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.
What does marriage have in common with congregational life? There is one thing in particular: both flourish when the ratio of positive validation to negative criticism is five to one in favor of the positive.
The magic ratio
Dr. John Gottman is a therapist who works with married couples. He has researched what he calls the magic ratio. He observes couples interact over time and predicts the staying power of the marriage. One of the key indicators is the ratio of affirmation to negations. If a couple share five validations for every one negative statement, there is an excellent chance that the marriage is flourishing. Not all complaint is wrong, but criticism needs to be balanced with positive messages to result in growth.
The same is true for congregations
Congregations flourish when they focus on their strengths. When too much attention is given to the negatives, then congregations fail to receive important nutrients. The community becomes more a desert than a thriving field of grain.
No wonder so many congregations have found planning processes based on Appreciative Inquiry helpful. Appreciative Inquiry was created by David Cooperrider of Case Western University. He and colleagues like Diana Whitney note the importance of human communities to value the best in people. Valuing the best in people leads to more health; the nourishment of validation results in progress.
The best in a congregation, what is strong and right and beautiful, can be revealed through inquiry. You can uncover hidden strengths through a process of exploration in which problem questions are reframed as possibility questions.
Reframing the question
Members of a worship team from a midwest congregation talked about worship. Someone said, “Our worship has become stale. Where’s the joy?” The leader of the worship team had been trained in Appreciative Inquiry. She changed the question. She responded, “Let’s take a moment and recall our most joyful worship experiences.” For the next hour, the members of the worship team shared their stories of powerful encounters in worship. One person remembered his baptism. Another recalled an Easter service. Still another person told the story of worshiping with three generations of her family.
Reframing a negative question to a positive question is just a part of the Appreciative Inquiry process. The entire process leads a congregation through four steps, or the four D’s: Discover, Dream, Design, and Destiny.
Here is a short description of each phase:
All through the process the emphasis is on affirmation and validation. Yes, the five to one ratio is an enchanted construct, not just for couples but for communities too. Perhaps the magic ratio is a construct woven into creation by our Creator. Positive energy is like a rain shower for parched land.
Your congregation has many good things happening. Discover these good things. You will likely be drawn to a destiny abundant with faith, hope and love.
Here are some of my favorite appreciative inquiry resources: the article “Doing Change Differently: An Appreciative Inquiry Approach” and the book The Power of Appreciative Inquiry.
Yes, your congregation is a special place. Celebrate! Validate! And learn.
Leadership is leading people to the place they’d go if they only knew how. This is the definition of leadership I learned from my friend Dr. James Rafferty.
Such leadership happens in the small exchanges between people in hallways, on the phone or as the work day ends. Congregational leadership happens in these subtle connections as much or more than in grand pronouncements about mission and vision.
We’ve trained clergy to be active listeners. We’ve taught clergy and laity the importance of collaboration. Our clergy and lay leaders know to accept many points of views.
Relational and directive
Sometimes the demands of congregational life require leadership to be open and highly relational. On other occasions, congregational life requires leadership to be more directive.
Yes and no
Yes, in some instances, it is important that a clergy person’s “yes” be “yes” and his or her “no” be “no.” But it is important to remember: a clergy person with a non-directive, sensitive temperament can be trained to be more directive and resilient more easily than a person with a direct, tough temperament can be coached to be more non-directive and sensitive.
What kind of temperament do you have?
More directive? Or more non-directive? Either way you will need to exercise the other muscle.
If you are more non-directive, look for those who will nudge you to be more clear and straightforward when the situation demands that. If you are more directive, look for people who will stay after you to work with a lighter touch, particularly when dealing with relationships. This will be hard for you, but you can do it.
Remember, you are helping people go where they want to go if they only knew how.
Congregational partnerships can be challenging.
If a congregation needs help with something beyond its grasp, its leaders are often advised to join efforts with another congregation or another group. This is common when exploring community ministry. Partnering comes to mind often when mergers are considered.
Why it’s challenging
The advice to partner can be counterproductive for two reasons.
An alternative solution
Rather than seeking partnerships, you can right size the project so that your congregation can handle the task without the extra challenge of partnering. Then, once more capacity is gained, move to looking for partners.
If you are entering a partnership, keep this primary hint in mind: Partnerships are most effective between equally yoked congregations or entities.