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A Mission Outpost

Reversing Decades of Decline at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church

Good Management
There’s nothing glamorous about management, and its being done well is rarely lauded. And yet management that focuses on small things makes the difference between excellence and mediocrity, health and dysfunction. Management is the necessary support for renewal. Maybe the leadership gurus are right when they say that most organizations are “over-managed and under-led,” but I doubt this is true for many declining congregations. They are likely under-led and under-managed, or at least poorly managed. Even with an inspiring vision, without someone offering day-to-day accountability to keep actions in line with that vision, conflict is inevitable and renewal unlikely.

If I was the theological tour-guide, Ginger was the primary manager, and the most important thing she did was to guide the staff into vision-centered action and to foster healthy teamwork. When we arrived, the staff lacked current job descriptions and had no mechanisms to ensure that they were working toward the same vision. We read old evaluations that suggested areas for improvement, yet there was no accountability to enable follow-through. Furthermore, as in most Methodist churches, since the Staff-Parish Relations Committee (SPRC) was involved in the annual staff evaluations with the senior pastor, the staff were unclear about to whom they were accountable. When serious conflict erupted in our first year, we knew things had to change.

We needed two things: specific job descriptions and clear channels of accountability.

Ginger and the SPRC began to work with the staff to rewrite job descriptions to align with the church’s vision, for only with good job descriptions can useful evaluation happen. After that, the committee entrusted Ginger with the job of leading the staff. The staff needed one person for guidance and support—the same person who would be doing their annual evaluations. Ginger began to have twice-yearly meetings with each staff member, first to review goals for the year and then to ask how each goal fit into the church’s overall vision, what support was needed from her and others to accomplish that goal, and how they would know when the goal had been accomplished. At the end of the year, each staff person’s evaluation was based on progress toward these goals.

Clear lines of communication were established, ambiguity about expectations disappeared, and staff work began to align with the church’s vision to be a sign of God’s kingdom.

Much of this work happened behind the scenes. No one is going to sell books or pack seminars teaching how to rewrite staff manuals, update job descriptions, fill out goal-planning sheets, and conduct annual evaluations. Yet this work, hidden as it was, when coupled with a focus on creating healthy relationships among the staff (no more talking about one another at the water cooler!), was undoubtedly a key factor contributing to what those long-time members called Duke Memorial’s “rebirth.”

When Washington Duke and others began to advocate for a new congregation, they said Durham needed what they called a “mission chapel” in the western part of town. Eventually that chapel became something more like a cathedral—beautiful, large, important. Fifty years of decline gave that church the opportunity to rediscover who it is and why it’s here: to be a “mission chapel,” an outpost of God’s kingdom, acting in ways shaped by God’s own mission to be incarnate among the people. Duke Memorial should be a “church for the masses”; not just a church for a lot of people—the church is far from that—but a church for all kinds of people, where the dividing lines that have come to define cities like Durham are broken down and the landscape of God’s kingdom becomes visible.

What a gift to be a part of this rediscovery and the new life that has resulted.