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A New (Zealand) Way of Working

By Darrell Holmes.


The writer looks to New Zealand for inspiration from the ministry-led model widely adopted by the Baptist Union to discover a fresh take on the church meeting and church governance.

Disaster Looms?

As yet another round of statistics emerge on the formal membership of the mainline denominations, so we are provoked again by our dear friend Dr Peter Brierley. His projections point to the end of the church as we know it, at some future point. I am sure that neither he, nor we in the churches, really believe this will be the scenario, but hopefully it gives us the “wake-up call” to review our relevance and performance as congregations and denominations. As surely as night follows day, these discussions about projected membership levels then inevitably move on to independent emerging church and what that looks like, and how it will work, the assumption being that nothing of what we are doing is of value.

Nevertheless, I am passionately committed to inner-city ministry within a mainline denomination, having spent five years in London, and the last six years in Birmingham (as Ray Bakke wrote “the bible begins in a garden and ends in a city”). I believe that multi-ethnic churches rather than single-ethnic churches are the way to go (they may be slower-growing, but why wait until heaven to get a diverse congregation?). These can benefit from the influx of the nations flocking into our cities and churches and, hopefully, inculcate a tolerance that will never be fully grasped in a monochrome setting. More than that, I am convinced that “church-resurrection” has its place alongside “church-planting” and “emerging church”; so often we already have the buildings, the structures, the place established in the community, so let us seize these opportunities that are ours already rather than starting over.

In the face of depressing statistics, crumbling institutions and buildings, and communities that so often seem to have rejected the mainline church, let us be humble enough to admit where we have got it wrong, to learn from those who are moving towards getting it right, and to creatively seek inspiration. I agree with Stuart Murray that this should be the “decade of experimentation”. I am not suggesting that we all jump on the next passing bandwagon before realising it’s heading the wrong direction and leaping again, I am pleading for researched, reasoned, Spirit-inspired experimentation.  In order to do that, we may sometimes need to examine some of our long-held beliefs.

It’s Broken! Admit it

Towards the end of 2004, after five years in my current ministry, and ten years overall, I was burning out. The membership of our fellowship had grown by over 50% and in that respect, things were going well. It wasn’t that I was tired, for I had taken a decision to have two days off per week, in an attempt to get better quality relaxation time for myself and my family. This was paying dividends in my ministry and I really was trying to work smarter, not harder. But something was still not working. I found myself at the centre of every decision, every committee and every minutiae of congregational life. With my sabbatical on the horizon, I rallied myself to reach that twelve week oasis. Then the penny dropped. Our way of working had not changed as a church. We were still operating as a 50-member church, despite the fact we now had over 80 members. Upon reflection I knew that the Church Meeting, one of my non-negotiables, was actually the problem. I have always believed that the Church Meeting is the way in which God speaks to the gathered church and have operated on the basis that everything must come before the membership for its consideration. However, the increasing membership meant that the agendas for our leadership and church meetings were becoming ever longer and increasingly unappealing to the membership. Each detail was being pored over by a huge number of people and subject to question. I was explaining more things to more people, many of whom were, to be honest, bemused, frustrated and often ill-suited to reaching a justifiable conclusion. The church meeting was broken, even I had to admit it. In its current format, it no longer suited our purposes, but I was unsure what would work.

I set off to New Zealand on my sabbatical, looking for answers, disconcerted by this challenge to my core beliefs. What I found  was refreshing, exciting and inspirational.

A New (Zealand) Way of Working?

The first attraction that caught my attention, was that the whole Baptist Union of New Zealand (BUNZ) have structured themselves towards “growing healthy churches” (their new strapline). Rick Warren is not alone in propounding that if a church is to grow, it must be healthy. Many contend, myself included, that by fostering church health we may experience church growth. How that came about for BUNZ is even more remarkable.

Baptist Assemblies are gatherings of Baptists that take place annually in most countries where there is a Baptist presence. Not normally known to be the most exciting events, they can be still be challenging and encouraging to those who attend, but just occasionally they can produce very spectacular and significant resolutions. That was the case in 2000, as BUNZ gathered for their annual Assembly. The Union was in trouble, membership was static and they took a bold risk, to tackle the problem head on. As history will surely recount, this was a year when BUNZ would turn a corner in their life and ministry.

