Contributions From Tim Shapiro
Increasingly, all kinds of congregations are actively externally focused. I’ve observed this since 2008. The change is remarkable. Really!
The energy is so powerful. The conversations exciting. The possibilities abundant.
At the Center for Congregations, we receive calls daily from congregational leaders and members inquiring about outreach.
“We want to start a partnership with the local public school.”
“Our congregation has started a new mental health support group.”
“How do we establish a separate 501 (c) 3 related to job training?”
The academic work of the missional church movement has filtered down to the local congregation in positive ways.
There’s a generational shift too
Many young adults find it deeply meaningful to be of service to others. Congregations with young adults are looking at social service and social entrepreneurship. I have been in contact with numerous congregations that have active young adult membership. The focus of these congregations is faith formation, relationships and community engagement. I’m convinced the appearance of these creative, often flourishing, congregations are underreported when we talk about the state of congregational life.
It is ironic that sociological studies report that congregations are declining when their social impact is increasing. Ram Cnaan writes about the effect of congregations on their urban communities. This kind of outreach must be intensifying across the country. Check out Cnaan’s book The Other Philadelphia Story: How Local Congregations Support Quality of Life in Urban America at http://thecrg.org/resources/the-other-philadelphia-story-how-local-congregations-support-quality-of-life-in-urban-america.
Here’s a secret for you. The Center for Congregations in Indiana has learned something while working with 3500 congregations that we want to share with you.
Ready? Here it is.
A congregation that uses an outside resource in concert with its own creativity is likely to effectively accomplish the new things it sets out to do.
What is an outside resource?
An outside resource is just about everything you will find while searching the Congregational Resource Guide. An outside resource might be a book. It might be a website. An outside resource might be consultant, a coach or a workshop.
What is a congregation’s own creativity?
You know that! Such creativity involves the skills and talents of clergy and laity. It includes the ideas generated by a high-energy team meeting. It encompasses “aha” moments after a time of prayer.
Learning to do something new in congregations almost always requires both: an outside resource and the congregation’s ingenuity. The inventiveness to do something new is limited when your congregation gives too much power to a resource, or, likewise, tries to go it alone.
Let’s say you are working with an architect to design a portion of your property set aside for an afterschool program. Yes, you want to learn from the architect. You will listen carefully to what she has to say. And you want to make sure the architect understands your congregation and honors your ideas. God is at work in this exchange.
Continue browsing the Congregational Resource Guide. Remember that you have agency over the resources you choose. And while you want to learn from such resources, don’t abdicate the fun of adapting what you learn to your particular context.
Assessment tools are used in congregational planning. Such tools are helpful in strategic planning, formation of new programs, improvement of existing projects and more.
There are internal assessment tools and external assessment tools. Internal tools help you learn about your congregation, its members, staff and other constituents who are part of your congregation. External tools help you learn more about your neighborhood and the community around you.
Here are five things to keep in mind when thinking about using assessment tools.
For many, the condition of United States congregations and denominations is worse than reported by sociologists. In sundry settings, the decline is now irreversible. See Jim Collins’ research about the irreversible decline of other once strong institutions, How the Mighty Fall.
It is upsetting to be the one who has to tell a congregation that a full time clergy leader is no longer affordable. It is upsetting to be a denominational representative reporting that the judicatory camp is closing. It is one thing to read a statistic. It is another to be the statistic. The social science research does not capture that pain. “My congregation is going to close. This feels so sad.”
Addressing the grief
There is anticipatory grief related to the decline. The grief is experienced by members, clergy, judicatory representatives and others who serve congregations. There is also loss that has occurred because of the natural desire to delay the deep pain that goes with closing a congregation. That is, the closing of the congregation has been hindered partially to fend off the understandable pain of actual loss. Perhaps this is inevitable. There may be no other way than the long way. There is much actual loss that has occurred that has not been lamented by members, clergy, judicatory representatives and others who serve congregations. We are not good at holding loss when it involves congregations. How could we be?
When decline is inevitable, let’s attend respectfully to grief so that the pain is not needlessly prolonged.
