The #1 Rule to Help Reduce Church Clutter and Renew Effective Ministry

Guitar in closetIt’s not easy to create a culture of renewal, change and adaptability in a Small Church.

But it is essential.

As I mentioned in last Friday’s post about creating a change culture in your church, there needs to be a renewal process in place or the changes will be random, unsettling and ultimately, unsuccessful.

Today’s post is about the most effective renewal process I know for Small Churches.

I call it the Closet Rule.

When people have to live in small spaces, like apartment buildings, or renting a room in someone else’s house, they adapt to systems that allow them to have everything they need, without getting cluttered.

One of the first rules recommended by many de-cluttering experts is this: before you add a new item of clothes to your closet, toss out an old one.

Small Churches need to do the same thing.

The Closet Rule for Small Churches: Don’t add a new ministry until you’re willing to lose an old ministry.

For a video version of these principles, watch Thinking Like a Great Small Church – Part 1


How Churches Get Cluttered

People and churches love the excitement of having new things, but we hate change. So we add new things without removing old things. This leads to clutter. Physical, emotional and spiritual clutter.

Forward-thinking Small Churches are especially susceptible to this. I was guilty of it for many years.

I would go to a church leadership seminar or read a new book. The ideas would spark something that I wanted to try at my home church. I’d present it to the church and its leaders, only to be met with blank stares.

“Why aren’t they as excited by this as I am?” I’d wonder. There were many possible reasons for this, of course. But one reason was my refusal to honor the Closet Rule. What I saw as an exciting new ministry opportunity, they saw as one more thing to add to their calendar. A calendar that was already too full.

The Closet Rule forces us to prioritize. To think before acting. It helps us enact changes according to a logical process, not on a momentary whim.

And don’t worry. If you think using a change process like the Closet Rule stifles spontaneity or undermines the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t. It still allows for change, spontaneity and innovation. It just makes them more likely to excite people instead of overwhelming them.


How Churches Can De-Clutter

Imagine the ministries of a too-busy, unhealthy church as a cluttered closet.

We all have those clothes in the center of the closet that we like and wear regularly. But we also have clothes that make their way to the back and sides – and they stay there. They haven’t been worn in years. But we can’t bring ourselves to toss them even though they cost us valuable space.

This is a follow-up to Adapt Or Die: 6 Ways to Create a Change Culture In Your Church

Church ministries are the same. Many Small Churches accomplish very little because they’re trying to do too much.

Some ministries are loved and used all the time. These are the ones that work. The ones you love to tell others about. The ones you’re proud of.

But we also have ministries that have not aged well. They’ve stopped working. Or they’ve stopped working as well as they could. But they still cost precious time and energy. They take up valuable space.

And no, I’m not talking about ministries that may have just a few people in them. Size has nothing to do with the value of a ministry. It’s about effectiveness.

Healthy Small Churches relentlessly monitor their schedules to reduce ministry clutter. And the healthiest ones start reducing clutter, not after they find a great new idea, but before. We need to clear space in the closet first. Only then will we be ready to add something fresh and new.

Start by asking the following hard questions:

  • What ministries have ceased to be effective?
  • What ministries cost more money, time or energy than they’re worth?
  • If we were starting the church today, is this a ministry we’d choose to do?
  • What ministries don’t fit the mission or vision of the church?
  • Can this ministry be revamped and renewed, or does it need to be ended?
  • What are we doing that we wish we didn’t have to do?


Renew It, Replace It or Say Goodbye to It?

I see three possible options for back-of-the-closet ministries:

1. Renew It: Many ministries just need a face-lift. Or an extreme makeover.

If the foundation of the ministry is solid, it’s meeting a valid need and it has a core of leaders, it may just need some TLC from the church leaders to help it get back on its feet again.

2. Replace It: Some ministries need more than a makeover. The need the ministry was designed to meet might still exist, but this specific ministry might never be capable of meeting that need any more, even if it did so in the past.

In such cases, the ministry needs to be replaced with something else that will meet that need in a better way. Like replacing the stained, torn, ill-fitting blue shirt in the back of the closet with a new green shirt.

