By Roger Jenks
These diagnostic tools will boost your church’s vitality.
The conference speaker was clear. “There are five essential questions of congregational life that must be asked and answered sequentially,” said Rev. Lloyd John Ogilvie. “If you skip any of them, the best that your church will ever do is limp.”
With that opening line, I began to take notes. When I returned from that conference, however, I kept those questions to myself. They guided me personally, but not the church as a whole.
Twenty years after speaking at that conference, Lloyd John Ogilvie was the chaplain of the U.S. Senate, and I was in my fourth church. Yet when I came to my current pastorate, I decided our whole congregation needed the reprioritizing influence of those five, fundamental questions. I didn’t realize how dramatically these questions would transform us.
Many churches try hard to “do church” the best they know how. Yet those churches are often directionless (like we were), relying more on doing what’s familiar than on what would help them grow. Ogilvie said the reason for that is that “95 percent of churches never ask themselves the first question.”
Start at the End
Two years ago, at our annual all-church retreat, I told the entire church to stand in a circle. I took one little girl into the middle of the circle, handed her a rubber ball, and told her, “Throw this ball as hard as you can at the target.” Then I stepped out of the circle.
The girl stood there, confused. She turned and looked, but there was no target, no place to throw that ball “as hard as you can.”
I explained to the church, “This girl is us. We don’t have a defined place to pour our efforts. We have no target.” This set the church up for the first key question: What kind of people does God want us to produce in this body of believers? The biblical answer to that question is “Go and make disciples.” But what does a disciple look like? What target are we aiming for?
To answer that question, we began with a Bible study on the mandate to make disciples. This is the job of every church and every believer. Then I instructed everyone to go silently alone, pray, and write down what traits of a disciple God reveals.
Prayer and study becomes crucial at this point, as the question asks, “What kind of disciples does God want?” Not “What do I think makes a good disciple?” Then we wrote the answers on a board for all to see. The people were amazed to see the diversity of the answers. Being a disciple affects many areas of life!
In my church and in others I have consulted, I have watched congregations become electrified as they define these traits and then begin to own responsibility for imparting them. To have these traits identified as the target gives meaning, energy, and clarity of vision, in short, purpose, to the church’s efforts.
We then grouped the fifty-five or so traits we came up with into ten categories and distributed the list to leaders in the church with the following instruction: “Everything you do has to aim to produce these kinds of people.” We also made bookmarks out of the list and distributed them to the congregation.
I asked each of our leadership teams, “Which of these traits and categories you are responsible for?” Each team identified certain areas that they and their ministries were uniquely positioned to address. They began to take responsibility for producing a specific fruit within the congregation. Answering this one question was the turning point in our church. It gave us a clearly defined value system, this is what we’re doing here.
Creating Key Experiences
The second question addresses the practical level of programming: What kinds of experiences do people need to become those kinds of people? Too often we start with this step, without asking the first question. When we do, programming is usually a matter of what we did last year, what we did at our last church, an idea that sounds nice, what we can afford, or the pastor’s newest whim. For example, before the all-church retreat, our Christian education ministries determined their curriculum by the popularity test, in other words, “What would you all like to study next?”
After we identified the specific kinds of people God wanted us to produce, our education ministry had a specific target to aim for. So the Christian education team partnered with the youth and children’s ministries to develop a core curriculum that would introduce and help people move toward our identified traits of disciples. Today, nearly half the adults in the church have completed the core curriculum, and we use the traits of a disciple in our introduction-to-the-church groups.
Planning our programming around the traits God wants us to produce in believers lends purpose and urgency to our ministries. It also provides a bonus; we now have a reason to say no to things that don’t fit.
Our fellowship team, which oversees church trips and get-togethers, used to plan elaborate, often expensive events. But after we identified “evangelistic character” as one of our key traits of a disciple, the fellowship team rethought the outings. Were the expensive events helping our people become more evangelistic, or were they primarily events for insiders, excluding people by costing so much?
The fellowship team reworked the event schedule, planning more potlucks, picnics, and pizza parties. They also planned Christmas ornament and cookie exchanges all events that cost a participant less than ten dollars. They wanted to free people from the expense to begin inviting others, and thus grow in evangelistic character. Our ministries began to reflect our purpose, but one more question was needed to ignite our purpose with passion.
Boosting More Leaders
The third question asks: What kinds of leaders are needed to provide those kinds of experiences? Making disciples in the many areas that Christianity affects our lives is too big a job for one leader alone. When they answer this question, churches realize they need several passionate, gifted, and trained leaders to provide “those kinds of experiences.”
Our Christian education board recognized that in order to provide life-changing instruction, we needed trained and knowledgeable teachers. So they partnered with the children’s and youth ministry to put together a series of training classes for teachers. Then, we asked every teacher in our Sunday school, children’s, and youth ministries to take the classes. Our goal was to train leaders to provide the experiences our people needed to grow as disciples.
One summer, we got substitutes for all the teachers to allow our teachers to take the classes to meet our new requirement. We had two responses to the new requirement. Some of our teachers were volunteers who were simply filling holes. In the goodness of their hearts, they were working in ministries they weren’t particularly passionate about but where a need was apparent. Many of these volunteers didn’t take the classes, and, to be honest, we had a slump in teachers for three to six months. We had to scramble to keep some classes going. But when we made the new requirement, we clearly explained why we did it. It wasn’t a legalistic new “rule,” but an earnest effort to improve the quality and effectiveness of the education ministry.
