A Proud Dad

by John Flowers on April 18, 2014

My phone rang early this morning, 7am. As a pastor, late night and early morning phone calls spell trouble, either a health emergency for a parishioner or a big problem that needs to be fixed NOW! Now that I am no longer a pastor in the local church, early and late phone calls mean something else…. my daughter Belinda has a celebration or a concern.

She calls when she is low. She calls when she is up in the clouds. She calls when she is overwhelmed. She calls when she is excited. She calls when she is mad as hell and can’t take it anymore. She calls when life is coming up roses. The one thing in our relationship that means more than anything to me is that she calls.

I talk with other parents of adult children. Daughters call their fathers or mothers more than sons will call. Maybe it is that macho/self sufficient/island unto oneself thing that men seem to keep going generation after generation. Whatever the reason, I find myself pulling feelings out of my son. Not Belinda. Her feelings spill out from her heart to my ears. She trusts me. Thank you God.

Sometime ago my father said to me “I would have given anything if I could have talked with my father like I am able to talk with you.” Feeling connected, trusting in relationships, listening to the feelings of others, are what will transform the world. Practice with your daughter, your father, maybe even your son. Practice the deep connections and build relationships through listening. This is the way we build better families, better churches, and better worlds.


We Need Leaders

by John Flowers on April 13, 2014

One young pastor was troubled. He confided in his supervisor, “I was trained in seminary to be a pastor and a teacher. Now the congregation wants me to be a leader. No one ever taught me how to do that.”

Dr. Kim Cape, General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church w says “The local church does not have enough prophets, apostles, and evangelists.” She is referring to Ephesians 4 where Paul writes about how the local church might structure its common life together: “He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son.” (vv. 11-13).

In the church we are overloaded with pastors and teachers. We cannot survive with clergy and lay leaders who are predominantly pastors and teachers, even though these pastors and teachers may be extraordinarily gifted “mature adults….fully grown, measured by the standard of fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). These pastors and teachers do not fill all the needs for healthy, vibrant, and passionate church life. Nearly all leaders, lay and clergy alike, are trained to practice the gifts of pastoring and teaching at the expense of being apostles, prophets and evangelists.

Apostles, prophets, and evangelists do leadership work in reaching beyond the church’s walls to unchurched people. They are essential to model and train others to that behavior as well. They are indispensable to building up the body as opposed to maintaining it. Today’s church needs our pastors and lay leaders to adapt from a purpose that limits itself to the functions of caregiving and teaching alone (as noble and important as these tasks are) into the broad-based functions of leadership that include apostles, prophets, and evangelists.

Who are the leaders in your local congregation? Who are the apostles, prophets, and evangelists?


Manana Means “Not Today”

by John Flowers on April 5, 2014

A friend of mine from Mexico recognized my frustration. I was serving a congregation where the leaders refused to be held accountable. Elected leaders, at all levels, were long on promises but slow to act. We would have committee meetings, everyone would receive their assignment. At the end of our meeting we would review who was to do what and close the meeting with a prayer. One week later, no one had hit a lick. This was driving me crazy.

I took my frustration to my friend who was born in Monterey, Mexico. A fellow pastor, I poured out my heart. He smiled and noted “I think I know what is going on.”

“What is it?” I asked, desperate to know.

“John, what do you think is the definition of ‘manana’”

“It means ‘tomorrow’”

“You are wrong,” he answered with a smile on his lips. “In my country ‘manana’ means ‘not today!‘”

Different cultures have different ways of doing things. I had entered a culture of ‘manana.’ My expectations of people following through, reporting back, and moving forward hit a church culture that did not operate on my timeline. So what church culture do you live in? Do you live in the church culture where each team member receives his/her expectations, writes them down, and adheres to a tight time line for accomplishing the tasks, or do you live in the ‘manana’ culture? Both cultures are valid and real, but we can’t thrive living inside one culture and expecting the behavior of a different culture.

In the church culture you live in, how do things traditionally get done? What happens when assignments are made but never get completed? What would happen if you began to hold others accountable for their commitments?





No More Than 150 Relationships

by John Flowers on March 28, 2014

Relationships are hard work. Relationships need attention. In order to maintain any relationship, it must be cultivated and nurtured. Are you good in sustaining your relationships? Dunbar tells us that the maximum number of relationships that any one person can sustain is 150. Now for men, that is not a problem. Men have less close relationships than women, by a lot. Men have, on average 1 or 2 close friends while women report having 10-12. Still, if we add in acquaintances, nuclear and extended family members, even men can have up to 50 relationships outside of their work. Women could have 75-100 if we count all the times they meet someone for coffee and a chat. This is all outside of work.

If, as a Christian disciple, our work is to be a pastor, or leader in the local church, then we have room for only 50-100 additional persons. This is a major reason why our local churches do not grow. This is our incentive for decline in our local churches. When the local church grows in worship it makes many of us uncomfortable. Someone new may be sitting in our seat. Strangers are all around us, behaving strangely, doing things that are new and take us out of our comfort zone. We do not know these people. They are new to us and we can handle only so many relationships. If we have a chance to give the new, young family, a disapproving stare when their baby acts up, then we will do so. We are unable to get around to all our current friends at worship therefore we are unable (or is it unwilling?) to talk with the visitors in worship.

