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for Congregational Development

1. Signs of Vitality, by Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredricka-Harruis-Thompsett

2. Toward a Theology of Identity, by Michael Battle

3. Trends in Episcopal Church Membership

4. Turning Towards LIFE, by Mary Louise Gifford

5. Bridging the Gap between Knowing and Doing, by Larry Peers

6. In a Culture drawn to BIG, should the Church really be Celebrating SMALL?,by Judy Paulson

7. The Messy Work of Renewal, by Dan Smith and Mary Sellon

8. Myths about Communicating Congregational Identity, by Lynne Baab

9. The Church in Exile: Being a Missionary to the Dominant Culture, by Lee Beach

10.The "PROBLEM" Trap, by Larry Peers

11.Questions for the "Stuck" Congregation, by Larry Peers

12. Letting Go and Moving On, by Katharine Jefferts Shori

13. Culture Streams, by Beverly and George Thompson

14. Innovation Requires a Sense of Need for Change by Tom Ehrich

(1.)  Signs of Vitality


by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook , Fredrica Harris-Thompsett

What does small church vitality look like? To be sure, there is no one definition, and the variations on small church vitality are as numerous as the congregations themselves. Some are located in areas where nu­merical growth is possible and aggressively seek to expand their mem­bership. Others situated in remote areas where membership growth is unlikely seek abundance in other ways, such as growth in outreach, by extending lavish hospitality to all, or in nurturing the depth of the spiritual commitment of members. In the United States and Canada, many communities have experienced significant out-migration and fi­nancial decline due to the departure of industries that traditionally sup­ported the people in the area for generations. For such congregations, the prospects for significant numerical growth are modest or nonexis­tent, and thus the need to measure vitality and growth in terms other than the strictly numerical is imperative if they hope to respond to the ministry needs of their contexts. Part of the challenge in encouraging vitality in small congregations is to find ways to free small congregations from culturally dictated standards of viability; to free spiritual formation, ministry, and leadership from the prevailing culture of clericalism; and to shape a vision of theological education that is committed to supporting the ministries of the whole people of God.

There is broad consensus among leaders in the small congregations discussed here about factors or characteristics that contribute to small and vital congregations. “Vitality is a quality in response to living into Christ. It may be reflected in quantity, but quality is reflected in involve­ment in activism, not necessarily parish activities, where members live into actions of compassion, justice, listening, reconciliation,” says Anita Schell-Lambert, rector of St. Peter’s Church in Bennington, Vermont. “Signs of vitality in a small church which are crucial, necessary, all-im­portant are caring, liveliness, energy, and strength,” says Judy Krumm, a member and chair of the discernment committee in the same congrega­tion. A positive sense within the congregation about its ministry has con­tributed to the growth of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Houlton, Maine, located a few miles from the Canadian border. “Listening to each other is so important,” says Leslie Nesin, priest-in-charge. She also sug­gests that while the congregation struggles financially, the positive spirit within the community makes it easier to close that gap.

More than two hundred people from across the region assisted the congregation of St. Martin’s, Palmyra, Maine, after a fire destroyed the church building in April 2006. Lev Sherman, the priest of the congre­gation, attributes the response to the fire to “the incredible level of involvement” in the larger community of the fifty or so members of the congregation, with an average Sunday attendance of approximately twenty-seven. “If someone in the community gets laid off, or loses a house, we are there to help,” he says. Certainly, St. Martin’s is important enough to the wider community it serves that it would be missed if the congregation closed its doors. The church building is literally located at a crossroads—the only occupied corner of a four-way intersection. Outreach is a sign of vitality in this small congregation. The congregation made an intentional decision to focus on outreach and less on buildings and grounds. The parish hall, a former Grange hall, houses a computer center, a library, and a literacy program. The congregation also sponsors turkey pie sup­pers and a county food bank. Funds for outreach are raised by events involving church members as well as people from the wider community. Like many small congregations with outreach efforts, St. Martin’s is both gratified by the supportive response of the wider community and chal­lenged to spread its ministries more widely in the face of local needs.

Samuel J. Wylie, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan in the 1970s, suggests that the norm in style and size for the Christian life is the small community, and others should take on small­ness, or simplicity, as the model. His ecclesiology was based on early Christian, radically equal, Spirit-filled house communities more than current church structures. “A saving remnant was what God used to achieve salvation. And the Savior is assigned a stable instead of a palace and Bethlehem instead of Jerusalem for a birthplace, and Nazareth for a home. . . . Small, for many of us, suggests words like puny, mean, isolated. For Jesus it meant the mustard seed that grew to great and expansive measure,” he writes.1All faith communities are unique, having their own culture and character. At the same time, it is important to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in all sorts of congregations, regardless of size, geography, or wealth, calling all members to ministry individually and collectively in their own community and beyond.

Sam Wylie came to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from New York City and soon found his presuppositions about what is important for effec­tive ministry confronted. Wylie realized that our society often takes for granted the idea that bigger is always better, and small is usually assumed to mean either immaturity or atrophy. Although it is hardly guaranteed, he came to see smaller communities as potentially the healthiest and most vital expression of the Christian church. In many cases shared vision, mobilized resources, common commitment, and change manage­ment can happen more easily in small communities than in larger ones. It is not uncommon to find effective larger congregations that engage small groups to organize, educate, teach, discern, and support ministry. The other reality is that in small communities everyone knows each other and everyone’s gifts are needed.

The capacity for vitality in small congregations is a focus in the 2006 study of St. Magnus, a congregation in the Shetland Islands, Scotland, undertaken by Elaine Cameron. Cameron’s work points to the impor­tance of congregation-based theological education models, rather than those based on individual learning. However global the congregation’s vision might be, it still needs to be grounded in the local community. In the final analysis, all mission is grounded in the local context. Cameron says that the people of St. Magnus perceive baptism as the critical fact in their membership in Christ’s body, rather than ordination or confirma­tion, and thus assume that theological education should be based in the congregation, not on individual learning. “The curriculum,” she notes, “is both content and process, and it engages head, heart and imagination, aiming to make connections between faith and life more permeable.” Cameron suggests that the way the congregation perceives its mission within its context is critical. “St. Magnus has been asking questions about what they should be doing in a good sequence: For example: In this place, what is mission? What ministry does this require? How do we enable maximum participation? What do we learn in reflecting on the process? Their confidence as a congregation grew, so that they began to see that ministry was not just what the rector did, nor even what they individually did. They began to see that not only had their congregation a ministry to the world, but that it also received from the world. Above all, ministry was about what everyone offered, individually and collectively,” said Cameron.2

1. Samuel J. Wylie, The Celebration of Smallness, 2nd ed. (Marquette, MI: Diocese of Northern Michigan, 1995), 6–8.

2. Elaine Cameron, “Theological Education with the Laity: The Study of One Con­gregation’s Experience of Local Collaborative Ministry” (DMin thesis, Pittsburgh Theo­logical Seminary, May 2006).


This article is adapted and excerpted fromBorn of Water, Born of Spirit: Supporting the Ministry of the Baptized in Small Congregationsby Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris-Thompsett, copyright © by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

(2.) Toward a Theology of Identity

The Very Rev. Canon Michael J. Battle, Ph.D.

All Shall Be Well: An Approach to Wellness

Edited by William S. Craddock, Jr.

is available through Church Publishing, Inc.

Who is God calling you to be? Isaiah answers through the imagery of mighty waters suddenly appearing in the desert. It is as if for Isaiah God is calling us forth to discover a new identity through impossible circumstances. Even in a desert, nothing can prevent the mighty waters from springing forth, producing a something new, even a garden in a

wasteland. (Isaiah 43:19) In this chapter, I invite you to step with me into the waters of identity. These waters are often troubled in which we immediately discover a theological paradox—namely, a person cannot discover self-identity alone. This is a paradox because self-identity implies solitude and isolation; so how can anyone discover self through any

other means than through self? As we aim our toes toward these murky waters of identity, let us prepare for surprises—by doing so, we will increase our wellness. In short, I think we learn from God’s own identity, that identity cannot be discovered in the vacuum of self; rather, self-identity will always need the healthy reference points of others in


Misnomer of “Self-Identity”

Self-identity is not a possession about which one can say: There it is. God has made us in the divine image that is not static and yet is identifiable. I like to put it this way: Self is a responsible mystery! Instead of relegating self to the mysterious because we lack the will to analyze such existence deeply, I argue that self is a responsible mystery in which we are called to go as deep as we can, knowing that we can never reach the bottom. In this way, self-identity is always in pursuit of new life—that is to say, a new world of possibilities, one that is to be constructed day by day. Identity, after all,

implies movement and growth. And perhaps this rather obvious point is an indicator of what must be central for any adequate understanding of wellness. Self-Identity is a misnomer in the sense that one can introspectively know self. There needs to be a reference point as the following story illustrates. One Sunday morning, everyone in one bright, beautiful, tiny town got up early and went to church. Before the services started, the townspeople were sitting in their pews and

talking about the mundane details of their lives. Suddenly, Satan appeared at the front of the church. Everyone started screaming and running for the exits, trampling each other in a frantic effort to get away from evil incarnate.

Soon the church was empty, except for one elderly lady who sat calmly in her pew, not moving. . . seemingly oblivious to the fact that God’s ultimate enemy was in her presence. Now, this confused Satan a bit, so he walked up to the woman and said, “Don’t you know who I am?”

The woman replied, “Yep, sure do.”