If there is any truth that the condition of congregations and denominations is worse than reported, it is also true that, in many settings, there is inspiring vitality.
For every sociological data point about congregational decline, there are exceptions to the rule. This is an observable reality. For example, walk through the front door of the new congregation hosting 200 worshipers the average age of 22. Another exception is the rural congregation in the middle of nowhere (well, almost nowhere) experiencing a 30% increase in attendance over three years.
These vibrant experiences are not commonly captured in social science surveys. Many thriving congregations are new. They aren’t included in the researchers’ databases. Also, their stories do not fit a normative pattern of problem and then solution. The stories are personal. The stories are idiosyncratic. They are signs of God’s free Spirit. They are about new creations. They are signs of leadership courage and maturity. Such exceptions often are dependent on a leader’s particular charisma and thus not replicable.
Sharing the stories
The story of such exceptions should be shared more widely. I visited a brand new urban congregation last year which welcomed 40 people in worship. This year, the average attendance at that congregation is 140. Besides worship, their primary activity is befriending the homeless. Everything they plan, everything they do, involves the question, “How can we include our homeless friends?”
There is plenty of bad news about the decline of congregational life in the United States. But there are even more stories we haven’t yet heard about congregations that are flourishing.
Many congregational leaders know the importance of clear vision and mission statements. Some of us have experienced positive energy working with a team that articulates congregational hopes and dreams. It can be a creative endeavor. It can be fun. There is a sense of standing in the presence of hope.
What’s the difference between the two?
Many have identified careful distinctions between a mission statement and a vision statement. I like to simplify the difference.
A vision statement imagines an ideal. It states what your congregation wants to become. It is a mental picture of a desired future.
A mission statement defines purpose. Such a purpose statement describes what your congregation does. Who does it? How does it get done? It tells others why your congregation exists.
A friendly warning
Don’t create either a vision statement or a mission statement if you don’t intend to let such statements guide you every day. Your congregation should allow those tools to focus your thoughts and actions.
How many ways can you use vision and mission statements to shape congregational life?
If your vision and mission truly represent your congregation, you will find repeating the words of such statements will come naturally in many different settings. When this happens, you experience the satisfaction of serving a congregation that is clear about what it stands for and what it hopes to be.
Many congregational leaders know the importance of clear mission and vision statements. However, congregational leaders are less capable at enacting plans.
Years ago, Kennon Callahan described this as “calling plays the players can play.” There are lots of visionary congregational leaders, but not so many who can pull off Vacation Bible School. There need to be more leaders who learn to put plans into action. There need to be more who can manage annual festivals, start a small group ministry or spearhead an outreach trip. As a congregational leader, dreaming the big stuff can be seductive. But sometimes leadership means being able to design an operational infrastructure that can support a new Advent program.
After all, what good is a vision if the website hasn’t been updated?
The difference between management and leadership
I know there is a difference between management and leadership. But I also think the difference of the two apply more distinctly to very large organizations. Given the scale of most congregations, the distinction between leadership and management is certainly smaller than for a Fortune 500 company.
The link between leadership and management in the congregation is learning. Effectiveness at both means a commitment to learning how to do something new. Sometimes it is not so much vision that is needed as the ability to learn to accomplish tasks. This dynamic is true for many in the congregational system. The dynamic of learning is not limited to the lead pastor or to the chair of the board.
Congregations that flourish function as a learning community. This is true even if the congregation doesn’t call itself that.
There is an observable pattern among congregations which learn to do new things. This pattern goes beyond the distinctions between leadership and management. The specifics of this pattern differ from congregation to congregation. However, this pattern reveals the importance of plans and behaviors as a congregation moves through:
Is all this not theological enough?
This pattern is interestingly close to the pattern of revelation, identified by James Loder in his book The Transforming Moment. This pattern is at least as important, however less enticing, than having a vision. Sometimes good management is excellent leadership.
In terms of organizational learning, the book Immunity to Change from Kegan and Lahey provides a powerful perspective on how to manage any number of relational and missional challenges while leading and managing a congregation.
Are you a clergyperson starting at a congregation? I’m sure you want to start well. It can be a challenge to prayerfully navigate all the demands placed upon you.
