Just three months into his new role as Executive Director of Congregational Development for the California-Nevada Annual Conference, The Rev. Craig S. Brown says he doesn’t mind at all if your reaction to hearing his name is – and continues to be – “Craig who?” It’s the churches he wants to be front and center, he told me, when we sat down to get acquainted. A transcript of our conversation follows, edited slightly for readability. – Instant Connection editor
Instant Connection: The Office of Congregational Development is engaged in starting new congregations, in church planting – but also in working with existing congregations. So how does that play out?
The Rev. Craig Brown: We do three things. First thing we do is, we prepare people. That means cultivating and preparing people to do congregational development, which takes lots of different flavors. It could be a new church start, could be a new campus, could be a new ministry, could be a new worshiping community.
I call it “new things.” So we try to train people to start new things. That’s the preparing people part. The next thing that we do is cultivate places. Places that start new things are existing congregations, but they’re healthy congregations, or marginally healthy congregations. They are NOT dysfunctional, broken, toxic congregations; those congregations do not start new things.
Typically, congregational development is church planting, but almost all of that work happens best when it happens through an existing place. So, we prepare people – in other words, train pastors and leaders to do that work; we cultivate the places – work with healthy and marginally healthy churches to do that work; and lastly, we align the resources. We help get monies and funding aligned to pay for the efforts of doing congregational development.
Not only that, but we also align other resources, so I function as a strategic partner with all the superintendents in helping them make decisions about – well, we need to combine these churches, and maybe sell this one, and keep this, and do that – so it’s aligning all the resources, not just money, to get this kind of work done. Because congregational development is like venture capital: it’s just really – it’s not inexpensive work. It costs a lot of money.
So that’s kind of what I do: prepare people, cultivate places, align resources.
IC: The conference [had] a number of goals for the last Quadrennium, that relate to your work: a new multi-cultural congregation with at least 1,000 active participants per week, at least five existing congregations experiencing those same numbers, and at least 20 faith communities with at least 500 people actively participating per week, among the goals. Have we made any progress, or are we still at the starting point of beginning that work?
CB: I don’t know if we’re at the starting point. Those goals are from the last Strategic Plan the conference did, which was 2012 … I do know that those are goals that I am not working off of; those are not goals I am working toward achieving.
Right now, the committee in our conference that’s responsible for this work is the Committee on New and Vital Congregations. And it’s not “new” and “vital” – it’s “new-and-vital.” They’re one and the same thing: a new and a vital congregation, the same thing. We have our meeting on October 10, and at that meeting will be setting our goals: for how many leaders we want to train, how many congregations we want to partner with, and those things – before we even get to how many new churches we’re going to start.
Because in my mind, the number of churches we start is going to be limited by how many congregations we have [that are] ready to start churches. So the modeling of starting a church by going into a neighborhood, getting a pastor, and sending them out in the neighborhood and saying, “please start a church for us” – that’s called a “parachute drop.” And that model has a less than one in 10 chance of success.
IC: Which makes perfect sense, I think …
CB: Yep – less than one in 10. So, it’s about – there’s some factors that vary it, but it’s no more than one out of 10; it’s usually less.
The highest probability of success is an existing congregation that grows indigenous leadership. In other words, they have a pastor on their staff or someone in their church who’s a lay person, who becomes a pastoral leader. They cultivate their own leader, [who] takes a group of people, and they go and start a new congregation. That has the best odds of success: which are … five out of 10. Half.
IC: Hmm. Wow!
CB: That’s a half. So the best odds of starting a new church are 50%. That’s the high, and then low, of course, is zero.
In terms of which model to use – there’s probably 20 different models of starting a new church. I just gave you the worst and gave you the best. And in between, there are a whole varied list of ways to do that. But if the highest likelihood is 50% with a church that cultivates its own indigenous leadership and then takes a group of people with that leader and starts a new church – if that’s 50%, in my mind that’s where the best odds are.
