R before T

A good article from the Alban institute called “Putting How before What” got me thinking about this subject some time ago.

This post is my own version of it, taking its ideas mixing in some theology and describing the result. There is not a clear direct parallel here in Nobleford, but there are enough similarities it might be helpful.

In the article a pastor writes about coming to a church that was partway through a revamping of the way it was organized. This church, he writes, had gotten tired of “Too few people … doing too much work” and church leaders were growing older and grayer and eventually burning out. Congregational participation was good, but committees and oversight were slowly breaking down. Truly, the organizational needs and structures of that church had become a burden that fewer and fewer people were willing to bear anymore. Much pleading and begging had to be done to get people to serve as leaders. So, energy and enthusiasm was waning rapidly. And the church was no longer growing.

In the  article, the author says a church has things it needs to do (What needs to happen), and it has ways it is accustomed to doing them (How they are done). The congregation had recognized and faced a truth “that the … committees were so overburdened with tasks that any sense of fellowship and passionate mission was drained out of them.” That is where his title came from. The “What” of tasks had come to rule, and what he calls the “How” of fellowship and mission had been overshadowed and his article is about putting the How first again. The tasks were inherited — carried over without fresh thought, and they “lacked a central focus,” while the fewer and fewer leaders managing so many tasks had all passion for their work drained from them. This situation naturally ruled out anyone coming up with, or trying, any kind of new ministry. A kind of dying stagnation had taken over as everyone just went through the motions of completing existing tasks.

The church he writes about decided to look into the problem further, and to imagine and find another way. What they concluded was this:

“the purpose of gathering people together in the structural life of the community needed to be more than just about completing a task. People rarely felt called to tasks, but almost always made room for relationships. If the work of the church was going to have any connection to the work of God, then the tasks in which the church engaged had to be primarily about relationships—relationships with God and relationships with one another.”

And so there is where the title of my version of this comes from: “R before T” Relationships before Tasks.

The church exists to bring glory to God by helping people build relationship with God above all, and then with each other. Getting certain jobs done comes waaaaay behind that.

Years ago I was privileged to be a team leader on a SERVE (mission with youth from the church) project. My team had to clear some brush along a path, and then build a deck on the ground. I had a team of teens that I knew, some teens I did not, and a few helper leaders who were young adults. I had seen other crew leaders try to focus on getting the job done with little relationship building, and it created a very tense team. So I had the impulse to to try something different. I hoped it was an inspired one, and in the end it proved to be that. Before we began, we sat and got introduced, and I asked a few personal questions about the kind of music they liked and things like that. Then I asked “Are you a person who likes to be told exactly what to do, or do you prefer to be told what the end result is intended to be — and figure it out for yourself?” And so each answered. For those who wanted exact instructions, I told them exactly how to hold the cordless drills and screw down the deck boards. For the others, I told them in a general way that we wanted the boards to cover the whole deck and that there should be ⅜ inch space between them… “Go at ‘er.” We had people remarking how pleasant it was to work on Pastor Pete’s team. Why? Because we built some relationship, and because the work orders were matched to what I had learned the person needed. Try giving vague goals to a person who needs specifics, or try be specific with a person who likes to figure it out themselves, and you have disgruntled and frustrated workers, and less than optimal work getting done because of it.

I have applied that lesson to the Transition Team. Team members will have an idea what I”m talking about, because they have experienced some of the relationship building questions we’ve been discussing. They may even have wondered “Don’t we have a task to do?” “Why are we spending time on this?” Well, it is because I believe in R before T enough to test it out each time I form a group or committee or team.

It is my sense that many churches have a habit of handing off tasks and duties from person to person from generation to generation, and everyone sort of believes “this must be what church is all about” and picks up the task and does it, until their time comes to pass it to someone else. Because that is the understood way of doing things, rethinking what was being done was not easy, and may in fact have been discouraged, passively and actively.

I think R before T is an echo of Being before Doing, of Spirit-led before law-led or Duty-led, of Body of Christ before Church institution. In the past few sermons I’ve talked about the powers of Christ and Kingdom of God (love, mercy, grace, forgiveness) and the powers of the Kingdoms of this world and Satan and the flesh (coercion, suppression, survival of the strongest etc.) The second set of powers begin to influence the body of Christ and restrict it as soon as anything is organized, because organizing requires structure and order and hierarchy and power. So, when Tasks start coming before Relationships, which power is ruling the church?

Lets get radical, lets return to the roots of what it means to be Christ’s church as the living body of Christ and lets imitate Christ and God in making building relationships more important than tasks. An odd things happens, I’ve found, when that is done. The tasks or work gets done, maybe not as efficiently, but much more pleasantly. And the community grows.

Lets put R before T again, so we can become even more vibrant and invigorated.

The original Alban institute article that inspired my thoughts on this can be found at: http://www.alban.org/conversation.aspx?id=9943

Shalom and Serenity

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Fred Lozeman
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 19:34:58

    Reading your “R before T” blog made me think of both of Pastor Henry’s sermons yesterday – in the morning we talked about falling into organizations and systems and how we let that organization get in front of the reason for creating the organization in the first place. Pastor Henry called it “corrupting the system” and talked about how Jesus had to face the theological system created by Israel – God was no longer the focus, the sacrificial system to look after sin temporarily had replaced the focus on God, and Him fixing the problem permanently. Reading your blog made me realize we still fall into the same traps in church today. In the afternoon, Pastor Henry reminded us that we look at the exterior, but God is interested in the heart. God is interested in “R”, and the “T” will come as an expression of that. Am I on the right track?


    • pastorpete
      Jan 20, 2014 @ 20:40:30

      Fred, Pastor Henry sounds like an on-the-ball smart pastor! And the Spirit is wise and has he and I synchronized in the themes we are working on. That it awesome! From my perspective — and Nobleford people should be able to affirm they are getting tired of hearing it already — “God is about relationship” why else would he come for a walk in the garden in the cool of the day, and why else would he say so often “Then I will be your God and you will be my people”? Relationship with God is what softens hearts and changes us from the inside out. So yes, Fred, you are hearing it well. Task without relating it back to God, and without building relationships within the body of Christ, are just tasks.


  2. pastorpete
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 10:55:08

    I just read this this morning, and heard echoes in it of what I’m trying to say in this post: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/21/opinion/brooks-the-art-of-presence.html?hp&rref=opinion&_r=1


    • Fred
      Jan 21, 2014 @ 13:11:08

      Pastor Pete,
      There are some good comments in that NYTimes article. I like the comment that our faith (called theology in the article) should give us ultimate comfort, not necessarily an explanation of each situation.


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