Author Archives: shawnkelly

Why a Small Clergy Pool Isn’t a (Good) Excuse

Regional Associations often bemoan the fact that the pool of qualified clergy is smaller than the open positions among the congregations within their charge.  This leads them to conclude that there is little they can do to improve the way they facilitate pastoral succession processes.  This is wrong for a number of reasons.

First, no process is perfect, and no fit is perfect between any individual and their work assignment including clergy and congregation.  An 80% fit between clergy and church is as close to “perfect” as we are ever going to achieve in the best of circumstances.  Our aim is to optimize the fit given the realities of the situation.  Given that goal it is better to have the information that organizational intelligence provides in order to make that fit as close as possible.  A 60% fit may not be ideal, but it is surely better than 30%.

Second, accurate information about a congregation becomes a recruiting tool that is more likely to attract the best candidates in a small pool.  Of course, many pastors are going to be attracted to congregations that are clearly transformational and have the evidence to back up their claim. However, there are also excellent “rehab” pastors who are actually attracted to reinvention congregations if they are self-aware and ready to grow.  Either way, the information makes a church more attractive to good candidates.

Third, optimal fit is only one aspect of the succession process.  A second is having a well-conceived transition plan that sets the stage for the next pastor.  The best fit pastor can fail if certain transition issues are not addressed prior to their arrival.  Organizational intelligence can go a long way in addressing transition issues that, if addressed, make it more likely that the next pastor will succeed whatever the fit.  Organizational intelligence can uncover ministry-killing patterns in the life of a congregation like clergy-focus, strategic-tactical dissonance, emerging conflict, member burnout, a mismatch between goals and community context.  A transition plan can at least begin to address these issues so that a new pastor’s ministry won’t be doomed from the start.

Finally, good start-up plans can help the new pastor get oriented to the congregation so that unintentional missteps are avoided.  Settled congregations need a different start-up plan from flexible ones.  Worship-focused congregations need a different start-up from ministry-focused.  A pastor who has integrated the organizational intelligence for a congregation into their thinking can help a congregation feel known and understood at the very beginning in ways that build trust early in the relationship.

Scarcity, fixed-pie thinking is the sure path to a self-fulfilling prophecy for both regional associations and congregations.  There is a reason that the loaves and fishes story made it into the Bible.



I began the introduction to my book The Fly in the Ointment with this true account of an exchange I had in a middle judicatory meeting.

“As a clergy member of the Council, I had conducted an analysis of the state of our member congregations and had been granted time on the agenda to present my findings. The first part of the presentation highlighting the decline in membership had nothing new to say that had not been spoken, written, and debated since the mid-sixties when the attrition began. New, however was the finding that the revenue for most churches in that association would soon drop near the fixed cost threshold where discretionary funds would evaporate to zero. Because the Presbytery is funded from the discretionary money of local churches, this meant that funding for the Presbytery would drop precipitously as church after church hit that threshold, and for those fortunate churches that were not approaching that threshold, there were many mission organizations competing with judicatories for those discretionary dollars.

“As I closed my presentation, there was an awkward silence, the kind I have since come to recognize as the tipping point between denial and despair…The silence finally broke and the straw fell in the direction of denial. ‘Well,’ spoke a seasoned member of the Council with an unblemished Presbyterian pedigree, ‘I have more faith than that.’ That ended the conversation. Unfortunately, it didn’t avert the funding crisis that was barreling down on that body of leaders.”

The pitting of faith against data is often portrayed as a characteristic of theological conservatives, who adopt a literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis, assert a 6,000 year old earth rather than the 4.5 billion years of modern cosmology, and believe, against all scientific evidence that a global flood crested above even the Himalayan mountains, tallest on earth.intellectualism_borrder

However, conservatives do not hold a monopoly on irrationality.  As illustrated in the story above, progressives, the people who hold the preponderance of power in denominational systems also suffer from their own brand of data aversion.  Whereas more conservative folks tend to adhere to a biblical fundamentalism, progressives adopt an ecclesiastical fundamentalism.  Ecclesiastical fundamentalism gives the church and its structures preeminence in its thinking even to the degree of ignoring data presaging its collapse in the name of faith.

The data is now clear.  Only about 50% of the members in a typical congregation are clearly satisfied with what is happening in their church, over two thirds generally agree their members are simply going through the motions of religious activity, and less than a third of leaders in a typical denominational church feel positive about their middle judicatory.  In any for-profit business, or non-profit organization for that matter, this kind of data would constitute a four alarm fire.  Among many liberal denominations it is dismissed under the motto “but we have faith.”   There is a particularly destructive brand of anti-intellectualism claiming the unexamined loyalty of some of the most highly educated persons in their respective denominations.

