Leading Ideas Talks Episode 54: “The Adept Church” featuring F. Douglas Powe Jr.

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks Episode 54: "The Adept Church" featuring F. Douglas Powe Jr.

Is your church caught between a rock and a hard place? In this episode we speak with F. Douglas Powe Jr. about his new book, The Adept Church, and what churches can do to move toward a more interactive way of connecting with others. Dr. Powe 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.

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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, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

Leading Ideas Talks is also brought to you by The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place, a new book by F. Douglas Powe Jr., that helps congregations develop realistic roadmaps for navigating between “a rock and a hard place.” The book outlines a clear process for defining a church’s current reality in order to make the strategic decisions to determine the direction it needs to go. This theologically grounded, yet practical guide is for church leaders seeking to save their churches. Learn more and order now at churchleadership.com/books.

Is your church caught between a rock and a hard place? In this episode we speak with F. Douglas Powe Jr. about his new book, The Adept Church, and what churches can do to move toward a more interactive way of connecting with others. Dr. Powe 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.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel, host of this episode of Leading Ideas Talks podcast. And I’m talking today with Lewis Center Director F. Douglas Powe Jr. who is my colleague here at the Lewis Center. In fact, he’s my boss! He also teaches evangelism here at Wesley Seminary. If you’ve listened to some of our Leading Ideas Talks podcasts, you know Doug as a host of our podcast. But today he is our featured guest because he has a newly released book from Abingdon Press, “The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” So Doug, congratulations on the book. I’m excited for the opportunity for you to talk with our listeners about what you have to say to congregations who are caught between a rock and a hard place. I think everybody can relate to that in some way.  

Doug Powe: Well thank you. I appreciate it and I appreciate being on this side for a change.  

Ann Michel: Good. Since the title of the book is “The Adept Church,” can you explain thimage of an adept church that you’re holding up?  

Doug Powe: The adept image, for me, relates to a couple of things. When I think of adept, I think of a very nimble sort of congregation. A congregation that is able to actually navigate and move forward, even as things are changing around it. The image that first came to mind when I thought about adept was actually airplanes and aircraft carriers. So when you think about them trying to land a plane on this really small thing, you have to be really adept at making sure you can hit that target and not go too fast or too slow and make sure you can do it well. I think for congregations, the connection for me is that we try to move them from being possibly struggling to the greatest congregation in the world where they become a megachurch. And I’ve fallen into this trap myself. But an adept church is one that really is taking baby steps. So they’re navigating in a way where they may just take one step forwardand then maybe another step forward. It’s not a matter of trying to go from zero to 100, but it’s going from zero to one, or maybe zero to two. So to do that, you have to be adept at navigating the right way.  

Ann Michel: Great. I think that’s really helpful. I assume you wrote this book because you assumed that there are a lot of churches that are not adept. That they’re not able to do that well. And so, I wondered if you could describe what some of the problems or barriers are that prevent churches from being adept in the manner that you described.  

Doug Powe: Absolutely. I do believe there are a lot of churches that are struggling. And the way I frame it in the book is I talk about the congregations falling into three categories: swamp, reservoir, and canal. And swamp congregations are those congregations that are really struggling. If you can think about — here I’m telling my age — back when you would watch old movies, the swamp was really this place no one really wanted to go. It was an undesirable place. Unfortunately, too many of our congregations resemble a swamp where folk really just don’t want to go to those places because they’re not friendly and they sort of get swallowed up.  

Ann Michel: They’re inwardly focused.  

