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Theologian of the Year

I know a pastor who chooses a theologian to study in-depth every year. In 2013, he chose Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He read Life Together, Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison and watched a documentary on Bonhoeffer’s work. This pastor taught a three-month Sunday evening class on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s world view.

In 2014, this pastor’s theologian of the year was Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki. “Her book on prayer,” he said, “changed how we practice prayer as a congregation.”

He chose Stanley Hauerwas in 2015 and Marilynn Robinson in 2016. “I cheated,” he says of his 2016 pick. “She’s not a theology professor, but she thinks and writes theologically.”

Your theologian of the year

Which theologians shape your congregational life? Who would you choose as your theologian of the year? Thinking carefully and comprehensively about God can’t help but strengthen your congregation’s life. Theological reflection about congregational life is like holding a compass that keeps you focused in the direction that aligns with your religious claims and commitments.

Resources you can use

Here are some theological resources you can browse on the CRG.

Check out Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic Life Together.

One of my favorite sources of theological reflection comes from Michael Jinkins, president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. His blog Thinking Out Loud is professional, personal and theological. If I were a pastor in a congregation right now, I’d use his blog not only to deepen my own theological journey but also to learn how to write a blog for the congregation I serve.

James K. A. Smith is a prolific writer these days. His book titled Imagining the Kingdom is a wonderful study of theology and worship.

Go ahead and type theology in the CRG search. You will find other resources to review. These resources are related to a variety of subjects and show the richness of theological reflection when applied to practical congregational challenges and opportunities.

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The Only One Who Wasn’t Lost

“The future is already here, it is just on the margins.” 

-Dave Gibbons, author and pastor of Newsong Church, Santa Ana, California


On February 11, 1805, a sound rang out through Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery that they had never expected to hear. Not the roar of a grizzly bear, not the thunder of waterfalls, not the call of an unknown bird.

A baby’s cry.

The military corps charged by Thomas Jefferson with finding a water route to the Pacific Ocean had a new recruit because his mother would someday become — next to Lewis and Clark themselves — the most famous member of this fable crew who would find their way across the Rocky Mountains to the far side of the continent.

The baby’s mother, Sacagawea, had been born Shoshone. Kidnapped by the Hidatsa when she was 11 or 12, she was now at 16 or 17 years of age, one of the wives of a French-Canadian trapper named Toussant Charbonneau. The captains had hired Charbonneau as a guide through the mountains, but they very quickly realized that Sacagawea’s interpreting was far more valuable. So, when the captains needed to drop their canoes and find horses to cross the Rockies, it was to Sacagawea they turned.

She led them to the Shoshone, navigated the tense relationship at the first encounter, and helped broker the deal that brought the corps the critical horses they needed. When her tribe begged Sacagawea to stay, she instead insisted in going with the corps and continuing the journey. Later, Clark would praise her as the “pilot” that took them through the country.

Their journals don’t reveal any of their thinking about why they invited along a nursing mother, but this much was sure: the only member of the Corps of Discovery who was not in uncharted, off-the-map, territory when these river runners came to the edge of the Missouri river and headed over the Rocky Mountains was the teenage mother with her nursing baby. She was not venturing into unexplored territory, she was going home.

As the church has lost power and influence within the larger culture, there is a tendency to bemoan and even battle to regain that place of dominance. For those who were trained for a Christendom world, this experience of feeling as if you are in uncharted territory can be disorienting. Therefore, the vast experience of women, racial-ethnic minority persons, and leaders from majority world contexts is as critical to the transitioning western church as was Sacagawea’s to Lewis and Clark.

The problem, of course, is that even the very reality of being trained for Christendom means that most of us won’t recognize the value of a Sacagawea when she is sitting in front of us. Fuller Seminary Chaplain Steve Yamaguchi reminds his students, “Our immigrant churches, have generations of experience living on the edges, displaced from the center, as more than survivors.” But do we even know that we need them?

