Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Overrated in Congregational Life: Politics, Relationships and Moving Forward with Church Office Space

Today's guest blogger, Dr. Kirk Jeffery is a church growth consultant. He works with all sizes of congregations. He spent fifteen years in local parish ministry as an Elder in The United Methodist Church. He did his doctoral work at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey in Postmodern Ecclesiology. He also roasts and sells coffee. www.kirkjeffery.com. Follow Kirk on Twitter @KirkJeffery.

Joe Smith, in a related blog post, suggested that there is too much infrastructure surrounding a pastor’s study, and that it really has little place in ministry in the twenty-first century. I completely agree.

The pastor’s study was envisioned for a time past, when people flocked to the church, when clergy were among the best educated in the community, when the pastor was required to tote around a vast library of books and those books contained the basis for the answers the congregation and the broader community were seeking.

Today the pastor’s study seems to be more a limiting feature of ministry than an empowering one. If I had my way, I would eliminate it from the church entirely, as an outmoded, non-useful space. It seems that it serves only to have a space where a small group of parishioners can keep a watchful eye on what the pastor is up to—for if our pastor is in his/her office, then we know that he/she is working. Ug. The thought that true ministry happens within the confines of the four walls of the pastor’s study makes me sick.

However, let me caution any would-be study-tossers, especially if you are in your first five years of ministry in your local context. Let me share some valuable first-hand insights on office space.

I once served a parish that had rented out the majority of the church to a daycare facility which used the space Monday-Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. When I first got there, there was a lot of consternation by folks that felt that they had lost their space. The women’s group couldn’t use the space for their monthly mid-day meeting. It was difficult to schedule weekly mid-day Bible studies. Committees couldn’t meet until 7:00 p.m. at the earliest. The daycare always left the space a mess.

I thought I had a great solution… We would turn the pastor’s study into a dedicated classroom and mid-day meeting space. The pastor’s study was not a great space for a pastor anyway (it had sexual safety issues—no windows). I would work from home and the local coffee shop. I would meet with folks in their homes, in the coffee bars, in the beer bars! With the advent of cell phones, free internet, and my laptop computer, I felt that ministry could, and should take place anywhere. And it did.

The problem that I encountered was that I had not been there long enough to build up trust. For the twelve people who regularly popped into the church and office to do their various business and mission, it was a huge issue that I wasn’t where they could see me. And if they couldn’t see me, I obviously wasn’t working.

The key to being able to move out of the pastor’s study is trust. As pastor, you will have to build enough trust within the congregation to let them let you move out of the pastor’s study and into the community. This process is not measured in months, but rather two to five years of hard, office, pencil pushing work. Once they know that you actually work, moving out of the office will not be such a big deal. But they have to trust you first.

If you decide that you really want to move out, I suggest that you take these steps:

1) Talk with the power brokers in the church, the ones who nod yes and it happens and who shake their head no and it doesn’t. Explain to them the vision, the reason, the hopes, the dreams…. Remind them (gently) that the church is not an end in itself, but a means to an end—to create new disciples. As pastor, you are most effective out in the community building relationships. No one outside the formed community is wandering into the church anymore, unless they are seeking gas or rent money.
2) Make the move slowly. Advertise that you will be at the coffee bar from 8:30-10:30 on Tuesday mornings. Make sure you are there! If it is received with good faith, then you can progress—slowly add time away from the office and in the communty. Turtle pace is key. Don’t do too much, too quickly. You spent a lot of time building the trust by keeping lots of office hours. It only takes a couple of missteps to lose it all.
3) Keep the gossipers and the key leaders informed. Talk to them about the conversations you are having. Tell them some stories. Even if these new folks aren’t coming to church, if you can tell the stories, then they will allow you even more freedom to be in a space other than your study.
4) Don’t move your library out of the pastor’s study until someone else lays clam to, “your” space. You have claimed it, the congregation has given it to you. If you only spend one hour in there, on Sunday mornings, still claim it—until it is needed for something else.
5) After some time, begin to work to develop another, “need” for your space. If you are not using it, someone else should. Who might use that space? What mission, what ministry, what other staff person needs that space more than you?

Working with established churches to change is difficult and time consuming work. But they are willing to change if you are willing to help them change slowly. No matter how big or how small your congregation, you have to think of your congregation as a aircraft carrier rather than a speedboat. The turns have to be planned months and years in advance, otherwise they will never happen.

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