A generation ago, congregational observers noted that congregations experiencing growth were those which gave clear-cut, right and wrong, direction about life.
I want to note a subtle correction to this observation.
Vital congregations are those which give more attention to the lives of adherents than the needs of the institution. Congregations which are flourishing are those which provide education, a sense of community, and moments of meaning that help congregants navigate the challenges of life with resilience.
Certainly, your congregation needs to pay attention to its organizational life. You need people attending to budgets, the condition of the facility, the copier, the agenda for the board meeting and so forth. Yet, if attention to the operations of the congregation subtracts from supporting the lives of members and the lives of people in the community, then folks will sense that the congregation is not doing what it is called to do. The congregation becomes a purposeless community in which only those with a strong sense of obligation will stay engaged.
Paying attention to life
Flourishing congregations are those which pay attention to life. People are praying. They are asking important questions. They are thinking about what it means to be a community. The congregation serves as a resource to its members around any number of crucial matters: parenting, finances, justice, vocation, character building, and of course, one’s connection to God.
My colleague Kara Faris and I were introduced to 12 creative congregations and had the privilege of writing about them for the book Divergent Church. A divergent church focuses on an aspect of life beyond the emphasis on the church itself.
It’s about life. It’s not about the congregation as an end unto itself.
What matters most to you in life?
Let your congregation attend to such matters.
To learn more about the book, Divergent Church, here are two links:
You can also read this blog about practices that connect faith and life.
Church planting is different than establishing satellites, multi-sites, a new worship service or a separate non-profit. Church planting is establishing a new congregation in a new location. This process is rewarding, yet it requires hard work and a varied skillset.
Below are four things I’ve learned about church planting.
What are the unique challenges for your church plant? Find help you need like data, church planting conferences, coaching and more by looking at our hand-picked church planting resources.
As a pastor, have you earned enough pastoral capital to accomplish what you seek to do?
In seminary, my leadership professor described the importance of building capital with parishioners. We learned that if the pastor made enough hospital calls, wrote thank you notes, officiated with grace and excellence at weddings and funerals, then she or he would earn respect from congregants. Such respect meant it was more likely for congregants to say “yes” when the pastor experimented with a new idea, like changing the style of worship.
In some contexts, this transactional view of getting things done is called political capital.
The phrase “political capital” refers to the way a politician builds up favor with constituents by pursuing popular legislation. This goodwill can be used to pass more risky bills while minimizing public critique of the politician.
One strength of this approach is that it often works.
One drawback to this approach is that it makes ministry a transactional contest. Clergy and laity can and should accomplish important things through more than an exchange of favors.
Is there an alternative to pursuing leadership capital?
I think there is. Rather than regarding pastoral or political capital, consider instead the dynamics of attachment. What does it look like when a congregation is securely attached to its pastor? How does a clergy person practice ministry when he or she is securely attached to the congregation?
A healthy attachment
In psychology, attachment refers to the healthy bond that forms between an infant and a parent or another caregiver. This relationship then provides the positive energy for subsequent social, emotional, cognitive and spiritual growth of the child.
In congregational life, secure attachment between clergy and congregation provides the learning environment necessary for the congregation and clergy to develop into the fullest expression of their best selves.
In the book How Your Congregation Learns, I describe this relationship:
In the best situations, the relationship between clergy and lay leaders is characterized by a kind of affection that is unique—different 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 kind of friendship. It is not necessarily shaped by sharing of intimacies—that is, the sharing of deep secrets and wounds. This friendship is characterized by closeness that comes from sharing a common purpose. The affection that is noticeable between clergy and lay leaders in congregations that accomplish what they set out to do is exemplified by 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 clergyperson to look out from the place she stands to preach and think, “I love these people.” And it is one of the primary conditions that helps a congregation learn how to accomplish new things. (How Your Congregation Learns, page 67).
Clergy and laity do favors for one another. Give and take is a necessary leadership dynamic. Consider naming such dynamics as something other than building capital. After all, congregational endeavors aren’t ultimately about transactions that can be measured in terms of who gets what.
What you call the dynamic will change what you experience. What you experience relationally will open new opportunities for your faith community.
Center for Congregations President Tim Shapiro spoke with Tod Bolsinger of Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Canoeing the Mountains. Below are snippets of their conversation.
Tim: Early in your book you share your epiphany “that your people need you to lead them even more than preach to them” (page 36). If preaching, teaching and the care of souls were at one time seen as the primary tasks of the pastor, what do you see as the primary tasks of the pastor as leader?
