they do their work that we have not done up to this point? You know, typically, we think about our work as a student comes here, they spend their time here, they go out, and we may see them at an alumni function once a year. But is there some place where seminaries may play a more active role as pastors or key lay people in their congregations looking towards this new future.

David McAllister Wilson: I think if seminaries are serious about their own mission, they have to do that. And, the only obstacle, to put it very bluntly, is price point. That is, I think the fundamental resource of the seminary is that faithful people are curious. It’s faith seeking understanding and understanding seeking faith. And a seminary ought to be in position to help people with that exploration and to help them prepare in a very practical sense for the management and leadership of ministry. We already do that to a great degree through the Lewis Center and other resources at this seminary. In fact, while the number of people seeking a Master of Divinity is declining, the total number of people wanting some kind of theological education, some kind of ministerial preparation, is increasing! For the seminaries, an economic question: How do we find the way for that to sustain us economically? Because, now, the Master of Divinity and the Doctor of Ministry are the drivers in our economic model. For us to really pursue our mission we have to find other drivers and other ways to sustain that.

Doug Powe: Let me shift it a little bit. You wrote a Leading Ideas article using the analogy of pruning, some years ago, based upon John 15:1-5, “I’m the true vine.” Can you share why that analogy is helpful for thinking about the work that not only has to take place at nonprofits, but also in the church as you think about the future and trying to become better at thriving?

David McAllister Wilson: Yes, I think that’s an incredibly important analogy. The vine in general is a great analogy for the church. But, in addition to that, the specific examples of pruning are helpful. Primarily because if you’re managing an institution and it is working, or used to be working, or you want it to work again, your tendency is to try to do everything you used to do in the same way and then look for other things that are going to bring extra income. So you’re thinking the solution for your problem is on the income side. We’ve got to get more money. And how many pastors I’ve heard say that! Just about as many seminary presidents say that. But the pruning example causes us to say, “we’ve got to look at expenses.” And, not just a euphemism of rightsizing, or cutting unnecessary expenditures.  Pruning tells us you actually cut living branches as well as dying branches. You look at the whole vine and ask where does this vine want to grow? What’s going to bear fruit a little later? And that guides your pruning, which is to say your expense cuts. But going beyond that, I think it leads to what I have found is one of the critical deficits, frankly, in theological education and in ministry. Most pastors have not spent much time thinking about money. Or, forget money, they don’t think about accounting. I was fortunate in that my father was a CPA. He was disappointed I didn’t go into his practice with him. It turns out, I think about accounting just about every day. And I think about the uses of assets and the way in which we need to look ahead as we consider the use of scarce resources. The pruning example is simply a matter of looking at an organization with the eyes of an accountant.  Or, if you don’t like that, a real estate developer. Somebody who asks “what could this be? And what changes do I need in order to make this happen?” And I think it means we need to have a much better understanding of how money is generated and how it’s spent.

Doug Powe: To stick with that for a little bit, you’ve self-disclosed that your father was an accountant, so you at least had an idea of what it takes to understand what is needed to go into that field of work and the lifestyle he lived, and possibly even learned something about balance sheets at a young age. But as you’ve mentioned, there are many people who go into ministry because they love the Lord. Then they get shocked that, when they go into a church, it’s great to love the Lord, but then you’ve also got to be able to do some other things along with loving the Lord. So, when it comes to actually being able to make decisions about pruning, particularly pruning things that are going well, how do you help someone to understand that doing that is actually necessary when they haven’t had that sort of training?

David McAllister Wilson: Well, you’d think I’d learned about balance sheets from my father, but he found it very amusing in later life that I had to learn this stuff while I was a seminary administrator. And I think the way we get at that is, first of all, to develop a strong leadership team of diverse people that come to understand the situation together. And those people ought to include people from a variety of backgrounds, but also accountants, business people, others who are used to dealing with this in their regular lives. Very often, we consign those people in our churches to the finance committee. Or the building committee. What I’m talking about here is bringing those considerations into the very planning work. In fact, I have found those people are often more visionary than the pastors are. Because pastors are risk averse. You cannot thrive in business without taking risks. And so, it can be a new source of energy as well as wisdom to bring in people with that kind of experience. But then you also have to engage in some real truth telling about where we are and where we can be and where we will be if we continue along the current path. So, graphic display of the future is really helpful for people to understand the implications of what’s going on. Because most people don’t see change in the small increments they’re experiencing it. Sure there’s a few, fewer people in church, maybe.  But you don’t really notice it. But a graphic display of trends starts to tell you the bigger picture.

