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09. 23. 2023

Staff Health| Current Events

The Messiness of Ministry

| 2 min read

Written by Matt Steen
Jan 23, 2023 8:00:00 AM

Let's face it, ministry is MESSY and change is HARD ... and Mike Bonem wrote the book on it (literally)! 
In this conversation, I had the privilege of talking with author and ministry leader, Mike Bonem as we discussed his new book, The Art of Leading Change: Ten Perspectives on the Messiness of Ministry, and what he is currently seeing in the Church.

Watch the conversation / Read the transcript

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Matt Steen: Well hey y’all, it’s Matt Steen, Co-Founder of Chemistry Staffing. Really excited to have a conversation today with Mike Bonem. If you don’t know Mike, you need to. He’s written Leading from the Second Chair. And he’s got a brand-new book out called The Art of Leading Change. Which everybody needs to go and buy at least three of these. But Mike also has crafted a career of coming alongside church leaders, coaching, consulting, and just really has a heart a love for the local church. I greatly appreciate his heart and always cherish the times that I get to talk with him. Mike, thanks for taking some time to talk with us.

Mike Bonem: Well, thanks for the kind words, Matt. It’s good to be with you again.

Matt Steen: Cool. So the new book, it’s called The Art of Leading Change: Ten Perspectives on the Messiness of Ministry. I can’t imagine why you felt the need to write this.

Mike Bonem: [laughing] You’ve never seen a messy ministry.

Matt Steen: Oh, never. Especially not the last couple of years.

Mike Bonem: Well, and it was needed before that but certainly more so today it seems like because things have only gotten messier. The very first book that I co-authored with a couple other friends was titled a book Leading Congregational Change. Often when I would talk about that book or have an opportunity to speak at a conference would say, most of what I’m going to talk about today is the science of leading change. It’s the process. It’s follow these steps. And I would always offer the caveat that there is also an art to leading change.

Matt Steen: Yes.

Mike Bonem: And frankly, I would say it’s the stuff that’s harder to teach. It’s the messiness. It involves people and all the uncertainties as we’re leading change. So I got tired of just saying that and decided to at least put into words some of what I’ve seen and experienced around that art of leading change, around that messiness. It always involves people.

Matt Steen: What I like about the way that you organized it is around ten axioms is the word that you use. Statements that really kind of hit home and really kind of hit the heart of what you’re trying to drive home here. I think the art piece really lines up with that. What I really love, Mike, and what I’m grateful is in there and really got hung up on, had to read it a couple times, was your sixth axiom, the sixth chapter in this. I want to make sure I’m reading this right, so it’s, “Resistors are not the enemy.”

Mike Bonem: Yeah.

Matt Steen: So tell us, why did you find the need to go there?

Mike Bonem: Right. Sort of like, why did I need to talk about messiness? It happens everywhere.

Matt Steen: Exactly.

Mike Bonem: So let’s back up a step and acknowledge that no matter how well designed a change process is, no matter how compelling the vision is, no matter how much you’re convinced it is absolutely God-ordained and you’re moving exactly where God wants your ministry or your church to go, there’s going to be resistance. I’m sure a lot of your listeners have also read Tod Bolsinger’s book Canoeing the Mountains, and he talks about sabotage. The sabotage is just to be expected. So it’s not a question of design a better process, come up with a more compelling vision. It’s just, I know I’m going to run into some resistance, and how do I deal with that? How do I react to that? To ever increasing degrees, I think, in our society we’re becoming more and more polarized. And with polarization comes a tendency to say, you’re either with me or you’re against me. There’s no middle ground. And if you’re against me, you’re the enemy. I don’t think it’s playing particularly well in national politics. I’m not going to get into a political discussion. But I will certainly say in your church it does not work well. That was the reason for writing it is to say, let’s instead of immediately treating them as the enemy, let’s explore other ways that we can think about that person who may be resisting. 

Matt Steen: That’s really strong. I think back to the Mars Hill podcast. By now, everybody and their brother has listened to this. So much of the message there was, you’re either with me or you’re against me. There was never the room for middle ground. There was never that room for reconciliation almost. You see how well it works on the national spotlight politics. But even more we hear these stories of churches that have that mindset. That never ends well either. 

Mike Bonem: Right.

Matt Steen: We don’t talk a whole lot in seminaries about, one, what are resistors? Genuine resistors. And two, how do we deal with those? As you coach pastors, what are you telling them as they come up against this resistance? How do they deal with it?