Most clergy don’t move often enough to get good at starting, so it’s hard to get it right. It’s like so many important things in life that happen seldom enough that we never quite reach the level of competency we’d like. I only got one chance to care for my mom through her last illness. I hadn’t done that before. Thanks to grace and my mom’s graciousness, I was good enough. Competent? Just barely.
Common advice is this: Don’t change anything for the first 12 months. In some cases, this is good advice. Don’t claim a new congregational vision to sell the 130-year-old structure, which is still in excellent condition. Your congregants probably won’t go for that. But if the congregation is used to mediocre preaching, then, for heaven’s sake, change that. Preach well!
If you are a new clergy person, you are going to learn things about the congregation that you didn’t know. Some of it is good. Wow, the music here is wonderful! Some of it is worrisome. Hmmm, the monthly income is a lot lower than I was told.
The clergy leader is the carrier of both the possibility and the sin of the congregation. As the new congregational leader, you are the vessel for that which is unsolved, unredeemed and just plain troubling about the community. During the first 100 days, a primary spiritual task is working out with God how you are going to tolerate whatever uncomfortable you are experiencing.
Is it possible to just sit with this for a while? Actually, you can do more than be still. You can use this time to begin to develop the competencies being called forth. New occasions teach new duties.
Type this into a CRG search: New Pastorate. You will find some helpful resources.
Entering Wonderland is a resource that might be helpful to you on this new journey.
Is your congregation seeking to reach out to young adults? Many congregations are. There can be both excitement and anxiety about engaging the generation commonly called millennials.
Not every congregation is going to be seen as a possible faith home for a 25-year-old. There are so many variables. There are so many roadblocks. The variables and roadblocks include practical matters like time of worship, location, congregational demographics and much more. The variable and roadblocks also include sacred factors like style of worship, theological worldview, opportunities for service and much more.
Level of religiousness
In the book Souls in Transition by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, the authors summarize the dynamics that make it most likely for a teenager with strong faith to become a young adult with what they call low “religiousness.”
The statistical data is impressive and a bit overwhelming. If I’m reading it correctly, there are three primary factors that lead a teenager with high religiousness to becoming a young adult with low religiousness. These factors are lack of strong parental ties to religion, doubts about faith, and decrease in the practicing of faith activities, such as worship, prayer and service.
The authors note that consistent high religiousness of young adults contain the same dynamics, but expressed positively. Check out Chapter 8 of Souls in Transition, which was produced by the authors noted above and Kyle Longest.
Welcoming young adults
These results suggest some principles for congregations that want to be in relationship with young adults. The principles include:
Additionally, relationships and a sense of community are important to young adults. Young adults want to contribute to the design of programs. They don’t want congregational life all organized for them.
Engaging the individuals
These are principles. There are no best practices providing a magical answer for your congregation and its relationship to young adults. In fact, the use of the word “they” is a sign of the challenge. In this short piece, I’m already referring to young adults as an undifferentiated mass of folks.
You will know your congregation is engaging young adults when this group is no longer a “they,” but people with names and faces: Jill, Jose, L.D, Samson, Lori and a holy host of others.
This is sacred ground. There is much to absorb. If you are interested in learning more about your congregation and young adults, search young adults on the CRG.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.”
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 email@example.com If you would like a free copy of the book How Your Congregations Learns, let me know via email.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
During the 1950s, a psychiatrist named Murray Bowen created a new intervention for those with family members suffering from schizophrenia. Two decades later, Rabbi Edwin Friedman used Bowen’s theory to help clergy think about congregational life. Friedman’s acclaimed book, Generation to Generation, launched the theory as a helpful leadership method for congregations.
By now, two generations of clergy have applied the Bowen theory concepts to the work of congregational leadership. These concepts include self-differentiation, anxiety, triangles, multi-generational transmission process and emotional cutoff. In addition to Edwin Friedman’s works, Peter Steinke, Arthur Paul Boers, Israel Galindo, Ronald Richardson and Roberta Gilbert, among others, have written books that apply Bowen’s theory to congregational life. Many consultants use the Bowen method as a framework for their engagements with congregations.
