I can feel the mood of the room shift without even looking into the eyes of those gathered there. If I did look into their eyes, I’d see anxiety, sorrow and a hint of anger.
What did I just do? I explained to the church’s newly-elected pastor nominating committee (PNC) that a significant part of their process is the completion of a mission study.
Too often, the mission study feels like a burdensome bureaucracy imposed from on high (well, at least as “high” as the presbytery gets in its authority). For an energized, enthusiastic group of people who are excited to start finding their church’s next pastor, the mission study appears to be a force counter to all that is good.
For these PNCs, time is often of the essence. There’s already brewing insecurity about the health of the church without an installed pastor. No matter how recently the PNC has been formed, someone has already asked, “So, how long is this going to take?” They not only feel, but live, these relational pressures and so when I say something like, “And this mission study is likely to take three to six months to do well,” I understand why some eyes turn down while others glower.
I will confess that I’m an unapologetic apologist for quality mission studies. In both my work on Committees on Ministry in two different presbyteries and in my own pastoral experience, churches are often misguided when it comes to knowing well both who they are and where they are. Misinformation, bad assumptions and an unawareness of cultural changes in and around a given church often translates to securing the right pastor for the wrong job.
Even still, I understand churches’ and PNCs’ insecurity and anxiety around the mission study season. Like anything that needs to be done well, it does take time. And time, of course, is a non-renewable resource.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
It shouldn’t be this way.
Craig Kephart, executive presbyter for Washington Presbytery (serving southwest Pennsylvania), borrows a line from Alan Adams, a colleague and former executive presbyter, when explaining the ideal value of a mission study to a congregation: “It boils down to a church looking out the window (What’s our mission field?) and in the mirror (Who are we and what gifts have God given us for this time and place?).”
This sentiment is echoed by Chuck Salter, the president and CEO of MissionInsite, a company that provides web-based software solutions designed to assist regional agencies and the churches they serve. “One of the things that happen is that people think they already know their community,” Salter said. “They’ll wonder how anyone can know more than they do about their environment. But when changes are dramatic, as they are now, no one can know their community. It’s difficult to know your neighbor when you have a significant part of the population moving year to year.”
Kephart has witnessed just this sort of problem take place in churches, which leads to “a popular myth that gets passed around the session table – ‘we’re a rural community’ – but when they look at the data, they’re actually the outer ring of the suburbs,” he said.
Outside, objective research, like that provided by MissionInsite, can help avoid insular thinking and results. MissionInsite employs what is commonly understood as “big data” in compiling their reports for church leaders and PNCs and one of the difficulties they face are churches that are hesitant around big data.
“We know that there are many marketing and retail organizations that use big data to do what they think their mission is,” Salter said. “Why wouldn’t churches use this to share the gospel? What’s the downside to using big data to build the kingdom?”
Much of the difficulty in “looking out the window” comes from the changing ways we are offered to see things. And change is always difficult. “In a rapidly changing, post-Christendom, information-age world,” Kephart said, “sanctuary for people just means some relief from things being shifted around me.”
As a result, utilizing a tool such as MissionInsite – a tool that Kephart urges all the churches in his presbytery to use – can feel just as much a part of the change as the change it’s trying to help identify. Even still, Salter is undeterred. “Big data is essential in the 21st century,” he said. “It’s being used by many organizations, such as Amazon and Walmart, and so from our perspective, the 21st century church needs to leverage 21st century technology. It becomes information that’s actionable.”
This focus on actionable intelligence cannot be overstated. Kephart has seen too many churches construct wonderful mission studies, only to see them languish from lack of use. “I would urge, rather strongly, that the results of the study be more than published, but be presented in a congregational forum so that folks understand and interact with the results,” he said. “Not that it’s simply a bound document, fancy as it may be, that’s made available on a table at the back of a sanctuary. They should understand the data and the meaning behind it.”
This focus on a data-driven mission study is a result of the church too often using lesser means and receiving lesser results. For example, Kephart has witnessed too many churches try to handle the bulk of a mission study in one congregational meeting: “the mission study that’s done after lunch on a Sunday,” as he described it. In such a situation Kephart says, “the loudest voice controls the tenor of the conversation and group-think too easily takes place.”
Salter understands the need for action, not just knowledge. “It’s one thing to learn that you have families with children and that single mothers make up a third of the families,” he said. “How does the church go from that fact to engaging in ministry?”
The answer to such a question is likely larger in scope than can or should be achieved in a mission study or even during the transition time between pastors. Instead, a good mission study helps a congregation understand what sort of pastor they need for the challenges before them and can even guide the church and the new pastor once he or she has been called.
The importance of actionable mission studies led me to ask Mark Crosthwaite, the chair of the PNC that brought me to my current call at First Presbyterian Church in Marysville, Ohio, about his experiences with the mission study and its use for our church today.
It is worth noting that my current call is unique in that my predecessor, Scott Strohm, passed away while serving the church. Before conquering his cancer by entering the Church Triumphant, though, he led the church in a mission study. While this circumstance is certainly unique, the insights for churches in more typical situations should still apply.
Crosthwaite reports that the first study, during Strohm’s final months, took about four months and that the results “felt perfect, felt right.” It “was an integral part of letting every candidate know what we were about, what we did, and what we needed in a spiritual leader,” he said. “It wasn’t the single most important thing, but it was definitely very important.”
I was surprised to hear this from Mark, because no one mentioned the mission study during any of our interviews — though it may be the case that a good mission study works itself into the bones of the PNC. Crosthwaite implies this is the case: “From the mission study we knew we were looking for a candidate that wanted to be involved with the community quite a bit.”
Now this is a conversation I do remember having with the PNC — quite a bit, in fact. Much of our time was spent as they described the specific, local missions and mission partners they worked in and with and then I described my vision of a locally-driven, missional congregation.
Yet even as useful as the mission study was to the PNC, Crosthwaite still encountered resistance from the congregation at times. “There were definitely congregation members who wondered ‘Why is it taking so long? Why haven’t we begun the search yet?’” he said. “There certainly were congregants that wanted us to just get on with it.”
Yet he would caution against PNCs rushing through this phase. “If your mission study isn’t true to the direction you’re going, then it’s just confusion,” he noted. “I think every church out there would like that part to go faster, would like to get to the nuts-and-bolts, but what they don’t understand is that the mission study is their nuts-and-bolts; it is their foundation.”
And this, it would seem, is the most important point on this topic. Those eyes that rolled and those that glowered did so because they thought they were engaging a peripheral, secondary part of the transition process. They assumed that finding a pastor was the end goal to a pastoral search. But maybe not.
Maybe, instead, pastoral transitions provide time for gazing out the window and looking in the mirror. Maybe it isn’t about who the pastor of the future will be and more about who the congregation and community of the present are. This is certainly what Kephart would conclude.
“I know of a congregation that had a wonderful pastorate with a pastor unlike what they thought they were searching for,” he said. “The positive aspects of a mission study would be understanding the results and using the results, but not being bound by the results. The Holy Spirit has a way of doing things different than the way we expect.”
A good mission study is only ever a complement to the prayers of a congregation and the workings of the Holy Spirit. Its use is to refocus eyes from rolling and onto seeing what God is doing.
JEFFREY A. SCHOOLEY is the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Marysville, Ohio.