Don't Underestimate Small
Michael Slaughter likes to put himself down. He opened his talk at the Leadership Institute by saying he has no pastoral gifts and how on his first pastoral visit to a nursing home, the person he went to see dropped dead during the visit.
He also mentions that when he was appointed to Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in the country, he was promised by the Bishop that he could move up to a town church in a few years if he did a good job.
“I’ve been there 38 years, so I guess I haven’t done a good enough job yet,” he said. “There were 98 people in worship on my first Sunday. Within six months, I had grown the congregation to 58.”
It takes a little self-depreciating humor for Slaughter to be relatable. He’s now known nationwide as the author of books like Christmas is Not Your Birthday, The Passionate Church and Renegade Gospel. That congregation he “grew” to 58 did end up growing. Ginghamsburg Church, located in a suburb of Dayton, now averages about 5,000 per week in worship, and is the fourth largest United Methodist Church in the United States.
But Slaughter wasn’t presenting himself as a mega-church pastor to the group of Missouri Conference pastors and lay people gathered at Central Methodist University on April 27 for the annual Leadership Institute. His mantra for the day was the opposite: Don’t underestimate small.
“When Jesus left the planet earth, the size of his congregation was 120,” Slaughter said. “If I had a congregation of 120, you wouldn’t have asked me to speak here today.”
Although Slaughter has a church of thousands, he spends his time and energy with only a few people, and recommends that other pastors do the same. He said that everyone is equal to God, but some people are more strategic to form into leadership roles. By having leaders forming new leaders, the church can experience exponential growth that wouldn’t be possible with all the leadership coming from the pastor.
“When Jesus had 120 followers, he still spent most of his time with the 12,” he said.
Slaughter was no child prodigy, at least not in the area of pastoral leadership. He had been arrested twice by the age of 18. He was arrested for selling alcohol to a minor, while he was a minor himself. He closed out his junior year of high school with four Ds and an F. He now leads a church that went from an annual budget of $27,000 a year to $13 million a year. When the United Methodist Church decided to raise $75 million to combat malaria, his church said they would raise $1 million of it. They are 90 percent of the way there.
He is often asked about the key elements to Ginghamsburg’s growth, with the question coming down to “How did you do it?”
“I don’t know the how, I know the who,” he said. “I haven’t done anything. I’m just the donkey Jesus rode in on. We need to all remember that. Don’t take yourself seriously. Take the Gospel seriously.”
He describes himself as an aging dreamer in the fourth decade of leading mustard seed movement, citing Matthew 13:31 -32: The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.
“When we came to Ginghamsburg, people said we didn’t have the resources to think big. Don’t underestimate small,” Slaughter said. “Why does God use small? Because people will look and know it’s the work of God.”
A drug and alcohol addiction recovery group was started at Ginghamsburg in the early days. It did well, and persists to this day, with a weekly attendance of 250 people at 6:30 p.m. Sunday service. But the church didn’t just serve the people in recovery; soon the people in recovery were serving the church. There were many good musicians among the recovering alcoholics and addicts, who were a boon to the church’s worship band.
Ginghamsburg also focused on small group development right off the bat. The two-room country church didn’t have classroom space, but Slaughter decided that church was people – not a building – so they found ample room, by using people’s homes as small group meeting space before Sunday morning worship. It went over big.
“Our Sunday school was running 200 when we had fewer than 100 in church,” he said. The second year that he was there worship attendance grew from 58 to 127.
Slaughter also immediately addressed what he termed as two heresies in the church when he arrived: The heresy of a nation state, and the heresy of Biblical idolatry.
“The church does not belong to any nation,” he said. “The church may be on US property, but it isn’t a US church.”
In calling out Biblical idolatry, he noted how Jesus refuted the scripture of “An eye for eye,” calling instead for compassion and generosity.
“Much of the theology of ISIS comes out of the Old Testament,” he said. “When people try to elevate a couple of verses and throw out proclamations, I say ‘Let’s get back to Jesus, the Living Word’.”
Ginghamsburg UMC is a high expectation church. Slaughter said he doesn’t belong to the local Rotary Club, because the membership expectation is too high. You can’t miss more than three meetings a year. If you’re out of town, you’re expected to go to another Rotary Club meeting, and bring back proof that you did it.
“The Rotary Club has a higher expectation than most of our churches,” he said.
Slaughter breaks the people coming to church down into four categories, that he calls The Steps of Servanthood.
Seekers (unchurched people who are curious about church) and Sacramental Consumers (people who attend church for what they can get out of the experience).
Volunteers – People who are willing to help with things, but on their own terms.
Kingdom Servants – People who want to serve anyway that they can out of obedience to God.
Leaders of Leaders – People who help raise up other people into leadership roles, leading to exponential growth.
When it comes to leadership, he has three W’s he looks for in board members:
Wisdom – Not just spiritual, but secular. When his church was small, a school teacher possessed the secular skills needed for a board member. Now that it is very large, he looks for someone like a superintendent of schools for the board. The church board at Ginghamsburg has 12 members, four are human resource specialists, four are financial specialists and four are capital specialists focused on ministry and mission.
Wealth – The income of a person isn’t important, but everyone on the board must be deeply invested in relation to their own wealth. He cited examples of seminaries that require board members to be large donors, and corporations that require board members to hold large investments of stock in the company. “Everyone must have skin in the game, tithing and giving beyond tithing.”
Work – Everyone must be working directly in frontline mission of some type. “If they are only serving in a governance role, they will just be gatekeepers, protecting the capital investment. You don’t want that.”
“Your leaders become the ceiling of how far your church will go,” Slaughter said.
The Leadership Institute is an annual event in the spring sponsored by the Missouri United Methodist Foundation, and is held at Central Methodist University.