Mike Bonem: Well first is to recognize that it’s normal and that it should not be unexpected. I was just with a group of pastors earlier today, and I said, I’m not sure that I want to say that you shouldn’t be surprised because you never know where the resistance is going to come from. In some sense, it is surprising. It comes from a person that you don’t expect it to come from. Or you think you’ve gotten far enough down the road and then you’re surprised when all of the sudden it pops us. It is often surprising because you didn’t exactly know that it was coming. But you should know in one way or another that it’s going to happen. So the first coaching point is to say, look, it will happen. Don’t be shocked. I think the second coaching point is to rather than immediately pushing them off to the side as the enemy, start to explore where is the resistance coming from. And even, what might be my part in having created that resistance? Which is a really hard work. At the end of the day, we can’t control other people. We can only control ourselves. So starting to ask questions, what role might I have played? And how can I approach them in a way to understand the source of their resistance? 

Matt Steen: That’s great. So recognize that we may need to own some of this. Which you just made fans of everybody listening to this now. Good job on that.

Mike Bonem: I’ve got to dig myself out of the hole now.

Matt Steen: Exactly. Exactly. But then, go and give them a listen. I’m talking to leaders that I’m connecting with. A lot of times the question I’ve had is, how many cups of coffee have you had with this person? 

Mike Bonem: Exactly.

Matt Steen: Or are you responding by email? And so much of ministry needs to be fueled by those coffee conversations to understand what is going on in somebody’s life and to understand why you might have stepped on some toes. As you’ve been coaching, are you seeing a resistance to having the face-to-face conversations, to really going in there to potentially own? What do you think drives that?

Mike Bonem: Again, I think we’ve been more and more conditioned emotionally that you deal with it in text and email and social media. There’s also - this is particularly true among pastors - resistance, we just don’t like conflict for the most part. I know there are some that engage in it. But that pastoral mindset, right. I want to love everybody, and I want everybody to love me. Where does conflict fit in with that? So that’s another reason at having the face to face. And people are stretched awfully thin. There is this seductive lure to think, I can answer in one email and then I’m done with it. That takes five minutes. Coffee is going to take an hour out of my day. It’s not going to be pleasant. I think all of those reasons cause people to be reluctant to engage in that coffee conversation. And the reality is that the conversation over the cup of coffee, it might not be pleasant, but it is much more likely to produce a fruitful outcome than any of the other means that you have available. 

Matt Steen: Absolutely. Well like I said, I’m so grateful that you’re leaning in on this piece in particular because it just seems like especially with some of our younger pastors - and that probably got me into trouble. But there is that almost innate reaction of, I guess, fight or flight. We can lean in and go to the mattresses from day one, or we can actually take the time to hear what somebody is saying and potentially reconcile. They may never agree with you, right? But they won’t be vocally going after you. 

Mike Bonem: And they still might vocally go after you. Right? That’s also a reality. Until you at least lean into it more, you don’t know. Maybe it was just a miscommunication, right? You just simply misunderstood something. And you clear it up. Maybe they actually have identified a problem with whatever it is that you’re proposing that you haven’t thought of, and that’s why they’re resisting. Well turns out, my idea was half baked after all. And they just saved me a ton of pain and wasted energy. I found that out by having the conversation with them. Maybe they feel like we cut them out of the process. They were not at the table when the decision was made, so there’s some hurt feelings maybe about that. But I can talk to them. I can’t undo the fact that they weren’t at the table. But the conversation may make them feel like they are included enough now that they get behind it. There are a number of other possibilities besides just the one that says, I had the conversation. I can check it off my list. They’re still resistant, but they’re a little less resistant now than they were before.

Matt Steen: Absolutely, that’s great. So I know that this is an unfair question, totally unrelated to what we’ve been talking about. I know all ten of your axioms are like your children and you love them all equally, but do you have a favorite?

Mike Bonem: [laughing]

Matt Steen: Do you have a favorite? I won’t tell the others.

Mike Bonem: Yeah, right. The one around resistance is one that as soon as I started noodling on the idea for the book, I knew that I had to write that one. Another one that I’m partial to is the very first one, which is titled “Lead with Trust.” I’m partial of that one because I think trust gets misunderstood a lot of times in ministry. The posture that pastors can easily take is, I’m your pastor, of course you should trust me. Or you have to trust me. I’m a man of God. I actually believe the Ten Commandments, and I don’t lie. I don’t steal. And so there can be an expectation of imputed trust. And there’s a couple of problems with that. One is that a lot of people have been burned by people in ministry. So they don’t automatically trust. Regardless of how wonderful and impeccable your credentials are, you still need to earn their trust. Another problem with it I think is there’s a lot of different levels of trust. I use a story in the book, just to get it out of the ministry context, there’s a lot of people that I would trust to bring my change back if I gave them a $20 bill. Not that anyone carries cash anymore, but I gave them a $20 and asked them to go and get me a Starbucks and bring me the change back. Right? Any number of people. When our kids were younger and we wanted to go out on a date and we wanted a babysitter, there were precious few people that I would trust to watch my kids. And the same is true for the church. Pastor, do I trust you not to lie? Oh yeah, I trust you not to lie. But I do I trust you in some of these bigger leadership positions? You know, show me you’ve really earned it.

