Are you branded?  The task force to develop a strategic plan had just sent its proposal to the congregation when a young man emailed task force members, “To do these activities we need a clear message of what we offer, what benefit people get when they attend, and how this is different from other churches or organizations.

“In short I feel we need to define our ‘brand’ so we can craft a consistent communication message and ‘live our brand’.  The new vision/mission statements are a good start but we really need to be more focused.  If we don’t communicate our brand promise then make sure our ‘product/service’ and church family live the brand, it will be very difficult to get people to attend and stay.  They may expect to experience ‘x’ (i.e. what we communicated to them) but when they come to church they get ‘y’.”

Branding in the church?  It’s not as farfetched as you may think.  Livestock branding has been used for thousands of years to identify cattle with the “logo” of their owners.  Businesses have also used branding for decades to communicate the essence of a product to their audience.   A “brand” usually consists of a logo as well as a compelling tagline that convinces you to try it.

Just Do It

It’s not about clothes or shoes.  It’s about attitude.

I'm Lovin ItIt’s not about the health benefits of the food.  It’s all about loving the food you’re eating.

Melts in Your Mouth

It’s not about the quality of the chocolate.  It’s about the convenience of eating chocolate that doesn’t melt in your hand.

Branding also promises a certain level of quality for a product.  When you go to the grocery store do you buy national brands or store brands?  If Meijer Corn Flakes are $1 less than Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, which box do you buy?  If Costco underwear is $8.00 less a three-pack than Calvin Klein underwear, which pack do you purchase?

National brand-name merchandise is attractive to many people because it guarantees product quality.  You know what you are getting when you buy Banana Republic clothes, Merrell hiking boots, or Oakley sunglasses.  We all have our favorite brands of clothing and food for which we are willing to pay more than “generic” prices because we know how they are going to fit and taste.   Even more, branding confers a certain status when we proudly display our designer brands with accompanying logos.

John Wigger, history professor at the University of Missouri, has written extensively about Methodism in early America.  He says that in the 19th century no American could fail to know about Methodism.  “Methodism provided a great many Americans … not only with a source of spiritual meaning, but also with fellowship and community, with comfort and aid in times of distress, in short, with a sense of belonging that all people crave.  The extent to which Methodists were able to accomplish this is what most clearly distinguishes their movement from the other denominations of this period.”

He continues, “Early American Methodism’s leaders understood the nature of the post-revolutionary cultural marketplace, in effect designing an innovative marketing strategy…  No company could match Francis Asbury’s nationwide network of class leaders, circuit stewards, book stewards, local preachers, circuit riders and presiding elders.  They led the movement’s system of class meetings, circuit preaching, quarterly meetings, annual conferences, and quadrennial conferences – all churning out detailed statistical reports to be consolidated and published on a regular basis.”

Methodism was the most recognized and talked about denomination in the 19th century because of our cutting edge brand.  Since 1968, when The United Methodist Church was formed, our formal “brand” as a denomination has been the cross and flame.  While the cross has been the Christian “logo” for 2,000 years, the double flame, originally symbolizing the joining of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church, reminds us of the Holy Spirit power that undergirded the Wesleyan movement.

But notice the tagline, which was added several decades ago.  “Open hearts, open minds, open doors” is the trademark phrase that describes who we are as United Methodists.  Our brand promise is that anyone entering a United Methodist church will find disciples of Jesus Christ who are welcoming and compassionate and who engage the world.

Open Hearts

So why do local churches need their own brand?  Why can’t we just use the cross and flame?  And isn’t our mission statement a brand?