As a former researcher, I am alarmed by the a-scientific denial of global warming, the a-factual conspiratorial mythologies that pervade our discourse, and the zombie-like economic pronouncements that not only contradict the economic theory of decades, but common sense as well.  However, simply framing this as a conservative issue lets the progressives among us off much too easily.  Until progressives start paying attention to the actual experience of their members, and the data that registers their malaise and disillusionment, they do not deserve the air of superiority that holds their fellow conservative fundamentalists in such contempt.

I wonder these days if the irrational, anti-factual wave that seems to be sweeping across our land and many of our institutions with it does not find some of its origins in the conservative and progressive fundamentalisms found within our denominational systems.  If so, it may be that our best course of action is to “become the change we seek.”

Russ Crabtree


ICover.jpgt is no secret that mainline denominational churches have been losing members for over 40 years.  The Presbyterian Church declined from a high of nearly 4 million members in 1975 to 1.67 million members in 2014.  The losses are attributed to many different factors depending upon perspective.  High on the list is the church’s changing views on sexuality, particularly gay marriage.

This is largely an excuse.  There is no question that more conservative members are leaving the Presbyterian Church, or that in some cases entire churches are leaving to join more conservative Presbyterian denominations like ECO or PCA.  The long term prospects for those churches are not good.  My research on more conservative Presbyterians is that they are less satisfied, more conflicted, and more clergy focused.  In addition, the number of Americans who oppose gay marriage has dropped by half since 1997, and nearly two thirds (64%) now support it.

The question for the PCUSA is this:  If a majority of Americans now favor gay marriage, and that is the church’s official position, why isn’t it replacing those who are leaving…and more?

The answer, I believe is the poor climate in PCUSA churches.  Less than half of Presbyterians are clearly satisfied with their church experience.  Over two thirds generally agree that members are simply going through the motions of religious activity.  One out of every seven members is clearly disturbed by the level of conflict in their church.

There have been a number of “issue de jour’s” in the church over recent decades, but one thing has not changed:  the poor climate in typical mainline churches, both progressive and conservative. Grayson Tucker began collecting data on the climate of Presbyterians churches in the late 1970’s using many of the same tools that we use now.  When we look at that data, virtually nothing has changed in nearly 40 years.  About 47 percent of members were clearly satisfied with the church forty years ago; about 48 percent are clearly satisfied today. About 37 percent of members generally agreed that there wasn’t much excitement in the church forty years ago; about 37 percent generally agree today.  The same is true of conflict levels, tolerance of differences, and governance scores.

As a whole, denominations are refusing to face this reality and name this problem:  people today will generally not tolerate any organization where leaders do not demonstrate a concern for the way that members are experiencing that faith community.  The problem is not that leaders are bad; it is that they are untrained.  Seminaries are not training leaders to address congregational climate and they, in turn, are not training their staff and lay leaders.

The good news is that we know it is possible to create vital, growing congregations with positive climates.  We need to learn from them.


Is Friendly Enough?

The typical, goodhearted church member makes an effort to reach out to visitors in a congregation based on the assumption that being friendly is key to church growth.  Is that assumption correct?

The answer is found in a book Penguins in the Pews.  And the answer is “Yes” and “No.”

Let’s add another dimension to the question:  external focus.


ex · ter · nal  fo · us
the degree to which members are willing to make changes to meet the needs of folks they are trying to reach in their community.

When my toddler grandchildren were about to visit, my wife and if would go around the house and move things out of reach that might break or harm them.  We made changes in our environment to meet their needs (and those of anxious parents!).

Churches can be friendly but less willing to make changes to meet the needs of those hospitalitythey want to reach.  This is represented in the chart on the right.  Churches at the top of this chart are high hospitality.  Read “friendly,” and the higher on the chart, the more friendly they are.  Churches at the right on this chart are externally focused.  The percentage in different regions of the map indicates the change in worship attendance.

Notice that unfriendly churches at the bottom of the chart are all experiencing declines in worship attendance.  However, simply becoming more friendly does not grow a church if it is internally focused.  The only region of this map where churches are growing is in externally focused, high hospitality churches.

This takes us beyond the Golden Rule.  It is not simply a matter of treating people the way we would like to be treated.  It is caring for people in the ways they need to be cared for.

