A review of the book
Transformational Regional Bodies,
by Roy M. Oswald and Claire S. Burkat

This review, written by Judith Gotwald, is offered from the viewpoint of one congregation experiencing its leadership philosophies.

In 2001, Bishop Claire Burkat of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod co-authored a book with Roy Oswald of the Alban Institute. The book, entitled Transformational Regional Bodies: Promote Congregational Health, Vitality and Growth, is a puzzling book, filled with typos, conflicting premises that go unnoticed by the authors, and a few good ideas. It gives the illusion of being scholarly but in fact builds on hypotheticals and limited firsthand parish leadership experience.

Why review this book ten years after publication? The co-author, Claire Burkat, was elected to lead a judicatory in 2006, five years after this book’s publication. The advice she gives in this book has been put to the test under her leadership with results the book does not foresee. While the book uses many “success” illustrations, there are notable failures which go unrecorded.

The opening pages contain a detailed analysis of two opposing judicatories it says are in the American Northwest. Pages of statistics of one’s failure and the other’s successes are impressive,  . . . but both examples are entirely hypothetical – statistics and all!

The book is written for middle management in the church. From the beginning the authors recognize that some denominations have no such thing as middle management and the book assumes middle management has powers its judicatories may not allow. The book spends no time discussing the judicatory’s relationship with any controlling influences, whether they be constitutional or structural. In this book, middle management IS the highest authority.

For example, the Lutheran Church (ELCA), by its own definition, is comprised of “interdependent” organizations. There is to be equality and respect among Lutheran congregants, congregations and leadership at every level. Constitutions mention congregational consent frequently. Although this is still the premise of Lutheranism, this book is a blueprint for ignoring its traditions and historical structure. Currently and perhaps following the advice of this book, middle judicatory is running roughshod over member churches, forcing closure against congregational wishes and seizing property and assets — all in the name of “transformation.”

The foundation of the book appears to accept a church view that is sharply divided into unnecessary factions — clergy vs laity. Much of the focus is on congregational relations with clergy, making it seem that congregations exist to support clergy, first and foremost.  Most congregations think pastorsserve congregations. The premise is in conflict with reality from the start.

The management of church relations as described by this book assumes a congregation’s dependency upon clergy that is not healthy. The book teaches casting the weak and troubled to the side for the sake of judicatory health and staff/time/resource management.

“You do not have the luxury of giving everyone who asks for help whatever time you have available. Some tough decisions need to be made as to where your Regional Body is going to invest time, energy, and resources. Thinking in terms of TRIAGE is a most responsible thing to do at the present time. Congregations that will die within the next ten years should receive the least amount of time and attention. They should receive time that assists them to die with celebration and dignity. Offer these congregations a ‘caretaker’ pastor who would give them quality palliative care until they decide to close their doors.  It is the kind of tough-minded leadership that will be needed at the helm if your organization is to become a Transformational Regional Body.”

Turn your back on people asking for help is their advice for church leadership. Should this philosophy spread from the church to all struggling people in the world, the advice would be catastrophic. Expect the same within the church. This outlook is devoid of Christianity and the biblical imperatives to love one another. Should the Regional Bodies share this philosophy with the hundreds of small churches who vote for them and send them support offerings, they would surely be sent packing. Do the congregations targeted for death know that the pastor they are paying is there only to help them die? If not, the judicatory is behaving in a deceitful manner. The atmosphere created in a judicatory that practices this philosophy is bound to be fraught with distrust. The purpose of a Regional Body is not to make their jobs easier. Congregations must be confident that they can turn to their Regional Bodies for help. It is a key reason for them to be in relationship with any Regional Body.

The authors spend a great deal of time sympathizing with over-burdened clergy. A long list of statistics details burdens borne by clergy, including long hours, stress on family, burnout, etc.

There is no corresponding list or study cited on the burdens of the laity who work, uncompensated, under the same conditions and with no support system in the church. There are only passing references to the harm clergy can cause in a congregation. There is little recognition that whatever damages might occur will remain problematic for the laity for years, long after clergy pack up theirproblems and move to greener pastures.