10 Things Churches Need to Know about Branding

  1. Branding as part of a church marketing strategy is not giving in to the secular world.  While businesses sell products, we sell faith in Jesus Christ and must find effective ways to reach our community.  After all, it’s been fifty years since churches simply had to open their doors for worship, and guests would stream in.
  2. Our brand is not our mission statement.  Our mission statement reflects what God is calling our congregation to do.  By contrast, our brand tells the world who we are and why they should come to Grace United Methodist Church.
  3. The cross and flame isn’t enough.  Most United Methodist churches proudly display the cross and flame on their building.  However, a local church brand needs to be relevant to its particular constituency.  The brand should remind people: “Oh, yeah, that’s the church that …”
  4. Branding may get guests in the door, but they will not stay unless the brand aligns with the church’s mission and their initial worship experience.  Don’t pretend to be who you’re not.  Rather, become who you are called to be and do what you are called to do.
  5. A brand normally consists of a compelling logo and a snappy tagline.  The brand needs to be memorable, containing an image and a few words that provoke curiosity about who you are.
  6. Ultimately, your guests won’t remember you by your brand, but they will remember how welcoming you were and whether they felt included.  If your brand promise (what people feel after they’ve visited your church) matches your branding (what you say they can expect) then you’ve got it!
  7. A consistent brand will assist in telling your story.  It helps people remember you and lessens initial fears and barriers about visiting your church because they will know what to expect.  However, even the most creative brand cannot guarantee growth if you do not have systems in place to invite, welcome, and assimilate guests and if you do not have a clearly articulated, supported, and implemented mission and vision.  Brand does not substitute for effectiveness in ministry.
    1. A brand is a marketing tool to create awareness of and generate interest in your church by the population you are targeting.  Thus, creating a brand entails not only knowing who you are as a community of faith but knowing the hopes, dreams, and unmet needs of those you hope to engage.  The logo does not have to be overtly religious, nor does the tagline have to include the word “Jesus.”
    2. Branding is a product of our culture.  Church brands help to distinguish us from other churches in the area, United Methodist or not.  Brands may also be more attractive to the non-churched or de-churched than the churched.  According to new research by a Duke University marketing professor and colleagues in New York and Tel Aviv (, people who are not deeply religious care more about commercial brands than religious people do.  For the non-religious, brands convey a sense of self-expression and self-worth that is not as important to people who find their worth in religious expression.  Brands are designed to resonate with those we are attempting to reach by saying “Come, try us!”
    3. United Methodist Communications has a wealth of resources about marketing and branding.  Check it out!

Can United Methodist churches recover our cutting edge?  I believe we can.  It’s time to be branded again.



I Changed My Heart

The U.S. Post Office announced last Wednesday that it will seek to stop Saturday delivery of letters, hoping to cut $2 billion from $15.9 billion in 2012 losses.  Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe said, “Our financial condition is urgent.  This is too big of a cost savings for us to ignore.”  It’s a huge change that will take some getting used to.

On the same day, the Boy Scouts of America announced that it needed more time before deciding whether to move away from its long-standing exclusion of gays as scouts or leaders.  The BSA was poised to recommend that sponsors of local troops decide for themselves on gay membership but backed down because of pressure from both conservatives and gay rights supporters.  A decision was deferred until the BSA’s annual meeting in May.

Approximately 70% of all Boy Scout units are sponsored by churches.  The United Methodist Church hosts more scout troops than any other religious group except The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  After 103 years of scouting it would be an enormous change.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced in January that the Pentagon was lifting its ban on women in combat as long as they can pass the requirements.  A poll released last Thursday by Quinnipiac University showed that 75% of voters support women being able to serve in ground units engaging in close combat.  Nevertheless, it will be a significant change in the military culture of combat units.

Why all these changes?  Because in our fast-paced world, if we don’t change we die.  If we don’t keep moving forward, we fall behind.  The good old days aren’t good enough anymore.  If we don’t continually evaluate our values, practices, and systems and make appropriate changes, our minds become entrenched, and our procedures become obsolete or irrelevant.  Most of all, our hearts can become hard.

Have you ever changed your heart?  The phrase “change of heart” was first found in the 1828 edition of Webster’s Dictionary where it was defined as conversion, in either a theological or a moral sense, to a different frame of mind.  If you look up “change of heart” in Webster’s online dictionary today, the current definition is “a reversal in position or attitude.”


In the 19th century, however, change of heart clearly referred to a religious conversion.  Popular fiction even shortened the phrase simply to having “a change.”  Gail Godwin, in her book, Heart; A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life, writes, “In revival language, religious converts were described as having ‘experienced a change.’”  Usually, this kind of change was sudden.