Doug Powe: They’re very inwardly focused. They’re only thinking about themselves and the reality is many of them just don’t care about the future. They literally just figure, as long as somebody is taking care of those of us who are here, we’re fine with that. Reservoir congregations are a little bit more outward focused. Oftentimes, they have a connection to the community, but they often act like a social agency. They feel like “we can give clothes, we can give food to the community.” But in many cases they’re still not really inviting the community to be a part of who they are. And then canal congregations — if you imagine the canal where it’s flowing and connecting as it goes — are those congregations truly connecting with the community in a way that’s helpful and inviting the community to really be a part of who they are. So, inadept congregations are swamp congregations and also, to a certain extent, reservoir congregations. Those congregations tend to be more inwardly focused. They struggle with making real connections with people outside of themselves. They struggle with inviting people to participate in anything that is not usually worship focused. They struggle with even having a discipleship or formation sort of system in their congregation. They often struggle with even simple things such as welcoming guests who may show up at their door. So these congregations are struggling with these things that can help them to take those baby steps to be more outwardly focused. Hopefully, in reading my book what you learn is “how do I take those baby steps to become more adept in navigating ways that I could connect more with people outside of the congregation and not be so inwardly focused?” 

Ann Michel: Yes. So this imagery you use, of relating different congregations to these different bodies of water — a swamp that’s kind of selfcontained and inward focused, a reservoir that’s like a storage place, and then a canal that serves to connect different bodies of water — it’s very vivid imagery. So I wonder if, for the benefit of our listeners, if you could say a little bit about where that imagery comes from?  

Doug Powe: Absolutely. Howard Thurman is one of my favorite individuals. And in one of his works, “Meditations of the Heart,” he uses this imagery to talk about individuals. And I adapted his imagery to think about congregations. And I think, of course, when you’re doing anything, nothing fits perfectly. But I do believe it does give us sort of a nice schematic to really think about the places many of our congregations fall. I mean, most of us can clearly picture a swamp and how eerie it is and also how it really drains life out of things. A reservoir, where you’re driving down a road and you see something that’s containing or holding water that has the possibility of having great life. But it has to release the water to actually give life to other things. And then a canal that just flows along and connects with other things, provides an image of something that’s actually doing that in the congregation that’s actually doing that work. So that imagery, I think is really helpful as we think about congregations. In most cases, they’re not just one of those things. They can actually fall in all of those categories. You may have a ministry that’s a canal ministry. And you may also have another place that is a swamp. So it’s not a matter that I’m strictly just one thing in many cases. You really can be all three at the same time.  

Ann Michel: Yeah, well it really is fascinating imagery. When I first read the manuscript of your book, I was really struck by your adaptation of this idea from Howard Thurman. I mean, it’s organic. In a sense it’s biblical, the idea of living water. But also, you know, that sense of movement that’s inherent in the imagery of water. It is really helping to lead people where you want to go. I have two questions about the idea of a canal congregation, because in the sense that’s the highest order of congregation that you describe. And when you set up the schema, everyone would say, “Boy, I want to be a canal congregation!“  

Doug Powe: That’s exactly right.  

Ann Michel: So, I have two questions about it. First of all, should every congregation seek to be a canal congregation? Is that possible? Or should it be their aspiration?  

Doug Powe: I think it should be their aspiration. But not every congregation is going to be a canal congregation. The reality is, for some congregations, being a reservoir is going to be probably the best that can happen. And that’s okay because that means they were probably a swamp and they took a step forward. And even, to break it down more, I think we have to think in terms of even ministry areas, or even in terms of different things we’re trying to accomplish at the church. We’re not going to be able to move everything to become a canal. But it might be that we can improve our worship and that becomes a canal, but our outreach might be a reservoir. So I think the goal has to be, again, think in terms of baby steps instead of thinking that we’re going to make everything perfect. There is no perfect congregation. We are constantly trying to work to improve different things. And the reality is, as soon as we get to becoming a canal, probably in one area, we’re probably going to lose it just as quickly. Because something can happen to, again, disrupt the very thing that we’ve created. So you’re constantly trying to build toward this aspiration.  