Matt Steen: Yeah. How long do you believe it takes for us to really be trusted by a congregation?

Mike Bonem: Oh wow, yeah.

Matt Steen: Sorry.

Mike Bonem: What is the congregation’s history? If the last pastor, the pastor before that, or even the pastor before that is someone who in their eyes was untrustworthy - and I’m emphasizing “their eyes,” right. Then it’s going to take a lot longer to build trust than if they’ve had stellar history of one pastor after another. And you’ve got to remember that it’s not just that church’s history. It’s all the individuals in the church and their history with the church and with previous pastors. A minimum of 6-12 months and likely longer than that. I was just with somebody today - two stories just from this week. One associate pastor that said the previous pastor - and the previous pastor left seven years ago - we still don’t speak that person’s name in the church.

Matt Steen: Wow. Wow. And that’s an impact on the - man. 

Mike Bonem: Yeah. And we were specifically talking about doing some sort of planning work, strategic discernment work in the church. And he said, I think that’s maybe why my lead pastor is so reluctant to do that because the previous senior pastor engaged in some sort of planning, brought in consultants, and either used it as a weapon or nothing happened with it. Either way, people felt either disappointed or betrayed, burned. And then I was talking with another pastor this week. In this case a senior pastor. Who said, I tried to engage in a strategic planning process in my first year. I’m realizing now that the reason it didn’t go well is I had not been there long enough to have earned their trust. Yeah, it takes time. And they’re watching every move you make. Owning up to when you make a mistake and being honest and humble about it actually earns trust. But certainly not getting too far ahead, getting out over your skis, to use another analogy, because you’re going to go tumbling down.

Matt Steen: So much of the onus is on us as pastors to exegete our congregations just as much as we’re doing the scriptures and understanding when is it too soon to do… we get so excited.

Mike Bonem: And that’s one of the things that I talk about in that chapter of the book. Rather than assuming we’re trusted or assuming that we put up enough wins on the scoreboard, they just by definition must trust us now. We actually really need to be listening. Not just listening ourselves, but empowering other people to listen for us and bring us back some feedback. What I would want more than anything else if I were still in a local church environment would be a handful of people who really have their finger on the pulse of the congregation and who would be honest with me. And who would tell me, hey, Mike, you know what. You thought that went really well. And the way you said it really stepped on some toes. You’ve got some repair work to be done if you want this particular group or this particular person to trust you. 

Matt Steen: And that’s one of those things that’s so tough for us to sometimes embrace, right? Because that’s the political nature of church. Instantly we all think that politics is bad in church, but it’s also human nature. We need to navigate that, to make sure that we’re speaking to the needs of what our congregation is bringing into this. 

Mike Bonem: I’ll got back to the other axiom where we talk about resistors are not the enemy. That person that was somewhat offended by what you did yesterday that you didn’t know about and didn’t make amends for - maybe because you weren’t even listening or didn’t know about it - is the future potential resistor. Yeah. Right? And on the flip side, if you are able to go back and say, hey, I know I blew it on this one. And that may be to an individual or may be to the whole congregation. I pushed really hard for us to undertake this new idea. And you know what, number one, I pushed too hard and didn’t get enough input. And number two, it was a bad idea. I’m sorry. That gives you more of an opportunity then on the next one to not have that resistance built up as much.

Matt Steen: Absolutely, that’s great. We inherently know that so much of ministry is relationship. And it’s so easy for us to forget that i’s relationship. So much of it is keeping short accounts with our relationships and not giving into the temptation of efficiency. Doing the text message, doing the email, instead of doing the actual relational work of going and sitting down and having those deep conversations, hard conversations.

Mike Bonem: Exactly, exactly. You asked me to pick a favorite. I’m going to go to one more, Matt, unless you had a different direction you wanted to go.

Matt Steen: Go for it.

Mike Bonem: I’m worried about one of my ten-chapter children being very upset with me. I think it’s number nine. It’s one of the latter ones. It’s who is not in the room? The idea there is that when we pull a leadership team together. And this could be just the staff of a large church. But more often, it includes the volunteer leaders. The board, the elders, the deacon body, the session, whatever terminology fits for a particular church. It’s a bunch of insiders. And then we’re tasked with making decisions. I can’t remember now who said it, but the church is the only organization that exists for people who are not a part of it. And yet, that often does not enter our decision calculus. Or it doesn’t enter it very well, very fully. And so the part of the art of leading change, to go back to the whole concept of the book, is figuring out ways that we can continually be reminded of who is not in the room as we’re making decisions. Whether it’s the person that we feel called to reach or the person that’s already a part of the church but on the fringes. But if we lose sight of that, then we lose a lot of the momentum for the change that God is likely calling us to make. So just being cognizant of that is incredibly important.