The much beloved story of Scrooge’s conversion in Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel, A Christmas Carol, remains a classic example of an overnight change of heart.  Saul’s conversion took place on the Damascus Road, when, in an instant, he went from one of the most feared persecutors of Christians to one of Christianity’s most effective evangelists.

Even John Wesley had a dramatic change of heart on May 24, 1738 when he went to a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London and wrote in his diary, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation.  And an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Most changes of heart, however, are gradual, even imperceptible.  We wake up one day and suddenly realize that we are not the same person we were last year, last month, or even last week.  But we’re not sure how and when it happened.

Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, wrote an autobiography called Confessions, beginning it in 394 A.D. when he was 43 years old.  It’s one of the finest documents in history about a change of heart.  In the thirteen chapters of Confessions Augustine traces his progress from babyhood to a proud, ambitious young professor who enjoys the pleasures of the flesh.  One of his more famous pre-conversion prayers was, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”  After a period of violent floundering and intense searching, Augustine’s heart changes, and he experiences a joyful conversion at age 33.

In the first paragraph of the first book Augustine writes, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.”  Augustine uses the Latin inquietus (unquiet, restless) to describe the unstable condition of the human heart, a restless yearning for wholeness that eventually moves us toward God.  Augustine’s premise is that we may be doing all the right things, or we may be doing none of the right things, and we can still be restless.  Outwardly we may be fine, upstanding people, or we may be wreaking all kinds of havoc, but our hearts can still be far, far away from God.  All hearts are restless; all hearts are unquiet until they rest in God.

Ash Wednesday is two days away.  Through the symbolism of ashes the first day of Lent asks us to confront our own mortality at the same time as we are called to confess our sin before God and change our heart.  The beginning of repentance is always changing our heart, which is precisely what the Greek word for repentance means, metanoia.

Have you noticed that each lectionary scripture for Ash Wednesday refers to the heart?

  • “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”  Joel 2:12-13
  • “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”  Psalm 51:10
  • “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you…  In return – I speak as to children – open wide your hearts also.”  2 Corinthians 6:11, 13
  • “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Matthew 6:21

The ashes of Ash Wednesday invite us to move from the outward sign of repentance on our forehead to the inward cleansing of our heart through grace.  It’s a strange and disquieting warming that convicts and encourages as we venture into deeper waters than the sentimental romanticism of Valentine’s Day.

Ultimately, it’s the heart that matters.  We may seem to others to be doing and saying all the right things, but until our heart is right with God, we cannot be the whole people God has called us to be.  The key is the changed heart.  In Gail Godwin’s book she asks some friends around the dinner table what change of heart means to them.  A country doctor sums it up best, “It’s a phrase we use when we don’t feel the same anymore.”

The change of heart is God’s work as much as our own.  It’s called grace.  God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel (36:26), “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.  And I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”  God is just waiting to give us a new heart through Jesus Christ.  All we have to do is say yes.

Can we trust the changed heart?  I believe we can.  Most of the time the changed heart lasts, but sometimes it doesn’t.  As John Wesley would remind us, we are all capable of backsliding.  At the same time I am a firm believer in the changed heart.  I’ve seen it happen.  I am convinced of God’s desire and our human capacity to change our hearts, so I’m willing to give people second chances, third chances, and even fourth chances.  I don’t give up easily.

I admit that at times I have been taken advantage of.  I’ve been conned, and I’ve been fooled.  Some people say I’m too soft.  But my heart tells me that the church is a place where we must offer grace and the hope of transformation.  The secular world doesn’t often give a chance to people who have a criminal record, are ex-convicts, have wrestled with substance abuse problems, or have a mental illness.  But the church opens its heart as well as its doors.  The church is in the business of changing lives and hearts, and I’d much rather that our churches be known for showing too much grace than showing too little grace.