“When Assembly 2000 agreed to the statement ‘Growing Healthy Churches’ it was affirming that the churches primary task is to do the work of mission, based on our evangelical position of proclaiming the gospel in word, deed and sign to a sinful world.  Our track record in doing this effectively has come under considerable scrutiny in recent years, as we have become aware that in statistical terms we have plateaued. 

To help us refocus on the primary task, there are some ‘shifts’ of thinking that need to take place e.g.

·        To shift the work of ministry from the pastors to the people

·        To shift the governance of the church from the people to the pastor and board (elders)

·        To align the churches onto an outward focus of mission

·        To release a variety of new models and ministries that will genuinely connect with the diverse and changing culture around us. 

This kind of thinking has specific implication for the leadership structure of the local church.

The experience of many of our churches is that their current leadership and church meeting structures cause them to struggle with the processes of decision-making (members meetings being adversarial and unrepresentative), authority (ministries not able to make decisions), accountability, management (e.g. getting bogged down in trivia and being finance driven), focus (too much energy used internally), wrong use of gifting (e.g. big picture vs detail people) and priorities in terms of really reaching those outside the church.”

(from BUNZ Church Admin Manual 2004)

In short, here was a whole denomination prepared to admit that something was broken and needed fixing. That, to me, is remarkable; not just convincing a congregation, but a whole denomination of 400,000 members, the largest denomination in New Zealand to move as one, without actually knowing where it would lead. The Union gave their leaders the permission to bring in something new, not even fully knowing quite what that would be. This signifies of the levels of trust that these people were willing to give to their leaders.

The eventual outcome of this resolution was that the Union appointed an in-house team of church consultants. The Union was committed to facilitating any interested member churches to be growing healthily. They also researched and embraced a way of working that came to be known as the “Ministry-Led” church model.

Originally, this was a model of leadership devised by Paul Borden in America for the governance of schools and non-profit organizations. It was conceived as a way of releasing school governors to run the school more effectively, and yet give parents real control in  and information over the major decisions. However, with adaptation, this model was felt to be well suited to the Baptist churches of New Zealand. The process is straightforward.

1)          A church commits to a process of review and consultancy.

2)          There are two “streams” that may be taken. A church may work in isolation alongside the consultants, pursuing the process to its logical end. Alternatively ministers may join a cluster group to work through the process simultaneously with other ministers. These fraternals meet regularly for study, review of the results, and sharing of the joys and frustrations. The ministers who commit to this fraternal process, do so for the minimum of a year and then may be called upon to assist other churches who may go through this process in the future.

3)          The consultants visit the church and the fellowship agree the principles on which it seeks to work (such as a commitment to a particular theological interpretation, a specific approach to interacting with its community etc).

4)          The whole congregation are taught about the Ministry-Led model, if that is thought to be an appropriate model to adopt.

5)          Upon further agreement, the existing leadership structure disbands, and the constitution is suspended, where it relates to the former leadership structures.

6)          The Senior Pastor appoints 3-4 elders.

7)          This new leadership will interview and appoint around 10 Ministry Team Leaders who will head up the ministries of the church.  These will be appointments based upon giftings, and where necessary paid (full or part-time) appointments will be made to fill these positions. With each Ministry Team, a budget will be agreed and the Team Leader helps set the goals and is then given great autonomy (with oversight) to decide how best to make it work on the allocated resources. Though this may sound ambitious, the plans are built on the assumption and expectation that the church will grow, and come to need these structures (a key phrase here being “staffing for growth”).

8)          The Eldership with the Pastor focus on the leadership matters of the church and line-manage the Team Leaders. Much of their focus is on prayerfully guiding the church forward and holding everyone accountable to the agreed principles.

9)          Ministry Team Leaders recruit others from the congregation to assist with attaining the agreed goals. Consistent failure to achieve goals may eventually lead to the replacement of a Ministry Team Leader.

10)     The membership will receive regular reports from the eldership of progress and plans for the general church life and the membership receive and approve budgets, reports and appointments as necessary. After a period of up to two years a new constitution will be adopted to affirm the preferred way of working.

