The priest stands in the sanctuary. He is near the front pew, facing the back of the sanctuary looking at a tall stained glass window. The image is abstract – it is bright, blue, red and orange. With his arms crossed, the priest says, “We spent over $100,000 taking care of this sanctuary last year. I can’t keep going a year at a time reacting to everything that needs fixing.”
I couldn’t agree more.
The purpose of your congregation’s building is to serve your mission. Yet, like this priest has experienced, many congregational leaders feel they are servants to their buildings.
This is why the Indianapolis Center for Congregations hosted a Sacred Space project. We worked with leaders from 50 congregations in central Indiana who wanted to improve their buildings to serve their greater purpose.
The three-step process
With these 50 congregations, my colleague Nancy DeMott and I learned a three step process to help leaders match their congregational building to their missions.
Here are the three steps:
We learned that those who effectively address their building issues, whether shoring up older buildings or constructing new ones, follow this clear three step process.
Questions to ask yourself
Discern includes addressing the following questions:
Decide involves addressing these questions:
Do contains these questions:
Those who thoroughly answered these questions moved successfully through their building projects.
Resources you can use
We captured this knowledge in a book titled Holy Places: Matching Sacred Space with Mission.
Getting started in the right direction is essential. If you think you are at the discern stage, the book titled When Not to Build is a good resource. It is not as negative as it sounds, and it provides solid advice for decision making.
How is the priest faring with his building concerns? I heard from him recently, and he said that the building was no longer sinking the parish’s energy. He said, “One night at council, I stopped a discussion about the latest needed repair with a question: ‘Who is God wanting us to be?’ That changed everything.” The priest said someone suggested they begin a building feasibility study and get their house in order. “Since then,” he said, “We are one step ahead of the leaks and creaks!”
Discern. Decide. Do.
May your building project lead you to deeper and richer life as a congregation.
It is no longer comfortable at the council meeting. Alex brought a 12-page financial report. “These numbers show that our congregation won’t be in business four years from now,” he says, “We will be out of money.”
The group is silent. It is a nervous silence, like when someone brings up politics at the family reunion. The pastor breaks the hush. “How should we talk about this, Alex?” he asks. Alex responds, “I don’t know, but this congregation needs to change, and it needs to change right now.”
Does your congregation need to change?
This is a difficult question to address. I encourage you to reframe the consideration from “does our congregation need to change?” to “what does our congregation want to learn?” All congregations need to learn new skills. This is natural. Life is a progression. Religious life is a process. Few things are settled once and forever. Challenges faced are inevitably going to test your congregation beyond its comfort level.
Your congregation can learn new behaviors. The dire 12-page financial report is not a predestined verdict. This predicament can be an invitation to take a hold of the challenge so that the challenge doesn’t bind your faith community.
Learning involves choice. Change also involves choice, but often we see change as something placed upon us, something we do not want.
No wonder we resist change
Too often our experience with change is lodged in events where our initiative is stymied. Yet, congregations can take hold of challenges as learning experiences over which they have agency. Challenges like “we will be out of money” are invitations to a learning experience. Before you consider the need to change, consider the desire to learn.
It doesn’t matter if the workplace is a hospital or a grocery store, finding the right people is key to effectiveness. This is true for congregations too.
How does your congregation find staff?
Many congregations spend much energy selecting the best clergyperson. Sometimes the match is wonderful. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. A lay leader told me not too long ago, “Our congregation is just one step away from closing. Everything depends on who our next pastor is.”
Many congregations have staff in addition to the pastor. According to the National Congregations Study, about 65% of United States congregations have two or more full time staff persons.
A behavioral interview is one kind of interview process that helps a congregation find the right person. A behavioral interview process is based on the reality that past performance best predicts future effectiveness. It is also based on the assertion that gathering stories about past performance that relate to what your congregation most needs is a helpful interview approach. It helps you see beyond a person’s assertions that they have a gift or ability while providing no data to support such claims.
We use this approach at the Center for Congregations. I think it is helpful to any workplace including congregations. Below is a summary of a behavioral interview approach, with thanks to Sandra Herron from Middledge.
A recommended approach
1. Start with naming the purpose you are seeking to achieve. For example, we seek to hire a _______________in order to ____________________. You might have multiple, primary purposes, but you shouldn’t have more than two or three.
2. List the roles and functions involved in this position. These roles and functions should relate directly to the purpose or purposes noted above. They should be able to fit on a page. For example, 1) Serve as head of staff. 2) Function as the primary preacher.
