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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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.