What Gordon Ramsay Knows about Churches

I’m fascinated by the show Kitchen Nightmares.

Gordon Ramsey is a famous chef, and the star. He had previously hosted the show Hell’s Kitchen. Over a season, 12 chefs would compete and the winner would have their own restaurant.

In “Kitchen Nightmares,” Ramsey would go to a restaurant that was in serious need of help. The food would be awful; the kitchen, unmanageable; the cooks, often clueless; sometimes the refrigerator would be unsanitary. The decor and design of the restaurant would occasionally be a mess. The maitre’d would be on his cell phone. The owners, frustrated and deeply in debt.

In comes Ramsey. He tastes the food. Its old, stale, gimmicky. He takes one or two bites and then puts it aside. Ramsey takes his time – he looks, smells and chews – and the food is sent back. Always. And the chefs are almost always surprised.

It is the show’s point.

He then goes into the kitchen to inform people what’s wrong, usually in salty – and direct – language. The next morning, before the restaurant owners get there, he checks out the stove and refrigerator. With the appropriate music, the closeups of the filth and vermin, unworkable stoves and unclean containers become drama.

Ramsey always has it out with one of the players. Sometimes the owner has no idea how to manage people: they get angry and hostile at the customers and yell at the staff. Others are milquetoast. The chefs are disempowered to do what they know; other times the chefs are incompetent. The excitement of the show comes as Ramsey identifies the weak links, bangs his head on the refrigerator, and pulls his hair out. Then he offers dramatic commentary.

Ramsey then demands at some point, that everyone gets involved. They clean – really clean – the kitchen. They exchange roles. Can Ramsey actually convince the owner, the chef, the manager, to do what needs to be done? Will people listen to his demands, or will they condemn him as an interloper? With a newly designed menu and refurnished restaurant, the restaurant finds itself halting the steady slide into failure.

At heart, “Kitchen Nightmares” is a show about repentance and redemption. Ramsey exposes the truth. He calls people to take ownership in their skill and be accountable. He works with the challenging party by reminding them that they have a desire and passion for good food. He changes the way people think about themselves and about each other. He brings families together by taking no prisoners, by telling them what nobody else would say.

He changes the menu: he identifies a niche, makes the menu fresh and simple according to the talents of the chef. The restaurant then opens up again, with hundreds of customers (brought usually by Chef Ramsey’s celebrity). Then there is another rough patch: but as the evening ends and the people realize they can do much more than they thought they could.

It helps that Ramsey finances the redecoration of the restaurant, buys new stoves when necessary, sometimes brings in consultants. He doesn’t, however, become a substitute cook. He becomes the coach, the truth teller, the cheerleader.

The secret to a good restaurant? Care about the food. Use fresh ingredients. Pay attention. Play to your strengths. Name the problem and then rearrange the relationships. Have high expectations. Communicate openly, honestly and clearly.

There will be swearing.

It wasn’t just the restaurant that was transformed, but all the relationships in the families, staff and customers.

You’ve probably gotten the analogy by now. I won’t take it any farther. Ramsey is not exactly to the restaurant industry as Jesus is to the church. He’s had a few failures, after all. But if one of the central roles of the community is hospitality: to give people a place where they know they will be taken care of – Chef Ramsey illuminates real challenges for churches and our personal relationships. We too should be able to serve good spiritual food that feeds the body and the soul.

Three Ways the Church can be a Mission Organization.

Over the next several decades, many churches will be closing.  They will have been unable to fund ministry, or call people who can train them for ministry.

The church should

1) Actively harness online social networking as a part of a more coherent communication strategy. How it does this will require tinkering depending on its cultural context. Westchester is very different than South Carolina.

2) Train priests and laity in the principles of community organizing and development.  This means identifying needs and leaders. Community organizing is fundamentally about discerning what people in the community believe about churches. In business it is a bit like “market research.” Evangelicals do this well.

3) Actively create partnerships with other effective institutions. Churches can partner with not-for-profits, becoming a distributor of care. It can also help raise money for those institutions mitigating sorrow.

Facebook, Meetup, myspace and NING allow for excellent opportunities to assist with gathering people.  There is still a fair amount of learning with this.

The principles of organzing is another way of building the “priesthood of all believers” and is essentially sof-style evangelism.  This is the primary way people create “buzz.”  The church becomes the voice of those people who are in the church’s radar.

