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How the Workshop Rotation Model Can Fail

(and strangely then, the keys to helping it succeed)

by Neil MacQueen

Yes, that's right, there are churches where the Rotation Model has NOT worked well or at all. Fortunately their numbers are few. What can we learn from their experience? Here are some surprising and not so surprising conclusions based on my conversations with current and former Rotation churches.

Reasons the Rotation Model Can Fail:

1. Only one person is leading the charge ...and that person leaves (physically or otherwise). This is true whether that person was a paid or volunteer leader. Lone Rangers can quickly get a program one step ahead, only to leave it two behind when they depart. When a "Lone Rotation Ranger" leaves, volunteers will often go back to the thing they find easiest and have the most experience with --grade level classrooms and ordering curriculum.

2. A new staff person comes in who... A. doesn't understand, B. doesn't like, or C. is poorly equipped to lead Christian education. "Our new Educator/Associate Pastor didn't seem interested." "Our new pastor didn't think the kids needed all this."

3. The Model is poorly implemented. Several failed Rotation churches I spoke with really never got off the ground. One actually said, "I tried it for four weeks last July in Fellowship Hall and it didn't work." Other failed Rotation churches began rotating, but never switched their rooms over to workshops. Many successful Rotation churches point to their facility makeover as one of the big reasons attendance grew and the new program was received so well.

4. "Our teachers didn't want to/didn't like the change." This is a common complaint among the few failed Rotation experiments I have spoken with. Conversely, many successful Rotations point to "new teachers" as one of the most positive results of the change. Some of us have long suspected that the reasons some things don't change is because the (last) people running things like it that way! One need look no further than the story of the Titanic to realize that some people are unwilling to change course and quite willing to go down with the ship.

5. Few good intentions can overcome a difficult schedule or a preacher nobody wants to hear. Twenty-five minute Sunday School classes, 8:30 a.m. Sunday School, long-winded uninspired preaching and worship. These are just some of the problems some Sunday Schools that tried Rotation were faced with. It's tough to get folks to come, let alone stay in some churches.

6. The congregation, leaders, minister, and/or staff are engaged in dysfunctional behavior. One Director of Education said to me, "God himself couldn't build consensus around here." He had left the church where they had attempted to do the Rotation Model, because of personality conflicts with other key leaders.

7. Many failed Rotation churches also site the "burden of coming up with material." Most experienced Rotation folks would dispute this as a problem. We see materials and ideas all over. Those who have shared this as a problem, however, also shared a number of other reasons why Rotation didn't work for them. Confronted with problems few people are willing to put in the time and creativity Sunday School requires. Nobody likes to "put out" when they feel "put out."

8. High Expectations. Some failed or failing Rotation churches expected big attendance increases. When it didn't happen, they switched back or lost heart. While it is true that we are in the evangelism business (i.e. we are supposed to be attracting new people), you can't expect to fill a hole overnight that you've been digging for twenty years. The short-term best many churches should expect is to improve the experience of learning for the kids they do have. Success needs to be measured in many ways, not just one.

9. The Rotation Model isn't for everybody. Of course.... but the strange thing is that I have yet to hear this excuse from churches where Rotation has failed.

10. Churches that change their Sunday School, but don't change their habits: organizational, recruiting, and decision making (the same ones which didn't serve the old model too well either).

11. Some churches have a low commitment history or personality. They look for "things which will inspire the congregation." Church research and experience indicates that the best way to revitalize is to bring in new people. But what if that isn't realistic possibility for you -for whatever reason? In every family there are things you just have to come to grips with. Some churches, like people, probably won't change. The answer may be to focus on what you CAN we do well, ...what you can feel good about ...what small successes you can identify and enjoy, instead of focusing on what may not be possible.

Neil's List of What Makes for Successful Rotation Churches

It is the converse of each point listed above! Team work, attention to workshop design and decor, "new blood," healthy worship services, supportive staff, reasonable expectations, resourceful & creative leaders, changes in organizational habits. I'm sure there are other ingredients. Any of us would be lucky to have just most of what's on this list.

And then there's that last key ingredient, -the Spirit of God which blows in some churches like a whisper, and in others like a strong and steady breeze. On this subject, my best advice is to have your sails, your best effort, fully deployed for whatever God has in store for you.

Changing Your C.E. Habits

There are Rotation Churches which have done well implementing the Model for the first few years and then seen some old problems creep back in . Most see drops in enthusiasm and attendance. Unfortunately, almost all volunteer-led efforts go through these cycles. Never met a program that didn't. And of course losing a key enthusiast or two (like a staff person or creative teacher) makes for a tough cycle. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8 that "All creation is subject to frustration." I think the Spirit is teaching us about the CREATIVE PROCESS AND PROGRAM just as much as Paul originally meant to say about the natural created world.

Sustaining a creative, volunteer-based program (such as Sunday School) is not for the faint-hearted.

I've been reading a number of book about why churches can get enthusiastic about something, see improvements and then find themselves back in a down cycle a few years later. Most of the research and thinking points to the fact that churches change their programs, but often don't change their management style, --"the system" of delegation, recruitment, oversight, planning, eventually draws the program back to what created the need for creative change in the first place.

EXAMPLES: The initial burst of creativity ends right at the beginning. Or the initial burst of "sign me up" peters out and the "lone ranger recruiting mentality" takes back over. (NO ONE can possibly recruit everybody.) Many staff people aren't good at delegation. Or some volunteers aren't good at follow-through and nobody is holding them accountable. In the initial wave of enthusiasm, they increase their commitment and follow-through, but then fall back into old habits and expectations.

One of the churches I've been in had a system in place where one committee tried to do too many things. Guess what? They didn't do many things well! Answer? They thought it was "find new committee members." The real answer was to "change how the work gets done."

One of the books I've been quoting lately is called KICKING HABITS by Tom Bandy (Abindon Press). Bandy identifies the church's knack for being creative about our programs and message but NOT our organization. Churches can be like a dieter who fasts to lose weight only to gain it back because they didn't change their eating habits. He gives practical -but risky solutions to solving "system" problems. "Risky" because of our sacred cows about polity, power and decision making.

The critical question for the church is "what is it about our system/management style that creates down turns and what can we do to recognize and push out of the inevitable down turns?" You can't get rid of the cycles, but you can do healthy things to move back on the upswing more quickly.

The first place to begin is revisting the REASON you made changes. Over time, people tend to forget WHY they are doing something, and sometimes HOW. Your teachers need to hear this, your staff needs to hear this, your parents and kids need to hear it --again, and again, and again.

Remember too that the Model draws on creative people, not merely those who are willing to help. Unfortunately, creative people tend not to make long-term commitments (their energy to do something new gets turned elsewhere).

Staff changes can be the biggest catalyst to a down turn (or up turn). When the church is looking for a new staff person, make sure they are thinking about the KIND of person needed for Rotation work AND someone who is going to recognize that change can be programmatic AND systematic.

This last thought can't be repeated enough -- The Rotation Model is primarily an IDEA. It's the idea that we MUST do better, because the work is too important. The Rotation Model calls for change in how we teach. Let it also call all of us to do a better job of changing how we work and how we inspire each other.

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