3. Guided by the roles and functions list, describe what it looks like when this person effectively accomplishes the tasks in your setting. Do this for the top six or so roles and functions. Think in terms of watching this person in action. Think in terms of a video that can be observed or a story that can be told. What is this person doing when he or she is succeeding? How might this role or function be complicated by a challenge. Be as specific as possible. Like this: Our head of staff will be able to handle two conflicting requests from other staff persons in a way that honors both even while disappointing both.
4. Then move it to a trait. What trait is this person demonstrating when fulfilling the function described. In the example above, a potential head of staff is displaying the traits of wisdom and willingness to disappoint honorably.
5. So, now you have a behavior oriented inquiry. Tell us about a time when you needed to manage two opposing requests with wisdom while disappointing honorably.
When constructing interview questions, you want the behavior question to relate to a predictive trait that relates to a role that serves the greater purpose. This is the logic model behind behavioral interviews.
The behavior questions can be framed about three to one positively. In other words, frame a few negatively, but not too many, to hear how the person learned on the job.
You will probably end up with eight to 12 behavior type questions.
This kind of process doesn’t guarantee a great clergy selection or great hire. But it minimizes the potential for a hiring mistake. One can’t predict the future, but one can interpret the past. And a trait/behavioral interview helps give you enough past information to interpret. Interviews based only on roles, resume experience, education and ability are easier to do but don’t provide rich enough data.
A few more things
Sometimes candidates need a little help in constructing good stories. It is okay to prompt a better story with an open ended question or two. Especially early on in an interview. But if you have to prompt too much to get a rich story, that itself is a sign. The stories you receive should have depth. They should have conflict. They should demonstrate that the candidate has a comprehensive understanding of the situation and insight into his or her behavior.
You can’t do traits/behavioral interview with everyone in the process. This process has the most value when it is used with the top or finalist candidates.
Staffing is key to congregational vitality. A behavioral interview model has worked well for many congregations.
Here is a resource that helps you think through other issues related to finding the best pastor for your congregation: Leadership that Fits Your Church.
You can also take a look at the book When Moses Met Aaron. This book was written with the large church in mind, but much of it is helpful in many settings. In concert with this blog, I recommend the chapter “Hiring Right to Manage Easier.”
The pastor could not sleep after the team meeting. It didn’t help that the meeting wasn’t over until 10:30 p.m. It also didn’t help that he kept replaying the moment when he lost his temper.
“As long as I am in this congregation, we will never hire a full-time musician.” That’s what a long-time member said during the meeting. For my pastor friend, it was the word “never” that made him react.
“As long as you are in this congregation, nothing new or good is ever going to happen.”
Moments of regret
We’ve all had moments we’d rather forget as part of a congregation. I imagine that many of us have experienced sleepless nights because we were upset about some comment, argument or disagreement that occurred.
Congregational conflict is as frequent as conflict in almost any other setting. Just because congregations hold high spiritual values doesn’t free congregations from dissension.
In many of our congregations, this paradox is true: We allow behavior we would never permit in our families, or – and this is the paradox – we allow behaviors we would only permit in our families.
Years ago, consultant Speed Leas showed us that there were different levels to conflict. If conflict gets too intense reconciliation is going to be difficult if not impossible. Check out this online article about Speed Leas’ levels of conflict. Thankfully, we can learn all kinds of healthy ways to address conflict before it reaches the point of no return. Just as individuals learn emotional self-regulation, so can communities including your local congregation.
If you are interested in an approach that places a strong emphasis on Biblical authority, you should take a look at the Peacemaker resources.
Maybe you’d like to learn more about handling difficult conversations. Here is a helpful resource.
Many congregational leaders have benefited from George Bullard’s wisdom about conflict. This book is comprehensive and practical.
I hope you can be spared sleepless nights. And if you find yourself worrying about conflict, know that you’re not alone and there is help available.
To learn more, search conflict on the CRG.
On my way to work, I drive by two church buildings. One building used to be the home of a Methodist congregation, the other formerly a home for a Roman Catholic congregation. The people have gone elsewhere. The Methodist building is a coffee house, now for sale. The Roman Catholic building has been renovated into office space for an architectural firm.
What happened to these two congregations? It is likely that a variety of factors contributed to their end, such as changing neighborhoods, poor leadership, death of members, lack of new members, more people becoming indifferent to religion and so forth.
In that same neighborhood, on my way home from work, I drive by two other congregations; one, again, a Methodist congregation and the other a Roman Catholic congregation. These two congregations have experienced challenges, they have lost members because of death, they experienced leadership changes, and they exist in the same culture of growing indifference regarding religion. Yet these two congregations robustly respond to threats and misfortunes. They are resilient.