Satan asked, “Aren’t you afraid of me?”

“Nope, sure ain’t,” said the woman,

Satan was a little perturbed at this and queried, “Why aren’t you afraid of me?”

The woman calmly replied, “Been married to your brother for over forty-eight years.”

Even Jesus asked, “Who do they say I am?” (Matthew 16:13) The discovery of self is a relational journey. Jesus, Paul, and other writers in Scripture stressed the themes of the call to mature identity in community and the risks of regression into self-absorption. For example, the opening chapters of I Corinthians remind a community of self-satisfied and

fractious converts that they are chosen in the first place for their weakness (I. 26:31) and that their calling is to an ever greater identification with the humility and hiddenness of God’s action in Christ (I. 17-25, 2: 1-9). This (2:6) is their maturity and their wisdom—a maturity which their various self-assertions amply show they do not possess (3:1-4). Ultimately, in Christian theology, Christ reveals the way to discover identity through community. Such a way is not always easy, however.

Murky Waters of Identity

Because it is frightening and painful to be confronted with the awareness that our belief in a controlled sense of self may often be empty and self-serving, we readily turn away and often embrace unauthentic lives. To save us from such hell, God often provokes a crisis to destroy our self-deceiving reliance. In other words, we cannot figure out life by ourselves and soon discover we need help. So, if we think we see ourselves clearly, God often muddies our waters so that we do not settle on superficial self-identity. Paul, himself, had to struggle through the murky process of finding his identity as his

eyes were open and yet he could not see. (Acts. 9:8) In fact, Paul needed someone else (Ananias) to become aware of his new identity (Acts. 9:17). Paul took his new name and identity through the grace of Christian community:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. (Romans 12: 3-5) People formed through Christ’s discipleship believe, deep in the core of their being, that God loved humanity into being. God’s love is prevenient—it is there before everything

else and calls all of our justifications for control of identity into account. In short, as a Christian, no one can claim full control of her or his life. “We see through a mirror dimly.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

The Christian accepts the need to be transformed into a new identity, a new perspective articulated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: God does not love us because we are lovable, but we are lovable precisely because

God loves us. God’s love is what gives us our worth. . . . So we are liberated from the desire to achieve, to impress. We are the children of the divine love and nothing can change that fundamental fact about us.1

It is in this understanding of God’s love and human identity that we can then make sense of one of the most fascinating concepts of the twenty-first century, Ubuntu. Archbishop Tutu’s Ubuntu theology allows access to a new identity for South Africans, especially as he appeals to ancient African concepts of individual and community which John Mbiti sums up in the following statement: “I am because we are, and since we are, wherefore I am.”2


Real unity of the individual depends on the unity of the community. I think this is why the 2008 Lambeth Conference was designed around Indaba Groups , which are small groups designed around the African concept of forming consensus through communal conversation, rather than the deductive processes that often accompany gatherings in the

Western world. African spirituality begins with community and moves to individuality, whereas Western spirituality tends to move from individuality to community. Western definitions of “community” usually mean something like a collection of self-interested people, each with a private set of preferences, all of whom get together because they realize that in association they can accomplish things that they are not able to accomplish otherwise. This definition of community is actually an aggregation, a sum of individuals. Not only does this go against the African claims of community but, methodologically, this Western definition of community becomes a tautology or a circular argument. In other words, Western definitions of community are based primarily on individuality. Individuals pick and choose their own definitions of community. This, however, is not the African concept of community. John Mbiti’s aphorism: “I am because we are”

suggests a thoroughly fused collective “we.” This lesson of African community is strange for us in competitive Western cultures. Caught in the competitive schemes of the Western world, i.e., between materialism and spirituality, and between individualism and collectivism, the contribution of Ubuntu is in its display of a symbiosis between individual and community. Tutu explains this symbiosis through an African idiom—a person is a person through other persons. We are made for interdependence. Archbishop Tutu eloquently describes this symbiosis: We find that we are placed in a delicate network of vital relationship with the Divine, with my fellow human beings and with the rest of creation. … We are meant then to live as members of one family, the human family exhibiting a rich diversity of attributes and gifts in our differing cultures as members of different races and coming from different milieus—and precisely because of this diversity, made for interdependence.

[T]he peace we want is something positive and dynamic. In the Hebrew it is called shalom which refers to wholeness, integrity; it means well being, physical and spiritual. It means the abundance of life which Jesus Christ promised He had brought. It has all to do with a harmonious coexistence with one’s neighbors in a wholesome environment allowing persons to become more fully human.3

The totally self-sufficient human being does not exist. We all need others in order to be human. That is why the cutthroat competitiveness of the so-called free enterprise system is so disturbing for Africans such as Tutu.4 People should not compete against one another to know who they are; rather, we should cooperate in order to know who we are.

Tutu explains this problem through an example of how Western culture tends to depend on competition to form human identity:

[O]ne day at a party in England for some reason we were expected to pay for our tea. I offered to buy a cup for an acquaintance. Now, he could have said: “No, thank you.” You could have knocked me down with a feather when he replied, “No, I won’t be subsidized!” Well, I never. I suppose it was an understandable attitude. You want to pay

your own way and not sponge on others. But it is an attitude that many have seemed to carry over into our relationship with God—our refusal to be subsidized by God. It all stems very much from the prevailing achievement ethic which permeates our very existence. It is drummed into our heads from our most impressionable days that you must

succeed. At school you must not just do well, no you must grind the opposition into the dust. We get so worked up that our children can become nervous wrecks as they are egged on to greater efforts by competitive parents. Our culture has it that ulcers have become status symbols.5

There is something seriously wrong with a system which encourages a high degree of competitiveness and selfishness in a world where we seem to have been made for interdependence. Something is clearly wrong about a system of people whose goal is to achieve success despite the result of dehumanization. More provocatively, competition is the sign of the fall of creation and it is the opposite of Ubuntu. Tutu concludes:

Have you seen a symphony orchestra? They are all dolled up and beautiful with their magnificent instruments, cellos, violins, etc. Sometimes dolled up as the rest, is a chap at the back carrying a triangle. Now and again the conductor will point to him and he will play “ting.” That might seem so insignificant but in the conception of the composer

something irreplaceable would be lost to the total beauty of the symphony if that “ting” did not happen.6

Ultimately, Ubuntu concerns the integrity of being human before God. We learn to be human from the most humane person, Jesus Christ. In Christ we discover someone who is fully human and fully God. To know this perfect humanity of Christ, however,

requires the paradox of knowing self-identity in which our knowledge is dependent on a

community (the church) who, being diverse and yet one, seeks to live in the mystery of the image of God. Ubuntu is the quality of interaction in which one’s own humanness depends upon recognition of the humanness of the other. In the end, Ubuntu gives us the insight that human endeavor is meant to be shared. We forget this at our peril. The beauty

of Archbishop Tutu’s understanding of Ubuntu is that it offers an alternative model to our Western individualism. Ubuntu gives us encouragement that, as Christians, we are bidden by the imperatives of our biblical faith to realize our connectedness as God’s children. The appeal for Ubuntu for us is not for an appeal against individual uniqueness, but more specifically to the mystery of persons (i.e., in God and creation). Ubuntu theology is formed around the fact that there is so much about another person which cannot be known and cannot be known without community. Tutu turns the concept of Ubuntu into a theological concept in which human beings are called to be persons because we are made

in the image of God. Tutu concludes, “[Regarding the recording of a symphony] If it was only one person it would be alright. But it is glorious when it is a harmony, a harmony of different voices. Glorious. God is smart. God says it is precisely our diversity that makes for our unity. It is precisely because you are you and I am me that [God] says, ‘you hold

on together.’”7

Conclusion and Challenge

We discover self-identity as we discover community. Such community should make us more authentically ourselves. As I speak around the country, often on the topic of reconciliation and the spirituality of community, I am inevitably challenged about my argument that self-identity is discovered in community. The challenge carries force as

someone in the audience wants to know about communities that may not necessarily be healthy for individuals. Patricia Cranton illustrates this assumption through the problem of being an authentic teacher in the classroom:

I recently discussed the idea of being an authentic teacher with a seasoned science education professor—a man who was looking forward to retirement within the next year after thirty years of teaching practice. He was almost appalled at the notion of being oneself with students. “I don’t think I could go for that,” he said, startled by what he saw

as my naiveté. “Who I am in the classroom and who I am outside of the classroom are two different people. Students don’t need to know me, they need to know how to teach science.” Perhaps my raising the topic provoked images of personal self-disclosure or an emotional sharing of feelings with students, things that had no place in his mind in

science teaching, but more likely, he simply saw teaching as something he does rather than who he is.8

In her book, Becoming an Authentic Teacher in Higher Education, Patricia Cranton is ambivalent about self-identity for all the reasons mentioned so far concerning Western cultures. Cranton is especially instructive to the enterprise of how one discovers identity. Such identity is not primarily discovered through the dispensing of information

but through formation and transformation. I have argued that self-identity must be discovered in relationship. In order to be a healthy person, you need a community; you cannot know you are handsome or beautiful, intelligent or wise, without the reference point of someone else to provide you such perspective. Other persons can help us truly see ourselves. We are not to live life as if we are playing a role. Most importantly, playing a role cannot maintain authentic interaction

needed in the demanding tasks of ministry. When we grow toward a clearer perception of ourselves as individuals in healthy community, we inevitably invite others to do the same.