Does the Alternative Work?

So much for the theory, but what of the results? Unaware of the Ministry-Led model before I left the UK, I had arranged to meet with around 12 churches which, in the last five years, had moved or were moving through the next phase of our desired growth (from 75 to 125 members). One after the other they shared their stories. The churches were as diverse in location as they were in style. There were urban and rural churches, conservative and charismatic churches, those frequented by professionals and others by the working class. But all were growing, had grown and were doing so at a surprising rate. Some had used Alpha, others Purpose Driven Life, still others both or neither. But the one consistent factor in eleven of the twelve churches was the implementation of the Ministry-Led church model. Time and again, these very different congregations had entrusted their leaders to take a bold move into a new way of working, to overcome the hiatus that each of them seemed to be facing - that of flat or declining membership. 

These same churches now have leadership teams which have been given authority, permission AND resources to get on with their work, namely to lead. Members of the churches are rallying to those ministries that they actually want and are gifted to do, and the resulting joy and energy is palpable, not just to me as a visitor, but clearly to local people who are waking up to, and becoming part of, these transformed churches. Rather than being drawn into nitty-gritty, leadership teams are focused on the big picture, and were helping their fellowships to do the same. There is transparency in their dealing, accountability and vibrancy. Here are 12 congregations, growing sometimes by as much as 247% over a five-year period, but on average by 67%! What minister wouldn’t want that level of healthy growth? Even greater than that, churches are often working together in partnerships, to help one another in this purpose.

Will the Alternative Work in the UK?

Anyone who has tried using material from the Christian scene in America, will be grateful for those insights, but discover that we are two nations separated by more than just a common language. The percentage of people who have a Christian allegiance, the cultural perspective of both church and nation, the mere size of institutions make much material from America, interesting, yet requiring much translation if it is to work here in the UK. Give me a pound for every church that has discovered that fact to its despair, and I would be a rich man.  

However, as I toured much of the north island of New Zealand over a period of two months, I began to get a feel for the culture. Here was a country with a similar land mass to the UK, yet with a mere 4 million inhabitants. The country remains a part of the British Commonwealth and the influence still shows. Many inhabitants are first or second generation British people, and the way of working reflects that. The issues that the nation faces seem parallel to our own, namely employment levels, pensions crises, influx of peoples from other parts of the world and a variable cricket team! These people are astonishingly like us and, I believe, are probably our closest cultural cousins.

Because I witnessed the variety of setting that the Ministry-Led model was working in, I have become convinced that it will adapt to the UK. Again, we must never make the dangerous assumption that we can pick something up from another culture and dump it in our own, expecting it to magically work. Translation and tailoring will be required, but not too much, I hope. Added to that, there seems to be a slow but increasing trickle of church leaders looking to New Zealand for answers. I have discovered numerous people who have gone before me, and others who will follow in our footsteps.

Time to Fix it

Thankfully there are many other British Baptist churches who have discovered their solutions to this same problem we face in our fellowship, perhaps by other routes, with many painful mistakes and perhaps over longer periods. I hope that we may have found a short-cut to a tried-and-tested solution. The proof now will unfold in the coming months and years for our fellowship. Wouldn’t we rather be known as those who tried to fix a problem and failed, than those who blindly argued that no problem existed? It will mean that I must look afresh at my principles surrounding the Church Meeting (though I suspect that the New Zealand approach is probably closer to our Baptist roots than the current practice favoured by most UK Baptist churches) but that self-examination will be healthy. It will mean that we call on outsiders for help, and hope to foster relations with other churches who want to do the same. But all of this surely spells good news for the Kingdom.

As the numbers in the churches decline, we so often gaily hum the tune “things can only get better” like a certain political party’s campaign, instead of admitting a serious problem exists. Alternatively we panic and conclude that everything must be reinvented. Do you have non-negotiables within your own persuasion and denomination, and do they all still work or do they need re-examination? If so, perhaps it is time to take a fresh perspective on some things without abandoning everything. By all means, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but if it is broke…

Darrell Holmes

Baptist Pastor

Ministry Today

You are reading A New (Zealand) Way of Working by Darrell Holmes, part of Issue 36 of Ministry Today, published in March 2006.

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