What’s the difference?
Why do some congregations carry on despite disruptions while others close? What creates resiliency?
Congregations experience disturbance all the time. All human communities do. Clergy leave. Conflict goes unresolved. Unsolvable problems create anxiety. Disruption in congregations is heightened by the possibility or reality that religion is inherently disruptive.
A resilient congregation is one that is able to continue and often expand its primary activities, despite the inevitable disruptions that occur.
I’ve noticed three characteristics of resilient congregations.
A learning congregation provides knowledge and wisdom for its members regarding the spiritual, strategic and operational aspects of life together. A correlation exists between a congregation’s resiliency and the ability of its members to learn new ways to address even mundane challenges like fixing a roof or paving a parking lot. Resiliency around such mundane challenges creates greater flexibility in responding to the inevitable decline that time brings.
Another factor that builds congregational resilience is attention to outcomes. There was a time when I was resistant to tracking quantifiable results. After all, I thought, there is no relationship between attendance figures and the spiritual health of the congregation. I have changed my mind. Blood pressure numbers, height and weight, cholesterol counts, number of hours spent in exercise, indicate aspects of individual resiliency. We ignore such figures at our own risk.
Over time, stability is the same as decline
For congregations, stability ultimately is the same as decline, especially over time. The governing boards of resilient congregations pay attention to results. Such attention may be as simple as listing the weekly offering and worship attendance figures in the bulletin. Or it may be as sophisticated as defining goals about increased attendance developed from a comprehensive strategic planning process.
Resilient congregations have leaders who teach their people about life. They help their community make good judgments about how to live. Resilient congregations create opportunities for worship and education experiences that proclaim doctrines and also teach the values that exist underneath the theological structures of doctrines. These include life lessons about trust, love, sacrifice, generosity, commitment and much more. Religious life holds wisdom about resiliency, and it is a good thing for such wisdom to be shared within the context of a congregational life.
One example of such religious wisdom is that resiliency is different from sustainability. The idea of sustainability suggests that a resource isn’t depleted. In terms of congregations, notions of sustainability incorrectly suggest that any given worship community has light years to live and is potentially immune to the inevitable factors of decline that everything else in existence faces. If only the congregation does the right thing in the right way, it will flourish forever. Nothing is forever. Defense against depletion is not winnable. All things fade or disappear or go beyond our sight.
Resilience is possible
Yet, resilience is possible. Resilient congregations exist in all kinds of settings. Such congregations are not signs of immortality, but they do demonstrate redemptive ways of facing disruption and disappointment. Resilient congregations practice and teach the importance of life-long learning – focusing on outcomes and deeper meaning related to the transient nature of creation.
Every congregational leader might consider holding these two thoughts in tension: it is inevitable that their congregations will not last forever; and it is these leaders’ responsibility to make sure the congregations they serve exist beyond their own tenures. It is in the space between these two realities that resilience can be observed and enacted.
While you’re on the CRG, take a look at this resource on congregational learning, Becoming a Congregation of Learners; check out this book on evaluation, Level Best; and explore this resource about living life well, Falling Upward.
When I was young, I went to worship with my parents and six siblings. My stepfather prepared our offering envelopes the evening before worship. He placed a dollar in each envelope.
At the beginning of worship, he passed the envelopes to each of us. When I received my envelope, I experienced a weekly moment of truth, just as my brothers and sisters did. My stepfather had left each envelope unsealed. It was our choice to add to the offering or to seal the envelope with no additional gift.
The moment of truth
In many different ways, those who worship at your congregation wrestle with a similar moment of truth whether they are conscious of it or not. How much shall I give to the congregation?
Of course, many dynamics influence any single person’s response to the question. A primary influence is the way your congregation talks about faith and money. Is money a taboo subject? Or is money talked about openly and honestly?
Congregations which promote a culture of giving have intentionally chosen to be a primary place where generosity is taught rather than being simply one place among many that asks for money.
Purposeful development as a primary place which explores generosity is a variable. Does your congregation support a way of life that celebrates generosity?
Here are some signs that your congregation is just such a community:
Each day, we are figuratively handed unsealed envelopes that serve as requests for us to be generous human beings. Our congregations are meant to teach us the practice of giving. If not us, who are part of communities that hold beautiful stories of generosity, then who?
After all, there is work to be done and decisions to be made.
To learn more, search faith and money on the CRG.
In October 2012, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that, based on new data, 19.5% of Americans register no religious affiliation. This is an almost five percent increase over the last five years.