This is why we pray together. By prayer I understand something like maturing in the reality of God. Such prayer is not something easily said, but something that must be done. But we typically understand prayer the other way around, as something that is seldom done and more often only said. This is why there are so many books on prayer

and so little demonstration of it. So, movement toward a theology of identity is about preparing a person to mature in the life of God—the ultimate community. The mystics and spiritual writers help us see that we are preparing for an experience we cannot evoke when we look for self-identity. “Contemplation,” says Richard of St. Victor, “is a free

and clear vision of the mind fixed upon the manifestation of wisdom in suspended wonder.” Such contemplation, however, does not end with self. Because of the reference point of God both in us and beyond us, our vision of self-identity is made whole. This is a paradox—a gift from God.

1Tutu, Handwritten Sermons, at St Phillip’s, Washington D.C., Christmas III, 1984.

2John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophies (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1970), 141.

3Tutu, Address, “The Quest for Peace,” Johannesburg, August 1986.

4Tutu, “Postcript: To Be Human is To Be Free,” 317.

5Tutu, Addresses and Speeches , “What Jesus Means to Me,” Durban University, August 6-7, 1981.

6Tutu, “What Jesus Means to Me.”

7Transcript of Tutu’s Sermon in Birmingham Cathedral, April 21, 1988. Published by: Committee for

Black Affairs, Birmingham, Diocesan Office, 4-5.

8 Patricia Cranton, Becoming an Authentic Teacher in Higher Education (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing

Company, 2001), 43.

(3.)  Trends in Episcopal Church Membership

February 21, 2010

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church's Executive Council heard here Feb. 21 that church membership and Sunday attendance continued to decline in 2008, but also heard a call for the church to promote knowledge of the characteristics of growing congregations.

During his statistic-laden hour-long report, Kirk Hadaway, the church's program officer for congregational research, told the council that congregations grow when they are in growing communities; have a clear mission and purpose; follow up with visitors; have strong leadership; and are involved in outreach and evangelism.

Congregations decline, he said, when their membership is older and predominantly female; are in conflict, particularly over leadership and where worship is "rote, predictable and uninspiring."

Hadaway suggested that "if we're going to turn this around -- or at least turn around the decline -- more attention needs to be paid to the things that result in growth, rather than to the broader cultural factors that are affecting our current patterns." Those cultural factors include such things as an aging population with declining birthrates and an increase in the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation.

"The base problem is the fact that so many of our churches don't know why they're there," he said. "It's a caretaker sort of ministry, which is good and helpful, but it's a prescription for continuing decline."

Hadaway agreed with council member Brian Cole who suggested that "this is still ultimately a hopeful time for this way of being Christian" and said that the Episcopal Church ethos would seem to be appealing to those people who are wary of joining churches.

The problem, Hadaway said, is "we're not necessarily inviting them."

"We're just hoping they'll show up because of our lovely facilities, but then even when they're in, we don't really do anything necessarily to incorporate them," he said. "If you've been to a coffee hour, you know what I mean."

He added that very few congregations deliberately gather contact information from visitors and then follow up with them. He urged personal contact with newcomers, saying that parishes that deliberately follow up with visitors in a variety of ways are more likely to grow.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said after Hadaway's report that she was struck that the most recent trend of declining membership began in 2000 and 2001, "long before the actions of General Convention 2003, which is often the spin that is out there." That meeting of convention consented to the ordination and consecration of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson as the first openly gay and partnered bishop in the Anglican Communion. That decision caused intense debate across the church and the fracturing of some congregations and dioceses.

(4.)  Turning Toward Life

by Mary Louise Gifford
Decreasing numbers in worship, smaller numbers of volunteers to do the work of the church, and old buildings in need of costly repairs are prompting many congregations to ask questions about their future. Quiet conversations are taking place everywhere about the relevance of a church in its neighborhood and whether even to try to reach out to the new neighbors. Options for these churches include, but are not limited to, turnarounds, merging or yoking with another church, adoption by larger churches, or closing down and using the existing buildings as sites for new church starts. Another option is to sell the buildings and use the money to help other churches continue their ministry. These were some of the decisions the folks at the church I pastor had to wrestle with as they called me and we moved forward into an uncertain future of our own. When we began our work together, we had never even heard the term turnaround church.

Not every declining or dying church is meant to live. Not all churches can or should turn around. But there are some, like ours, that have a will to live and a strong sense of God's call to at least try. Our work together has defined us as "a new church start in an old church building."

My heart ached with compassion for the members of the church, and I began to fall in love with them right from the start. I had been called to discover and to change some of the patterns and practices that were killing their church. I likened their church to a boat. They had called me to sail the boat by granting me the authority to lead them. They wanted me to bail the boat because it was literally taking on water. They wanted me to steer the boat and lead them in a new direction. But they also wanted me to rock the boat, because some of those in the boat had to be shaken up and out. And they wanted me to help them build a new boat in which they all felt spiritually fed and empowered to do the mission and ministry of the church. Simultaneously, they wanted me to keep their boat afloat by staying true to the traditional Christian roots of the faith. Could I deliver all that? Could anyone?

Worship, stewardship, and leadership seemed to be the aspects of their congregational life that cried out for change. It became clear that I had to lead first by example and then by developing leaders. With my road map in hand, I knew that I would have to combine all my skills with those of the congregants and be very creative in approaching these congregational changes. Relying on God's Spirit in each of us, I had to jar the stagnant energy and negative patterns in the church. I had to help the members get themselves unstuck from each other and from the past. The members had given me a real gift, in that they had called me to help them change. Not all pastors are given such clear permission to lead their congregations in ways that will change the church's direction. Due to the situation's urgency and magnitude, my congregation vested me with pastoral authority right from the start. What skills would I need to lead the congregation into and through the changes they so desperately wanted and needed?

Turning a church around involves a number of years dedicated to dismantling old systems and initiating and implementing newer, more effective systems. This is one of the major obstacles that points out the difference between a new church plant and a turnaround church. Although a new church plant does have its own set of challenges, it does not carry the same baggage as a turnaround church. At our church, that baggage sometimes seemed overwhelming. As I walked around the church buildings, I saw physical plant issues everywhere: holes in the walls, paint peeling, walls caving in, closets stuffed with papers and other remnants of the past. Water came into the building every time it rained. Members of the congregation had learned to close their eyes to all of this decay, a form of visual denial. The work seemed overwhelming and eventually they just ignored it. They had not put serious effort into repair of the church building. It seemed as if they had simply lost heart because of the odds. Their collective denial allowed them to feel okay and that they and their church were safe. Yet, they also felt trapped in a situation for which they could not find any solutions. They knew that they would not be able to sustain their church because their building and finances were about to give out. I think they felt powerless, but still they had not given up hope. That was when they called me as their first full-time pastor in decades, their first female pastor ever, and they asked me to help them change. People do not necessarily resist change, they resist loss. And much was at stake to lose.

I believed that God had a calling not just for me but also for the congregation. My job, as I came to understand it, was to use all of my experience, gifts, and skills—personally, professionally, and prophetically—to help the people grow a new church within their old church and, in the process, help them grow a new heart for God and for the mission of their church. To turn this church around from old to new, I knew that the people might have to feel worse before they began to feel better. And they did. Nothing we've done has been easy, but we know that God has been with us every step of the way, from their decision to call me as their pastor and invest authority in me to their collective hope of a future for their church.

Not everyone in a turnaround church is going to agree with the way change happens. Power struggles and conflict need to be dealt with in calm and systemic ways. Previously, the members had lived with two major fears. The first was that the church would close, and the second was that those who had led them would leave. The second came true and others had to step up to lead. Yes, those who had threatened to leave did. When those who remained saw their worst fear come true and they survived, they felt free to change direction. The result of that group leaving was a shared leadership that set the stage for dramatic change. Members took responsibility as a spiritual community for worship, stewardship, and leadership. The congregation took a new look at itself and invited the Holy Spirit to fill the vacuum created by its former leaders' departure. The Spirit creates an environment where people can take initiative to empower themselves and others, take risks, and experience success.

We were able to change the course of our own history by interrupting the course of fifty years of decline. By exposing the denial and by opening ourselves to the truth of possibility about the church, most, but not all, of those who lived under the cloud of denial again sing God's praises. Not everyone made it, but those who stayed have found reasons to rejoice in God's finding favor in their church.

Adapted from The Turnaround Church: Inspiration and Tools for Life-Sustaining Change by Mary Louise Gifford, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

(5.)  Bridging the Gap between Knowing and Doing

by Larry Peers

When congregations, with all good intentions, make plans for change but don't seem to get anywhere, they may be experiencing the very common phenomenon that some have called the "knowing and doing gap." You know what you need to do, but can't seem to do it. The situation is not hopeless, however. There are approaches that we, as leaders, can take to get beyond this tendency.

First, change that endures mines the best of what has been in the past, responds thoughtfully to the challenges of the present, and discerns wisely and prayerfully a future among possible scenarios. If we attempt to solve present problems myopically—that is, without this broader perspective of the interrelationship between the congregation's past, present, and future—we may be cutting ourselves off from the congregation's enduring strengths. If we focus only on solving present problems, we may not ask ourselves what is possible. Instead, we need to be able to evoke the possibilities within the congregation that are inherently self-motivating. The following practices, drawn from an "appreciative inquiry" approach to leading, may help.

