In college, I was a medical technology major for about a semester. During the school year, I found a low-paying job at the local hospital to work in the lab as a helper. One morning, I met a pathologist who invited me to come to help with an autopsy. So I did.
That was my first autopsy…and it was my last. Within the week, I had changed my major.
However, I never forgot the amazing and interconnected systems. And as I lived out my calling as a pastor of a congregation, I learned that a congregation, like a church, had systems and interconnected parts.
As I see it, there are six systems in a functioning parish. Here are some thoughts that our pastors and congregational leaders might find helpful.
But first, let’s define some terms.
What do you mean by “congregation”?
By using the word “congregation,” I mean the local congregation, the local, self-sustaining, and mission-minded gathering of people who congregate weekly and govern themselves. I do not mean the building, of course. Many congregations do not own a building. But every congregation gathers, even these days on-line, to worship our Lord Jesus Christ.
What do you mean by “system”?
A congregation has lots of people who are busy members. Every congregation usually tries to get more people to attend the congregation and more attendees to get more involved and more involved people to reach out to non-members to attend with them. But this effort to involve people is not really a system of the congregation. It is the activity of people, and it is a good thing. But I am not going to describe the activities of the people in a church. I want to highlight the six systems of a congregation.
When I use the word “system,” I am referring to the specific vital networks that make a congregation function as a community.
When I outline the six systems of a congregation, I mean the organizational life of the people of God as they worship, serve, and proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Are there really only six systems?
Well, there might be seven, and some churches might only have five, but there are not ten systems in a congregation. Or at least there shouldn’t be, nor are there only three systems.
So, what are the six systems?
1. Our Worship Life
The pandemic has really strained our worship life. There is no doubt about that. Christians are called, by our very nature, to meet together. This has been fundamental to the church for 2,000 years, and for the first time in history, well-meaning governments have highly discouraged public meetings for worship. When public gathering can safely resume, we will all realize how much we have missed this “meeting together,” as Hebrews 10:24–25 says.
And, as we all know, online worship is a very distant second place in the overall experience of worship, praise, hope, and inspiration.
This actually proves the point of the primary importance of worship. Worship is key. It is central. It is the top of our priority and activity as Christians.
Worship is an obvious system of actions and activities. You can see it on the surface of any congregation. It is visible from the outside. There is a system of people, programs, activities, energy, practices, functions, tasks, and duties that are associated with the worship life of a congregation. Each congregation has a dedicated infrastructure of pulsating activities that cause a worship service to happen on a routine basis, at least every week on Sunday. Like clockwork. Or like a heartbeat.
The worship system is the chief emphasis of most congregations. I would make the case that it is the highest and most important system. If a church ceases to worship, it really ceases to be a church. I think most people would agree with this idea.
There are many different activities and roles that are connected to the worship system of a congregation. Typically, a congregation might have a group of trained greeters or ushers to welcome people to a service. There are volunteers to participate in the reading of Scripture or the leadership of a prayer session. There is music that is made. Musicians and singers practice in order to either perform or lead the service. There is a principal leader of the church who is the preacher. There are people who set up the room with chairs, place the vessels of communion on the altar, and who check the bathrooms for toilet paper.
This is the worship system of a congregation.
2. Our Evangelistic Outreach
Like the title says, this system keeps the congregation’s focus outside themselves. If this system is not functioning or is underperforming, the congregation will seem like a club or an insider group to those on the outside. The EO system will help direct the congregation’s interest to the surrounding community; the church should be interested in finding out how to serve the people around it.
This is an important system, but it is not just about ‘doing something for the common good.’ The church is not supposed to be a co-ed version of the Junior League or Lion’s Club or other civic organizations. The purpose of this system is to respond directly to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ to “go” and make disciples and teach them to obey the commands of Christ.
This means that everything that the church is doing outside their own congregational interest should have an ulterior motive of announcing the Good News of Jesus Christ with the intention of making believing disciples from unbelieving non-Christians. English Archbishop William Temple gave a very clear and now well-known definition of Evangelism that must be remembered:
“Evangelism is to so present Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, that men shall come to put their trust in God through Him, to accept Him as their Savior and serve Him as their King in the fellowship of the church.”
This is very comprehensive and could apply to many outward intentions of the congregation. If, for example, the congregation would adopt a local elementary school to serve the teachers and provide support and encouragement for local parents, the purpose of the adoption would not be to just do good. There would need to be an evangelistic purpose like the one offered by Archbishop Temple. The evangelistic purpose need not be spoken or even obvious to the school. But it should be the intention of the members of the church to do it all in the name and for the advancement of Christ and His Gospel.
Some might say that the church should be totally transparent about its gospel intention in everything they do. I would agree. And some would say that simply being a light in a community is enough of an evangelistic message. I would agree with this also. But the point here is that the church must have a focused mission outside themselves to carry the Gospel to others.