Congregations are struggling, in part, because the religious lives of individuals in the United States are changing, according to the Pew Forum Study.
These numbers indicate that congregations are at risk. If fewer Americans report no faith affiliation, then fewer Americans are likely to be affiliated with congregations. Congregations are closing, some estimate about 3500 annually across the country. Surely this number is not a fixed figure. After all, it is also true that some reports indicate that more congregations open annually than close. Regardless, the general news we receive is that congregational life is in decline.
The same Pew study reports that 76% of Americans say that daily prayer is an important part of their lives, a percent that is unchanged over the last 25 years.
The tension between these two statistics – the decrease in religious affiliation and the steady practice of prayer – represent a peculiarly positive reality. The faith life of many Americans is more ambiguous than can be explained in a survey.
Furthermore, the life of any particular congregation – that is, your congregation – is more rich, complex and religious than is captured in many contemporary studies of United States congregations.
My experience with any particular congregation is almost always positive. Every day I observe congregations with vibrant worship, effective mission and strong religious education. For every sign of congregational decline observed through national data, there exists an exception.
For example, many researchers share data that illustrates decline in worship attendance among mainline congregations. Not too long ago, I preached on Stewardship Sunday at a mainline congregation that was absolutely full with more than 400 people. Did I mention it was Stewardship Sunday?!
What explains such exceptions to the social science data?
All who provide support services to congregations, pay heed. Our view of the world is formed by the questions we ask. If one asks social survey questions, one receives general population data. However, if your questions are asset based and focused on the singular, local congregation rather than on a conglomerate of congregations, you are likely to get rich, powerful stories.
I love the old New Yorker cartoon that pictures a man sitting in the examination room with his doctor. The physician holds up an X-ray and states confidently, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with you that what’s right with you can’t cure.”
For more information about congregational trends, see the ARDA or search Religion in America on the CRG.
Congregations learn well when they slow things down.
Creating a sense of urgency makes sense when striving to get ahead in a capitalistic economy, but it isn’t always helpful for congregational discernment.
Certainly, there are some things that are urgent; emergency hospital calls, fixing a roof that is dangerous. However, learning to do new things in a congregation is typically not achieved when there is too much urgency. Volunteer organizations, like congregations, work well when the organizations’ explorations are not hindered by the anxiety that urgency creates.
Slowing things down is a way for your congregation to allow its thinking catch up with its praying and its praying to catch up with its thinking.
Let it sit
Slowing down means not acting on impulse. It means letting things sit for a while – a while can be one day or one month. Slowing down can mean taking a provisional vote rather than a final vote. Slowing down can mean running an experiment rather than taking on something full force.
Don’t avoid difficult decisions. Then again, don’t rush them either. Everything in its own time. And sometimes it helps to slow things down so you can get the best perspective.
Congregational life includes beliefs. Some congregations ask folks to believe certain things in order to be members. Your congregation may welcome questions about certain beliefs. Your congregation may host learning experiences that help you go deeper into theology. Yes, congregational life includes beliefs.
Congregations often invite us to deeper thinking, not just about beliefs but about life. The congregation in which I grew up had an open forum Sunday School class. This class helped people talk about so many important things in life: parenting, politics, marriage, vocation, education, health, medical ethics, science and much more.
Congregational life evokes emotions
If you are active in your congregation, you are going to feel joy. You are going to feel sadness. You may find yourself angry. Or you may be in worship overwhelmed with a feeling of gratefulness.
Many vibrant congregations pay attention to behavior. Not just good behavior at a team or committee meeting, but also the practices of prayer or generosity. Congregations can (and should) be a place which teaches us how to act on our faith commitments.
There is a framework that takes into account beliefs, thinking about life, emotions and behavior. This framework is called practice. A practice is an expansive, almost universal action with a long history that includes standards of excellence and is commonly followed in community.
Washing one’s hands isn’t a practice. It is almost universal, but it just isn’t expansive enough. It is an activity, not a practice. Love is universal. But I’d argue it is more of an emotion than a practice. Hospitality is a practice. Generosity is a practice. Decision-making is a practice.
What makes a practice a religious practice?
It is the degree to which one brings to bear one’s religious understandings to shape the practice.
Two people who have much to offer regarding the framework of practice are Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra. As we moved into a new century, they really helped those of us who care about congregations recover a sense of Christian practice.
If you are interested in learning more about how your congregation can benefit from this framework of practice, explore the resources listed below. Remember, one of the best things about a practice framework is the integration of beliefs about God, thinking about life, emotions and behavior. It is all there. It is more than a belief or a feeling. It is more than a thought or a behavior. It might just be a way of life.