Russ Crabtree

Billy Graham and Strategic Thinking

CoverHowever one evaluates the theological perspective of Billy Graham, he left an unmistakable mark on the religious landscape.  In my particular field of strategic thinking, Billy Graham represents an approach to leadership that both liberals and conservatives tend to share: relying on anxiety to trigger action.  The post below is from the introduction to my book, Front Door Back Door:  Why People Join and Leave Churches. It was released at the beginning of 2018.

I grew up under the spell of Billy Graham crusades. I listened to so many of the evangelist’s sermons that up to a few years ago, I could do a fair imitation complete with North Carolina inflection, gestures, open Bible in the left hand, and right index finger pointing up.

Billy Graham’s sermons followed a fairly predictable pattern. He would articulate some aspect of the modern human condition: the threat of nuclear war, race riots, divorce, and drugs. He would connect that problem with the biblical narrative of a fallen human race fully deserving of the judgment of God. He would propose God’s solution to that problem in the atonement accomplished through the cross of Christ. And at the climax of his message was the choice that was laid before every individual—to accept or reject God’s offer.

It was easy to know that God was speaking to me because my heart was experiencing a heightened sense of guilt, anxiety, or some other uncomfortable, urgent emotion that sought relief.

Fast-forward about fifteen years. I attended graduate school at Fuller Seminary at a time when the church growth movement was nearing full swing under the leadership of folks like Win and Charles Arn. I graduated and was ordained to serve my first church, a small congregation of about fifty persons in a community with a population of two thousand persons in a thirty-six square mile area. The sanctuary was small, and after about three years the worship attendance had grown to about eighty persons. I knew from my church growth study that once a congregation reached 80 percent of physical capacity, it was already at psychological capacity and would likely grow no further. I went to the Session of the church and recommended the addition of a second service.

That was a watershed moment for me. Discerning what the Spirit might want me to do was not driven by guilt or fear or anxiety or any other emotion that needed to be relieved, but by an integration of information (the 80 percent threshold) and values (make disciples). Of course this decision did not make sense for some in leadership. They were elated that the congregation had grown more than 50 percent; the anxiety that they had experienced for years that they might not survive had been alleviated. For them there was no emotional trigger motivating them to take the step of adding a second service. No altar call leading them to recommit to Jesus would lead them to make that decision.

That’s when I learned one of the most important lessons of my career. Strategic decisions are not driven by anxiety; they are driven by a combination of information, core values, and an inspired imagination. Strategic decisions may result in anxiety, because they involve risk, but they are never motivated by anxiety. A decision that is motivated by anxiety is short term because the emotion of anxiety, like any emotion, is short term, about ninety seconds. (To sustain an emotion longer than ninety seconds, you actually have to create a thought that will feed it.) Once it subsides, either because the worst happens or fails to materialize, the motivation for action subsides as well.

Strategic action requires the engagement of the mind, elevated by a set of values (the gospel), and activated by an inspired imagination.

Unfortunately this runs directly counter to the experience of a Billy Graham crusade or any other decision-making process that relies on an emotional crisis for motivation. In my experience most faith communities, even the more progressive ones that would eschew a “crusade,” find it nearly impossible to take strategic action based on information and core values. Unless there is some emotion, usually anxiety about survival, they fail to take action.

J. Russell Crabtree

Front Door Back Door:  Why People Join and Leave Churches is now available through Amazon.  For bulk orders please contact the author.


Which Church for You?

Church climate is more critical to the mission of a church than programs, projects, positions or personal abilities.  It’s not everything, but it is fair to say that much of what pastors, lay leaders, and members want their churches to be is found in churches with positive climates.

Here is what the research indicates.  Churches with positive climates are…

They tend to be increasing in worship attendance while 90% of churches with poor climates are experiencing declines.

Twice as many members in churches with positive climate indicate the church is fulfilling its mission compared to churches with poor climates.

Twice as many members in churches with positive climate enthusiastically affirm that the church has given new meaning to their lives compared to churches with poor climates.

Members in churches with positive climates are much more willing to adapt to meet the changing needs of members and people in the community they want to reach.

Members are more comfortable with pastoral transitions and tend to take leadership changes in stride compared to churches with poor climates.  They also tend to do better dealing with loss.

Faith Sharing
Members in churches with positive climates are much more comfortable telling faith stories than churches with poor climates.  They also tend to hold more of their meetings out in the community rather than on church grounds.

Churches with positive climates are almost twice as likely to target groups in the community they want to reach compared to churches with poor climates.  They are much more likely to indicate that different ministries within their church (education, fellowship, worship, missions) are taking steps to reach persons in their community rather than only serve their own members.

Churches with positive climates are much more likely to be spending time listening to the needs of people in their communities so that they can respond to those needs as a Christian witness.