Encourage Discovery

First, ask members to reflect upon and talk about the times when the congregation was at its best—at engaging members in the life and work of the congregation, at making a difference in the surrounding community or in the spiritual lives of its members, or whatever else your particular focus may be. For example, you might ask: When have you felt most engaged in the life and the work of this congregation? What did we as a congregation do to help bring that about?

From these lived examples you will be able to discover some common themes. You can then ask the congregation to consider the root causes of these common best experiences. What qualities and practices helped to bring these experiences about?

Imagine Possibilities

Next, focus on the question: What would be possible for us as a congregation if we did more of what we know actually works—if we did more of what we do when we are at our best? A distinction is important here: rather than envisioning possibilities out of a mythical "clear blue sky," we are imagining these possibilities from what we have already actually experienced, and we are considering what would occur if the congregation intentionally did more of what it knows it can do to bring about these best experiences among its members.

Design Futures

Once you have clarified some future possibilities that are built upon your understanding—grounded in actual experience—of the best of what can be, focus your efforts on asking: What shifts in our perspective and ways of being can help bring this about? What behaviors and actions would we see more of? What changes in our approaches would we need to take to support what is possible for us as a congregation?

It is at this stage that you would proactively anticipate obstacles to your congregation's future directions and plan for what you will need to do differently in order to overcome these obstacles.

Ensure Delivery

Once a possibility has been clarified, it's important to identify the specific, feasible steps needed to make it a reality, along with a time line for accomplishing them. At this stage it often helps to extend the discussion beyond the usual committee working on the project. Innovation often comes from inviting fresh eyes and voices into the process.

Ongoing Destiny

In their book, The Knowing-Doing Gap, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton identify some of the tendencies that often lead to this gap, including:

·Because we’ve talked about it we feel we’ve done it.

·Because we have made a plan we feel that is equivalent to doing the plan.

·We fear moving forward because of the unknown.

·We have set ourselves up for too much change too soon.1

To address these stumbling blocks, I have found it helpful for a congregation to develop a prototype of some new practices they will try over a period of three to nine months, with the explicit purpose of learning through doing. As a leader, you would need to intentionally build into this process opportunities for reflecting on the results of your new actions as a congregation, for harvesting your learning, and for making course corrections from what you have learned.

In the Protestant tradition there is the understanding that the church is always reforming. As leaders, we have the opportunity to guide that reformation in our local congregations, for the sake of our congregations and the church as a whole.

1. Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, The Knowing and Doing Gap (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000)

Adapted from "Ask Alban" in Congregations Spring 2009 (vol. 35,
no. 2), copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved

(6.)  In a Culture Drawn to ‘Big’, Should the Church Really Be Celebrating ‘Small’?

1st March, 2009

written by Judy Paulsen


We live today in a culture of ‘Big’. Big box stores, Multiplex Cinemas, massive subdivisions, and across North America in the last two decades, something else big-the megachurch. Because these churches are big they can offer the very best music, audio-visual presentations, great sound systems and specialized teaching skills. They are among the fastest growing churches today. However, many of these churches stress that ‘the bigger we get, the smaller we need to become’. Many of them have discovered that to disciple people effectively (or even get to know them) small groups are essential. They’re absolutely right, of course. And we wish them the absolute best in that endeavor.

But what does any of this mean to the thousands of small churches? Are there things that happen in ’small’ that can’t happen (despite the very best intentions) in ‘big?

Story One

Last week three little girls, ages 5, 9 and 10 dropped by our church, while on their way home from school. They asked if the littlest one, Milly, could use the washroom. Afterwards, Amanda, 9, and the clear ringleader, asked if we had any papers that told when church happened. She said she once went to a Catholic school and had decided it was time for her and her sister to come to church. She wanted to know if I could show her around so she knew where to take her little sister when it came time for the kids’ program (which she had read about on the paper). When I showed then the sanctuary, Milly exclaimed, “Look at the pretty pictures!” Amanda knowingly replied, “Milly, those are stained glass windows”.

Amanda informed me that she and Milly would only be here every second week because they were at her dad’s every other weekend. She wanted to know if it was okay for their mom to drop them off since ‘She doesn’t really go to church.’ Kerry, age 10, announced that she might be able to bring her mom along this Sunday. Then the three waved goodbye and continued on their way home.

I was left a little dumbstruck by the whole encounter, but I know one thing for sure: God is up to something in the lives of these 3 little girls: He is doing a new ’small’ thing. And so I found myself asking a question about ’small’: What if there hadn’t been a church in their neighbourhood?

Story Two

About ten months ago I sat and listened to three couples with toddlers talk about their lives, and explain why they found it so hard to honour a vow they made at their first child’s baptism, when they had promised that child would be “nurtured in the faith and life of the Christian community’. They spoke of both partners commuting long hours to work in the city. They spoke of dropping their kids off early each day at daycare and the guilt they felt doing that. And they spoke about how neither leaving their toddlers in the nursery or keeping them with them in worship worked. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to nurture their kids spiritually. They just couldn’t figure out a way in to do that. Maybe when their kids were old enough for Sunday School. Maybe someday.

That conversation gave rise to another ’small’. It’s called ‘Messy Church’, and it happens once a month on Saturday mornings. It’s a time for parents and little kids, mainly ages 2 to 6, to learn and worship together. Messy Church has met eight times now. Attendance has ranged between 21 and 38. Almost all of the families who attend were very peripherally attached to the faith community. A few families have now brought friends and their kids. Several grandparents have started bringing their grand kids, whose parents don’t have a church connection. Through songs, games, crafts, stories and DVD clips, we’re reaching children and adults we wouldn’t have reached otherwise.

And so this week I found myself asking another question about ’small’: if we hadn’t known the initial couples well enough to realize they weren’t at church, how would we ever have connected with them and their kids in a more substantive way?

Story Three

Out of the blue a man called and asked to talk with a pastor. The man told me his marriage was in serious trouble. He and his wife were new in town and had chosen us because we had the same name as the church they were married in (Christ Church …. go figure!). When I met with them two nights later it became clear that their marriage problems were very much related to deep pain in both of their pasts. They were both the children of alcoholics and had witnessed and experienced serious dysfunction in their families.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself inviting them to consider taking part in a program we were starting the very next night called The Twelve Steps: A Spiritual Journey. Five weeks into the program (being attended by nine people), they tell me that for the first time they are talking together about the pain in their past, and about spiritual issues. Last week the women’s sub-group of six all went to a movie together. The husband has decided to take holiday time on several Tuesdays so that his afternoon shift won’t interfere with him doing the program. Last Sunday they came to church for the first time. The husband told one of the Twelve Step leaders that he felt the sermon was ‘just for him’.

And so yet again I found myself asking a question about ’small’. If the only ‘way in’ to hear the gospel is through a large group worship event followed by the bold step of voluntarily joining a small group, how many people who seriously need to hear good news about the transforming power of God are missing out?

The Fresh Expressions movement, sweeping through much of England and now taking off in Canada, tells us ’small is beautiful’. In its skateboard churches, bakery churches, café churches, and Goth Eucharists they are reaching small groups of people no traditional church (big or small) can reach. I believe small neighbourhood churches can confidently say, along with Fresh Expressions, “Yes, small can be beautiful.” So let’s celebrate ’small’, by keeping an eye on the big things God wants to do there.

(7.)  The Messy Work of Renewal

by Daniel P. Smith , Mary K. Sellon

If you’ve ever remodeled a house while attempting to live in it, you have a sense of the chaos and complexity of congregational renewal. It will take far longer, cost you more, and prove messier than you ever imagined at the start. People who have worked with both church starts and church renewal will tell you that starting a church is easy compared to renewing one. The difficulty lies in the work itself. Pogo’s line holds true here: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

The church seeking renewal must look beyond simply improving its programs and its building, though both may ultimately be changed. Pastors and laity leading renewal in their declining congregations are asking people to make fundamental shifts in their perspectives, their attitudes, and their behaviors. The work demands a great deal from a people and a pastor.

Your congregation is what it is today not because of what a bad pastor did to it, or because the neighborhood has changed, or because our culture is going to hell in a handbasket. Although those occurrences and many others have had an impact, your congregation is what it is today because of how it responded, or failed to respond, to the realities it faced. What your congregation will be in the future is up to you and the other members and how you work together to create something new from the realities you face. What you do or don’t do now will make the difference. Your actions will either reinforce the patterns that have become established in your congregation, or start to counter and shift them. The leadership provided by your pastor can help or hinder, but it cannot make your congregation succeed or keep it from ultimately achieving the goals you set for yourselves.

Some wonder, "Is it even possible? Can people with little or no experience of their congregation’s being church in this way create this kind of community?" We’ve seen it happen enough times to know that the hope is true and that renewal is possible—not easy, but possible. The path to renewal looks different for each congregation, but some common elements can be observed. Here’s what we know.

Renewal has both outer and inner aspects. To move to a new place, a congregation must tend to both. Organizationally, there are three phases of work:

1.Developing readiness: preparing the leaders to lead the congregation in a new direction

2.Surfacing a compelling congregational vision that will guide decision making

3.Developing and implementing strategies that move the congregation toward the envisioned future

These three fundamental tasks frame the work that ultimately realigns a congregation. Addressed sequentially, they break renewal up into understandable and manageable phases of work. The work of the first two phases culminates in pivotal decisions that prepare the congregation to tackle the final phase of work. Phase 1 results in leaders' declaring the congregation’s current trajectory unacceptable and committing to lead in a new direction. Phase 2 results in a vision of a better future, discerned by the congregation and formally adopted by the congregation's leaders.