The language of the book reveals something akin to distain for church members. For example, in discussing the training of clergy, the authors write:

“We as a church . . . will send men and women into battle against the principalities and powers of darkness within any congregation and expect that none of them to get wounded, seriously demoralized, stressed beyond their capacity to cope, experience family breakup, tempted beyond their capacity to resist, or be rendered mentally and emotionally unstable.”

If this medieval view weren’t bad enough, the authors think things are going to get worse – and it is going to be the fault of the laity. They write:

“It is our prediction that we are going to encounter more and more congregational conflict the further we move into the 21st century. It is clear that the stress levels of individuals within our culture are steadily rising with more and more pressure being placed on people within the corporate world. These people are going to bring their stress to their church and create more stress for their clergy.

All ye who are heavy laden — go elsewhere?

The authors judge congregations by size, the smallest being the “family church” and “pastoral church.” Most congregations fit into one of these two categories, but it is clear that the authors see these categories as undesirable and that small churches exist to become bigger and better. All that stands between them and becoming a wealthier “program church” or “corporate church” is the laity which, in their view, have a bad habit of focusing on their own spiritual needs.

They describe family churches as being controlled by a matriarch or patriarch and discuss ways pastors can be prepared to thwart their power. A healthier Christian way of looking at a family church with strong lay leadership might be to teach pastors to work with the skills innate in any church which has survived for decades with minimal help from clergy. Without strong lay leaders they would be lost — but perhaps that’s part of the transformational plan. Control! Oswald and Burkat spend no time discussing empowering the congregation. Their primary view is centered on the role of pastors and forcing congregations to feed into leadership from above.

At one point the authors recommend, “that Regional Bodies employ tough-minded, intentional Interim Pastors to intervene in their most important congregations.” (We can only assume that the “important” congregations are the bigger and richer congregations.) A translation might be “These congregations need a no-nonsense pastor to tell them what to do.” This seems to be at odds with the very process they describe for visioning and working with congregations and which they admit requires the consent of the people.

There are more troubling dichotomies in the book. The authors explain that as the book was nearing completion, the founder and president emeritus of Alban Institute, Loren Mead, produced a report they felt compelled to include in draft form as an appendix. It is so important, they state in the early pages of the book, that it should be read first.

It is, indeed, an interesting report and perhaps the best part of the book. Unlike the rest of the book, the laity is treated with respect. Loren Mead writes:

“Every congregation has a handful (hopefully more) of lay people who are opinion-leaders in the community as well as the church. When these lay people have had good opportunities to know and participate in important work of the judicatory, they will move the climate of the congregation toward the judicatory. Note that I say ‘important work,’ not ‘busy work’ or powerless and endless task forces. Judicatory executives need to be recruiting such leaders, listening to them and engaging with them. Efforts to that end will bring life to the relationship between congregation and judicatory, and will be an asset when there is a change of pastorate or some other congregational crisis.”

While it’s unclear why a change of pastorate is classified as a crisis, Mead’s thoughts are well-formed.

Mead also comments on the use of consultants in evaluating congregations in transition. He stresses that consultants are hired and paid by the congregation and should be responsible to the congregation. He writes:

“Judicatories often want consultants to operate as staff, carrying out the intentions of the judicatory. Such an understanding assumes that the judicatory controls what will happen. This may be in the best interests of the judicatory, but it violates the integrity of the congregation. In the long run, I think this is very bad for the connection between congregations and judicatories. It is dishonest.”

Mead’s advice is commonly ignored in SEPA Synod under Claire Burkat’s leadership and that of her predecessor. SEPA Synod uses consultants, requiring the congregations to pay for their services while the consultants report to SEPA. This book devotes a good portion to Physes, a consulting firm used in just this way by SEPA. This section of the book reads like an advertisement. The book extols Physes as an organization of great integrity, yet this “dishonest” methodology was used with SEPA, Physes and at least one member congregation, Redeemer, in the late 1990s, just prior to the publication of this book.