Does this approach help strengthen the local congregation?
Below you will find four observations regarding the helpfulness of Bowen Family Systems.
1) It is not necessary to teach the theory to congregations. The best Bowen theory resources are those which help leaders try new behaviors, not just learn the theory. Spending too much time explaining the Bowen method to congregants has the effect of an orthopedic surgeon explaining in excruciating detail hip replacement to a patient (“then I will take a hammer to your femoral head…”). Don’t substitute sharing the theory with living the theory. Practice it.
2) Many leaders misunderstand what Bowen and Friedman mean by self-differentiation. Differentiation of self is the lifelong work of developing the ability for both autonomy and closeness. Too often this concept is interpreted as license to take alienating stands with little attention to relationships. As a leader working on self-differentiation, you learn to connect deeply with others while at the same time you are learning to be clear about what matters most to you. Self-differentiation includes both connection and boundaries.
3) It could be that the Bowen and Friedman dictum to remain non-anxious is counterproductive, at least sometimes. In Bowen Theory, one of the markers of maturity is the capacity to remain non-anxious in difficult situations. This instruction functions like the command to “love your enemy” – easy to say, but hard to do. Anxiety is not always harmful. Trying to maintain a non-anxious presence often has a paradoxical effect – it raises, not lowers, anxiety. Honesty and authenticity are virtues. It is okay for a leader to say “this makes me anxious.”
4) Bowen theory proponents have a propensity to speak assuredly of the method. I find organizations less predictable than most Bowen theorists assert. They are more certain of their theory than the word “theory” would imply. I wonder, for example, if self-differentiation as it is explained in the Bowen model does not acknowledge the way clergy often need to imagine and manage opposing thoughts within not just the congregation, but within themselves. Does Bowen Theory leave mental space for the self to be transformed by divergent views within one’s self?
Creating a framework
Certainly, though, Bowen Family Systems resources provide congregational leaders with a framework for understanding behaviors they are experiencing in congregations. However, like most things in life, it is appropriate to think critically about this theory. Its power may be in the way it is adapted to fit a leader’s temperament and experience.
In this blog, I’ve referred to Bowen theory proponents. Here are resources that apply the theory to congregational life.
If you’d like to continue the conversation email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
How does your congregation use Facebook? If you are a clergyperson, do you manage Twitter or Instagram for ministry? How about Pinterest or Snapchat or YouTube?
An instrument for ministry
The congregations that make the best use of Facebook and other social media are the ones that view these tools as instruments for ministry, not just for marketing. Certainly there is a marketing component to social media. Yet, if the marketing component drives the use of social media then an opportunity for a purposeful connection with others is lost.
I know a congregation which uses Facebook for comments on the sermon scripture passage for the week. This congregation of about 150 in worship have an average of 10 comments per week regarding the sermon text.
Another congregation uses social media for people to post prayers. Facebook becomes a kind of virtual Western Wall. Instead of folded pieces of paper placed between stone crevices, electronic petitions are shared.
Click 2 Save is a helpful book about social media as an instrument for ministry. The authors, Elizabeth Drescher and Keith Anderson, address the question, “Is there more to social media than public relations?”
Discerning your use of social media
If you are a clergyperson, you might think about how you want to use web-based, interactive tools. Clergy face this question: How do I navigate relationship boundaries between my personal life and professional life when using social medial?
I’ve learned from Pastor Monique Crain Spells. Monique is the director of recruitment at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, and she is also the pastor at Levi’s Table. At a Center-sponsored workshop, Monique described how she has chosen to be present on social media as a pastor. It is part of her ministry just as pastoral calling, teaching, and preaching are part of her work.
Choosing to use social media predominately as a professional tool for ministry may not work for everyone. But it is a choice that gives clarity regarding the purpose and use of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and others.
Congregations have long been places that nurture the care of souls. Long ago, the early church created strategies and tactics to care for widows and children. Nowadays, care in congregations involves visits to the sick, end-of-life care, support for grieving families, celebrating life transitions, encouragement for older adults, befriending those who experience loneliness and so much more.
