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.
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.
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.
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In times of trouble, people will often turn to spiritual leaders for help and guidance, which is why congregation leaders may be interested in ways they can ensure they are able to provide spiritual direction for those in need. There are many resources available to help congregational leaders find useful books, articles, or websites to pair with their knowledge and begin improving their leadership skills.
Those who would like to make a career out of being a spiritual leader have numerous valuable educational resources available for them. College religious studies, seminary, denominational training are just a few. And still yet, there may also be those who would like to augment their education and might consider checking out some online courses. These can all be great ways for people to learn specifically about spiritual leadership. It might prove helpful for spiritual leaders to look into learning about leadership skills from secular areas, as well. By blending secular and religious leadership classes, it may become possible for religious leaders to make their sermons more relevant to their congregations.
On the other hand, it may benefit people to understand that they do not necessarily have to attend a formal educational program in order to be a spiritual leader. For instance, lots of people simply volunteer to be a small group study leader at their congregation. A good place to start could be by looking at famous spiritual quotes, which can be used as a foundation of religious studies. For example, someone who is leading a devotional might want to use a quote as a platform from which to launch the rest of their devotional. This can be another great way for people to make their sermons and messages more relevant to their congregation.
Fundamentals of Spiritual Leadership
Those who would like to rise up in the ranks when it comes to being a spiritual leader might be interested in understanding some of the key elements for building a strong foundation in the world of spiritual leadership. First, they might consider the question, “what is spiritual leadership?” The reality is that spiritual leadership can tend to look a little bit different from person to person. Religious leadership in one part of the world might look a little bit different from religious leadership in another part of the world. In general, spiritual leadership can incorporate a wide variety of factors, including altruistic love, visions of a higher power, hope, and faith - all of which can be of great help in promoting spiritual survival.
For those who are looking to build the fundamentals of spiritual leadership, they may want to focus on the role of spiritual leadership itself, so that they will then be able to effectively communicate the essence of spiritual leadership to their followers. Spiritual leadership can be a source of immense help and knowledge that people go to for assistance, when no one else seems able to help them. Therefore, a lot of people are going to approach someone for spiritual direction during times of crisis. In this manner, spiritual leadership can provide people with guidance on how to live their lives. This can be seen as one of the biggest reasons why religious leaders are usually seen as cornerstones of their communities.
All of this can point towards the fundamentals of spiritual leadership being a worthy subject to explore, and you may find that one of the key elements of being an effective spiritual leader is communication. A religious leader can possibly be more effective if they are able to communicate abstract ideas in a way that their followers can understand. One of the biggest challenges can involve speaking to a tremendously diverse congregation. When religious leaders take the time to speak to their followers in a way they can understand, they might immediately notice their sermons and their speeches becoming more effective.
Spiritual Leadership Books
It may be helpful for someone who wants to become a spiritual leader to look at this as a journey, rather than a destination. In reality, people do not simply become spiritual leaders. Instead, they focus on continually improving their religious leadership skills. For instance, it can be helpful for people to take a look at books on applying spiritual leadership in a marriage or personal relationship.
It can also be helpful for people to take a look at spiritual leadership books regarding raising children, because some parents out there might also look to their congregations and leaders for help when it comes to raising their children. Even if religious leaders do not have children themselves, they very well may still be asked to speak on such topics. Therefore, it might be a good idea for religious leaders to read a few books and familiarize themselves when it comes to spiritual lessons for children. That way, they may be able to speak more eloquently on this topic when the time comes.
Finally, it may also be a good idea for religious leaders to read spiritual leadership books on self-help. Many people will often turn to religious leaders when they feel as if they have done something wrong. They may feel guilty and have a desire to learn how they can make up for what they have done. And so, by reading self-help books, religious leaders may be able to provide help for those people when they bring their problems and issues to them There are all sorts of books available that frame this with a spiritual mindset, and might enable religious leaders to be better able to help those in need.
Spiritual Leadership Training
There are lots of individuals who would like to improve their spiritual leadership skills. When it comes to effective spiritual leadership, spiritual leadership training is a resource that can be of great assistance - and the good news is that spiritual leadership training can take many shapes and forms. Many people can often decide to enroll in formal training programs. For example, they might major in religious studies in college, or they could attend a seminary, in order to become officially licensed. These can both be great ways for learning about spiritual leadership theory and placing religious leaders into a position to be successful.
Additionally, even those who are already accomplished spiritual leaders may want to consider focusing on continuing their education. For instance, a lot of spiritual leaders might attend conferences on a regular basis, in which they learn about major issues facing the religious world today. By doing so, they may then be able to not only help their congregations, but also improve the position of their congregation in the community.
Finally, it might also be a good idea for religious leaders to focus on independent training. Reading books can be a great start, but it might also prove to be a good idea to attend sermons given by other religious leaders. That way, they might be able to see what works well for other spiritual leaders.
Spiritual Leadership Qualities
There are lots of people who may be wondering what qualities they need to have in order to be a good spiritual leader. And while it can be helpful to look at the 17 characteristics of a spiritual leader, every religious group is likely going to have slightly different needs. A good religious leader for one congregation might not be the best fit for another, after all.
Therefore, it might be good for groups to think about how they can match their needs with their next religious leader. Having effective communication is one positive quality that usually arises. If a spiritual leader is unable to communicate effectively with the congregation, then he or she is probably not going to be good for that role. And although there are assessments and tests available, these formal assessments are likely only going to get someone so far. In the end, one of the best ways to pick a spiritual leader may be to interview them, speaking with them about their ideas for the congregation, sharing some of the problems the congregation is currently facing with them, and seeing what sorts of ideas they have to fix them. Doing this can help congregations find the right spiritual leader for meeting their needs.
Spiritual Leadership Devotions
Without a doubt, one of the most common themes that is common across all congregations involves spiritual leadership devotion. These are devotions that are used by all congregations to ensure that they are able to improve themselves as leaders. Devotions are used to remind congregations of their role in the community and the part they play in helping keep everyone pointed in the right direction. Therefore, having devotions on a regular basis can be a great thing. Often, the foundation of spiritual leadership devotions may involve religious leaders’ quotes or spiritual leadership quotes.
For example, many inspirational devotions stem from passages found in religious texts, and the person who is giving the devotion for that day will usually pick a verse. Next, they might share with others what that quote means to them. Then, the group may have a little bit of “popcorn time” and share how they feel that this quote can be applied to their lives. This is one of the top ways that congregations can help make sure that members are focused inward, when it comes to improving themselves spiritually. Finally, the group might also talk about what they can do in the community to spread their message and help those in need. This can be a great way for spiritual leaders to help improve their local communities.