Just as Mead predicted, it damaged relations between Redeemer and the judicatory. It was not the only such incident. The SEPA relationship with consultants seems to be so entrenched that when Redeemer congregation independently hired a consultant to lead a workshop (which went very well) the congregation felt betrayed to learn that the consultant filed a report with SEPA without the congregation’s knowledge or permission.

Responsibility is just as murky with other SEPA-fostered relationships. Do the many interim/redevelopment/bridge pastors operating in congregations work for the congregations who are paying them or for SEPA? Discussions with both clergy and lay members reveal that these relationships are often strained because this is unclear.

Claire Burkat, in her role as bishop of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, has ignored Mead’s excellent advice and much of her own. From her earliest days in office, she found ways to bypass local leadership and constitutional provisions to achieve Synodical goals. Her policies have encouraged church closings at an alarming rate and created long-term contention that has been damaging to Christian community and eroded trust for the judicatory. Her approach, devoid of love, has sparked numerous law suits which may outlast her tenure. Studies should be done on the real effects of this approach to ministry, but it is hard to interview churches experiencing modern excommunication.

Transforming Regional Bodies should be widely read in SEPA Synod, where statistics are, with few exceptions, following a downward trend. (Redeemer, forced into closure by the co-author of this book, was one of the few growing churches. Unbeknown to us, we had been placed on the ten-year death track. During that time, unbeknown to synod, we grew fivefold — but too late to change Synod’s tunnel-visioned view.) 

Regional Bodies must rediscover that they exist to serve in a Christlike fashion. A study of this book’s ideas as compared to practice might reveal that it is the Regional Bodies that need transforming.


The Fly in the Ointment: Why Denominations Aren’t Helping Their Congregations and How They Can

by J. Russell Crabtree



The Fly in the Ointment is a striking contrast to the book we reviewed last month, Transforming Regional Bodies, by Roy Oswald and Claire S. Burkat.

Both books are about “Regional Bodies” or middle management in the church. For Lutherans this is the regional synods. Methodists have “conferences.” Catholics have “dioceses,” etc. Both books are about “transforming” Regional Bodies. The Oswald/Burkat book advocates that most of the needed change take place in the congregations. Crabtree’s book, makes many of the same points, but focuses on changes desperately needed in the regional bodies that provide shepherding care to the congregations they serve.

The motivation for writing each book is the same. Church statistics have been in steady decline since the 1960s and are reaching a perilous state – not only for many congregations but for the regional bodies, whose major, if not only, source of income is congregational support.

The first book we reviewed called for stronger “tough-minded” middle management, making triage-like determinations about which congregations have a chance at survival and which should be left to die.

J. Russell Crabtree’s book takes a much more comprehensive look at church statistics and church practices. He draws on his own experience as a pastor and consultant to churches, businesses and non-profits — notably hospitals and libraries — and leads his readers in their own analysis of their situations. He does less prescribing of solutions than he does nudging us toward finding our own solutions.

He points out that there are some congregations with 20 worshipping members that will die and some congregations with 20 worshipping members that have what it takes to grow.

His approach merits a close review and the questions he proposes should be widely discussed.

Congregations, pastors, and regional bodies might be tempted to resist such self-analysis and dismiss failing ministries of many sizes.

Crabtree’s study of statistics shows that more people are satisfied with their libraries and emergency room visits  (85%) than they are with their relationships with their church regional bodies (55%).

Congregations might dismiss comparisons. “But the church is different.” This book recognizes differences between secular organizations and even differences between denominations. However, it does not allow those differences to blind readers to finding useful parallels for solving what everyone recognizes are problems.

The opening chapters discuss the tendency of the church to accept poor performance and statistics with platitudes:

“That’s just the way it is in the church.”
“Accepting struggle is part of Christianity. We are supposed to ‘bear the cross.’”

He challenges both congregations and the regional bodies to look carefully at their relationships to help find answers.


Churches Are Wide Awake and Ready to Serve

They Need More Help

The imagery of the wake up call is often used in the church. Congregations need a wake up call to realize just how bad things are going. Crabtree proposes that this approach is obscuring any chance at solving the challenges facing the Church as a whole.