Change will keep pounding the shores of our world, wave after wave of opportunity to embrace the restlessness of the heart.  When our heart beats with God’s heart and the heart of our world, all of the other external changes will take care of themselves, even no mail on Saturdays, a possible new day for the Boy Scouts, or women fighting alongside men in combat.  We’ll be more open to surprise, more willing to dialogue with those who disagree, more intent on seeking God’s will, and more passionate about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

When is the last time you had a heart check-up?  Is your church a saving station where it’s safe to respond to the disquietude in our heart by “experiencing a change”?  Is your faith community a lighthouse where God creates a clean heart in us so that we can pass on light to others?  Is your congregation a beehive of both restlessness and discernment where having a good heart is more important than following correct rules?  Most of all, is your heart a cauldron of change where it’s okay not to feel the same anymore?

Ashes.  Ashes.  We all change our hearts.




We are 21st Century Circuit Riders and We Rock

“I really wish I could stay longer for fellowship time, Jim, but if I don’t leave now, I’ll be late to church #2.”

“At least you don’t have to ride a horse.”

“Does a 1969 Grabber Orange Mustang count?” (my first car)

I honestly thought it would never happen.  I sailed through 31 years of ministry, grateful to have served in almost every type of appointment: rural, downtown, urban, and county seat; pastor, program, and corporate size; associate pastor, co-pastor, solo pastor, and district superintendent.

Oops.  I forgot something.  So guess where I was appointed next?  A two-point charge.  After 5 months I’ve concluded that all clergy should have the joy of serving a multi-point charge.  How else will they know what it’s really like to be a Methodist circuit rider?

Every Sunday morning we wake up not knowing how the day will turn out but simply praying for energy and grace.  We gas up our car rather than feed our horse.  If we’re running behind, we take along breakfast, a snack, a water bottle, and even lunch if there are extra meetings after the last church service.  We carefully lay a towel across our lap so that our clothes don’t get dirty.   Although a clergy robe would neatly hide food stains, most of us don’t wear one.  Who has time to change?

We are 21st century circuit riders, and we rock!  If you’re lucky, you’ll be appointed to a multi-point charge someday as well.  I go through the checklist every Sunday before I leave:

√  Cell phone and ear piece (in case the pianist for the 2nd service calls in sick or  construction between churches appears overnight, and you’re going to be late)

√  Food (ever try preaching while your stomach is competing for attention?)

√  Extra pair of hose just in case (does not apply to all circuit riders)

√  Coat and gloves in the winter (if the heat is out in the sanctuary)

√  A fan in the summer (air conditioning is a dream in most multi-point charges)

√  Sermon and worship materials for each church (good luck keeping sins, debts, and trespasses straight)

√  A pen and pad of paper (essential for noting follow-up items in church #1 before switching gears to  give full attention to church #2)

√  A second pair of comfortable shoes (wearing heels for 6 hours doesn’t work for everyone)

√  Patience, flexibility, and good humor (in case the liturgist forgets to show up or half of the already small congregation is gone for the weekend)

We are 21st century circuit riders, and we rock!  The genius of United Methodism’s explosive growth in post-revolutionary America was its circuit-riding clergy.  In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s most Americans lived in widely scattered farms or remote villages.  Bishop Francis Asbury, the leader of early Methodism in America, ordained itinerant clergy who rode on horseback between different stops on a circuit.  The clergyman’s job was to preach, deliver the sacraments, establish weekly class meetings, and train lay people to care for each other in the clergy’s absence.  Because the circuit riders crisscrossed the frontier as America moved west, Methodists were the only religious group to conduct services in many areas.

Bishop Asbury once urged one of his circuit-riding preachers, “Feel for the power.  Feel for the power, brother.”  I now understand what Asbury meant, for the life of a circuit rider was extremely difficult.  Bishop Asbury did not want his preachers to marry lest they choose to settle down with their families and refuse to ride their circuit any longer.

A typical circuit rider was a single young man with a common school education and trained as an artisan (no women clergy yet).  After a dramatic conversion experience he would be appointed to a rural circuit of between 200 and 500 miles, which was normally completed in two to six weeks.  The average circuit rider in 1800 earned $80 a year.

