Pastor Jason was frustrated about the level of commitment in general within his congregation. He called me to get some advice, and I think just to vent a little. I told him he was asking for too much from his people and needed to ask for less. And if he did, he would get a far greater response.
Jason responded saying, “What do you mean? Are you saying I’ll get more if I ask for less? That flies in the face of all that we know about the ‘big ask’ and challenging people to big dreams!” I talked with Jason about the difference between challenging people to a big vision and draining the life out of a congregation by asking them for something every time they come to church.
I explained the concept of “request fatigue.” You can actually wear your people out by making endless asks, even though they haven’t really done much. It’s a psychological thing, the process of literally hearing you ask for “something” (sign-up, give, attend, serve, etc.) every Sunday, causes the perception of being asked to do too much and therefore they resist saying yes to anything.
Jason’s response is common from pastors who are frustrated because they believe the people are not “growing up and stepping up.” Jason was telling me that it’s a struggle to get them to show up, let alone participate and actually serve. I understand the frustration, and coached him with a different, more intentional, strategic (and simple) approach to getting commitment from his congregation.
Let’s not miss the larger concepts of growing spiritual maturity, a culture of serving, and a clear vision. I’m assuming these elements are in place. They don’t have to be ideal, but at least in play. Without that, the “asks” aren’t even understood. With this as an assumption, I’m leaning into a simple strategy to help you lead better and become more effective in strategically moving a congregation forward.
Knowing that Jason is not alone, I’m writing this article about commitment with some observations, thoughts and experience that I trust will be practical, helpful, and encouraging to you. Here’s what I know, your people are willing to make commitments. They do all the time. It’s your responsibility as a leader to help lift their vision to a place where they see the value in what you ask them to do. That’s where you start. You may need to stop asking for so many things that aren’t a high priority. Perhaps you have too many ministries going on and you need to eliminate some of the busyness of your church before the focus of your vision becomes clear enough for the value to be evident.
Level of commitment can frustrate any leader. And the 21st Century experience of time compression doesn’t help. Since Al Gore invented the Internet, the pace of our lives has been exponentially increased. Life at times is a blur.
So let’s get practical. The majority of your congregation will give up to three “time blocks” (that’s the max) a week to the church, and it’s likely you are asking for more. Several problems arise from this scenario:
- You dilute the significance of the important things by asking for “everything.”
- You unintentionally overwhelm the people, causing them to get frustrated or feel defeated. Their way of coping is to become inconsistent or choose to do nothing. This may create spiritual dissonance because they want to say yes, but saying yes doesn’t make sense.
- You lessen your own leadership by communicating a lack of focus and clear direction also commonly known as “program hopping”.
- The people perceive that “nothing really happens” at many of the things you want them to attend. This perceived lack of value causes them to rethink participating the next time.
It’s common for the leadership to ask the congregation, especially in small to mid-sized churches, to attend a list of activities, serve, or respond to requests such as, but not limited to:
- Sunday morning church
- Sunday night church
- Wednesday night Bible study, prayer meeting or other church services
- Participation in a ministry (or more than one) – with all that entails
- A small group – sometimes two (a couples small group plus a men’s or women’s small group!)
- Sunday school class
- Bring canned goods for the hungry
- Give blood
- A capital stewardship banquet or church fundraiser
- Whatever special or seasonal event that’s on the calendar
- Listen to a missionary tell their story
- A meeting or two about something “very important”
- Drop their teenagers off at the youth activities, and maybe pick them up, maybe not . . .
- A special training class in evangelism, discipleship or you name it . . .
- Invite a friend to church
- Oh yeah, and take that friend to lunch after church
I’m worn out just looking at this list. You get the idea! This condition of asking for too much puts your people in a physical and emotional gridlock. They literally throw up their hands (I’ve seen them do this in several churches as I conduct focus groups.) and ask: “What is important here? What do they want? I can’t do all this stuff. And I don’t like being made to feel guilty about it.”
Some church leaders argue that offering many options provides “more hooks for more people.” I don’t believe that works. There are always exceptions, such as multiple worship services. That’s a good thing – but you are only asking them to attend one and you are giving them a clear set of choices. That serves them!
When pushed to identify the “big three,” pastors will usually say they want participation in:
- Sunday morning worship
- Participate in a small group (of any kind)
- Serve in ministry (doesn’t have to be every week)
Are there challenges to this? Of course, but we can’t give up on this idea because there are challenges. Perhaps one of the largest challenges is whether or not discipleship is taking place in your small groups. I don’t want to over simplify, or maybe I do, but you absolutely can build strong discipleship into your small group ministry. And this usually requires thinning out other options, not adding more.
My encouragement and challenge to you is to try a plan like this:
Gather a leadership team and list all of the things you ask of your people in a given week and month. Talk about which of those things are directly connected to the process of life change and which are in the “one more thing to do” group.
Face the reality of “The Big Three” principle and determine your priorities. Agree together as a team that you will ask your people for these things, and learn to deliver them in a world class way so your people experience true value.
Don’t get hung up on the number three as much as the idea of limited and intentional “asks.” However, I don’t think you will find growing congregations that get the majority of their people to attend or participate in four or more things a week. The key word is “majority.” There are a few key leaders who give more of their time. That’s the nature of leadership. (Another topic is raising up more leaders so they don’t have to show up too often!)
Determine which of your ministries and activities are not effective. What can be cut from your program? If they are ineffective but can’t be cut, why not? A good way to make this determination is to measure the effectiveness of the ministry by its Great Commission “fruit” – changed lives. If it doesn’t change lives, don’t do it. And know that just because a ministry might change lives, that doesn’t mean your church is called to do it. You can’t do them all.
Give yourself permission to ask for attendance/participation beyond your selected priorities if the commitment is: 1.) short-term 2.) It involves a select group of the congregation 3.) The value is high. For example, a membership class or a new Christian’s class that involves a small percentage of your people, is short-term, and the value is high.
Get creative. Take some time to think and pray about how you might change your approach as a leader. I believe you will find that the commitment is there. It’s more about you and your team discovering how to inspire that commitment, so that it brings about consistent life change.