Like the Corps of Discovery captains who figured out that all of their “on the map” education was less valuable than the life experience of a Shoshone teenage girl, many church leaders of particular prominence and position today are only now beginning realize that as the Christendom narrative is being rejected, they are in great need to collaborate with and learn from leaders who because of their gender, social status, ethnicity and less-privileged life actually makes them more equipped for the world today than they are. As Theresa Cho, a 2nd generation Korean-American pastor, told a group of church leaders in 2012:

My husband and I have been working in small congregations our whole ministry career. Every day, every week, and every year, we are faced with the challenge of how to make church relevant in the community; how to make church healthier; and how to move the church to change with the changing demographics. This is reality. This is ministry. For smaller congregations, there isn’t a sense of perishing because the hey day left over 50 years ago. You have to HAVE something to feel like you are LOSING something.

While many of us who can remember when our churches had full pews and overflowing offering plates feel so disoriented in this new day, Cho reminds us that there are many church leaders who have known nothing else and that they – not the successful pulpiteers of the Christendom past — are the true missional experts.

The demise of Christendom in the west offers us an opportunity for a different kind of leadership, more equality of roles, more valuing of previously ignored voices, and more opportunities for shared witness to a world that is more profoundly in need of the gospel. In other words, the deep disorientation for those trained in Christendom can be helped by learning to look to and partner with those who have been living in the post-Christendom marginality already.

Be sure to check out Tod Bolsinger’s book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.

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Making Planned Giving Work

Planned giving doesn’t need to be a complicated challenge for your congregation. By following these principles, your congregation can start securing the financial future of your ministries.

Everyone needs a will.

Some people assume planned giving only applies to the very wealthy. The reality is that most people need a will, so a good starting point is to educate the congregation about the importance of having a will. As part of that conversation, invite people to include a final gift to the congregation in their wills. The vast majority of planned gifts arrive at the congregation in this manner.

Your faith community is uniquely positioned to talk about end-of-life issues.

Planned giving is best seen as a ministry. You can help people approach the end of life and stewardship of their assets from the perspective of their faith. Your congregation should root this conversation in your own faith tradition’s teachings about life and death, helping congregants to think about managing their assets based on what they most deeply believe and value.

Link this topic to your mission and vision.

Potential donors need to envision what your congregation could do with their gifts. Share your vision and help people to see how they could leave a legacy by supporting your congregation’s ongoing mission or a particular ministry or program. Make sure your congregation has a gift acceptance policy and a plan to receive and manage gifts through an endowment or other special fund. These tools will be helpful to your congregation and important to share with potential donors.

Congregations don’t need expertise in tax and legal issues.

The role of the congregational leader is to explain why planned giving is important in terms of faith and values and to share how the congregation can benefit from a planned gift. To determine the most beneficial planned giving vehicle, refer the individual donor to his/her attorney or tax advisor.

Rely on resources from your denomination or partner with your community foundation.

A number of denominations have resources to help congregations plan and promote wills and planned giving. Some denominations also offer a foundation to manage a congregation’s endowment fund. Consult your local community foundation as a possible partner in setting up an endowment fund and receiving planned gifts.

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The Practical Implementation of Appreciative Inquiry

In recent years, many congregations have asked about the use of Appreciative Inquiry (AI).

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry is the process of identifying, considering and leveraging strengths. It is inclusive, engaging the entire congregation, in asking important questions such as, “what gives life to our congregation when it functions at its best?”

Implementing AI

Many pastors and congregational leaders have asked us about the practical implementation of this process. How is it used, where do you start and what is my role?

Here are some important things to consider:

The Center for Congregations, through the CRG, recommends many resources on Appreciative Inquiry and positive change to help you get started. As always, we stand ready to answer your questions.

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Three Questions for Every Building Project

There are three questions to ask regarding almost any building project your congregation is considering. Addressing these questions can help your project succeed. When building projects go well, they add to the effectiveness of your faith community. When they don’t go well, they can have long-term negative effects. These three key questions can keep you on the path of positive outcomes.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Your team should be able to answer this question in two sentences or less. Clarity is essential. You should come to agreement about what dilemma or prospect the project is addressing.

I know one congregation whose leaders completely renovated their sanctuary. Afterwards, and several thousands of dollars later, the board realized that the problem they wanted to solve, the presenting issue that started the entire project, had to do with lighting. They spent far more money than they wanted and still hadn’t solved the problem. Get clear about what problem you are trying to solve.