Ann Michel: Right. That almost plays in with the organic natural nature of this metaphor. Because, you know, everything is always in a period of regrowth and regeneration and even death. And so nothing’s ever going to stay at it is. It’s going to be a continual cycle of development in any kind of organic system. But maybe it’s because I’m a city dweller, but as I think about reservoir and canal, what comes to my mind is manmade things. And I know you can have a natural reservoir and a natural canal. But so often, I think, as we think about those two things, they are something that human beings have created. And I just wanted to give you the chance to comment on that as it relates to your imagery.  

Doug Powe: Absolutely. I mean, I think particularly today I would say, in terms of reservoirs, most of the reservoirs are human made reservoirs. In terms of canals, more of our canals are human made, but I would say that many of the old canals that were not human made, the old canals were really canals that already existed and they just, you know, humans have sort of helped direct them in some ways to help the flow of the water. but they were still naturally made. But even with the reservoirs that I think are made by humans, the imagery there is still something that holds the possibility of releasing the water so that it can connect with other people and make a difference in their lives and meet the needs.

Ann Michel: As I understand your description of a reservoir church, a reservoir church is engaged in meeting needs.  

Doug Powe: In the community, that’s right. So, I think the imagery still works even if it’s human made. It doesn’t take away from that, which it can do. 

Ann Michel: So, if an adept church is one that begins to take the small steps that lead it in the direction that it needs to be going, for a congregation that’s a swamp — and I know they’re all different and this is contextual – but typically, what would you think of as one step in the right direction that a swamp congregation might need to take to begin to turn itself outward?  

Doug Powe: A couple of things. The first is, I think often times congregations aren’t honest with themselves. And a part of what I’m hoping in writing this is as they read it, the congregation really looks in the mirror and is honest with themselves. Am I really a swamp congregation? Or where do I have those swamp ministries or other places in my church?  

Ann Michel: So honest selfassessment.  

Doug Powe: Honest selfassessment is critical. And then once you do the honest selfassessment, I think the next step is to figure out and discern how do we actually take, to borrow from Lovett Weems, the next faithful step that can help us to actually take that baby step and move forward? If we think about being, connecting with the community, it may be for a swamp congregation, the next faithful step may be something as simple as simply inviting people in the community to a dinner at the church. Now, this is not a huge step and still is inwardly focused because you’re inviting people into the church. But for a swamp congregation, that’s a big step. Another way to think about it for a swamp congregation, it may be taking and doing a food basket, or providing dinner for a family and community can be another faithful step.  

Ann Michel: So that’s moving them from a swamp to a reservoir, basically.  

Doug Powe: Yeah. It’s moving them from a swamp to a reservoir. So it’s thinking about those things that, within their resources, they can do, but actually still moves them out of their comfort zone. The key is, often times, we get comfortable with the status quo and we want to stay right there. And it’s hard to move away from that status quo. So, for our swamp congregation, it’s not going to be all of the sudden you’re going to be this church that is inviting everybody to come and participate in all of these activities. That’s usually just too big of a step. But if you can even just take the baby step, that’s going to help you sort of make a difference in the community but also help you to stop being so inwardly focused.  

Ann Michel: So, in the book, I think it’s pretty clear that you see this as a progression. So for a congregation that’s a swamp, it’s first goal is to move towards being a reservoir congregation. You can’t go from being a swamp to a canal. You have to move up the ladder.  

Doug Powe: That is, absolutely. I won’t say anything’s impossible with God. But most cases, you’re going to move from being a swamp to a reservoir. And, again, my thinking is, if you can do that, it’s going to make a tremendous difference in your church.  

Ann Michel: Right. One of the things I appreciated in your book is that even though you identify canal as the ultimate place that congregations would long to aspire to, being a reservoir congregation can be a very good and helpful thing. 

Doug Powe: Absolutely! We need more reservoir congregations. The reality is, we do not have enough reservoir congregations. And more of our congregations are actually declining towards swamp instead of moving the other direction.  