(For much more on the important work of the Vestry and the Rector, see my book, The Rector and The Vestry.)
3. Our Discipleship Training
The third system is on par with the second. They are, in effect, the twin engines of every congregation. Every church must have an intentional plan to teach adults and children the content and truths of the bible and the doctrines of the faith as that church has received them. Paul wrote it this way in the Epistle of Jude: Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).
For most of my life and ministry, the emphasis in discipleship was always teaching. We were taught in Sunday School. We were taught in group Bible studies. We were taught to read and reflect on the Scriptures. As the old Anglican prayer had it, we were taught to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the trust of God’s holy Word.”
Alright. This has been good, but I think we all see that more is needed. Much more. Every church has totally optional ‘teaching classes’ and talks. Every congregation offers a Bible study here and there. But given the culture we live in and the absolute importance of helping and adults and children live a Christian life in a pagan world, it would be far better to emphasize the training of Christians rather than just the teaching of Christians.
Teaching is the impartation of knowledge. It is the systematic conveyance of information that is important to know; to again, read, mark, learn, and inward digest. But someone who is just taking in information and digesting it is likely to become fat. The old Anglican prayer should be updated to add the words “actively practice.” This is what discipleship training should be about, helping adults and children know the faith and then actively practice it.
I think we all would admit that most training courses and teaching curriculum in the modern church are offered for children. There are fewer offerings for adults than there are for children in many congregations. And this is backward. Jesus played with children and taught and trained adults. Today, we do the opposite. And we are weaker because of it.
4. Our Redundant Communication
The fourth system includes all the methods of communication internally and externally that a congregation develops. These include weekly newsletters, Sunday announcements, bulletin inserts, and written blurbs, social media posts, and website information. There are about five of these forms of communication (as listed), and they form a sort of circulatory system of information so that everyone in the congregation is aware of what is going on.
This is massively harder than it sounds. Most congregations rely on a “one and done” method of communication. That is, the pastor makes an announcement on Sunday morning, and wrongly assumes that everyone understands. This is wrong on many fronts. First, only a small percentage of the congregation is present. Typically, 70% of the membership will not be in attendance. Second, most people do not listen to the information as it is presented or announced. To the person in the congregation, a verbal message about an important event is like a Powerpoint slide that is filled with text. They hear the words but they do not understand. If there is any doubt about this, test this. Ask any random person in your congregation what the pastor or staff person said about the meeting or program or event that was announced. What are the details? More important, ask the person to tell you what they are supposed to do with the information that was presented.
Most of the time, the people who know what is going on in the congregation are usually the people who are in charge of what is going on in the congregation. They get it because they are in charge of it. But for most everyone else, they hear only a portion of what has been communicated and they remember even less.
Therefore, the best communication ministries understand the need for redundancy and reiteration in the communication of anything important. And not everything is important. A rule of thumb in church work is that being very efficient is not never very effective. The most efficient form of communication is speech. We can say things easily, simply, quickly, and the spoken word is free. It is very efficient. But telling a group of people what is considered important is not effective at all. Effective communication requires repeated repetition and redundant reiteration. If you read that last sentence and think it inefficient, you are right. But that is what makes it effective.
5. Our Administration
The fifth system in a congregation is administration. It may sound boring, but it is meant to be. It is even meant to be hidden and mostly silent. The administrative core of every church includes the tasks and functions of counting money, spending money, setting up chairs, paying light bills, deciding on policies, handling human resources issues, setting budgets, and balancing the financial books. Boring? Yes. Hopefully. Critical? Even more so.
Most people do not join a church because their administration systems are functioning well. But most people will leave a church if they are faulty or dysfunctional. It is true. Think about it. If you shopped at a store that was occasionally out of a product you were looking for or was short-staffed, you might grumble or complain to the manager. But if you were overcharged at a check-out lane or your car was frequently stolen from the parking lot, or the management lost your order, you’d probably never go back. There are just some very basic functions that most people want and need when they go to a store.
The same is true when people attend a church. There needs to be absolute integrity and trust when it comes to handling income and spending the budget. Every dollar given is given according to the level of trust the donor has in the integrity of the organization. If the organization cannot balance the books or blow through their budget, people will dial down their giving.
But the administration system is much more than just doing the finances correctly. This is the area where the Vestry serves; this is where they can do the most good. The Vestry cannot do the best if they focus their time and energy on handling discipleship training problems or worship issues. They are going to get in the way of any progress at all if they take over the Evangelistic Outreach of a congregation and start directing the program. They are not elected for that. They are not elected to fix the church. The vestry is elected to govern the church and provide for its development.
People might wonder how the various challenges or problems in a congregation’s life can be addressed, and the answer is seldom by vestry involvement. An overactive vestry will bring everything to a grinding halt. A ‘hands-on’ vestry will usually strangle the programs of the church.