Doug Powe: I’m going to take a little side trip here. You talked about pastors are risk averse. Can you say a little bit more about that? I think that’s sort of a fascinating claim because what it says then, is that really, pastors become individuals who want to maintain the status quo because they feel that’s comfortable. Or are you saying something different?

David McAllister Wilson: I think that’s true to some extent. But I don’t think any of them would say that what they wanted to be is comfortable. Instead, I think it comes from a lack of ability and experience in taking risks and losing sometimes, winning sometimes. I think pastors are, we’re taught to be talkers.  We imagine that every problem is a problem we need to talk our way through. So, often, we come out of seminary as professional talkers rather than as people who are thinking strategically. And so, we’re often afraid to do that. I also say we’re not only risk averse. Most pastors I know are afraid of conflict. Or, to state it more positively, they like harmony. They like consensus. But I’ve been guided by a book written several years ago, The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki who points out that the way to get really good decisions is to have a diverse group of people — which, we understand as pastors, but more than that — have a diverse group of people with diverse opinions and let them air those opinions. And don’t try to bring it to consensus too quickly. Pastors bring a discussion to consensus way too quickly because they think that’s the job of a peacemaker. So, I think, to include diverse voices and allow diverse opinions to be spoken.  Now that’s harder.  That leads a group into a delta region, right? On the other hand, the end product can be very powerful. One of our board members at Wesley, Betty Bean was the head of the United Way of America.  And she told me something that stuck with me all of these years. She said, “David, people support what they help to create.” And so, bringing a diverse group of people, letting them express their fears, their hopes, their ideas, the good ones, the nutty ones, anything that comes to the table, and letting that ferment long enough, means that at the end of the process, all of these people are going to own the final decision, and, by the way, that’s how, money is raised.

Doug Powe: And actually, it wasn’t such a side trip because it relates back then to what you were discussing when we were on the vine. Because what you’re offering is actually a different model for most congregations in that, most congregations think of visioning as the Lord speaks to the pastor and I go out and speak it to the congregation.  This is what we need to do. But what you’re suggesting is really visioning, is about the pastor pulling together different individuals who all are discerning together what needs to take place.  And it’s not just this one person trying to figure this out for themselves.

David McAllister Wilson: That’s right. Sometimes that’s called “leading from the middle.” But I think, in fact, that’s the way it’s always been done. So, I talked to a lot of pastors who imagined themselves to be the visionaries. But I’ve heard them preach.  And, when they’re preaching their vision from the pulpit, I can tell they don’t say those things until they have listened a lot. Now, what they might do from the pulpit is give voice a little better than all the voices they’ve been listening to. But they are still offering, really, a shared vision. It’s the degree, now, to which other people are openly a part of that visioning process. Now that takes a pastor who’s confident. And who is humble.  And has the ability to listen to difference without letting him or her get anxious. And then, the skill to articulate the shared vision a little better, and maybe one step ahead of everybody else.

Doug Powe: As we bring this to a close, I want to ask, what do you see as the opportunities for congregations in particular, but institutions as a whole, as we move forward? Where do you see that the future is bright for where we could be headed, particularly in theological education?

David McAllister Wilson: My view is the great challenge of leadership at this time is to foster two things, and they’re words from the old hymn, wisdom and courage. Wisdom is more than knowledge.  It’s the ability to tell the difference between the way things are now and the way God wants them to be. Courage is more than skill.  It’s the willingness to move towards that hopeful future. So I think it’s a wonderful time with lots of opportunity. What are some of the specific opportunities? It seems to me that within denominations the opportunity is for individual Christians and for congregations to take ownership of their direction because the denomination’s not going to be there for them. In the larger society, the needs are great, and the opportunity is for churches to ask “what does it mean to be mission centered as a church and to do that effectively?” And, the hope I see out there, in those congregations that are, on the one hand, helping people get in touch with God’s call in their life, and on the other hand, helping them be engaged in the world in meaningful ways.

Doug Powe: David, thank you, this has been wonderful. I appreciate you taking the time to share with us.

David McAllister Wilson: Thank you Doug!

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, we speak with Tom Berlin, lead pastor at Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia, about how adaptivity can help churches build a more fruitful missional sensibility.

Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to Leading Ideas at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

David McAllister-Wilson’s most recent book is A New Church and A New Seminary: Theological Education Is the Solution (Abingdon Press, 2018).

Related Resources


About Author

Photo of David McAllister-Wilson

David McAllister-Wilson is president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is author of A New Church and A New Seminary: Theological Education Is the Solution (Abingdon Press, 2018), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.