Ann Michel: Well, let me ask the same question about a reservoir congregation. If a congregation has been comfortably ensconced in being a reservoir congregation — and I think we can all think of congregations that that’s where they are, and they’re pretty happy being in that place — what would be first steps for them to begin to move toward being a canal congregation?  

Doug Powe: For a reservoir congregation, the challenge is moving from a social agency mentality to one where you’re actually partnering with people and letting them partake in the work you’re trying to do. So, for example, in many cases, reservoir congregations have food ministries or they have a clothing closet and they give things to the people in the community. And the expectation is “we’re doing great work because we’re giving you these goods.” The way you alter that is thinking about “how do we actually partner with the community and stop giving things to people and start doing things with the people in the community?”  

Ann Michel: Right. So it’s a different paradigm of mission engagement and community engagement. I mean maybe mission isn’t even the right word. So how does the church effectuate that mindset shift? Because that is a really big change. And for a lot of congregations that I think are comfortable in that social service mindset, you can say, “Wouldn’t it be better if you were partnering?” But getting them to actually, you know, change their thinking and their way of understanding their ministry, I think is hard.  

Doug Powe: Oh, I think it’s absolutely very challenging. And, again, I think a couple of things are important. The first is it means you’re going to have to really start talking and engaging with people and asking them how is it that we can actually partner with you in the work we’re doing and not simply be giving goods to individuals?” And having those important conversations. Too often what we do in our congregations, because we like to meet is, we meet within the committee of the church and we make a decision that we think is good for the community. But we haven’t involved the community in the conversation. So, simply starting by having conversations with people in the community is a huge first step that can sort of move you out of that social agency mentality. The second thing that I would say that is important is really thinking about not simply trying to attract people to your church because we get into this attractional church model. But how do we actually move into the community and engage people in a way that they cannot necessarily set foot in our church, but we can actually be the church in the community?  

Ann Michel: Right. I mean, it did seem very much to me that the move from being a reservoir to a canal was very much the move from an attractional mindset into a more missional mindset.  

Doug Powe: And that piece is really challenging because congregations really want people to come to them. I mean, that’s the way we’ve been building and taught for many years. So the idea of shifting that to where we’re going to the people, and willing to do things with individuals where they are is a big shift. It may be you know, you’re having a small gathering at a house that becomes a Bible study or something else. Or you have something that’s taking place at a local diner where people are doing like dinner church and other things. But it’s making that shift where everything does not have to be located in the church building but we’re happy to actually be the church out in the community. 

Ann Michel: So, I assume, as you were writing this book and developing your thinking around these three categories of churches — swamp congregations, reservoir congregations, and canal congregations — you had in your minds eye certain actual congregations that exemplified these categories. And, I don’t want to put you on the spot really. But since canal is our exemplar, did you have particular congregations in your mind’s eye that you were thinking of when you thought about congregations that have achieved this level? Where they’re truly serving as a connector and being very missional and outward focused in their way of being?  

Doug Powe: There were a couple of congregations that I thought about in this way. Because, again, I think there’s no one perfect congregation. But you take a congregation, like in this area, Ebenezer AME that has done very well in connecting with individuals and has expanded to connecting with them through their onlineSo yeah, I see them. Another obvious one, of course, within the United Methodist Church is Church of the Resurrection. That, of course, has always worked hard to be a connector and to make those connections in the community. And even some smaller congregations. There are congregations like Emory Fellowship that is not a megachurch, but certainly has thought about what it means to be more missionally focused in the community and not as focused inwardly on just trying to get people to the church. So it’s not a matter of being large. It’s really a matter of the mindset that you bring.  

Ann Michel: Yeah, those are helpful examplesI know maybe not all of our listeners are familiar with those particular three congregations. But I think what I’m intrigued in hearing you name those three is that they are all very much traditional churches, in many ways. You know, they’re not something wild and crazy or totally different than what people think about when they think about church. They are very much, you know, you would recognize those churches very much by their patterns of life and worship and mission. And yet, they have succeeded in truly connecting with their neighbors. And that’s helpful for me to have those in mind.  