Maybe it is time to start new groups. Maybe we need to tell our longtime friends at church “Let’s make some time on Wednesday to talk about that. I want to go over that with you but I need to show some radical hospitality to these new folks this morning.” Maybe we need to quit spending time with the long time friends at church that drain the life out of us and make new friends who are seeking a new connection with God. Remember, 150 relationships is the max.


Book “Adapt to Thrive” Now Available

by John Flowers on March 21, 2014

Karen and I are proud parents of a new book. This new book “Adapt to Thrive” is the third in our family. In 2009 we published “Not Just a One Night Stand, Ministry With the Homeless.” In 2012 we published “Ten Temptations of Church, Why Churches Decline and What to Do About It.” Adapt to Thrive uses Darwinian evolutionary theory to suggest that, just like mammals and birds must adapt to their environments to survive and thrive, Christians as a unique species must also adapt to thrive. Karen and I offer 10 different cultural adaptations that local congregations must make in order to stave off extinction. We believe these 10 adaptations will transform dysfunctional congregations into healthy, thriving congregations.

Please buy the book. I think we get the amazing sum of 87 cents for every book sold! Karen and I wrote this book because we do not believe that we can “fix” dysfunctional and declining congregations by overlaying successful “best practices models” from other local churches. On the contrary, new programing and changes in practice will not make local churches healthy, only a commitment to cultural change will bring a congregation to full health. We believe that we must honor our true purpose “to make new disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” and align everything we do with that purpose. We hope this new book provides for an interesting read.

To order the book simply Google “Adapt to Thrive, John Flowers and Karen Vannoy” and click on Amazon or Cokesbury (or any other online book seller) and you will be guided through the purchase process. After you read the book, please write a review and post it on Amazon or some other site. (If you hate the book, and after reading it consider it a waste of your time, please do not write a review). Good reviews are greatly appreciated and help quite a bit as we teach in various places around the country. We are teaching in Indiana in September and in New Jersey in November. More on those gigs later.


5 Signs Your Church is in Trouble

by John Flowers on March 15, 2014

Does this sound like your church?

1- Church members desire to keep the church one big family

2- People hold positions (office) but do not hold power

3- Pastor carries expectations no one can live up to

4- tradition has more pull than vision

5- Church has a desire to do more, not less

Cary Nieuwhef says these are characteristics of a dying church. If you have 3 out of 5, count yourself on the decline. Churches are not the “family of God,” churches are “households of God.” A household will have people who just came off the street, persons who are strangers, who sometimes act like strangers, but have the same hunger that you have, to feel more connection with God.

Some churches have elected offices for show. These officers are not the decision makers. These folks do not have power. The decision makers gather in the parking lot, after the called meeting has been adjourned, to make the real decisions.

Some pastors proclaim “our church will feed 1000 persons during Lent this year.” After Easter, as the effort is evaluated, the church is unable to celebrate their accomplishment because 600 meals served feels like a failure when the expectation was 1000.

Many churches look to the past for their identity rather than saying “our past was great but our best days are still ahead of us!”

Some churches continue to do 25 things or more with uneven results, when they may be better served doing 4 things in the highest quality possible.

Examine your congregation closely. The church for tomorrow practices self-awareness. Don’t let your congregation be trapped in these 5 dysfunctions. Name the dysfunctions and move toward a more healthy local church culture.


Adapt to Thrive

by John Flowers on March 8, 2014

We have long been told that a local church is an organization. By that I mean, the church is a community with an organizational structure which allows the local church to do business. Our churches are non profit organizations, our goal is not to make money. Our goal is to proclaim God’s love and grace for the world. One thing I was taught is that the church is the only organization that does not exist for the benefit of its members. I like that a lot.

But recently I have come to a new conclusion. The local church is not so much an organization as it is an organism. The church is a living and breathing thing. Arie de Geus, a “for profit” business management consultant, has advanced the same theory for the business world. His book is entitled “The Living Company.” Both the local church and for profit businesses, as organisms, must adapt to their business/ministry environments/contexts in order to survive. Business organisms must

1. be sensitive to their environments,

2. be cohesive with a strong sense of identity,

3. exercise tolerance, and

4. be frugal in their financial world.

Local church organisms must

1. adapt to the uniqueness of their times and neighborhoods

2. adapt a culture of abundance over scarcity,

3. adapt a culture of trust over suspicion, and

4. adapt a culture of making deep disciples over enlisting marginal members.

Organizations seek to make structural changes and superimpose “best practices” templates while Organisms grow and thrive through cultural adaptations. In our upcoming book “Adapt to Thrive” (published by Abingdon press next month) we will talk more about organisms and how we can learn a lot about local church adaptation from the science of evolution.