While making such decisions might be a simple thing for an individual, it takes a fairly long time for a congregation to make informed and "owned" choices. Whatever the congregation decides must be desired, claimed, and lived into. It’s one thing to say you want something; it’s another to want it enough that you follow through and act on the intention. Phase 3 focuses on exactly that—creating the future that’s been envisioned.

Each of these three phases demands significant work on the part of the people involved. The real work of renewal, however, is inner work. It is here that the greatest challenge lies. To complete these organizational tasks, the people of the congregation must make inner shifts, making the transition from one way of thinking about the congregation to quite another. During renewal, people let go of what feels right and normal to create a new normal for themselves.

The congregation’s inner work of transition has multiple steps. It begins with the recognition that something is wrong—that congregational life, while adequate, is missing something. Because a congregation is an outpost of the Christian church, the next step is to become anchored in a biblical and historical understanding of the purpose of church. When that purpose seems clear, the next step is to name and let go of preconceived notions about the form ministry should take. This step leads to a period of genuinely not knowing what to do. Rather than jumping in and filling that void with a quick solution, the challenge is to open ourselves to God and wait. From that place of expectant waiting, God’s leading is sensed and a path forward is chosen. Finally, actions are aligned with intent, and a new way of being and doing church is created. The congregation moves through these steps of transition only as individuals in the congregation are able to move through these shifts.

This inner work is the real work of renewal, and it is a work of the people. Pastors and outside consultants have much to offer, but they can’t do the work for the people. It may help to think of renewal as physical therapy for the body of Christ. The body is renewed as the people engage in practices that develop and strengthen the muscles of Christian discipleship and community. It isn’t easy work, but it’s worth it.

Adapted from Pathway to Renewal: Practical Steps for Congregations by Daniel P. Smith and Mary K. Sellon, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2008, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share articles from the Alban Weekly with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at and let us know how the Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of the Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please submit our reprint permission request form

(8.)  Myths about Communicating Congregational Identity

by Lynne M. Baab

Adapted from Reaching Out in a Networked World: Expressing Your Congregation's Heart and Soul by Lynne M. Baab, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

Conveying a congregation’s identity and values clearly and through a variety of means of communication will help the congregation connect to the community around it. At the same time, clear expressions of values and identity will also have a deep impact on the congregation itself. The people involved in a congregation are shaped by what they hear about that congregation. Their expectations for the life of faith and for their involvement in the community are influenced by the ways in which the congregation talks about itself and its values.

For decades congregational leaders have been making decisions—both consciously and unconsciously—about identity and values and how they are communicated. The nine myths below lay out some of the underlying issues that may influence these choices and their effectiveness.

Myth 1: We’ve got a mission statement, so we’ve figured out who we are.
Mission (or vision) statements can be helpful to congregations in expressing who they are and what they care about. Leaders and members are tempted to believe that once a mission statement is in place, the congregation can get on with doing ministry. A mission statement, however, is simply one small way among many that a congregation can communicate its heart and soul. In fact, everything about a congregation communicates. Its bulletin, newsletter, and website may include its mission statement, but the photos, layout, and additional text also contribute to the reader’s perception of who the congregation is. The actions of a congregation—its worship style, preaching, ministries, and mission activities—speak of its DNA, its story. Because of its power to influence, all of the congregation’s communication needs to be evaluated from time to time to see if it reflects the values and identity of the congregation.

Myth 2: Our identity is rooted in our faith.

Leaders and members are tempted to believe they don’t need to spend time considering the specific identity of their congregation because they assume their faith values provide the DNA for their congregation. And it is absolutely true that in communities of faith, identity comes primarily from the congregation’s faith tradition. Faith communities are not businesses or other organizations that need to create an identity from scratch. However, in the same way that individuals within any faith tradition bring specific gifts in service, so faith communities have particular values and emphases. One might have a strong commitment to justice, another to outreach within the local community, and another to ministry with seniors or teenagers or adoptive families. Sometimes it appears that megachurches can do it all, so congregational leaders might think their congregation should do everything, too. But even megachurches have particular emphases and priorities.

Myth 3: If we focus too much on figuring out our own identity, we may become self-absorbed.
This is another statement with some truth to it, but not the whole truth. Congregational identity is only part of what congregational leaders should be attending to. While focusing on it all the time would definitely cause an imbalance, many congregations are already out of balance in that they focus too little on the way their actions, publications, and use of symbols communicate their priorities and the distinctiveness of who they are. “Who are we and what are we about?” is a key question that needs to be front and center for all congregations.

Myth 4: We don’t need to think any further about the implications of new communication technology because we already use it well.
A number of congregations have mastered necessary skills related to new forms of communication in admirable ways. Many congregations offer podcasted and streaming video sermons on websites, have wonderful teams of people who run the data projectors on Sunday morning, and embrace new communication technologies as they emerge. But that doesn’t mean they are communicating wisely. In some congregations, the message communicated about values differs from one mode of communication to the next because the various forms of communication haven’t been evaluated well. In other congregations, the message is so unified that the congregation’s diversity is not represented well. Focusing on the deeper questions, the issues that lie behind the use of new technologies, is important. Congregational leaders need to consider how everything the congregation does—communication technologies as well as things like programming and the use of physical space in the building—speaks about the congregation’s priorities.

Myth 5: We’re a traditional congregation, and we have chosen not to use most of the new communication technologies. We’ve figured out our identity; it’s the same as it’s always been, so why complicate things?
All congregations need to periodically rethink and explore who they are and what they value. Even if all the people attending a congregation stay the same over a decade, each of those people would undergo personal changes in that time, and those personal changes would change the priorities and emphases of that community of faith. And, of course, no congregation is composed of exactly the same members over a decade or more. The flow of people in and out of a congregation, and in and out of leadership roles, shapes the values of each congregation. And while I do think new communication technologies offer some wonderful opportunities for congregations, I would never suggest that congregations need to use all of them. I do argue, however, that everything congregations say and do contributes to their identity. Therefore paying some attention to the issue is wise, no matter what forms of communication are used.

Myth 6: We avoid the new technologies because we’re leery of the consumer culture, and we don’t want our congregation and even our faith to turn into yet one more consumer item.
I am concerned that communities of faith have become consumer items and that people looking for a congregation are engaged in a form of shopping. However, I see congregational identity as an issue that relates to much more than selling something. Very simply, everything we say and do communicates what we consider to be important, and what congregations communicate about faith values shapes how members act on their faith. Therefore, from time to time, congregations need to stop and evaluate what they are communicating. Congregational leaders will likely choose not to use certain forms of communication that don’t fit the ethos of that congregation.

Myth 7: Our congregational values are being communicated effectively through words.

Our pastor and leaders preach the sermons and put a lot of thought into the words used in our newsletter and on our website.
People are increasingly influenced by images as well as by words. According to communication research, the images projected on a screen during worship and the images used in newsletters and on websites often have as much or more impact than the words associated with them. Much of Jewish and Christian tradition is strongly word oriented, emphasizing the significance of words over images. With the move away from a word-based to an image-based culture, leaders of congregations need to do some careful thinking about the role of visual communication in our time.

Myth 8: We’ve got a great Web designer and newsletter editor, and our newsletter and website are terrific.
In many congregations, one person creates most of the publications. Often, congregational leaders supply the text, but the Web designer or newsletter editor decides on the layout, photos, and graphics. In this increasingly visual culture, forms of visual communication such as layout, photos, and graphics need to be evaluated to see if they communicate the desired message, particularly if one person is choosing most of them. I believe that all the new communication technologies have created the necessity for “critical friends,” people who understand the importance of the new forms of communication for congregations and, at the same time, are willing to look at those forms with a critical eye. These critical friends pay attention to the congregation’s websites, blogs, projection screens, and other forms of communication that have a large visual component to see if the visuals harmonize with the words used and whether the verbal and visual components together communicate important values about the congregation.

Myth 9: If your heart is in the right place, communication takes care of itself.

I agree that the single most important thing for congregations is to worship and follow God in a way that engages hearts and minds. Without faith as the center of its life, a congregation has nothing to offer its members or the world. Faith values cannot be communicated if no faith values are present. But I do not agree that the result of a vibrant faith is that all communication will automatically be okay. Just as individuals with good intentions can benefit from learning listening skills for their personal relationships and speaking skills for their oral communication, so congregations can benefit from considering the implications of the ways they communicate and what they are communicating. In this age of rapidly proliferating communication technologies, this task of evaluation is even more urgent.

Copyright © 2008, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share articles from the Alban Weekly with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at and let us know how the Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of the Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please submit our reprint permission request form.

(9.)  The Church in Exile: Being a Missionary to the Dominant Culture

by Lee Beach

from Congregations, Fall 2008 issue, pp. 6-10

A colleague of mine at the seminary where I work recently presented a paper on the places in the world where the church had once been a strong and vibrant entity but, for various reasons, had become extinct within a few short generations. In each case, he pointed out that, at the height of the church’s cultural power, the idea that one day it would cease to exist in those countries would have been utterly unthinkable. Yet it happened. The possibility of such a thing happening in North America seems very remote, and yet the majority of us who participate in local church life understand that things have changed in terms of the church and its place in culture. At one time, not so long ago, the church stood at or near the center of cultural life. It played a vital role in helping to shape the contours of North American culture and was a significant part of the lives of most people within society. This is increasingly less true. Recent research done by the Barna Group indicates that just one quarter of American adults possess an active faith, with “active” defined as engaging in weekly prayer, church attendance, and Bible reading. In Canada a recent poll showed weekly church attendance at 17 percent. Similar polls show that younger generations are even less inclined to engage in traditional Christian rituals. While such data is limited in its overall analysis of religious life, few of us would question that trends in western culture are moving away from fidelity to traditional Christian beliefs and practices. This creates a new cultural reality for the church and continues to challenge church leaders as they seek to help the church find its way through the murky waters of contemporary culture.