Perhaps your congregation is looking to strengthen its care ministries. There are two ways to think about this. One way is to consider structures and operations. Who is responsible for organizing care activities? Are there ways to streamline communication? What might you do to improve the way in which care ministries are implemented?
A manual for care teams
Karen Lampe has written a useful resource titled The Caring Congregation that serves as a manual for care teams. There is much spiritual wisdom in this book. The book also addresses various practical issues. For example, the appendix contains a job description for a congregational care minister.
Listening and caring skills
Another way to enhance care ministries is to learn more about the process and practice of caring. Listening is one of the most powerful skills God has given us. John Savage’s book on listening, Listening and Caring Skills in Ministry, is an excellent volume about how to enhance caring relationships through listening. The book addresses skills such as paraphrasing, productive questions, describing behavior, truly hearing a story and so forth.
You can use the book as a guide to improving the skills of those providing care to congregants. Yes, there are two ways to address congregational care issues. You can address the structures and operations of your care ministries. And you can increase the capacity of those who are providing direct care services. Here are even more congregational care resources for you to consider.
Is your congregation planning something new? If so, there are five key questions you can ask yourself and the group with which you are working. The five questions apply to almost every kind of congregational project. These key questions provide focus. Responses to these questions will provide structure for your work. You and your colleagues can meet your goals when you use these questions throughout a process.
Here are the five key questions:
Try weaving these questions into the agenda of your next meeting about a new endeavor. Listen carefully to the conversation. Observe when the energy in the room rises. Observe when the energy lags. Share this back to the group. Ask others to interpret responses to the questions. Form your work plan based on what you are hearing.
This is how your congregation learns to do new things.
Resources you can use
You can learn more about these five questions in chapter nine of How Your Congregation Learns.
As you have probably observed, asking questions is a powerful learning and leadership behavior. Two recommended resources on asking questions and congregational leadership include: The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation and Action and Encyclopedia of Positive Questions.
Sometimes funds are scarce. God has created the world abundant with water, trees, blue skies and people we love. Though we have what we need, we don’t have everything. In congregations, this lack is sometimes evident regarding budgets.
The finance team would like to increase the budget for youth ministry, but the cost for the new parking lot is an unpleasant surprise. Or, pledges are down because a major employer left town. There is a widening gap between income and expenses.
Sometimes a congregation’s board does have to decrease the budget. Tough decisions are part of leadership in a faith community, just as they are in a business or a family. It is common for leaders to have difficulty deciding where to make budget cuts and for how much. The discussions about budget cuts can be as unpleasant as the cuts themselves.
Here’s an idea that might be helpful if you face decreasing income. Try creating a budget for a period less than a year. Create a provisional first quarter budget or establish a half-year budget.
By shortening the time frame of your budget, you leave room for positive, unforeseen adaptations. You also feel the pain of shortfalls incrementally. The downside to this is that your congregation could be delaying a painful decision; pushing the inevitable down the path and hoping someone else doesn’t stumble over it later. However, shortening the timeline of your budget in times of scarcity can be a way for your congregation to be more nimble, to adjust more quickly to difficulties or opportunities.
During a recession, one congregation chose to freeze salaries, but only for the first quarter. The board agreed to revisit the decision after four months. When the time arrived for further consideration, giving had increased almost ten percent. This happened, in part, because the congregants knew about the provisional decision and many members boosted their offering because they wanted to support the hard working staff. As a result, each staff member received a two percent raise.
Resources you can use
When it comes to congregational budgeting, sometimes tried and true resources are among the best. Kennon Callahan’s Effective Church Finances is a practical book for clergy and laity alike.
When money is tight, illustrate the budget situation with more than numbers. Some congregations create narrative budgets, a way to represent income and expenses with graphs, illustrations, and even stories. The article Narrative Budgets, prepared by the Anglican Church of Canada, will provide you with more information.
If you have a specific budgeting question, use our chat function or email us to begin a conversation.
We want to help you move from scarcity to possibility.
Center for Congregations President Tim Shapiro spoke with Hayim Herring, consultant, nonprofit organizational futurist and author of Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose. Below are snippets of their conversation.