Matt Steen: If you’re talking to a pastor that’s trying to be cognizant of who is not in the room, what are some simple - they may not be simple, but what are some ways that they can be incorporating them into the culture of their leadership?

Mike Bonem: Helping the leaders to either remember and think about interactions they’ve had with people like that, or actually bringing people into the room, at least briefly. Think about, do we have a teacher or a principal in our church who they’re interacting all the time with the people of the community. Should they be on our leadership board? They have a perspective that the retired person who their entire circle of friends are church members may not have.

Matt Steen: Right.

Mike Bonem: Or do we have somebody who is relatively new to the church and we feel like has the spiritual maturity to be on the board. Let’s get them to talk about what it was like to be a newcomer to the church. Or that retired person whose entire circle of friends is church members. But they have an adult child who wandered away from the church when they graduated from high school and hadn’t been back. Have we heard their story and heard their pain and started to process that through the lens of, gosh, what would it take for us to reach if not that actual child, somebody’s child or person who is out of church? The book is filled with fictionalized stories of real churches. The stories that I tell in that particular chapter, that’s one of the examples that I give is a person on the leadership team of a church saying - a church talking about, we’re going to start a new worship service so that we can better reach the young people of the community. And the board member saying, my child wouldn’t come to what we’re talking about. My young adult child would not come to that. Because you’re talking about having the worship service at just a different time on a Sunday morning, and everybody who is here is all buttoned up in their suits and ties, and my child is going to feel pretty out of place coming here in their shorts and t-shirt with all their tats showing. Right?

Matt Steen: Exactly.

Mike Bonem: Anything like that to create more awareness. So yeah, it can be done. It can definitely be done.

Matt Steen: It can be done, and it has to be going into it open-handed, actually listening and not trying to correct. Tell when they’re wrong about their experience, that kind of thing.

Mike Bonem: Right. I remember a couple of years ago, one church that was talking about, we want to be more effective in connecting with young adults. They were going down the path of starting a new worship service. That’s one of our default answers. And before they got too far, they said, let’s pull a group of young adults together, the few that are in our church, and ask them what they think they and their friends would be interested in. Wow, what a novel idea, right? 

Matt Steen: Yeah, yeah.

Mike Bonem: They said, we don’t want a worship service. We actually kind of like what the church is offering right now. But what we’d be really interested in and likely to invite our friends to is a home gathering. Huh. Okay. So before we run out and spend all that money to launch a new worship service, let’s start with a home gathering and see where that goes first. And it had some real traction for them.

Matt Steen: That’s cool. And again, go back to the relational issue. There’s nothing new under the sun. Mike, thank you so much for this. Thanks for the book. Let me ask you one other question before we wrap up. You’re taking with churches all over the country. You’re seeing what’s going on around us. What encouragement are you giving pastors these days? As you look to the future, what are you saying, hey, let’s be thinking about this. Start thinking about heading in that direction. What are you encouraging churches to do these days?

Mike Bonem: Matt, I’m a big believer in naming the reality. And the reality right now is there is a lot of uncertainty. Uncertainty proceeds stress and anxiety. And with all that we’ve been through, there’s a lot of anxiety and fatigue. I think part of what I often tell people is, let’s at least name it. And then let’s ask the question of, are we still trying to hold onto too much of the old stuff and that’s part of what’s creating the fatigue that we’re feeling? But people still need Jesus. There’s still a spiritual hunger. At the end of the day, I think we may need to lose a lot of the old wineskins. But that doesn’t mean we give up on the wine. We need to find those new ones because there is still a real hunger out there. That’s really what I think is one of the refrains in the conversation that I have now.

Matt Steen: That’s great. Mike, thanks so much for the time.

Mike Bonem: Oh, thanks so much for the opportunity. It was fun. 

Matt Steen: So the name of the book is The Art of Leading Change: Ten Perspectives on the Messiness of Ministry. I’ll link down to it so that everybody can go buy a box after you’ve watched this.

Mike Bonem: Buy one for yourself and one for that resistor, right? And then sit down over coffee and talk about it together.

Matt Steen: That’s exactly it. You’ll throw in a Starbucks gift card for every two copies purchased or something like that.

Mike Bonem: Something like that, yeah. Awesome, great. Enjoyed it. Matt.

Matt Steen: Thanks, Mike.

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