Perhaps in these days of immense cultural change, where the once sure foundation of pseudo-Christendom that shaped Western culture slowly (and at times not so slowly) crumbles, exile is an appropriate motif for the church to understand itself. Several scholars, notably Walter Brueggeman and Michael Frost, have affirmed as much, pointing out that the experience of exile goes beyond simple physical dislocation. It is a cultural and spiritual condition where one feels at odds with the dominant values of the prevailing cultural ethos. Put simply, people can feel as if they are in exile without ever being “cast out of the land.”

It many ways the biblical people of God are, by nature, exilic people. Has there ever been a time when the people who worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have not been a threatened minority, struggling to preserve their particular identity and beliefs? From the nomadic journeys of the patriarchs, to slavery in Egypt, to the constant threats of enemies throughout the period of the monarchy, to the drastic events of being conquered by Babylon (597–587 B.C.), and their subsequent existence under Persian, Greek, and Roman rule, the people of Israel have never lived as a super power.

In the New Testament, Peter describes his audience as exiles (1:1, 2:11). Perhaps this should be the experience of Christians within any given culture. Exile is, in its very essence, living away from home. This is at the heart of the Christian faith as we live away from our ultimate eschatological home, called to live in and see the world in a different way from the dominant culture.

If the paradigm of exile can help the church understand itself more faithfully in this current age, are there any resources that ancient Israel can offer to the contemporary church from their exilic experience? As the people of Israel responded to Babylonian and Persian exile, there are at least three contours of exilic life that connect with the 21st-century exile of the church in North America.

Learning the Language of Exile

The first priority for exilic living is identifying where we are and how we got here. In order to orient the church to its changing place on the cultural landscape, it will take honest reflection on our experience. Further, that experience must be given a voice if it is to become formative and ultimately redemptive in the life of the church. For ancient Israel, it was through the language of prayer that they named their experience and began to shape it in hopeful directions. It is in the bold prayers of lament, penitence, and hope that the experience of exile was described and understood. Just as these acts of speech formed the core of a spirituality that sustained the ancient community, so too can they inform modern communities in exile. In particular, the book of Lamentations and the exilic Psalms (44, 74, 79, 89, and 137) provide a canonical foundation for giving expression to the experience of exile.

While lament is not a practice widely utilized in many sectors of today’s church, it is the language that gives voice to a sense of loss and allows for the voice of protest to find its generative expression. In congregations throughout North America there is a sense of loss and sorrow that must be given voice. It comes out in church board meetings, informal conversations, and seminary classrooms. The sorrow is found in the cultural realities that remind us that the Christian faith holds less and less influence over the culture. Old certainties are not so certain, old institutions are eroding and carry less attraction to new generations; social fabrics seem to be fraying and are replaced with confusion, frustration, and sometimes anger. There is a lack of clarity about truth, authority, ethics, and what is “right.” The church itself struggles (sometimes unsuccessfully) to hold its membership, and finances are an ongoing struggle. These are sorrow-producing realities that are lamentable. To properly appropriate the resources of exilic spirituality, the congregation should find ways to lament these changes. There must be a refusal to decorate our marginalization with platitudes or empty complaint. In giving voice to our sadness the church will gain a voice that is honest and realistic, just as the voice of the poet was in Babylon.

He has cut down in fierce anger
All the might of Israel;
He has withdrawn his right hand
from them.

He has bent his bow like an enemy
With his right hand set like a foe;
He has killed all in whom we took pride
In the tent of daughter Zion.

The Lord has become like an enemy;
He has destroyed Israel.
(Lamentations 2:3-5)

Helping give voice to the sorrow of loss is a crucial pastoral task in the post-Christendom church. Further, prayers of lament allow us to speak a word of protest toward our host culture by expressing our sorrow at its idolatry and our refusal to be co-opted by it. Just as the gods of Babylon may have seemed powerful to Israel (after all, they “won”) and the opulence of the city may have been alluring, the faithful used lament as a voice to speak ill against both. Thus lament was subversive speech, rejecting both the idols and their seductive powers. We need to speak in a similar voice, naming the prevailing “isms” of contemporary culture as idols and clearly stating our opposition to them. Lament enables such expression. This happens through leadership. Leadership must help congregations define reality: How is culture changing? What impact does that have on ministry? How can the church faithfully respond? This is a significant task in the church’s life today, as helping people understand the answers to these questions is crucial to giving voice to their sense of loss and orienting them to new cultural realities. Also, corporate prayer, sermons, and formal and informal discussion groups, where people are invited to share their concerns and frustrations with the situation that the church finds itself in, are other venues for exploring and employing lament in its various forms. Without an honest articulation of our reality and a frank naming of those things that have contributed to our marginalization, including our propensity to be co-opted by them, the church can never fully engage the new reality of a postmodern, post-Christian society because it will never truly be oriented to it.

Prayers of penitence (or repentance) can also be easily brushed over in our corporate worship services. We either neglect the discipline or we are guilty of denying our complicity in things, instead blaming others for our demise and powerlessness. Yet lament must be accompanied by penitence if it is to become meaningful and ultimately give way to the renewal of hope.

For ancient Israel, repentance began to break through as lament gave way to the trickle of confession in their prayer tradition. Psalm 79 demonstrates this emerging voice:

Help us, O God of our salvation,
For the glory of your name;
Deliver us, and forgive our sins,
For your name’s sake. (Psalm 79:9)

How does the church go about the practice of corporate penitence? Further, what do we need to be repentant about? In 1971, as the Vietnam War dragged on, the editors of The Christian Century issued a call to American Christians to lament their attitudes toward the war. They challenged the church for being too tolerant of those in power and too forgetful of the victims of war.

From here they listed several accusations against the governmental leaders and their handling of the Vietnam crises. Based on this lament they pressed further and called the church into a time of genuine repentance during holy week of that year. Following this, five statements were listed, calling for action and changed behavior on the part of the church in response to the war.

This example of a call to corporate repentance reminds us of the place for such activity. Are there places where the contemporary church has remained silent about (or even co-operated with) systems that injure others or advance agendas that ultimately lead to further human suffering? Maybe our collaboration needs to be assessed and confessed. While it can be controversial and painful, it is also a profound act of spirituality that sustains corporate life in the midst of exile. Having the courage to be honest about those things and calling for repentance through corporate prayer is a vital act of leadership for the church’s existence in a time of exile.

This is true because lament and penitence create the possibility for hope. Though the people of ancient Israel lamented their lot, they still believed that God was present to bring deliverance:

Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself O Lord, that we may
be restored. (Lamentations 5:20-21)

The prayer functions as both a plaintive cry regarding God’s seeming absence as well as an acknowledgment that God is still present to restore. The writer/pray-er of Psalm 44 bursts forth in hopeful prayer after a time of lament and repentance:

Rise up, come to our help.
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast
love. (v. 26)

This is the fulcrum of hope for those in exile. God is never fully absent, thus restoration can still be part of the vocabulary of exilic prayer, and hope remains alive.

Even in the midst of drastically changing times the church can face its exile when it is willing to honestly name its circumstances, confess its sin, and ask God to move in fresh ways. Leading the church in the language of lament, penitence, and hope is foundational to contemporary pastoral leadership.

Living Life in Exile

When a people feel threatened and are displaced in some way, the community is always thrown into a situation where agreement on what to do next is not always clear. Ancient Israel found itself in such a situation. There was no agreement as to how to respond to exile. Some thought accommodation to Babylon was best, some resisted new cultural traditions and recommitted themselves to former ways. Others fled the mainstream to isolated communities where they could live their traditional lives unfettered by pagan influence. Still others took aggressive action against their oppressors. Finally there were those who sought to work with their occupiers to bring the benefits of the empire to Jerusalem.

While there was not a uniform response to exile among the people of ancient Israel, the prevailing canonical response clearly included a renewed call and commitment to holiness. Put another way, there was a call for the people of God to behave differently from their hosts, to present themselves as an alternative community. This is most distinctly present in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra, where the people of Israel are commanded to exclude non-Israelites from the community because they may contaminate it. However, it is also seen in the call to conscientiously renew the practice of Sabbath keeping (Jer. 17:19-27; Isa. 56:2-6, Ezek. 44:24) as an act of faithfulness to Yahweh, which in Babylon would have been a confessional act that would have made Israel stand out from its environment. The book of Daniel explicitly presents a Hebrew hero who is able to thrive in the court of a foreign king by being faithful to the ways of the God of Israel. Daniel embodies the call to holiness that was understood as being essential to Israel thriving as a people living with minimal power and influence in a foreign culture. His story gives testimony to the exilic ideal of presenting an alternate, set-apart way of life that challenges the status quo on one hand and yet brings blessing to it on the other.

The church is called to continue this calling and, in exile, it is even more important that the church show itself to be something other than a duplication of the ideals and ideas of the empire in which it resides. Instead, the life of the church must be marked by a distinct quality that allows it to be a continuation of Jesus’s own incarnational life.