Succinctly put, a Vestry is in the “ensurance” business. They should be ensuring that there are faithful, Christ-centered, biblically minded, quality programs, people, staff, and leaders developing and training disciples in the congregation. As a Vestry, they should not ‘do’ any of it, but they should see to it that it is done.
(For much more on the important work of church administration, see my book, The Rector and The Vestry.)
6. Our Pastoral Connections
The pandemic has really strained our churches at this point too. The sixth and final system is a church is the high-touch system of pastoral care and connection. This is why most ministers went to seminary and decided to work in a church. They loved the Lord and they love people and they want to serve them in His name. This is what makes a congregation a parish family. This system is what helps people, person by person, feel that they are welcomed, valued, and supported.
This system includes the person-to-person ministry that most churches want to be known for. It includes the personalized pastoral services that ordained leaders can provide such as baptism, counseling, weddings, funerals, hospital visitation, personal prayers at key moments, home visitation, and coffee meetups with others.
The pastoral connection system is one of the most important reasons why people will choose a church to join. They feel that they can have some personal connection with a leader or a staff person. New members join because it seems to them that the pastor or preacher knows them or is speaking to them in sermons. They resonate with the teaching and perspectives of the pastor.
I want to add something here to make sure I have made this point. These pastoral and personal connections may be the reason why a person or family will join the church. But it is not often why a person or family remains at the church. People remain at a church because they find their own set of friends and connections at the congregational level. They don’t need to be best friends with the pastor or any member of the staff. But they do need to feel that they have best friends who also attend the church. They need to feel that they have a family at their church.
Sometimes people in mid-size to small size congregations look askance at the larger church in town. Without knowing anything about the church, sometimes people offer a critique of the larger church’s impersonal atmosphere. They might say, “There are so many people who go to that church, it has got to be impersonal and unfriendly. I can’t imagine going to a church where I wouldn’t know a soul!”
But the reverse is true in the larger church. A large church is large for the obvious reason that people want to go there. They really do. They have a sense of pastoral connection with the leader, and they have found a warm group of friends. “Oh yes, but that church is full of cliques!” they say. Yes, maybe so. But a clique is not a clique if you are in one. It is a family. Large churches have figured out how to help large numbers of people find a group of people in the congregation to make it seem small. Large churches are large because they feel small inside.
The pastor cannot maintain a high-touch, high-intensity relationship with everyone; arguably, the pastor should not try to maintain that with anyone but a spouse! But most people do not demand that kind of personal and pastoral touch—until they need it, until they are experiencing a crisis or a life-event for which they need spiritual comfort, advice, solace, or prayer.
These are the six functioning systems in every Anglican congregation. Again, there might be a seventh that is unusual for your church; there might be five. But the good news is that there are NOT 10–12 systems.
But what good is a list like this? Why is it important to codify six systems? The answers to these questions are many, and many of them will be important to the life and health of your congregation. We will get to those in the future, ultimately leading toward a book project.
But for now, these six systems can be used as a lens to see your own church. Oftentimes, we see all the programming or activity in our churches and feel rather smug. We think we are an active church. Why wouldn’t anyone want to come here? Look at all the places to get involved!! But if the clergy and staff leadership and the Vestry were to sit with this list of six systems and see their congregation through them, you might have a different understanding. This six-featured lens might help you see where you are overburdened with programs and where it might be lacking.
10 Systems Questions to Ask Yourself as a Congregation
Based on a few ideas presented in this article, here are ten sets of questions to ask in a self-audit.
- What are the elements of our worship ministry (our system)? Are our people trained to work together to make worship the high moment every week?
- In this age of COVID and online worship, how does our worship experience create and convey the inspiration and hope of the gospel? Does it?
- Are we teaching children and playing with adults or vice-versa?
- Does our teaching programs include serious training for growing disciples of Christ?
- How are we carrying out the dictum Archbishop William Temple? Are our outreach and social ministry evangelistic?
- How organized and redundant are our communication channels? Do we work in step together on our messaging, or is everyone randomly trying to get the word out?
- Does our Vestry understand their role in this area? Are they overinvolved in the programming of our parish? (The chapter on “Best Practices” from my book The Rector and The Vestry will be helpful here, especially the anecdote about my father-in-law and his participation on his local library board.)
- In the new age of Coronavirus, what is the pastoral equivalent of a ‘high-touch’ moment? How many socially distant high-touch moments is our pastor able to have during the week?
- Why do you think people join your congregation? Why do they stay in your church?
- How many groups or cliques are there in the congregation? Is there enough for anyone who wants to be in one to be welcomed into one?
(For much more on the important work of the Vestry and the Rector, see my book, The Rector and The Vestry.)