What resources or vendors will you use?

Once you have clarity around the problem your building project is solving, you’ll want to focus on this question. While not every building project warrants engagement with an outside resource, larger projects do require some combination of architects, engineers and construction contractors.

Such consideration leads to questions about whether to use a design-bid-build process or a design-build process. In the former, you use an architect and then you seek bids for the construction process from building contractors. In the latter, the architect and contractor typically are part of the same firm.

When your project requires helpers, remember that not all helpers are equal and not all helpers will understand what you are seeking to accomplish. Establish a process to find the best resource. You can talk to other congregations about building vendors they’ve used. Take time to prepare interview questions ahead of the conversation. As you explore possible vendors, make sure they understand the essence of your project and your congregation. You want to be able to make good use of the resource, not have the resource use you. Interview multiple vendors. You will learn from the interview process. A good process will help you avoid hiring the wrong vendor for the wrong job.

What are the full costs of this building endeavor?

For almost any building project there are unanticipated costs. Some of these unanticipated costs involve money, while some involve time and inconvenience. Some involve spending congregational goodwill. Do a full accounting of all projects.

Even a job as small as painting a restroom with volunteer labor needs to be well planned. In addition to the cost of paint, brushes, tarps and tape, don’t forget that the bathroom may be unavailable for use during that community meeting on Tuesday night.

The real costs of large projects include more than the architect, engineer and construction costs. There are continuing, new costs related to upkeep, cleaning, utilities and so forth.

Considering a new building project is an important task. It is important to address three key questions early in the consideration of a project:

Resources you can use

The CRG has information about many helpful building issue resources.

The book Holy Places provides information to consider regarding almost any building project you might address. The book helps you think about your building project in terms of three stages: discern, decide, do.

Many projects do require architects. An excellent architect who is a good fit for your congregation can make your project even more successful than you imagined. We know many building teams that distributed the article Questions to Ask Your Architect to every member of the building team.

You can do your own search of the CRG to find building issue resources for your particular challenge. Here’s a starting page.

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Disappointment: Learning from Inevitable Setbacks

New projects fill congregational life with excitement and hope. They can be a time of community cooperation, deep visioning and relationship-building. No matter the project, though, you are likely to experience disappointment somewhere along the way.

In my book How Your Congregation Learns, I’ve written:

“Congregations aren’t magically protected from disappointment. All kinds of good projects grind to a halt. When this happens, you can’t help but feel disappointed. Natural and inevitable feelings of sadness arrive. That is the way of disillusionment. Almost every successful congregational endeavor contains some dissatisfaction.” (How Your Congregations Learns, page 73, published by Rowman & Littlefield).

The experience of disappointment invites the possibility of three different responses regarding the initiative: “No,” “Not yet” and “Yes, let’s continue working but with some adaptations.”

Essential values

To discern which of these responses is the best, reflect on how the new initiative aligns with the primary religious claims and commitments of your congregation. Or, put another way, how does the initiative support, in its current form, the essential values of your faith community?

If there is strong alignment, then it is often worth moving beyond the disappointment, making appropriate adaptations.

If there is a gap between what you are trying to achieve and the values you espouse, then perhaps this is not the right time to continue, or it is best to explore initiatives more in line with your commitments.

In chapter 5 of the book, I provide additional considerations about how to address disappointment in relationship to a new congregational activity.


If you would like to talk more about this dynamic, email me at tshapiro@centerforcongregations.org  If you would like a free copy of the book How Your Congregations Learns, let me know via email.

You may also want to consider the articles Evaluating Your Ministry and Why We Aren’t Learning.

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Program Planning and Congregational Learning

Your congregation is likely working on something new right now. You may be exploring the possibility of a youth mission trip. Or maybe your finance team wants to take an entirely new approach to the annual fund drive. When your congregation takes on something first-hand, your organization actually engages in learning to do something new.

What is it like to plan a new activity for your congregation?

You instinctively know that you have to learn skills and new ways of thinking to accomplish a new project. That learning process is important. After working with more than 1,000 congregations, I’ve observed how congregations learn. Leaders and members go through discernible passages of learning, what I call the learning journey.