This compels church leaders to explore with their congregations what exactly makes the church distinct in North American culture in 2008. In what ways are we called to live that reflect the beauty of God’s holiness in, and against, the place that we live as exiles? It may be that the most significant thing we can do as church leaders is to lead our congregations through a prolonged, careful consideration of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and ask what it would mean for us as a Christian community to truly embody its principles in contemporary life.

Engaging in Mission While in Exile

For ancient Israel the loss of land and political autonomy was a catastrophic and potentially terminal event. They were, after all, a people whose identity as God’s people was predicated, at least in part, upon their appropriation of the land promised to them by God himself. Such a disorienting turn of events could easily lead them to neglect their calling to be a witness to the life and ways of God to the rest of the world. However, the exilic prophets would give the people no such option. Isaiah reminds the people that they remain a “light to the Gentiles” (42:5-7). The story of Jonah reveals God’s intention that Israel be a witness to their subjugators so that they may come to repentance despite Israel’s resistance to such a notion.

As the church’s power and influence as a predominant shaper of cultural life ebbs away, it leads the church to struggle with its identity in a new societal arrangement. Yet, if the church is to find its way in its new exilic reality, mission must take a central place in its self-understanding. Further, it must understand that being involved in mission is not the same as it used to be.

For many years churches have had the luxury of being able to engage their culture by simply being present. A church could open its doors and, by offering Sunday worship and some standard programs, it could develop a congregation. This may be an oversimplified description of reality, but not by much. Churches that grew faster and larger often did so by running innovative programs that were deemed to be “relevant” and thus reached more people because of their “cutting-edge” approach to church-based programming. This model is becoming less and less useful. As the gap between church and culture increases and the general population becomes increasingly unchurched, attractional or invitational models of mission can no longer be counted on to work. If the church is to live out its calling as a witness of the gospel it will become necessary for it to see itself as a missionary to its culture. This means discerning ways in which the church can go into its community and engage it with acts of servanthood and proclamation instead of running programs in the church building itself and hoping that people, in a culture that is increasingly distant from organized religion, will keep coming to them.

For ancient Israel, setting up a temple in Babylon was not an option. Even if it had been, would it have been in any way realistic to expect the citizens of that city to ever set foot inside? Instead, Jonah is called to go and proclaim a message of mercy to the people of Nineveh. Daniel is called to a place of secular service where he is able to demonstrate the superiority of his God as compared to the gods of Babylon. The people are instructed to settle in Babylon and “seek the prosperity of the city.” (Jer. 29:7) This is the place of mission in an exilic setting. Church leaders have to figure out how to emulate this in the post-Christian culture of North America.

This involves at least two key activities. The first involves the work of education. For many within the established church there is an inertia that causes them to think that not much has changed or, at worst, that those changes are superficial and have little impact on the life and ministry of the church. In Canada the cultural shifts that have taken place in the last 40 years are almost unfathomable. While the situation in the United States may not be as drastic, and in some places the concept of the church being in exile may even seem ludicrous, this is a temporary lag. As we have already noted, the work of researchers like George Barna demonstrates that cultural and ecclesiastical norms are in tremendous flux. Helping our people see the realities and their looming impact on ministry is a major responsibility for contemporary church leaders, just as warning Israel of pending judgment was for the prophets.

The second vital activity for leadership is to increasingly look outward and identify the needs in the local community in which the congregation resides. As these needs are discerned, the temptation is often to create programs within the walls of the church that will meet those needs. Instead, the work of the church must become more outwardly focused, and there needs to be a growing understanding that its work is accomplished outside of traditional church programs and through mobilizing its membership to “go” (Matt. 28:18) and serve in creative ways outside the walls of the church. Thus the work of discerning community needs and helping church members see how their ministry energies can be best expended in helping to meet those needs is primary pastoral work for a church in exile.

While exile presents immense challenges to a people, just as Israel found its way through exile so, too, will the church today. Not because we are so astute but because God is always faithful to his promises and is constantly working in new and inventive ways. The work of ministry in an exilic context is to discern what God is doing and how he may want us to collaborate. These are challenging times. The move into exile was a devastating event in Israelite life and faith, and it is disconcerting for many in the contemporary church. But, as Episcopal priest and theologian Ephraim Radner eloquently states, “Exile is also a movement by which our Lord delineated deliverance. As such, it can hardly be a cause for fear.”

(10.)  The Problem Trap

A Narrative Therapy Approach to Escaping Our Limiting Stories
by Larry Peers
from the Winter 2008 issue of Congregations

In my work as a congregational consultant, I have discovered that narrative therapy offers a number of lessons that can help church leaders navigate the change process in some distinctive ways beyond the push-pull dynamic that characterizes many congregational change efforts. These frameworks can help congregational leaders to not only avoid some common pitfalls but also to shift the conversation in ways that reveal possibilities and directions that would otherwise be obscured by some of the typical congregational dynamics and patterns of interaction around change.

To effect deep change, leaders must be able to stand outside the dominant story of whatever it is we are trying to change—rather than being so immersed in it that we cannot truly observe how to lead this particular group in this particular situation. Ron Heifetz often talks about this as being able to take a balcony perspective. I have found the tools and perspectives of narrative therapy especially useful in helping clergy begin to get up on the balcony and become different observers of their situations, allowing for different actions and different results to become possible.

Recognizing the Problem-Saturated Story

One of the primary kinds of stories that takes hold in congregations and makes change difficult is what is known in narrative therapy as the “problem-saturated story,” or one in which the focus is on who or what is or has been wrong.

A problem-saturated story has a dynamic of its own. Often when we are telling a problem-saturated story about our congregational situation it has a trance-like effect. The story is reinforcing. We “see” only those things that reinforce the story. Whatever is contradictory to this problem-saturated story goes un-storied and is not “seen.”

You can recognize the problem-saturated story when you’re in a group where someone offers an example of how difficult or awful something is in the congregation and before you know it the rest of us can’t help but chime in with more evidence for how truly bad and impossible the situation is. We can almost hear ourselves saying, even if the words aren’t verbalized, “You think that’s bad, let me tell you how it is even worse than that!”

Problem-saturated stories have the impact of being taken as fact rather than as a narrative created by a particular sifting of facts.

As leaders, we can easily succumb to the power of the problem-saturated story and, in fact, can become the main storyteller—if not the main character—in many of these stories. I have often noticed in clergy groups that a pastor or rabbi will tell a story about his or her congregation and seek support from others. In response to some well-intentioned advice from colleagues, the clergyperson often goes deeper into why these suggestions wouldn’t work—or delves into more of the problem story. At this point even the helpers may chime in with sympathetic remarks about how desperate and despairing situations like this can be.

In moments like these, I help to spoil the pity party. I ask questions like, “What would someone else in the congregation say? What would the newest or longest member of the congregation say about this situation?” “What would a child say?” or, better yet, “What would someone who disagrees with your version of events say about this situation?”

In asking these obnoxious questions, I am merely trying to point out the possibility of multiple perspectives and to introduce various versions of the story in order to interrupt the trance of the problem-saturated story, at least momentarily. I also want to give the clergyperson an opportunity to take on the perspective of a different observer.

Sometimes just recognizing the dynamic of the problem-saturated story can release people from its mesmerizing effect and allow them to stand outside of it. Other times, taking on a different perspective allows the leader to recognize that the observer they have been offers only one of many perspectives. Shifting the observer can often reveal different actions that are available and different results that are possible.

In a recent gathering, a pastor realized that she tended to look at all the ways laypeople fell short of their commitments. She became the “micromanager” in a way that created a great deal of stress in her life and reinforced her story that “you can’t trust lay leaders to follow up.” When encouraged to look at the big picture outside of her own story, she realized that she was a character in the story she was creating (a story in which, by the way, she tended to be the “rescuer” and save the day when others didn’t follow through). Her constant nagging and her mistrust produced the congregation’s dependency on her constant prodding. When she realized that she could be an “equipper” (as in “equipping the saints”), her observer shifted. She began to see all the ways that she could encourage and pass on skill and then let lay leaders own their own way of doing things. She relaxed and then realized that there were already exceptions to the problem-oriented story she tended to tell.

Any effort of a congregation that is motivated only by the problem-saturated version of its story can propel the congregation in a direction of change that may be misguided or limited. All the more reason for a leader to be consciously aware of the problem-saturated story—and to be intentional about other ways to interact about a congregational situation.

Externalizing versus Personalizing

A feature of the problem-saturated story within a congregation is that often there is a villain, a problem child, an unmensch.

There is usually a tendency to personalize what is going on in such a way that conveys the message that if only “so and so” would change all would be well. In congregations, the tendency is to give this distinguished place of dishonor to the clergy or to a group of leaders, a group within the congregation, or even an individual. In my consulting work, I often hear the phrase “those people” used to refer to those considered the “problem children” in the congregation.

The role of a consultant is often to help a congregation see their situation systemically, to see how everyone is playing some role in keeping a problem situation intact. Recently, I heard a story about a woman who had been disruptive within a congregation for so long that the other members of the congregation worked overtime to anticipate questions she might ask so as to avoid conflict with her. After more than a decade of this, and under the guidance of a new leader, they were finally recognizing that a disruptive person in a congregation is kept in place by those who, often with good intentions, tolerate this sort of behavior until it is no longer bearable.