Last, by partnering with other organizations, we harness and enhance our own effectiveness and visibility. Too often the church is insular and invisible.

Sell the Buildings, Call the Tentmakers

Updated:  After Tobias’s Comments, I’ve changed this post so that it doesn’t refer to ACNA.  I think he is right in his analysis.

I believe that ACNA, the new convocation of traditionalist, anti-gay sex churches might be offering the Episcopal Church a gift.

I do believe that TEC’s immediate response toward the new province is justifiable.  In an atmosphere of mutual hostility and recriminations, the suspicion that TEC is on its way to irrelevance and ACNA wants to take all the property, our conflict is placed in the hands of secular law.  It is ugly.  And it seems necessary.  But it need not be.

If we want to grow as a church, we should sell our buildings.  Not all of them, but ten percent.  Let that ten percent endow tentmaking ministry in the church.

Money that could be spent on mission is now used to maintain buildings with decades of deferred maintenance.  Congregations often place a higher priority upon a building’s beauty than reaching out to the spiritually bereft, without taking care of them effectively.  Their pledges, instead of being used to bring people into the light of Christ, are used for building projects.  Although not all building maintenance is useless, it misplaces resources that could especially used for church growth.

I don’t mean this to be a universally applicable sentiment.  Maintaining buildings is effective after a church can afford the staff that helps the laity do the work of ministry.  A building may be a church’s ministry.  But too often, it sucks the energy and resources of struggling congregations who should be spending money on sending people out into the world.

A good example are congregations in Manhattan.  New York City has several million inhabitants.  There are dozens of churches on the island.  However, few of the churches are growing.  The well endowed don’t have to.  But the rest, what will come of them?

It can’t be because there aren’t people.  Redeemer Church, for example, a PCA church, has more than six thousand members and plants communities.  Times Square church has thousands.   People are surely eager for the Word.

Some argue that the reason is because of the type of Christianity being peddled.  Conservative Christianity has stronger appeal.   It demands commitment that pusillanimous churches won’t have.   They are better organized and are more entrepreneurial.  Theologically modern churches, in this view, are simply destined to pass away.

If this is true, then we should sell our buildings.  Sell them to ACNA at a little less than market value.  We’ve been poor stewards of many of our churches.  Time to let them go.  Sell them to churches who will care for them.    We’ve implicitly given up the belief that a progressive church can thrive, justifying our mismanagement by worshiping the ideal of the small church and country parson.

There are good objections.  We’ve sold properties before, without any sense of how we should use the income.  Instead, we continued our poor practices.  We should not sell our buildings merely to create an income for spending irresponsibly on the 1950’s niche model of doing church.     But we should recognize that we’ve mistaken mission for maintenance.  We’ve poured our money into buildings rather than building relationships.  We must stop.

Sell ten percent of all our buildings to endow varieties of tentmaking ministers and clergy.

I’m not sure which buildings we would sell.  I might start with the ones in the worst shape.  I would analyze the demographics of all the churches in the local diocese and see which ones can support paid staff effectively and have congregations who want to grow.    Yes, there will be some places we’d sell that might seem like bad choices.    However, if a congregation lacks resources to care for a building, is uninterested in church growth, and lacks leadership to do either, sell that piece of property, or offer it to a developer for 20 years.    Put the money into triple rated bonds and take out just a few percent a year.

The endowment would subsidize the tentmaker’s vocation.  It may include insurance, pension, continuing education, transportation, housing allowance and $10,000 in hospitality (this would be a necessity).   Some may work other vocations for their stipend, but are liberated from requiring a day job that has benefits.  Perhaps tentmakers would conduct morning or afternoon services in a partnering Episcopal church, providing support or collaborating with overworked full time rectors who never have enough time to write a decent sermon.

Some may be people seeking ordination.  Others might be lay people who have other professional jobs.  Others might be interns in big companies or chaplains at universities.  And a few might be paid, full-time tentmakers whose only job is to bring the gospel to the people.

Tentmakers will have to be special sorts.  In Malcolm Gladwell’s terms, they will be “connectors”  and “mavens” of spirituality.  They will be eager to make friends, build community, and organize.   They will meet groups in bars, movie theaters, providing opportunities for people to serve.  They may invite people they meet to church, or they may also encourage rectors, and continue networking.  They will be ready when people have questions about spirituality, Jesus and God.   I suspect that they will be extroverts of a sort, good at music, with a sense of jouissance.