Doug Powe: Yeah, I think sometimes we, and I’m just as guilty as anyone else, we like the innovative, new, creative thing. We think“Hey, let’s see what we can do!” But the reality is, as you mentioned, with all of those congregations, they do innovative things, within those congregations. But what has really worked is their commitment to really connecting with people outside of themselves. And that’s been their focus. And that’s the reason I believe that they’ve been successful in terms of their ministries.  

Ann Michel: So, this is a leadership book. And if I’m reading correctly between the lines of the book, I think what you’re saying is that the reason that so many churches are stuck, either as swamps or reservoirs, is essentially a consequence of leadership failure. Or that’s why they’re inept, I think. And so, I wondered if you could name what some of the leadership challenges are that you think keep these churches stuck between a rock and a hard place, as you say.  

Doug Powe: Absolutely, I think one of the challenges that congregations have is in their decision making process. And this is where the leadership failure comes in. And the way that I describe it is, in many cases, what we’re doing in congregations, to over simplify, is we’re adopting, either our denominational traditions or greater Christian traditions and we just take them on and do them exactly as we’ve been taught. And so, you can use communion. We adopt communion. We read it right out of whatever book we may have and that’s the way we do communion. The other way that we make decisions is we adapt it. So, instead of just adopting completely, we adapt what we have to make it fit our context and what we’re trying to accomplish. So you can take communion again. I’ve seen, in youth group, where, instead of doing communion in a traditional sense, they’ll use pizza and soda and something creative like that. Now some people may find that sacrilegious. But still, they’re adapting this practice of communion. And when I say, to be adept, what you really have to be able to do is make decisions wellWhen do we just adopt things? And when do we really have to adapt and really be creative? And think about them differently in our decision making process?” We don’t take enough time in congregations in thinking about decision making in that sort of way. We tend just to fall into the trap where we keep doing the same things over again and that’s why we continue the status quo. My argument is those congregations that are moving forward are adept because they’re much better at your decision making process. So they know that this is not going to fit for this context so we have to adapt it so that it’s going to make sense. We don’t want to lose the tradition behind it. But what we want to do is figure out how to carry that tradition forward in a way that the people in this context can relate to it.  

Ann Michel: Yes. So, being adept is a matter of being able to take new ideas but apply them in ways that are contextually appropriate as opposed to just copy-catting what you see other churches doing. And I think that really does require a high level of leadership acumen and wisdom. So, in the book you talk about some things that congregations can do to approach this kind of decision making better. Do you want to name just a couple? 

Doug Powe: Absolutely, the first I believe is discernment. I think, too often we don’t really take enough time to actually discern what it is or where it is that God is leading us. So I believe that discernment is critical. And I try to emphasize it’s not just the pastor that should be discerning. Often times, the congregation looks to the pastor to be the one individual who does all the discerning. Or, by default, the pastor believes they have to be the one who discerns. But really, the whole congregation should be in discernment around decisions that are going to be made. And, beyond discernment, let me name two others. One is evaluation. We are horrible at evaluating. You know, we will make a decision and we’ll go with it, but no one ever comes back and evaluates whether or not we think it was going to fulfill what we were hoping. Are we really within the mission that we wanted to accomplish? So evaluating consistently is critically important. And then the other one is to form really good habits. I think, too often, we form bad habits in congregations and we continue those bad habits. But my hope is, as you start really working with these decision making matrixes that I lay out, that it helps you to form better habits for making decisions that are going to help your congregation move forward.  

Ann Michel: So that’s a matter of leadership protocol and discipline  of how leaders come together to make decisions in a way that’s informed and contextually astute and so forth. Yeah. These things are hard.  

