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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org If you would like a free copy of the book How Your Congregations Learns, let me know via email.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com