A number of issues surfaced in a recent consultation with leaders of a middle judicatory. As we looked at their data and their experience, it was clear they were frustrated by their attempts to serve their local congregations and by the demands of their denomination. Below is a small clustering of issues that surfaced for this particular judicatory—issues that tend to be widely shared:
1. If middle judicatory leaders see their role as problem solving, the demands made by congregations will often increase. Many of the issues congregations face today are not problems (i.e., they have no solutions that are under the control of the congregation, such as the changes that are brought to a community by shifting demographics). If middle judicatory leaders try to behave like problem solvers (or let congregations place them in that role inappropriately) it compounds the situation by allowing the congregation to shift the work of change from the congregation (where it belongs) to the judicatory staff (where blame will be attached when it doesn’t happen). Judicatory leaders need to begin to understand that a good part of their work is “undoable” or “unsolvable” if approached as a problem. Continued attempts at solving problems rather than learning new ways of ministry diminish rather than support vital and effective ministry.
2. Middle judicatories commonly do not know what they are to produce. Most of our denominations have polity books that list in great detail what the middle judicatory, the middle judicatory staff, the local congregation, and the clergy of the congregation are supposed to do. Typically, these lists of functions, actions, and roles are long and exhaustive. But they are neither descriptions of outcomes nor job descriptions. They are lists of all of the possible things that these systems and people might do without any indication of what is important to do in a given place at a given time. Without clarity about what is to be produced, it is not possible to know what is important or unimportant to do.
3. A systems approach tells us that a system produces what it is designed to produce. It follows, then, that if a system is to produce something different, the system must be changed. Many of our denominational and judicatory systems are inadvertently designed to produce fewer members, weakened churches, and dispirited leaders. If the data of a judicatory region subsequently demonstrate such a loss of members, churches, resources, energy, and passion, the conclusion must be that the system is, in fact, designed to produce this result. Change will not come from judicatory staff working harder at the same system. It will not help to add new tasks to already burdensome roles. In fact, keeping all of the old wheels turning while trying to invent new ones is a way of not changing the system and therefore not changing the results.
4. Middle judicatories must learn how to focus the attention of their prayers, their people, and their resources on those places and people of potential for ministry. Change begins with a very small percentage of leaders who are natural innovators and explorers. Innovation is not broad-stroke change that comes from training all clergy or all congregations in congregational transformation. In fact, it is clear that treating all clergy and all congregations equally with an assumption that they share an equal call to and possess equal gifts for ministry in a changed culture is a collusion with the old system built for an earlier day in which the resources and attention of the judicatory is spread so widely and thinly that nothing new or different will be produced.
The greatest and most faithful change comes from working at the most effective leverage point-the place where, if we make significant changes, the rest of the larger system will respond with its own changes. The greatest leverage point for all leaders is the self. Middle judicatories will find their way to faithfulness and effectiveness as their leaders learn how to use themselves in new ways and focus clearly on what their congregations need to produce in a new day rather than remaining focused on maintaining the denominational system itself.