Tim: Thanks to you and your colleague Dr. Teri Elton for introducing us to the phrase “Foresight is 20/20.” In your CRG blog, you link foresight to agility. How far into the future do you think a congregational board can think strategically about programs and purpose?
Hayim: I think at least five years and here are some reasons. The further out we think, the less accurately we’re likely to forecast. Yet, we’re also in an age of accelerating velocity of change. For example, could we imagine how quickly we’re moving from electronic wearable fitness devices to wearable medical devices, like Apple’s newest watch that has an FDA approved heart monitor? Strategic issues that leaders estimate won’t surface until another five years are likely to happen much sooner. And as congregations are often slow at planning and executing on relatively simple changes, it feels like congregations must learn to accustom themselves to look out at least five years. That way, if a change comes sooner leaders will be prepared, and if it takes longer, they will be one of those congregations that will pioneer their desired future.
As a corollary to your question, I’d like to add, “How do we develop leaders who can stay rooted in the past, look deeply into the present, and anticipate and shape the kind of congregational community that they desire?” This is deep cultural change work for a congregation, even beyond compressed strategic planning that happens every three years. It calls for developing a culture that understands that exercising foresight is now a required leadership attribute and one that should also be fostered more broadly in the congregation.
Tim: The Center in Indiana worked with a congregation a few years ago that decided not to set an annual budget. This was during a time when the town, and members of the congregation, were experiencing economic hardships. It wasn’t just that household budgets were tight, people were losing their jobs. The board decided to vote on a budget every quarter, rather than annually because they couldn’t see far enough into the future to make firm plans. They called this flexible implementation. Is something like this what you mean by agility?
Hayim: It’s very easy to play armchair organizational analyst, especially because I am literally sitting in recliner responding and not in a congregation that is making quarterly budget decisions. Clearly, their commitment to meet and review finances reflects their tremendous love and concern for their congregation – this is not work that one volunteers for to receive accolades! But from my vantage point, their approach has the potential to unintentionally accelerate the demise of a congregation. Budgeting on a quarterly basis, especially as a response to financial duress, constrains longer-term creative thinking at the time it’s needed most. It fosters a mindset of the anxiety of existing from one budget quarter to the next and crowds out time to envision a completely different kind of congregational community.
A few alternatives: in a crisis, leaders lock themselves into a room and don’t emerge until they have drafted an emergency plan with milestones that they communicate transparently to the congregation. That plan may contain any number of outcomes. Leaders might determine how to gracefully merge with another congregation or keep the community but sell and lease back the building. They could think about renting other space or meeting in people’s homes. They could seek new sources of revenue through tasteful corporate sponsorships (in the way that corporations advertise on public radio or television). The congregation might repurpose and rent space in the building that stands empty much of the week to struggling startups whose values are consistent with those of a congregation, even if they are not “religious” startups.
This congregation was fiscally responsible and clearly wanted to do right as stewards of congregational funds. But was there was a parallel working group considering out-of-the-box options? I don’t mean impossible to achieve alternatives, but ones that are at least remotely possible. If a group of leaders had been cultivated to anticipate trends, it’s possible that they might have at least mitigated this dire situation. But a congregation under extreme financial duress cannot financially cut its way out of a crisis. Renewed congregational life may happen from seeing and seizing opportunities that add meaning and purpose unavailable from other congregations or organizations, from merging with another congregation or functioning as a semi-autonomous congregation within a larger congregation, or from a bold re-envisioning of the purpose of forming a congregational community.
Tim: Hard trends become future facts. In addition to generational differences and the handling of devices as if they were human (as you note in the blog), what is another hard trend which congregational leaders might want to track?