Such a position would have to have clear expectations and a way for people to be evaluated, encouraged and trained.  But an endowment would give such people freedom to experiment and be creative in their ministry.

Selling 10 churches in NYC could an endowment of about $50 million dollars.  That would allow us to fund anywhere from 30 to 70 people willing to be the church in the world.   Selling an additional 100 (or even 1000!) churches throughout the country for the purpose of funding people, rather than buildings, would show some audacity and foresight.  We would be the first denomination to fund the leadership of the next wave of churches, the emerging church.

ACNA might just be offering TEC that opportunity.  Sell them the buildings.   God bless them if they can do better.

Vampire Christians?

Sometimes you can hear the desperation of the church crying out into the wilderness.

Where are all the people?

How will we pay the bills?

Why is our roof leaking?

It’s not a pretty sight.  I’ve seen churches where parishioners trounce upon new members like vampires, sucking out life from these unsuspecting innocents.

“Will you serve on this committee?  Will you do the work?  Will you give us money?  Blood or your first child is also OK.”

It is discouraging for those of us vampires.  I mean, discouraging for us in the church who truly want to serve, and require resources to do this.

We are caught pleading and begging.   It’s the season for us not-for-profits to beg and plead.  Blah blah blah.  I need your hard earned cash.  Now.

Many visitors know that they will be seen as prey and have the sense that they will be valued mainly for their financial contribution.  I know because sometimes I, myself, have felt like a predator, wanting desperately to be liked, begging for people to come again.  And then making newcomers do the work other congregants burnt themselves out on.

It’s the way many churches work.

I want us to do something different.  Before getting on this treadwheel, let me offer a new way of thinking about what we are about to do.

I believe that if the only thing the church cares about is its own institutional survival, then just let it die.  In fact, let’s kill it.  People don’t need clergy as personal chaplains.  They should develop better friendships (although I’ll always be a friendly sounding board). They don’t need to fund a building that’s falling apart, when they’ve got more pressing needs of their own.    People are not here to serve the church.  Visitors don’t exist for the sake of the church’s survival.

As long as the institutional church thinks of the outside community as potential recruits into their cult, it will either become a cult that revolves around a charismatic personality, or die.

What we need is a completely different model.

A few people, of course, are skeptical.  In the old days, the priest was the caregiver.  The congregation got served.  The priest becomes the one who is responsible for explaining the faith, making the rules, and calling the shots.  I do long for those days, but people don’t buy it much anymore.  Nor should they.

In a new model, the role of the priest is to communicate the gospel, help people collaborate to live out their ministry, and create entrepreneurial programs that build the community.

In the new model, the church exists for the sake of building up other people –  that is what Jesus Christ did.  Not just Episcopalians.  Not just Christians or Catholics.  But everyone who needs support.  Skeptics and Jews and Muslims.

Just not Methodists.  And Red Sox fans.  I draw the line there.

Just kidding aobut that, actually.  Of course Methodists. Shintoists, however, must go to the outer darkness.  Although I have nothing but respect for those who practice the cult of Amaterasu Omikami.

I digress.

The shift means that we live into the idea of the priesthood of all believers.  Instead of being priest centered – or even church centered – each one of us has the responsibility of encouraging, challenging and participating in our communities.  In this time of chaos and distress, we are called to get out and gather the people.   Every individual in the parish has a calling, a purpose, a potentiality that they can live out and share.

We may have to think hard about how we connect with people.  Do we even know our neighbors?   Can we discover their passions, their needs, their hopes and fears, their motivations?  Then, when we gather, we can share these hopes and find ways to advocate and enact them.

These friends and connections may never darken our door.  But we would be there.

This requires a long term view.  It’s hard to change our perspective because churches see their leaking roofs, their heating bills, wondering how they are going to be fixed, frustrated that our kids don’t value the faith that we have.   Perhaps we should ask them about what they need.

I think we’ve been telling people what we need so often we’ve simply forgotten how to listen.  In many churches we’ve told them who they should be, what they should do, and what they should do better.   Some people want those churches and need them badly.  They’ll find them.  But it’s not how mainline churches will survive.

Our call, however, may simply be – at this time – to listen carefully to what the culture is saying, and where it is hearing the gospel.  For the gospel isn’t just holed up in church.  It’s in the movies, the music, on the internet.  In people’s lives.

Maybe once we have heard, we’ll become the gathering that was intended for us all along.