Doug Powe: They’re very hard. They’re not easy. And I try to be honest with saying “this isn’t a magic wand that all of sudden your problems are going to go away. I mean you’re constantly working at these things. All businesses are working at these things.  

Ann Michel: Yeah. Any institution. I think these struggles are common across any type of institution. So, in the book, you use the story of Esther from the Old Testament as a case study of what it means to lead adeptly, when you’re caught between a rock and a hard place. And woven throughout the chapters of the book are interludes where you continually return to this book of the Bible for illustrations. And I found that very surprising, in a way, because it’s not often that we see female figures in the Bible getting a lot of attention in a leadership book. But I found it refreshing also, because I’ve tended to see what’s wrong with Esther’s story from a feminist’s perspective. And I think you’ve kind of liberated her from that by pointing out some of the ways in which Esther was a very creative leader. So I wanted to give you the opportunity to talk about why you selected that Bible passage and why you think Esther’s example is important.  

Doug Powe: I think that’s critically important. I want to say, first, that certainly the feminist critiques, the womanist critiques of Esther are critically important. And I’m not trying to downplay those critiques at all. But I also think that Esther’s story is helpful and important. Because Esther truly is stuck between a rock and a hard place. I mean, she’s stuck between her cousin who represents the Jewish people on one side. And she’s stuck because she’s been put in this place, that’s not a great place, where she’s a part of the harem in the court. And now she’s being asked to basically save her people. And she’s like “what do I do with this decision?” And, for many of us, if we were stuck in there, I mean the first thing would be selfpreservation. You know, “I’m going to worry about myself. And I’m not going to worry about anything else.” And what I try to suggest is what makes Esther really a great case study, is that Esther really gathers herself and then starts thinking creatively“I may be stuck here but I’m willing to take a risk and try to figure out how can I move this forward in a way that I can help the king to see what’s really going on. But also then help to save my people.” And I think that the leadership that she exemplifies when she does thisshe actually really starts even directing her cousin and saying “okay, this is what I need you to do.”  

Ann Michel: Yeah. I really appreciated how you pointed out how she really claims agency as the story unfolds and takes control of the situation in a way that leads to a positive outcome.  

Doug Powe: Absolutely does. Now I will say at the end of the story she sort of gets quiet again. Because she disappears and Mordecai is the one that gets lifted up. But, in between that, she certainly does take the agency that I think is critical.  

Ann Michel: Yeah. Well thank you for that. And I think any of our listeners who pick up the book, I think will really enjoy reading the parts of the book where you use this Book of Esther as a study. So, to begin to wrap this up …. This is not a hugely long book. But you cover a lot of ground. I mean, we’ve got the book of Esther. And we’ve got the canal and the reservoir and the swamp. And we’ve got adept, adapt, adopt. And then we’ve got all these leadership tips on how to make decisions better. You really cover a lot of ground in this relatively short book! And so, if there’s one big idea or tip that, if somebody was going to take something away from listening to this podcast or from reading this book, what would you tell somebody to work on immediately to begin to move in the direction that you want people to be going in?  

Doug Powe: The one thing would be how can you really start making your congregation nimble? How is it that you cannot get stuck and just support the status quo? But you really think about moving forward and taking that baby step where you’re going from zero to one, one to two, towards making a difference and transforming your congregation. So that would be my one takeaway. Don’t get stuck in the status quo. Be nimble. Move forward. And have the aspiration that you can become a reservoir or a canal congregation.  

Ann Michel: Yeah. Well I think this book will really help people think about how they can best do that. So, I want to thank you for adding yet another fine book to the library of resources that we have from our Lewis Center authors. You’ve got a number of other excellent books. But this also is a wonderful addition. And thank you for talking with us and sharing these ideas with our listeners today.  

Doug Powe: Thank you for doing the conversation with me.  

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, Mark DeYmaz asserts that churches need to create multiple streams of income by leveraging the value of their people, money, and buildings to bless the community and advance the gospel.

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About Author

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.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.