Hayim: The Pew Research Center recently developed new typologies for categorizing Americans by religion that include provocative categories like “Spiritually Awake,” “Sunday Stalwarts,” “Religion Resisters,” and “Solidly Secular.” It would be very helpful for congregations to use local resources at universities to help them understand the implications of these new typologies and possible impacts that they may have on congregational participation. Another trend is moving into a mobile future, where religious services, rituals, financial payments, and tracking one’s spiritual growth are ripe for development. Returning to a theme from my last blog post, I have many questions about the impact of immersive technologies on congregational life. When individuals can use smartphones to generate a holographic image of a congregation and watch their favorite pastor preach, what will that do to their relationship with physical space and community? Will we find holiness in holograms? Perhaps most important of all, it is no longer acceptable under any circumstance for congregational leaders to enable or to cover up the actions of those who verbally demean, sexually harass, or assault another individual. That obvious religious imperative of treating all individuals as inherently worthy of dignity cannot be taken for granted.
Tim: Many congregational leaders are exploring what innovation means. In your book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World, innovation is defined as an act, and entrepreneurship as an organizational state. Many in the religious sphere, and the broader non-profit sphere, are trying to understand innovation. If a group is stuck trying to define innovation, how might a group try to act into, live into innovation?
Hayim: You’re right, congregational groups can become paralyzed even by the thought of becoming innovative. After all, innovations often occur in public and even with the best of planning, there will be some glitches and congregants can sometimes respond harshly to well-intentioned efforts that flop. Here are a few suggestions on how to get “unstuck”:
- Based on years of experience, my mantra on innovation is, “think big, start small, move fast, evaluate/modify, and determine whether to close down our scale up an innovation.” Cultivate a practice of ongoing pilot programs (or betas) that are designed for learning – from success and from failure.
- Don’t go for the “low hanging fruit” because that approach doesn’t satisfy either those who are interested in fundamental innovation, or those who like things as they are, don’t want to innovate, but also want to be good team players and put forth effort for some change that they don’t support in their hearts.
- Also, look toward other places in your local community that have successfully undertaken innovation – another nonprofit, an art museum or symphony that had to engage audiences differently than in the past, or some other organization that had to reinvent all or a part of itself. Don’t only look to other congregations, but outside of the congregational world to those who share similar struggles.
Tim: Give us a glimpse into a way of congregational life which you’d love to be a part.
Hayim: The congregations to which I belong and like to work with share some commonalities. They are places in which people are kind to one another, have a broad concern for their local community, and are much more concerned about their own authenticity than what others who belong elsewhere say about them. They balance spirituality with intellectual challenge. They trust that their members can handle big ideas and grapple with difficult issues. They hold on to a reliable core mission and experiment – although it’s difficult to find congregations that have spiritual incubators to complement their ongoing offerings. I also feel that aesthetics – the thought and attention that go into the flow of services and programs, music, art, and the performance of ritual – are critically important. So much of congregational life is about a reenactment of the past that reawakens the demands of my soul, or the momentary creation of a microcosm of a better reality that motivates me to work with others to make it permanent. That intentionality and forethought of experience are much-appreciated ingredients of a congregational community.
I’m having more conversations with congregations that characterize themselves as multicultural. For example, I met with a governing board of a Caucasian congregation that had recently welcomed 20 refugees from Ethiopia. A board member said, “We sing songs that are new to us.”
Another pastor called the Center for Congregations looking for resources related to talking about racial justice. I asked, “Is your congregation predominately African-American or mainly Caucasian?” She said, “We are multicultural. We are about 60% white, about 30% black, and we have others who are recent immigrants from Latin America.”
A multicultural congregation is typically racially diverse. Yet, the diversity also stretches beyond racial inclusivity. A multicultural congregation holds and seeks racial, cultural, class, generational, gender and other differences to be represented among its participants.
Those who study multicultural congregations note that when 20% percent of the participants represent the non-dominant group, the non-dominant group begins to transform the congregation in significant ways. The style of prayer changes. People learn facts they didn’t know before (“there are over 80 languages spoken in Ethiopia!). New friendships are made.
A rich congregational experience
A multicultural congregation includes a diverse range of people in attendance. More robustly, the congregation expresses its religious claims and commitments through the activities and practices of more than a single, dominant culture.
Many effective multicultural congregations become diverse because of unfolding circumstances, as opposed to deciding to become such a congregation. For example, a congregation may find itself located in a zip code with an influx of immigrants. Or a congregation might observe that the public-school district in which they reside includes students of a different race than most of its members.