3. Say Goodbye to It: Some ministries are beyond repair. Their reason for being has ceased to exist.

Maybe it used to meet the needs of a segment of people who are no longer around. Maybe it’s time has just come and gone. Whatever the reason, if it’s time to say goodbye to it, we need to make the brave choice to do that.


Put People First

In all three cases, the people who may still be going through the motions of the ministry deserve to be treated tenderly. Their needs should be heard and validated.

If the ministry can be salvaged, we need to do whatever we can to involve them in the updating or replacement process. If the ministry must be ended, their contributions should be honored. People should never feel belittled in this process.

But we must always remember this hard truth. Not wanting to hurt people’s feelings is never enough of a reason to keep doing an ineffective ministry.


It Gets Easier

The Closet Rule is not always easy to implement. And it won’t happen overnight. But it, or something like it, must happen.

The good news is that once it gets going, the process becomes a part of the church DNA. People can learn to adapt to the idea that church ministries will always be assessed and renewed in order to be effective.

And after the initial shock of losing some ministries that people are emotionally invested in, most people will be grateful when they realize that their time and energy have greater impact now. Their efforts are being respected because they’re being effective. What they do, matters.

As a church gets healthy, it’s like getting a larger closet. Ministries become effective without overburdening people’s wallets and schedules. When that happens, some new ministries can be added without old ones being lost. But that should be done carefully. Clutter has a mind of its own and we must always be wary of it.

But, more than anything else, I hope you’ll remember this. Renewing ministries is not about Old vs. New, or Big vs. Small. It’s about Effective vs. Ineffective.

In the battle for the hearts, minds and spirits of people, we must always be on the side of effectiveness.


So what do you think? Do you need to implement the Closet Rule in your church?

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(Cluttered Closet With Guitar photo from M Anima • Flickr • Creative Commons)

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9 thoughts on “The #1 Rule to Help Reduce Church Clutter and Renew Effective Ministry”

  1. This is such a timely article Karl. Last week at our board meeting was our annual planning meeting. I put the calendar on the table and the board went wild. Awesome ideas for new inovative ministries. It was the first time this board has thought outside the box. The problem was they were approaching the calendar as if we were a church of 300 hundred rather than a church of 35. My next meeting with them will be to look at the calkendar, and make the difficult choice of ‘retiring’ ministrys in order to accomodate the new. I will definitley be following your advie given here. thanks again

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  3. The hardest part is telling the key advocate that the ministry is beyond usefulness or needs to be removed. It’s hard for them not to feel being pushed aside or marginalized.

    The other hard part is telling the new person that their ministry idea doesn’t fit in the closet to start with. For them, it’s hard not to feel like their input is welcomed.

    Both need pastoral sensitivity.

    I have been in all of these situations.

    In one situation, my pastor took “my” ministry away, but without the grace to help me see why or how. The abrupt change hurt.

    In the other situation, my ideas for new ministry kept getting shot down. Eventually, I quit suggesting new stuff.

    I’ve also been the pastoral leader – who has to manage these things. My experiences give me the empathy needed to walk through this.

    1. You are so right. I also have been in both those scenarios. What hurt the most was to be told by a new senior pastor that he was not making any changes in leadership, only to discover at a leadership vision day, that my position was no longer present in the pastors plan. The best yet hardest thing for a pastor to to is be honest and speak clearly what he/she is planning.

    2. No question that’s the toughest part. As you and Ralph have both mentioned, there are pastors who don’t have the grace or honesty to do this well. I made mistakes in how I did this in my early years and I hurt some good people unnecessarily.

      But no matter how honest, loving and sensitive you are with people, there will always be some hurt feelings when you start doing this. The good news is, the “It Gets Easier” point in the post is true. After you’ve done it properly a few times you start establishing an atmosphere that makes change easier.

      I’ve been in my church for 21 years. It’s been over a decade since anyone has been upset about a ministry being taken from them because everyone knows that renewal is a part of the church culture.

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