The Learning Journey

When you intentionally embrace the learning journey, program planning and implementation are often more successful. The learning journey helps you do more than a “quick fix” to sustain the congregation’s operations. The learning can help inform and align your congregation’s activities, so you can ultimately impact people’s lives.

For the last five years, I’ve been exploring how congregations learn and how such learning leads to effectively addressing challenges and opportunities. I’m excited that the book on this subject How Your Congregation Learns, published by Rowman and Littlefield, is now available. It will help you walk through the exploration, disappointments, rewards and challenges of your learning journey. Another excellent book on the subject of program planning is Projects That Matter by Kathleen Cahalan.

Let me know your thoughts on congregations as learning communities and the challenges of program planning by emailing me at tshapiro@centerforcongregations.org

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A Dollar in the Offering

The ritual of making an offering to a congregation has changed over the years. In one representation of the Reformed tradition, offering plates are passed from pew to pew after the sermon. I’m most familiar with this ritual, which is a response to the proclamation of God’s sovereignty and grace heard in scripture and sermon.

There are other traditions regarding offerings to a congregation. Some congregations set membership dues. These annual dues are not uncommon in synagogues. Some congregations, instead of passing the offering plate, have offering receptors in the lobby or narthex for use after worship. You may attend a congregation that does not take up an offering during worship, but instead receives gifts via checks in the mail or online credit card transactions.

The congregation where I worship does pass the offering plate. I notice many people not putting anything in the offering plate. No judgment, just an observation. I imagine that these folks already gave – before or after worship, maybe via check or online transaction.

Communal act of generosity

I appreciate the power of the ritual. I like passing the plate as a communal act of generosity. Liturgical scholar Geoffrey Wainwright has noted that all essential practices of the Christian faith have ritual expression in the worship service. If no actual gift is offered during worship, then the power of the ritual is subsiding. What’s more, the diminishment of the ritual may be a sign that the practice of giving and generosity in the lives of members may be diminishing too.

The power of the offering

My friend and mentor Dr. William Enright (see: http://thecrg.org/resources/money-and-faith-william-g-enright-and-the-big-american-taboo) has an elegant solution to regaining the power of the offering. He suggests that even if you have given your offering via credit card or check for the month, place a dollar in the plate. For many worshipers, the extra dollar is not a burden, and it represents full participation in the ritual. One is indeed responding to the message of the worship service. It is a signal that one is not resigned to be a spectator just because technology makes it possible to give in different ways.

What do you think?

What drawbacks might there be in encouraging the one dollar practice in congregations that pass an offering plate? What other extra benefits might there be?

Resources you can use

If you are interested in the rituals and practices of offerings, I highly recommend this thoughtful and practical volume, Celebrating the Offering by James Amerson and Melvin Amerson:

I also recommend Giving and Stewardship in an Effective Church. It is an older book, but we hear from congregational leaders that it is still a trustworthy discussion starter for a board or a team talking about giving in your congregation.

Whatever your offering practice, my prayer is that your congregation experiences generosity in many different forms.


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Relationships: Clergy and Congregation

The vitality of the relationship between clergy and the congregation is almost always an indicator of the degree to which a congregation is flourishing.

In the best situations, the relationship between clergy and lay leaders is characterized by a particular kind of affection that is unique from other relationships.

It includes respect, but it is more than respect. It is more than the honoring of office and roles. This affection includes friendship, but it is a particular kind of friendship. This kind of friendship is professional. It does not typically include spending a lot of time together socially. It is not shaped by the sharing of intimacies, that is, the sharing of deep secrets and wounds.

I have observed that the healthiest relationships between clergy and congregation is characterized by closeness that comes, not so much sharing vulnerabilities, as it is from sharing a common purpose.

This noticeable affection in successful congregations is exemplified by the clergy person’s competence and character in the pursuit of common God focused goals.  This dynamic is what brings a lay leader to tell her friend, “We just love our pastor.”   This affection is what leads the clergy person to look out upon the congregation and think, “I love these people.”  And it is one of the primary conditions that helps a congregation to learn how to accomplish new things.

Check out these two resources that can help clergy and lay leaders attend to their relationships: the book Boundaries for Leaders and the book Healthy Churches, Faithful Pastors.

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