His research shows that reaching new people is a universal priority in congregations. Spending time issuing wake-up calls to people who are dressed and ready to head out the door is a waste of energy and focus. “I would urge that we cease upon that particular bugle. Church members are awake! they don’t need more ‘pow’! They need more ‘how’!” he writes.

But where do congregations turn for the “how”? They are entering territory that centuries of tradition have explored under very different circumstances and with a structure designed to create continuity while fostering and rewarding long-term relationships. Today’s congregations face fast-moving change—socially, demographically and economically.

Lay leaders naturally turn first to their pastors for leadership. Pastors are called to serve ministries at one point in time. It does not take long for things to change. Any congregation identifying new missions to achieve new goals may be turning to their pastor to solve a problem beyond his or her training, experience or expectations. Asking your pastor to retrain may create hard feelings. Engaging additional expertise to achieve a ministry goal is likely to be unsettling and cause anxiety or conflict. It may also challenge the budget.

National bodies traditionally publish resources, but they are somewhat removed from the realities congregations face. Crabtree asserts that the best resource with the best potential for helping congregations with strategic planning and training of leadership is the regional body. Historically, this is not how they allocate their time and resources. This is where the wake-up call should be sounded, Crabtree stresses.

Regional bodies tend to address individual congregational concerns on a crisis basis. They are most actively engaged with congregations that are between pastors or are experiencing major conflict or financial challenges. This may create a viewpoint that presumes congregations asking for help are deeply troubled.

Regional bodies are not structured to provide day-to-day help with congregational training and ministry. Yet this is what is sorely needed. It is no wonder that Crabtree’s research indicates that as few as one third of church members are dissatisfied with their relationship with their regional body.

Try it! Call your regional body and ask for a meeting to address training your pastor and lay leaders to provide a specific outreach ministry that your congregation has identified as vital. We suspect you will get an appointment several months away and the resulting meeting will provide nothing concrete in assistance.

This is precisely what Crabtree is setting out to change, and in this instance, the onus for change is on the regional bodies.

The leaders of some regional bodies are appointed. In others they are elected, usually by a forum of representatives. There is rarely a campaign identifying interests, skills or the vision of candidates. Often, the talent pool is restricted to regional members. The names proposed are often unknown to many clergy and most lay voters. Denominations should address this, but things will not change without serious rethinking.


Strategic Coaches Could Help Struggling Congregations Focus on the Future


The problem is clear. The Church needs help getting from where we are to where we want to be.

Crabtree proposes the concept of “strategic coaching.” He points out that coaches abound in our society — sports coaches, academic coaches, fitness coaches, career coaches. People are willing to pay for help achieving goals they perceive as too difficult to tackle alone. But how will this be perceived in the world of ministry, where asking for help can be taken as a sign of inadequacy or desperation?

Church bodies often talk about their existence as organizations with many parts working together in witness to the world. Perhaps the Church needs to get out the oil can before its individual parts are locked in rust.

Churches are connected but the benevolence offerings which support broader ministries are dwindling. Congregations are, in fact, fairly isolated. Isolation is crippling.

Pastors can feel isolated. Once their seminary training is over, they are largely on their own, rarely hearing other pastors preach and joining other ministers only occasionally.

Lay people toil away, fenced off in their corner of the vast Christian vineyard. They are, however, more likely than pastors to participate in other churches as they support community efforts and visit friends and family for special occasions.

Our current church structure was helpful when societal lines were crisply drawn. Things have changed. The modern work environment is more open than the cloistered factory or isolated farm. Changing jobs, even careers, is the norm. Marriages are measured in single-digit years rather than decades. Children get on busses, crossing neighborhood lines to attend schools. They drift between several social settings created by schools, numerous clubs, parents, stepparents and extended family. The melting pot is being stirred.

People don’t quite know how to “do church” anymore. Perhaps the biggest challenge is Christian education, the foundation of active Christianity. A typical small-church educational structure today has sporadic attendance from ages three to ten. Often that’s where structured education in the church stops.