That’s why partnering with our healthiest churches is an important part of this job. Because it’s a, it’s a long ball game; it’s not a short ball game.
It’s like … we have a congregation today that, let’s say, is marginally healthy. So, we start putting some training and resources and some support into that church, and in two-to-three years they become a healthy congregation. And then they have to vision about starting a new … campus? A new ministry, a new worship service, a new site? A new congregation? Whatever. Then that’s that many more years, to do that [visioning]. Then that many more years, to actually do it.
So the notion of working with congregations right now, is not a – “well, in 12 months, they’ll be ready to start a church.” That’s in a two-, four-, six-year window, they’ll be ready to start a church. So, um … some of the goals that get set, for starting new congregations, are not … not at all realistic.
In the Jurisdiction, the plan was, by 2024 that we will have started 140 new churches. I wasn’t involved in picking the number, but that number is completely unrealistic. Because it’s not grounded in anything.
IC: Mmm-hmm. It’s just – “pick a number,” and …
CB: We threw a number at it, instead of saying to ourselves, “Okay, in your annual conference, how many churches could be poised by 2024 to start a new church? Then we would say [for example], “Ten.” You see what I’m getting at? Now we’re talking about realistic numbers. But when it’s just, “throw some numbers out there” …
I would much rather us be very deliberate about starting 10 churches by 2024, than saying we’re gonna start 40, and not get to that number. Like if somebody were to tell me we’re gonna start 40 churches by 2024, I’d tell them, “Forget it. No way that’s going to happen.”
IC: Do you have difficulty communicating that concept? To people … to pastors, or to people in the pews? Is that something that – are people more apt to buy into, just, “Yeah, we’re gonna start 20 churches in the next five years”?
CB: Absolutely. Yeah, the “reality” message is hard to set in, because again, it’s a long ball process. So next year we’re going to start a training process, for example, of pastors we’re going to take through a cohort-based training process, to start new things: not necessarily new churches, new things. We’ll send 12 of them through that process. So by this time next year we’ll have 12 who’ve been trained and equipped, who know how to do the work.
Now, whether they’re in the right place to do that work, whether there’s money to pay for that work, and whether they’re – you see what I’m saying; there’s still all those random factors sitting there.
That’ll be 12. Two years from now we’ll have 24. In three years, we’ll have 36. Make sense? So by the time we’re able to get the flywheel to go around one time, it’s going to take us a couple of years. But once the systems and structures are built, once the flywheel goes around once, it goes around the second time much faster, and faster.
The way I describe it is: congregational development, especially starting where this conference is, is like pushing a locomotive. It’s very hard to get started, but once it starts, and begins to move, it gains a momentum that is hard to stop. It will begin influencing everything once it begins to go, but getting it started is tedious. You know, I’ll – we could be sitting here two years from now, and we might have five new churches. And people will say, “five new churches isn’t enough.” Well …
IC: How many new churches have we started in the past five years? I know we have some …
CB: Good question. We’re doing a forensic study right now; my admin, Taniqua, is working on it. I’ve asked her to go back 15 years and to research every congregation we’ve started in the last 15 years, so we can understand what’s been successful. So, over the last 15 years we’ve started about – it’s fewer than 30 congregations in the last 15 years. And out of those 30, fewer than half of them exist. Fewer than half. And by “exist” – some of them exist as a church; some of them are still a mission congregation; some of them merged with an existing congregation, because they couldn’t survive anymore; some of them just flat-out closed.
IC: Because that is the more important question: not how many we started, but how many of the ones that we’ve started still exist.
CB: Sure. Absolutely. Next year we could start 10 churches. Right?
IC: [laughing] Sure!
CB: Five years later – I can tell you that probably none of them will exist. And this is the thing, is that there’s an amount of money that it takes to start a new congregation. The average – in the Western Jurisdiction, to start a new congregation costs anywhere between 350- and 500-thousand dollars. Is what it costs to start a new congregation. A new church, like, “I’m gonna charter a new congregation.” It’s 350- to 500-thousand dollars. So if we know it’s going to cost that, does it make – is the right strategy, “let’s try 20 things and see what works”? In some situations, you can do that. But not in congregational development.