These itinerant clergy rocked around the clock!  They preached almost every day of the week, starting at 5 a.m. in the summer and 6 a.m. in the winter, sharing practical religion with zeal and passion to a spiritually hungry young country.  The pace was brutal, with uncertain lodging, uneven food, poor weather conditions, illness, the danger of attack, and horses pulling up lame in the middle of nowhere.  Life expectancies were short.  At the same time the church exploded in membership.  In 1771 there were 600 Methodists in America.  Forty-five years later, when Bishop Asbury died, there were 200,000 Methodists.

In 1836 the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church organized the Michigan Annual Conference, which sent a preacher to Grand Rapids every year.  The Grand River circuit was part of the Marshall District, and in 1838 two preachers were assigned to the circuit, one of whom was Allen Staples.

According to the written history of First United Methodist Church, Grand Rapids, Staples was licensed to preach in 1836.  “An ‘attractive speaker, unwearying and unceasing in the salvation of sinners,’ he over-worked himself, causing his death at the age of thirty-seven.  He had a revival on each of his charges, and after his death it was computed that he had received over 1,300 into the church during his ministry of a single decade.”  Poor Rev. Staples rocked himself to death. 

Pastoring a multi-point charge is not as grueling today as it was 200 years ago.  After all, our Mustangs are cars, not horses.  Nevertheless, the challenge is enormous.

  • Early circuit riders had very few sermons, but today the same sermon cannot always speak effectively to churches with different needs.  One size doesn’t fit all, but it’s the best we circuit riders can usually do.
  • How do you maximize your gifts in each congregation at the same time as you train, equip, and empower the laity to be the church without your full-time presence?
  • How do you treat your “children” fairly in terms of time and energy without hearing grumbling about favoritism?
  • How do you handle the grind of never having a break from preaching unless you’re on vacation?  Even when one church has a guest speaker, thinking it will help you out, they don’t usually realize that you still have to prepare a sermon for the other church.
  • How does a perfectionist learn to say “good enough,” knowing that it is impossible to give more than one church what they need in terms of pastoral leadership?
  • How do you connect with people in church #1 when you have to leave immediately after the service for church #2 and then maybe church #3?  Forget about teaching Sunday school.
  • How do you cope with the administrative demands of several churches, let alone mounds of church conference paperwork?  You think one church is a handful?  Try doing nominations work for two to three churches and attending two to three Staff Parish Relations, Trustees, Finance, program, and church council meetings.  Got any more complaints?

I often hear grumbling about small membership churches. “If they can’t grow, why don’t they close or merge?”  “Small churches can’t be vital, and their buildings are way too big.”  “Why waste our valuable clergy by making them spend hours every week in the car driving endlessly between churches that are going nowhere?”

Now that I’m rocking in the circuit rider trenches, my perspective has changed.  I love the small churches that I pastor and see their potential.  Some small churches will never grow significantly.  However, vital, transformative ministry that effectively reaches their community is usually possible.  The laity in many multi-point charges step up to the plate and assume responsibilities that are expected of pastors in larger churches.  They are committed, generous, persistent, savvy, loyal, flexible, and spiritually mature.

In addition, the possibilities are great for small churches to engage in collaborative ministry.  It’s the way of the future.  Why can’t we do youth ministry, Stephen ministry, Bible studies, outreach, and small groups together?  Why can’t we share staff?  We can, and we are!

It’s afternoon on the second Sunday of Advent.  I and my fellow 21st century circuit rockers are utterly spent, having prepared the way of the Lord, offering up to God and our churches everything that we have and are.  We are acutely aware that the energy to keep at it day after day does not come from us.  Rather, we preach what the 19th century itinerant circuit rider Henry Smith referred to as an “irresistible holy knock-em-down power.”

We are local pastors, provisional members, DSA’s, retired clergy, elders, and even bishops, and we rock!  We don’t often receive awards and accolades for church growth, but we rock.  Our churches and ministries are usually under the radar, but we are faithful, persevering, and resilient, and we rock.  We are still feeling for the power, but right now we can hardly keep our eyes open, so we rock ourselves to sleep until the Sunday night Christmas program.