Comfortable with Generosity
Churches with positive climates are half as likely to have members who say the church spends too much time talking about money.

Churches with poor climates have seven times as many people indicating that their church is going through the motions of religious activity.  This is the definition of poor climate.

For decades, church leaders have been hesitant to name this reality as if some virtue was to be attached to faith communities that were declining, conflicted, struggling, recalcitrant, rigid, or strapped.  It is as if the mettle of our discipleship is measured by our tolerance for dysfunction rather than our insistence on faith communities that exhibit the fruit of the Spirit.

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, people today are asking this question:  “Which church would you rather lead, serve, or attend?”

A Third Radical Idea

TuckerIn in the 1970’s a seminary professor named Grayson Tucker introduced three radical ideas regarding faith communities.  In my first post, I talked about his first radical idea: A church’s climate is more critical to its mission than programs, projects, positions or personal abilities.  Whether you are a leader or a member, this means that nothing that is important to you in your church’s mission can flourish if the climate in your congregation is poor.

The second radical idea: Though it is invisible, a church’s climate can be measured.

Here is the third:  It is as important to listen to members as it is to speak to them.

In response to a book titled Pew Asks, Pulpit Listens, Tucker wrote:  “We have turned that conversation around so that the minister and church leaders listen to the answers from the pew.”

Beginning with the printing press in the Reformation, the Church has used technology to disseminate its message.  Since then, it has added the technologies of mimeography, xerography, radio, television, audio tapes, video tapes, digital files, websites, email blasts and more.

In contrast, the way that leaders listen to members has changed little.  When leaders sit down to make decisions about the mission of the church they still rely on the same coarse, conversational and impression-based information stream leaders used 500 years ago.  As a result, leaders make decisions based on (a) individual assumptions that vary widely from one another, (b) group assumptions that are often factually inaccurate, (c) strategic assumptions that are frequently invalid and will lead to the further demoralization of the church.

A score of examples come to mind.  Over 90% of churches rank church growth as their number one priority.  Besides the fact that it is nearly impossible to grow a church with a poor climate, it is also nearly impossible to grow a church by simply being friendly if a church is internally focused.  In an internally focused church members look at the needs of people they want to reach through the lens of their own experience.  The research is clear, if a church is internally focused it will almost certainly experience declines in worship attendance, no matter how friendly it is.

Here is the critical issue:  it is nearly impossible for leaders to know if members are internally focused without the kind of intentional, system-wide listening process that Grayson Tucker designed and advocated for.  Leaders simply don’t know what they don’t know.

And here is the sad reality:  Since Tucker’s research was published in the 1980’s, not a single denomination has invested in a system-wide initiative to assess and improve the climate of their congregations, without which all other congregationally-based initiatives will either fail or prove unsustainable.

The PCUSA initiative to create 1001 New Worsiping Communities will not bear fruit in the long run if some systematic way of effectively assessing and maintaining the climate of those 1001 communities is not implemented.

Likewise the PCUSA initiative to create vital congregations “by providing training, materials and consultation for all worshiping communities and in planting new congregations” will also fail if the issue of church climate is not addressed.

On the Episcopal Church’s national website, the Rev. Charles Fulton, director of the Episcopal Church’s congregational development program, touted an on-line guide as the newest facet in the “20/20” church-wide conversation about congregational development with the view of doubling the Episcopal Church’s present membership by the year 2020.”  Fulton retired ten years ago, and the membership in the denomination has continued its decline.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is currently engaged in a five year fundraising project with the goal of raising 16 million dollars aimed at “starting more congregations, discovering innovative ways to grow and renew our existing communities of faith and expand our ministries with people living with disabilities.”

From extensive research with Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, we now know that only about half of the members of a typical church feel clearly positive overall, and over a third generally agree that the church is simply going through the motions of religious activity.  (See publications The State of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The State of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, or The State of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.)  To their credit, many individual church leaders and a few middle judicatory leaders are beginning to focus on the climate in the congregations they serve.

Beyond that, little has changed.  The websites of denominations feature congregational data on membership, worship attendance, and finances with no metrics on congregational climate.  There might be a simple reason for this omission:  climate data would require listening.  For church leaders at every level to systematically ignore the experiences of their members while expecting those same members to provide the resources to fund their positions and their programs represents a profound lack of care.  To proceed without a radical change as congregations dissipate their energies, burn out their leaders, and flicker down the light of their witness is a moral failure.

Grayson Tucker shuffled off this earth on January 11, 2013.  “Though he is dead, he still speaks.” Hebrews 11:4