Seminaries train pastors and theologians (who increasingly discern their sense of call having grown up in churches with weak educational programs). Seminaries do not concentrate on educating …“strategists. In many cases, these skills are critical if today’s church is to move from the mid-twentieth century (where we seem to be stuck) to the mid-twenty-first century. This may mean asking for help and structuring a budget to provide such help.

Historically, the church resists both. The pastor and congregation are expected to make their way on their own with all the same skills they brought to the table years before and under the same payment structure. Asking for help is admitting you can’t do everything alone. Pastors, eager to maintain stellar résumés, might not risk the stigma. As a result, volunteer lay people are being asked to bear the burden of significant change, often with little training or support. Failure, which is likely under this scenario, may cost them their church and faith.

Crabtree points out that when things aren’t working, it is easy to inaccurately blame lay people as “unwilling.” He stresses, regional church bodies are ideally situated to help congregations. Theycould provide coaching, although there are significant hurdles — making it affordable, assigning responsibility, and building trust among both pastors and members.  We suspect the biggest hurdle in implementing this idea is developing a pool of coaches that congregations recognize as working for them and not for the regional body.

It remains an idea worth exploring and fostering. 2×2 has a program that might be a first step at introducing the concept of “strategic coaching.” We started this program before we encountered this book. We visited congregations that had great spirit and intent, but lacked the skills to implement strategies that could turn things around. Pastors recognized their congregations’ limitations. Everyone slogged along, repeating the same offerings already in place, hoping for a miracle to revive their ministry.


The Church Needs to Grow Leaders

—Both Clergy and Lay

The Fly in the Ointment recognizes from its opening pages that transforming the Church is a process that involves change at the congregational AND regional levels. As the book progresses it increasingly addresses leadership. The author points out that the qualities that make a good pastor at the parish level will not necessarily translate to quality leadership at the regional level. Effective regional leaders must give up many of the roles that may have attracted them to ministry — the satisfaction of shepherding individuals. Many times the leaders of regional bodies never recognize that their job has changed. They find new people to lead on their spiritual journeys and those people are often pastors. Pastors can demand a regional leader’s every hour!

Crabtree points out that regional bodies actually serve church congregational boards — the elected representatives of the congregations. Dwelling on the needs and problems of the ordained or of individuals served by church boards creates a very wide chasm within the church.

This is a common scenario. When regional leaders have an issue with a congregation, they often immediately demand a congregational meeting, bypassing the congregation’s leaders. This is defended as democratic and efficient, but to lay people it is intimidating and it makes lay leadership very difficult. The congregation has no regular access to the regional leader. They must address their concerns through their elected leaders. Lay people will communicate feelings to their elected leaders that they would not dare say in a rare meeting with the denominational leader. If the regional body does not recognize the elected lay leaders, there is a serious breakdown in communication and relationship. The regional leaders seem to be unaware of such dynamics as they attempt to solve issues expeditiously. They risk eroding a congregation’s ability to function creatively and independently. Church leadership suffers.

Crabtree writes, “Though unintended, the result is the effective neutralization of many of the gifts that lay people bring to the table from their experiences in the world, the world filled and held together by Christ.”

With local leaders stripped of influence, false impressions are communicated. Crabtree lists them:

• Church members lack the desire for church growth.
• Church leaders lack the desire for church growth.
• Church members have lost their faith and are spiritually depleted.
• Church members are “unfriendly.”
• Churches do no have enough facility space.
• Churches lack the know-how to grow vital, healthy churches.

Regional bodies often come to congregations with a “bag of tricks” they’ve tried with success in their own parishes or in different locations and expect enthusiastic adoption. Regional leaders should instead be constantly honing their skills and experience so that they have many strategies for congregations to choose from. They must make time to grow in their leadership roles.

Parish leaders, too, must find time to identify opportunities for ministry. He notes, The owner of your local McDonald’s is more aware of what is happening in the community than most clergy. Churches traditionally expect the community to come to them. Change will only occur when the church reaches out to the community. This starts with professional leaders (pastors and regional leaders).

There may have been a time when families flocked to church for stability and comfort. Today, people are less likely to join a church when they perceive things will not change them. They know they are expected to retrain and grow in their jobs and they want the same satisfaction of learning and growth in the time they invest in belonging to a church.