Resources you can use
If you are addressing the challenges and opportunities of becoming a multicultural congregation your governing board might begin to deepen its consideration by reading and discussing some outside resources. I recommend these two – a blog titled Different Models for Multicultural Congregations and Ministries and the article Against the Current.
As your knowledge and expertise deepens, I recommend the web resource Striving Toward Multi-Ethnic Church to increase your capacity as a multicultural congregation.
The Harvard Business Review defines innovation as “the difficult discipline of newness.” What new thing is forming in your congregation? The congregation I attended last Sunday is starting a Friday night dinner, which will end with communion. In explaining the gathering, the pastor said “We don’t have to wait for Sunday to break bread together.”
My colleague Kara Faris and I have learned about the difficult discipline of newness from 12 innovative congregations. Stories from leaders of these congregations are in the book Divergent Church.
We learned of six practices evident in various configurations among these congregations. By practices, we mean universal human activities that take on unique and often new shape in these innovative congregations.
The congregations told remarkable stories that featured creative expressions of these six practices:
- Shaping Community
- Artistic Expression
- Breaking Bread
- Community Engagement
If you were given full license to innovate regarding a practice, which practice would you choose and what would the innovation look like?
If you are interested in reading the book Divergent Church email me at email@example.com and I will send you a copy.
By the way, the congregation starting the Friday night gathering is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Innovation is not dependent on a congregation being shiny and new.
How would you describe a thriving congregation? Perhaps a thriving congregation has young people attending worship. Another thriving congregation might manage conflict well.
At the Center for Congregations in Indiana, we interact with all kinds of flourishing congregations. Here’s what we’re learning from faith communities that thrive.
- Focus on congregational assets rather than problems. Reframe observations as a positive question “What is going well?”
- Learn to do new things. This encourages intentional growth as a community. See the book How Your Congregation Learns.
- Help your people to live life well. Connect teachings, worship, and faith convictions to the challenges and opportunities of everyday life.
As part of our work, we captured the stories of 12 innovative, thriving congregations around the United States. Below are some of their common practices.
Intentional Practices of Innovative Congregations
For more information, see the book Divergent Church.
On the surface, thriving may look like growing worship attendance or conflict management. By considering the strategies and practices listed above, your congregation can take new steps to thrive.
For further discussion
Brainstorm strategies or practices that happen within thriving congregations.
Many elements make you the person you are. You are shaped by your race, your geographic location, and your genetic structure. Your personality is formed by your family, your friends, and the choices you make along the way. You are influenced by education, social affiliations and friendships.
All of us are formed by the company we keep. The company we keep includes the congregation you attend. Whether you are aware of it or not, the activities of your congregation create certain thoughts, feelings and behaviors that make you who you are. In this way, your congregation has formative power.
I was reminded of the importance of being part of a religious community when a clergy person described a project happening in his congregation. He told me about a booklet being produced by the staff called Rule of Life. The Rule of Life is a guidebook outlining what it means to be part of the congregation.
The pastor says, “We want to encourage people to live a certain way of life.” Part of the guidebook is written as a catechism with answers to be learned and recited. Other parts of the guide describe specific practices in which one participates as a member of the congregation: at noon every day we are going to pray this Psalm.
If you read Psalm 23 every day, that Psalm is going to become part of who you are. The virtue of trust represented in the lines of the Psalm will more likely become part of your heart, mind and soul.
What elements are most formative in a congregation?
Of course, it depends on the particular congregation. I have observed and experienced the following activities having a positive impact on adherents:
- Testimony, telling the story of their lives
- Religious practices, particularly worship, prayer, singing, study of scripture, and rites of passages or sacraments
- Reflection on practice: not just doing things but thinking about their impact with others
- Relationships including across generations
- Liminal experiences: pilgrimages, mission trips, cross-cultural experiences, spiritual retreats
Here is an exercise to consider doing with a congregational board, team or class.
Remember a time when a congregational experience formed or reinforced a positive attribute in you. Write down the experience. Take turns sharing the stories out loud. Listeners are invited to ask open, curious questions to enhance group reflection. What themes are evident? What further growth might the congregation support?