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Bad Math- Some widely held church-leadership beliefs don’t add up

Trevor Bron

Trevor Bron

Let me be up-front: To me, all math is bad math. Ever since Mrs. Moore’s seventh grade math class, I’ve always had the nagging belief that I did not need to be good at math to be successful. I was the kid who would raise my hand and ask why I’d ever need to know how to bisect a right angle, or what a quadratic equation was. The answers I was given were usually as vague as I found math in general to be. Needless to say, seventh grade math was the first class I was held back in. From then on, I was always behind the others in my grade in math. This was true right up to the last semester of my senior year in college, when I was sitting in my required algebra course with a room full of wide-eyed freshman. I still believed that math had nothing to do with me or my ability to succeed. (This is the part where parents should cover their children’s eyes). For the most part, I was right.
My life in ministry has not required me to be a math genius. The math I needed to do my job was easily accomplished by using a calculator. My second career in construction was a bit more challenging, in that I had to know how to locate a sixteenth on my tape measure. But still, I was able to muddle through, not once wishing I had paid better attention in math class. My third career as a consultant is also proving to be one where math is not needed to any great degree. With one large, glaring exception: I have come across several widely held beliefs that are simply not true – and they’re all based upon bad math.

Bad Math Lie #1
20 Percent of the People Do 80 Percent of the Work
I ask every church I work with to tell me the 20/80 rule. Without hesitation, they can all recite it. And in most churches, the rule seems to be solidly at work. Rarely do I come across a church that has a core of laborers that surpasses the 20 percent mark. But here’s the problem: It doesn’t take more than about a quarter of the people in your church to do what your church does. Sure, you could always use a few more volunteers in the nursery, or a few more brave souls to work with middle school kids, but you don’t need another 80 percent. The work of our churches is fairly limited. In fact, sometimes our visions are too small. It is, however, easier to simply go on believing that the 20 percent love Jesus more than the 80 percent do.
Imagine that next Sunday you got up to give your message, the one you had been working on all week. You had studied, prayed and prepared. You felt deep within your soul that this message was given to you by God – a message directed at your unengaged 80 percent. During the talk, you can feel and see the Spirit move. People are inspired, some are even tearful, and when the message is done, you give the challenge, the one you’ve been giving your entire ministry career: “It’s time to get involved with the work of God here in this church.” Hundreds of people respond by filling out the strategically placed response card in the day’s program. The ushers can hardly carry the overflowing offering plate. The 80 percent rise to the occasion and your heart soars. But then Monday comes. What do you do with all of these people? You and your staff are overwhelmed. A few of the people who responded are placed in open ministry positions, but the remaining 75 percent never get a call, much less a place to serve. Let me state it again: It only takes about 20 percent of your people to do what your church does.

Less Is More
This then begs the question: Should we be doing more? The answer to that is an emphatic “No!” Another bad math concept is “the more, the better.” Churches of any size can only do about five things well, but instead, we do 25 things and end up doing them poorly. Our tendency is to keep adding more and more, and soon our church is completely bogged down, unable to change, adapt and move. In contrast, however, doing five things well allows for direct correlation to your mission, core values and strategic objectives. These guiding elements should be born out of your church’s unique identity and reason for existence. So the dilemma remains: What do we do with the 80 percent?
What is the primary role of leadership? Is it decision making? Finding new volunteers? Mobilizing people for ministry? Jesus did not command us to go into all the world and make decisions. But oftentimes, we think that leadership is about making decisions. We also think it’s about finding just one more volunteer. Actually, it’s about equipping and mobilizing people for ministry. This does, however, mean both the 20 percent and the 80 percent. The 80 percent are most likely called to do ministry outside of your church. Think back to that amazing Sunday morning message. The 80 percent respond, but now you’re equipped and prepared to mobilize them to ministry – all over your city, not just in the church’s child care program.

Small But Big
For the past several months, I’ve been consulting in Parker, Colo., with a fairly small church (150 people) that has a big reach. The smaller the church, the more likely it will be cloistered or internally focused. At times, it seems like a smaller church can only maintain the basics: a worship service, a nursery and some kids programs. The resources are limited, as is the staff, which means that the ministries are limited, too. However, when I began to go through an assessment of this “small” church, I discovered that their Awanas program averaged 70 kids each week. They also attracted 50 to 60 middle schoolers on Friday nights, provided monthly support for an inner city church (Scum of the Earth Church), participated in two other outreach ministries and hosted a monthly dinner for 40 first-year medical school students. If ever a church were in need of both their 20 percent and their 80 percent people, this would be the one.
The church has a vision to create compelling environments that bring people who are far from God into a dynamic relationship with Christ. They’re trying to reach not just kids, through Awanas, but their parents, as well. They’re also very firm about not trying to get people “churched.” They’re trying to provide places for them to connect with people who have an active relationship with Jesus. Their 20/80 challenge has taken one giant step forward. They have opportunities in place for both the 20 and the 80. Now they’re tackling the task of mobilizing people for all types of ministry.

Experiencing Is Believing
The first day of 11th grade geometry class was a nightmare. I had long since bought into the belief that if you sat in the front row, you would get a better grade. I had also recently discovered that I needed glasses. Both of these revelations gave me renewed hope that I could conquer math. All of this ended when this giant of a man walked into the room, carrying nothing but one piece of huge sidewalk chalk that looked small in his hand. He began writing on one of the five chalkboards in the room.
Soon, he had filled up all five boards with one enormous, ongoing mathematical equation. The more he wrote, the lower I slumped in my front-row seat – my new glasses revealing clearly that I was done for. After 10 minutes, he reached the final line on the final board. With great drama, he wrote the solution to the equation: E=MC2. From memory, he had written out the entire theory of relativity.
As if that weren’t enough, he then did something else that no other math teacher of mine had ever done. He went to a large cabinet, pulled out about a dozen Plexiglas containers and began naming them aloud: cone, rectangle, cube, sphere, octagon. Then he passed them around and told us we were going to learn geometry using these tools. For the first time, I could see, touch and experience math. I no longer had to imagine something as 3-D. If this had only happened earlier, maybe math class wouldn’t have been such a nightmare all those years.
I’m not too good at dealing with the abstract. I’m not a theorist or a theologian; I’m a practitioner. Therefore, hearing about the 20/80 fallacy is a lot different than experiencing it, testing it. More importantly, it’s a lot different for church members to experience it. It gives the 20 percent the proper perspective about their role, and it helps them to see that they’re not the only committed ones. On top of that, it gives hope to the 80 percent who want to serve and lead, but don’t see a place for themselves in the church.
Just like that day in math class, when the truth came at me in an intriguing, larger-than-life manner – dispelling the 20/80 theory can be a life-altering, empowering experience. One that truly equips our churches with exponential potential.

[This article appeared in the May edition of Church Solutions magazine. http://www.churchsolutionsmag.com]

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