I Can’t Handle the Truth

by John Flowers on February 28, 2014

I am sick and tired of being fat. I have tried every diet in the book. I get 1-2 hours exercise every day so it cannot be that. I do not eat the healthy foods I need to, and I eat too much. I did not know just how much until I started keeping a food journal. I vowed to write all the food and drink I consume in one week. I have done this for 5 days with only 2 days to go; conclusion…. With my diet, any family of 6 would be happy. Any family of 6 with two teenage sons. I don’t know the precise quantity of food I consume but by 2 in the afternoon, after recording my afternoon snack, I needed a fresh piece of paper for supper. Too much, too much!

I am happy I decided to write it all down. This is my reality check. A food journal is my reality check. To see everything in print is overwhelming. I have been lying to myself for years… “I just had a small bowl of ice cream.” 3 scoops, is that a small bowl? We have different size bowls in the cabinet but I always go for the big bowls when it comes to ice cream. In day 3 I found myself eating 5 cream puffs but only recording 2 of those in my journal. Heal me Jesus!

One guy I visited said he had cut down to 2 drinks per day at the same moment that his wife brought his first drink in a 32 ounce tumbler. Reality check is for those of us who live with self-deception. It is time to develop new, healthy habits in my relationship with food.

A member of the last local church where I was pastor reported to me that he was regular in his attendance at Sunday morning worship. “Do you register your attendance each week?” I asked “Sure I do, I write it down,” he replied. I think I may have offended him. I checked the attendance journal, the registration pads found in each pew where visitors and members alike write down their attendance each week. By those records he worshiped with us, on average, once a month. Neither of us would have known that if he had not written it down.

I do not mean to judge anyone else. I mean to be an agent of God’s grace. But this I do know, it is difficult for me or you to practice self-deception when we write down the truth.  God’s grace begins with us telling the truth.


Local Church Culture Must Change

by John Flowers on February 21, 2014

I was listening to the news. Syria is in deep conflict because they have been ruled by a dictator for years. This was possible because the dominant culture believed in security over personal liberty. The Ukraine is in deep conflict because the dominant culture has valued stability over individual freedoms, security over democratic rule, and economic ties to Russia over economic ties to the west. Middle East experts are telling us that unrest has come not because people want new laws but because people want to live in a new way, inside a new, more diverse, more inclusive culture. How is that different from the religious revolution brought by Jesus?   I am convinced Jesus was not saying for us to do new things and try new ways. Jesus was saying it takes a religious revolution to change our culture!

Our local churches have not joined the Jesus revolution. We have not challenged the culture of personal convenience discipleship for the revolutionary culture of giving our whole lives to God. We are still operating in a culture of civil religion while Jesus implores us to practice civil disobedience. We are embedded in a pastoral care culture when Jesus calls for us to adopt and adapt to a prophetic word and action culture. We are encapsulated in a culture where local churches celebrate themselves through covered dish dinners while Jesus cries out for the hungry to be fed.

It will do us absolutely no good to incorporate helpful hints for hurtful habits when Christ demands more radical change in our local church culture. We are called to transform the world. How can we transform the world when we are fussing about what hymns we will sing in worship, and how prayer concerns are to be handled? We are overwhelmed by a sensitivity culture that refuses to hurt anyone’s feelings. We have yet to adapt to a culture of dignity and respect for the marginalized. We cannot simply adopt new “best practices” in ministry. We must adapt to a new culture that is committed to transforming the world and refusing to let anyone get in the way of that sacred duty. The church for tomorrow must live into a new culture of transformation.





Complex Theology and Simple Faith

by John Flowers on February 12, 2014

Len Sweet has taught me another valuable lesson. Sweet writes in his latest book, The Well Played Life, (pg 193) Aging is a schizophrenic exercise in going opposite directions at  the same time: I mature with age, and I immature with age. I call this simplexity. Simplexity is a systemic combination of both complexity and simplicity. The Holy Spirit reveals the God of simplexity.

Simplexity is not lost on this 61 year old fat man. I have graduated from the twenty second grade of good God school. I have worked as a local church pastor for more than 38 years. I have preached untold numbers of sermons, as well as conducted numerous weddings and  funerals. I sat at the hospital beds of hundreds of persons scrambling in their last moments for the meaning of life while leaning against the doors of death. I have studied Liberation, Narrative, and Process theology yet my belief is sustained by the simplicity and complexity of Psalm 139 where I learn about the inescapable God. The day after my son’s suicide I read Psalm 123 as my prayer of both angst and comfort, and in the spirit of Karl Barth I now sing my statement of faith in those childhood verses “Jesus Loves Me this I Know.. for the Bible tells me so……” Simple messages which are simultaneously complex… simplexity.

Faith is not an either/or, black/white, good/bad, proposition. Faith are gray areas coming to life. Faith is something I love and hate at the same time, in the same moment. I feel wonderful being fully known by the God described in Psalm 139. At the same time, being fully known terrifies me! Both those things are true.

The church for tomorrow will make room for simplexity. The church for tomorrow is more interested in questions than definitive answers. The church for tomorrow is thankful to Len Sweet for reminding us “the older I get, the more complex my theology becomes, but the more simple my faith is.”