If I’m a pastor of a local church, like I was my whole career, I could try to start 10 things every year. And I would tell my congregations, “we’re going to start a bunch of stuff, we’re going to see what works, and that’s what we’re gonna do, and if stuff doesn’t work – eh! No big deal. Because they didn’t necessarily cost us any money, or a lot of time. Well, in congregational development it costs a lot of money, a lot of time – but besides that, the thing that costs the most is the pastor we send to do the work. That’s the cost.
So if we take this great young, innovative pastor who’s 26, 28 years old, and we send her out to start a new congregation and she’s not trained, she’s not prepared, it’s not the right time, it’s not the right setting – we end up doing a wreckage in her life at a very young age, that she may never recover from.
And so for me, it’s not even about the money; for me it’s about the human capital. So [when] you bring people in to train them, I want to make sure that the people we train and develop, we send in the best possible situation to succeed, not wreck them. Because I – I could make a line out my door of church planter, after church planter, after church planter who failed. And it’s a devastating experience for those people, absolutely devastating. Very angry, very bitter – it impacts their ministry the rest of their life. So that’s – for me, that’s the higher cost. I mean, it’s awful. So that’s why the training piece is important, [and] preparing the right place is.
The ideal situation is, we find somebody who we assess as having gifts for church planting. We send them through this training process, [and then] we appoint them into a church as an associate pastor – for a year or two – so that they can cultivate in that congregation the group of people who are going to start the “new thing.” Then after a couple of years they strike out to start a new campus, a new ministry, a new church, whatever it is they’re going to do. That’s, in my mind, the recipe for success.
That means we have to train those people well; [carefully choose] the church they go to in an appointment; [and] the senior pastor of that church has to be capable of mentoring that person, and visioning the congregation for doing something apostolic – planting a “new thing.” So, you see what I’m getting at? It’s not just training the planter; it’s about training even the pastor in residence how to do the work. So that’s what makes it really – it’s very – I don’t want to say it’s complicated, but there’s so many moving parts, and if any one of them isn’t right it can wipe the whole thing out.
IC: What do you have, immediately, coming up? Tell me about the leadership styles training.
CB: The event in November, “Exploring Your Ministry Style,” uses an assessment called the DISC profile assessment. And you know, there’s lots of those kinds of inventory strength-finders: Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, they all do this. But DISC – DISC measures your leadership style. In other words, in the situations where you lead, how do you lead? And helps you understand how you interact with the other leaders around you.
So “Exploring Your Ministry Style” is – first, understand yourself through the DISC profile, which is strictly about leadership competency; it doesn’t measure whether you’re charismatic, it doesn’t measure whether you’re a good strategic planner, it doesn’t measure that. It measures four different factors [Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, Conscientiousness], these four things. So that [the leaders] not only understand themselves, but they understand everyone else on their team.
Any person who’s going to do congregational development, they need to know their leadership style – because you must surround yourself with everyone who is not your leadership style.
So the reason we do that event is to help all the clergy with their leadership style, but what we’re [also] really after is to identify the people sitting in that room who demonstrate the styles consistent with starting new churches. Because people who start new churches have to be completely comfortable surrounding themselves with people who don’t function the way they do.
Church planter is a weird animal. It’s a combination of a person who is a megalomaniac, with: acute self-awareness, and humility. So they can go, “I can get this done. I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.” Combined with – “Here’s all the stuff I don’t do. I need people around me who do that.” So that together, they have the whole package.
So that’s what this event in November is about.
IC: What comes next?
CB: We’re planning, right now, three training events for next year, that are not the cohort; the cohort that we’re going to lead is a different process. These big events are designed to do that second piece of [congregational development], cultivate places. It’s designed to take healthy pastors and churches, and marginally healthy pastors and churches, and to develop them.
