The Why Question

Once a year, the Christian Church Foundation, a general unit of the Disciples of Christ, sponsors a gathering for the pastors of the 100 largest Disciples churches. This event is designed for networking and relationship-building, continuing education, and learning about how larger churches are surviving and thriving in our denomination. This year’s gathering was last week in Columbus, OH. I always look forward to these events, not only because I enjoy reconnecting with my colleagues, but because I need to step back regularly from the day-to-day demands on ministry in order to spend time focusing on some of the big-issue questions.

We were hosted by First Community Church of Columbus, a large DOC/UCC church that is doing some creative things in ministry. Their pastor, Dr. Richard Wing, started us off on Wednesday morning with a thought-provoking homily, in which he asked us this question: in our effort to make sure everyone feels welcomed and no one is offended or pressured to serve, do we coddle people too much? I’m not quite sure how I would answer that, but I appreciate him asking the question.

Our main presenter for the day was Dan Hotchkiss, a senior consultant at the Alban Institute. Alban is an organization that is dedicated to building up congregations and their leaders through books, workshops and online seminars. I have made use of many of Alban’s offerings and have found them all to be top-notch and incredibly helpful.

One of the Alban books I read was Hotchkiss’ “Governance and Ministry.” I found the book quite enlightening, so I looked forward to his presentation on the same subject, and he did not disappoint. He started off by reminding us that our job as leaders of congregations is to ask the right question. Our question is not “What are we going to do?” or “How are we going to do it”? The question we should be asking is, “Why are we doing it?” The How and What questions are important, but they should be driven by the Why question. How would you answer that question? Why do we do what we do at Crestwood?

We then spent some time talking about change in congregations, which is a great source of conversation but usually not very productive, because we almost always end up lamenting how hard it is for a church to make changes. Hotchkiss helped us see that the level of change tolerance in a congregation is driven by many factors, including resources available and age of the church. The more established a church becomes, the harder it is to promote change. The challenge in a church is to keep both resources and change tolerance high, and Hotchkiss said the more churches are willing to continually ask the Why question, the more open they are to change.

Hotchkiss then turned to the issue of governance in the church, which he said is basically the work of asking the Why question. In other words, a church’s governing body (in our case, the Administrative Board) exists for one main reason. It’s not to hear and receive reports (although we do that a lot) or to vote on budgets and policies (although that is a function of what the board does) or to give people another meeting to attend (although that is a reality). Instead, the Board exists to do the work of asking and answering the Why question, and how you constitute the Board and structure Board meetings should be dictated by this purpose.

Then Hotchkiss really stuck his nose where it didn’t belong. He asked us, “What would happen if your Board voted tomorrow to dissolve and no longer exist?” And he wanted us to answer that! Sadly, several pastors said, “Not a whole lot would happen.” In other words, the Boards at their churches didn’t have much of an impact on the church’s life and mission. So what would happen at Crestwood? Anything? Nothing? Hotchkiss’ question really got me thinking about why we have a Board and what it should be doing.

I’m going to spend more time on this issue as we look at the role of the Board in the life of the church. I appreciated my time in Columbus and the opportunity to be away from Crestwood for some big-picture thinking. My prayer is that what I learned will help us be more effective witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ, changing lives in his name. After all, that is why we do what we do.

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