For example, people who have given up attending church are likely to be volunteering to raise money for causes, working with youth, traveling to help at disaster sites, adopting a favorite charity, or wielding a hammer on weekends to build a home for the poor. They get personal satisfaction from “service projects.”  A congregation that recognizes this will provide service projects, with or without the help of the regional body.

Regional bodies often limit their efforts to seasonal outreach or appeal for money  for causes without realizing that today it is possible for people to do more directly.

Congregations can make these changes independently of any hierarchy, but Crabtree points out that often congregations that tend toward innovation are penalized. True leaders are often threatening to the system.

Building leaders is a long-term, strategic commitment. It may begin with training clergy, but it must “cascade down into other levels of the church.” If it does not, Crabtree points out, it either encourages a dependency on the clergy or sets up a conflict.


Leading Change


“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
— Charles Darwin

Our final post in our series on The Fly in the Ointment centers on the concept of change, a much discussed topic in the Church, which seems to be illusive in practice.

Change happens even if you do nothing, but without intentional guidance it is not likely to be growth-oriented. The Church should be familiar with this concept. Decades of doing the same things the same way have resulted in slow and steady decline. It is only recently that broadly accepted status quo operations have reached an economic crisis, and hence, the battle cry for change has sounded to a ragged and weary infantry. Change, which might have occurred slowly and steadily, is now wrenching to congregations.

Let’s hope we can learn from our past.

Crabtree’s book examines ALL the elements in the Church growth equation. He concludes that change cannot be led from the middle, suggesting that the Regional Body needs to provide the leadership for change. (But then, Regional Bodies ARE the middle management of the Church.)

Change might evolve more seamlessly when embraced by the Regional Bodies, but it can start anywhere. The Church needs to stoke the fires which are sparked by dedicated lay people, if they expect them to continue to devote time, talent and resources to “Church.” As in the stories of Saul, David, and quite a few disciples and apostles — innovative leadership may come from unexpected and unpopular places. What seems unlikely to us seems to be God’s standard operating procedure!

Preaching change without recognizing the initiatives of the laborers is devastatingly discouraging to the laity, upon which the entire Church is economically dependent. Remember the biblical concept of “church”— the lists of gifts in the New Testament! Often the emphasis is on the gifts of the professional leaders, while talented lay people wait quietly, looking for ways they can serve without rocking the pastoral boat. Ironically, the economic security which is often the catalyst for seeking change in the church is dependent on those with the least recognition and power within the church.

Crabtree comments:

“In my experience, regional associations have often passively ignored churches that are growing numerically or are unusually vital. There is a cultural suspicion of ‘success.’ This suggests to me that one of the values of regional associations is normal, struggling churches. Again, this is not a value that any group would write on a piece of paper as its cultural norm, but it is what many of us experience as the current culture.”

Crabtree provides ample statistics that struggling churches are starving for change. One congregation, working with their Regional Body, implored their interim minister, “Push us, but don’t rush us!” A Regional Body might interpret this as “resistant to change.” It is not. It is realistic. Lay leaders know that change is work. Change to a church in a delicate state (as so many are) is a balancing act, and the people walking the tightrope are nervous — their spiritual lives, their community of faith, are at risk and there are holes in the safety net.

The final thrust of The Fly in the Ointment is an attempt at impressing Regional Bodies that change at the congregational level needs care and feeding from the Regional Body.

He describes a common approach of instituting change as a process of identifying within a congregation:

1. Key ideas
2. Language
3. Norms
4. Behaviors which are Rewarded
5. Behaviors which are Penalized

He immediately recommends reversing the order to identify factors which inhibit change across a denominational regional body, cautioning that dwelling too soon on changing language (terminology, mission statements, etc.) will give the illusion of change, satisfying some that progress has been made.

These can be seen in the use of slogans shouted at regional conventions or assemblies. “God’s work; our hands,” “God has a plan, and we are it!” They feel good. But did change result?

Change will require some bold thinking, backed up by committed actions. Crabtree concludes with the adage: You can’t cross a chasm in two jumps.