We’re going to do an event in February on Discipleship: how to build a discipleship system in your church, and then what that contains. So it’s not only build the system, but then, so what do you do with it?
We’re going to do another event in the spring on building effective worship, and what a good worship service looks like. I’ve been to 10 worship services in our annual conference – [deep intake of breath] … We need that ...
And then we’re going to do another one in the fall on “growing young.” And I’m gonna be doing that together with Fel [Cao; Conference Director of Camping and Young People’s Ministry], about helping our congregations understand how to grow young. In other words, how to become congregations that are invitational to younger people – not just younger adults, but youth, children – everybody.
And then hopefully we’ll start some cohorts out of that, where some churches will work together with the people that I’m going to bring in to lead that.
I’m bringing in Kara Powell from the Fuller Youth Institute to come lead that, and then the Youth Institute sponsors cohorts of churches that work with Fuller, to develop those ministries.
So hopefully we can get a few dozen churches that want to participate; we break them into cohorts and they all work with Fuller, with coaches and consultants from Fuller, to help their congregations begin doing that work, to start to grow younger. That’ll be next year.
IC: That’s extraordinary. That’s just going to make a huge difference.
CB: Huge. Huge difference.
IC: That’s so exciting.
CB: Yeah, that’ll be three. I’m getting on the schedule – probably in the next couple weeks, I’ll have them nailed down.
That’s what makes this November event such a big deal, because it sets the bar. People who come to that will make their judgments about the value of what our office provides, based on that.
IC: If people are not thinking of themselves in terms of church planting; if that isn’t something they think that they’re capable of doing, or have an interest in doing – what’s the value in going to the ministry styles event?
CB: That event – all these events that we do – even in the next year, on Discipleship, Worship, and Youth [Growing Young] – those events will benefit everybody, regardless of whether they’re going to be a church planter. Because the notion of cultivating places is creating healthy congregations and helping marginally healthy congregations become healthy. Those events are designed to help that process in local churches.
It’s somewhat odd, because that work, you would not normally think is congregational development. That’s why we say, “cultivating places.” Because that’s the field where my work happens. If we don’t have healthy churches, there is no congregational development. It doesn’t exist.
(Well, it can – it’s the parachute, it’s the one out of 10 – that’s how it would function, so …)
The value for everyone is, it’s going to improve the life of their congregation and their church, regardless of whether they ever – if they have any interest in starting anything new, or not. They’re still going to find benefit in that.
One of my convictions is that every leader is a learner. And so ...
IC: Should be … CB: … so when we provide an opportunity to learn something that’s good – I’m not just saying, “because we do it, you should come” – if it’s good – you should be there for that.
IC: Is this only for clergy?
CB: This one, this first one, is only for clergy. What we’re going to try to do with the other ones is, I’m going to try to do one a year that’s for only clergy, and the other two – I’m going to try to do three of these a year – the other two are for clergy and teams from their church.
[For example,] the one on discipleship, that’s in February. We’re trying to set that up so it’s a Friday-Saturday. So on Friday the clergy come, and they’re here all day, talking about the Big Picture stuff: how to set up a discipleship system in your church, what does it mean to have a culture of discipleship in your congregation – all that.
Then on Saturday, that’s when we have teams from those pastors’ churches come – either in person, wherever we’re at, or digitally, using like, Zoom or something – so the teams participate in it, as well.
We’re going to do that with all three of them next year. Make them so it’s pastors and teams at each one. And then the year after that, 2020, that’s when I’ll start to stagger it, so it’ll be three events every year: one for clergy only; the other two have a day with clergy, a day with laity from their congregations.
I’m trying to listen to what all the pastors and churches are saying they need. So every time we have a group of pastors around, I’m sitting in the room, listening.
You know, I think everything in the local church is in a season. We’re in a season of radical decline. And so that means all of our priorities right now need to be focused around one thing: and that’s revitalizing and growing the local church. Everything else is secondary right now. Because if we don’t do that, we won’t need any of the other things. ‘Cause there won’t be churches.