Tod: I define leadership as “Leadership is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.” Therefore, the primary tasks of a leader certainly do include preaching, teaching and pastoral care as what I would call the “on-the-map technical competence” of a leader. Those primary tasks cannot be ignored our overlooked.
But leadership in uncharted territory is more about leading a process of learning and transformation with a group of people so they can carry out the mission to which they are called. Leading that process requires a leader to focus more on how to be, rather than on what to do. Specifically, to adapt a phrase from Richard Blackburn of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center: “Start with conviction, stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course.”
Because all transformational leadership requires change, and change is experienced as loss, a significant amount of a leader’s work is to help a community determine what will never change (start with conviction) and then prepare to courageously face the necessary losses (stay calm) to keeping together (stay connected) to accomplish their mission (stay the course).
Those experiences of loss tend to cause people to lose their nerve and fall back on quick fixes or platitudes. But the way of leadership is ultimately about helping a people face their losses with courage, commitment and hope believing that God is at work within them and through them—so they can continue the course of change and fruitfulness. As Jesus put it so clearly about his own life and leadership in John 12, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Tim: You describe adaptive capacity, technical competence and relational congruence. Let’s look at relational congruence. How does a clergy leader learn relational congruence?
Tod: Relational congruence is the key to engendering trust in those whom we seek to lead into uncharted territory. While technical competence is learned in the repetitive discharging of our expected duties, relational congruence is both more difficult and requires more transparency.
Relational congruence comes through the intersection of reflection and relationships. Or to flip that on its head, relational congruence comes through relationships with trustworthy, caring and brutally honest people who cause you to engage in deep searching and brutally honest self-reflection. A famous principle that is attributed to educator John Dewey is that we don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience. The key way that we learn to be relationally congruent is to reflect upon the moments of incongruence in our lives. It is to have safe, trusted advisors who will allow us to reflect with them on why we act one way at the church office and another in our neighborhoods, why we preach judgment on some people and some sins and overlook others, and why we act generously to those with whom we identify but withhold from those who are different from us.
Relational congruence comes only as we are able to see ourselves reflected in the eyes of those whom we respect and who love us. When they see us showing up in the same way in every circumstance—and we see them seeing us showing up this way—then we will be trustworthy leaders.
Tim: Your book builds on Ronald Heifetz’s theory of leadership based on understanding the difference between adaptive and technical problems. It is possible to teach this theory. There are as many leadership workshops for clergy on adaptive leadership now as there were on workshops regarding Bowen Family Systems 15 years ago. How do you help clergy live into adaptive leadership and not just understand the theory?
Tod: Leadership is an art, a practice, a way of functioning. It is a skill that is more like conducting an orchestra, guiding an expedition or teaching a cooking class. Leadership is learned in the leading. The problem with most theories of leadership is that they tend to communicate that once someone learns the theory then she is a leader. But learning to be a leader, especially an adaptive leader is something that happens only in real time with space to reflect on, with feedback from others, and with opportunities to try again and correct one’s mistakes.
Learning leadership from a book, a workshop, or a lecture is like learning to cook without entering a kitchen, fly-fish without casting to a trout, or flying a plane using only a video game. The best way for pastors to learn to become adaptive leaders is to secure a leadership coach who both understands adaptive leadership and whom the pastor can trust enough to be vulnerable and reflect on the lessons learned in the leading.
One warning: Don’t assume that because a pastor has been successful that he or she can be a good coach. Coaching is itself a skill and adaptive leadership coaching is not the same thing as either pastor or even leading. My own coach for three years was a brilliant psychologist who not only knew adaptive leadership theory, but was a committed church lay leader. He had never pastored a congregation nor led a company, but was great at asking questions, reflecting back to me, and creating a space for me to learn “on-the-job.”
Tim: What’s one thing you’ve been working on regarding congregations and leadership since you published Canoeing the Mountains?
Tod: I’m currently working on a book that combines my early work in communal spiritual formation with my more recent work in leading change to focus on the practices that form adaptive leaders for the church and mission of God. My working title is Tempered, and it is focused on helping Christian leaders develop the strength and flexibility to lead people they love into the places of pain in the world, in the face of their people’s own resistance.
Tim: You can give first-time clergy three books to read that they probably didn’t read in seminary or whatever education route they took to ministry. What three books do you offer?
Tod: Let me give you one ministry book, one theology book, and one novel:
Thriving through Ministry Conflict by Jim Osterhaus, Joe Jurkowski and Todd Hahn
The Misunderstanding of the Church by Emil Brunner
Glittering Images by Susan Howatch
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.
“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.
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.
In recent years, many congregations have asked about the use of Appreciative Inquiry (AI).
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?”
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.
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.