That led to the second response. New teachers, people who were passionate about children and Christian education but who previously weren’t certain of the church’s commitment, began to step up. “I want to take this class,” one of them said, “because now I realize how important this is.”
We now have people lining up to take the required classes. We’re not short of teachers any more. More important, the people who are becoming teachers are no longer stop-gap volunteers; they are people who are passionate and gifted in Christian education.
Different Kinds of Captains
The pastor’s role in the church must be examined if the church is going to work together to accomplish its purpose. And so the fourth question is: What kind of pastor is needed to train those kinds of leaders?
This question is particularly helpful when a church is searching for a new pastor. Recently another church in that situation asked me to consult with them during their search. The church was hurting, despondent, and desperate. They hadn’t had a pastor for a long time, and they were unsure of what kind of pastor they should be looking for.
I led their leadership in a full-day workshop on these five questions. Before we began, I said, “Let’s look at your ministerial profile. What kind of pastor are you looking for?” As we reviewed their expectations, I realized they were looking for a cross between Jesus and James Bond. But after leading them through the first three questions and establishing what God was doing in their church, they realized that they didn’t need James Bond as their pastor. They needed someone who was skilled in rallying people to a common vision and training them to accomplish it. As we discussed the questions, they told me, “We need a coach.”
One church may need a coach, another may need a shepherd, and another may need an executive. By asking question three, then question four, a church can learn to rightly divide the duties of pastors and lay leaders. When a resident pastor asks what kind of pastor is needed to train his church’s leaders, question four invites him to analyze his or her gifting, time allocation, skill development, and continuing education opportunities. But that leads me to the fifth question, which happens to be most pastors� favorite of the five.
The Power to Say “No”
The fifth question is: What kinds of experiences does the pastor need to be that kind of pastor? Practically, this means churches begin to ask themselves, “What can we do to help our pastor become who God wants him or her to be?”
At my current church we’ve established a committee to handle pastor-parish relations. The committee’s job is to field the concerns, wants, compliments, and complaints of the congregation, and to mediate between pastor and parish. At the same time, committee members listen to my concerns and try to help me be a healthy leader. In first meetings, we generally say to each other, “Okay, give me your bad news and your gripes, then I’ll give you mine.”
After asking this fifth question, however, the committee began asking me, “Are you actually taking your time off? Is the church giving you adequate time to study? Pray?” What a difference!
One meeting illustrated clearly the change questions four and five have brought to our church. The committee brought to me a concern of some people regarding visitation: “We think you ought to visit every newcomer to our church.”
Oh, boy, here we go, I thought. “Let me forecast what that’s going to mean long term,” I said. “If we continue growing the way we have, that may mean five or more visitors every week. Now most of those folks work during the day, so I’ll need to visit with them at night. Then there are the meetings I have with the board, with this committee, and others, most of which also occur at night. Now, what will that mean for me personally?”
“There won’t be any time for your family,” one member said.
The first four questions helped us define what kind of pastor our church needed; the fifth helped us realize what that pastor needed to do and not do. The committee realized I could not be the kind of pastor God had in mind for them while meeting that expectation. Their pastor needed a healthy family life, sufficient time off, study, prayer, training, and so on. So instead of burdening me with that expectation, the committee helped me communicate the need for our congregation to start a newcomer orientation program.
Finally, this fifth question helped me determine my own priorities. If given a choice between seminars on coaching or on making pastoral calls, I choose the former, because that’s the kind of pastor this church needs.
For the last twenty years, these questions have advised me. Now they’re helping my church define its purpose. They’re diagnostic when things begin to feel flat. They function like a plumb line when there are too many good ideas under consideration. And they’re helping us keep the role of pastor and laity in proper perspective while giving me the space and accountability I need to grow.
Focusing on questions isn’t a novel idea. Some of the most dynamic moments in Jesus’ ministry were precipitated by the right questions.
“Who do people say that I am?”
“Whose inscription do you see?”
“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I say?”
In each case, a question prompted a moment of transformation – the kind of transformation we like to see in our churches. We’ve become a church with a shared and driving vision of discipleship. We’re developing new, passionate leaders, while our veterans refine and reinvent our ministries to better accomplish common goals. We have a solid vision of who we are and what we want to do. All that began by asking five simple questions, just like Lloyd Ogilvie said.
The Five Essential Questions
Answering these, in order, is the first step toward congregational wellness.
1. What kind of people does God want us to produce in this body of believers?
2. What kinds of experiences do we need to become those kinds of people?
3. What leaders are needed to provide those kinds of experiences?
4. What kind of pastor is needed to train those kinds of leaders?
5. What kinds of experiences does the pastor need to be that kind of pastor?
Roger Jenks is pastor of Fox Valley Area Christian Church in Aurora, Illinois.
This article “The Health Sequence” by Roger Jenks was excerpted from: Leadership, Winter 2003, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Page 81. It may be used for study & research purposes only.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”