From narrative training, we begin to see that the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem—and, indeed, it is our relationship to the problem that is the problem. A shift toward changing one’s relationship to the problem was apparent in a recent training with rabbis. In this training, a new rabbi mentioned how he felt he was being blamed for the fact that in his congregation they could not gather a minyan (a group of at least 10) for evening prayers. The rabbi explained that he was doing his part—he showed up as one of the 10. He called members and asked for their commitment to attend. Invariably, not enough folks showed up—and those who had gathered resented taking the time or felt annoyed at those who did not keep their promises. Even if they did not explicitly blame the rabbi for the low commitment, he often felt that they did.

In the conversation with the rabbi, I shifted the focus from who was to blame (an endless cycle leading nowhere) to an externalizing conversation. As Michael White, one of the originators of narrative therapy, says, an externalizing conversation includes describing the problem using the “parlance of the people seeking therapy and that is based on their understanding of life.”1

In this interaction, I began to talk with the rabbi about the “not enough commitment” problem. This allowed us to depersonalize the problem and to begin to talk about when “not enough commitment” is present. Then we explored the effects of “not enough commitment” on the synagogue, on the rabbi, on the people in the synagogue, etc. In narrative therapy this is called “mapping the effects of the problem.” From there we could evaluate whether the effects of this problem were welcome or not—and if not, why not.

As our conversation proceeded, we realized that there were times when the problem, “not enough commitment,” was not present, such as on “high holy days,” at “memorial services,” and especially at family events. We then talked about what was present in these circumstances. The rabbi was able to see that people found something meaningful in these events; there were generations of commitment and loyalty that supported people in making the commitment to these high holy days services. This allowed him to see that he could refocus his efforts on the alternate story of what contributes to “not enough commitment” not being present in the life of the synagogue. This allowed him to stand outside of the problem-saturated story and to see more possibilities for how he could lead and what he could teach.

Clearly, this conversation allowed the rabbi to not only stand outside of the problem but to also take on the role of a different observer of the situation. By doing so he saw a whole range of new actions that could lead to some new results.

Seeing the Exceptions

Once leaders can externalize the problem they are facing, what often happens is that the leadership is also freed up to recognize more of the situation than is usually allowed in our typical discourses about “what’s wrong with this congregation.” In the externalizing conversations, often a new kind of conversation—what White calls a “reauthorizing conversation”—begins to emerge. “Reauthoring conversations,” he explains, “invite people to continue to develop and tell stories about their lives, but they also help people to include some of the more neglected but potentially significant events and experiences that are ‘out of phase’ with their dominant storylines. These events and experiences can be considered ‘unique outcomes’ or ‘exceptions.’”2

In a consultation with a congregation that was badly in need of redevelopment since its membership was graying and its endowment was shrinking, the congregation told the story of how every time they tried some growth initiative it would be met with an effort to sabotage or undermine the effort. Consequently, they felt caught and in an impasse. The image that emerged in our conversations was that they had a “finger-trap problem,” where pulling in opposite directions kept them trapped, much like the child’s toy known as a finger trap.3

We focused on the effects of this finger-trap problem, mapping its effects on their community, on their capacity to grow, and on their ability to initiate change. The congregation readily agreed that they did not like the effects of this recurring problem because it kept them “trapped,” didn’t allow them to move forward, and it was simply painful. People tended to stay in their factions, reacting to each other, and finding the push and pull more engaging than the effort to “pull” in the same direction.

We then explored all the times in the life of the congregation when the finger-trap problem was not present. We looked at what White calls the “landscape of action,”4 what they were doing as a congregation during the “exceptional” times when their finger-trap problem was not prevalent. One clear example was the time when the youth of the church organized a benefit for the victims of the tsunami disaster in 2006.Without exception, members of the church supported their efforts—even when they were promoting music and inviting people to the church who did not fit their stereotyped understanding of themselves. People in the congregation worked together in spite of their differences. The event was successful not only as a fundraiser but also as a congregation-acting-as-a-whole event. This was an example of their “pulling together in the same direction,” an exception to their finger-trap problem.

“What would the youth of this church, who saw you as a congregation act so readily and cooperatively to their fundraising project, say about you as a congregation?” I asked. This and other reauthoring questions allowed them to see that an alternate story was possible and that there were dynamics to the alternate story that were different than their dominant, problem- saturated story about themselves.

Singing the Songs of the Lord

In the time of the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people, the prophet Jeremiah could have commiserated with the problem-saturated story of a people who were in despair, far from home, and in captivity once again. Instead, he spoke the prophetic word:

Build houses to dwell in; plant gardens, and eat their fruits.

Take wives and beget sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters. There you must increase in number, not decrease.

Promote the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the Lord, for upon its welfare depends your own. 5

In essence, he was saying, “Don’t cave in to your sense of despair and hopelessness.” He reminded them of who they were outside of the problem and encouraged them to do what they knew how to do when they were not in exile: plant gardens, start families, and promote the well-being of the place where they dwelled. These actions were the start of a new story. Jeremiah was prophetically helping the people of Israel to “reauthor” their story in the midst of exile.

The Psalmist ponders, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalms 137:4). As religious leaders, we, too, ponder how we can sing in the midst of turmoil. A narrative leader must dare to be as prophetic as Jeremiah. Even in the midst of trouble or uncertainty, the narrative leader must be able to help others stand outside the mesmerizing effects of the problem-saturated story. The narrative leader must be resilient and resourceful enough to resist internalizing the situation. Instead, by recognizing that the “problem is the problem,” the conversation the leader can facilitate is one that studies with curiosity the dynamic effects of this problem on the health, capacities, and faithfulness of the congregation.

Shifting the relationship to the problem comes only when the congregation can examine these effects and deeply and resoundingly say, “No, we don’t want to continue with these effects of the problem.” Then a threshold to a new possibility for the congregation emerges. This new threshold arises when the leader is able to ask, “What would you like instead? Where would you like to be headed?” “What would be the first sign that we are moving in that new direction?”

A narrative leader uses questions to help point a congregation toward the possibilities and directions that are inherent in a situation but often obscured by our usual problem-saturated and internalizing approaches to the situation.

The cumulative effect of the steps outlined here allow for a conversation of possibilities to emerge in what would otherwise seem like a dead-end. Margaret Wheatley, in her book Turning to One Another, underlines the power of conversation and the role of leaders in creating the kinds of conversations that can promote deep change:

There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about. Ask, “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking… Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters. 6

1. Michael White, Maps of Narrative Practice (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), 41.
2. White, 61.
3. Also known as a “Chinese finger trap” or “Mexican handcuffs.”
4. White, 99–100.
5. Jeremiah 29: 5-7, New American Bible.
6. Margaret J. Wheatley, Turning to One Another (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2002), 145.

Congregations, 2008-01-01
Winter 2008, Number 1

(11.)  Questions to Ponder

for the "Stuck" Congregation

by Larry Peers
from Congregations, 2008-01-01
Winter 2008, Number 1

Q: Our Congregation feels stuck. How do we get unstuck?

A: It’s fairly common for congregational leaders and members to sometimes conclude that their congregation is “stuck.” When this happens, the underlying belief may be that something other than what is currently going on should be happening. Or there may be a desire that the congregation move forward in some direction—any direction! While the temptation is strong to move quickly into trying to “get unstuck,” there is a danger in moving too quickly—in other words, before learning from the present experience.

Grounding Your Assessment

Before rushing into action, take some time to explore what is actually occurring. First, be curious about why this feels like a “stuck” time in your congregation. Other than a feeling, what is your assessment based upon? Listing the facts or the events that you are basing your assessment upon will help to ground your assessment of “stuckness.”

Have you noticed how often we make assessments or judgments that are not grounded in facts or actual events? In fact, sometimes assessments are taken as facts. When we are open to having our assessments reviewed, we might discover that others are looking at the same events and coming up with different assessments or judgments of those same facts.

I have sometimes encountered congregations that get so enamored with their assessments, opinions, or judgments that they don’t think to ground these opinions in actual events. Sometimes congregations become so attached to their problem-saturated story about themselves that they don't see the exceptions to this story.

How Grounded Is It?

So first, be curious. Then examine how grounded or ungrounded your assessment may be.

When I am called into a consultation with a congregation in some sort of turmoil, I often start out by asking them a question like, “If I were to spend some time with you over the next few months, what would I come to appreciate about you as a congregation?” This is a disarming question for those who are ready to move into a litany of complaints about the congregation and its various problems. However, it is also an opportunity for the congregation and its leaders to affirm who they are outside of their current problems and complaints. So I encourage you to consider asking a similar question: What would those who encounter our congregation say they can appreciate about us?

A “Way Through”

Sometimes we may move forward haphazardly or prematurely in an attempt to “fix” things. The poet Theodore Roethke wrote that “the way out is the way through.” Based on my training in narrative therapy and my consulting work with congregations,
I have found that asking questions can often provide a “way through” the stuckness so many of these congregations describe. Some of the questions I have found most effective for helping congregations decide upon a direction in which to move are as follows. I suggest trying these out in your own congregation.

+ Where would you like to be headed as a congregation? What would like to be as a congregation?
+ What constraints you from heading in this direction or from being what you have just described? Rank the seriousness of these constraints.
+ What are the effects of these constraints on who you are and on who you can become as a congregation?
+ What supports you in moving in this direction or in being what you have just described you'd like to become as a congregation?
+ Do you, as a congregation, favor where you are now? Why or why not?
+ If not, what would you like to be doing instead?
+ How will you notice that you are moving in this direction?

One congregation I know realized that they were stuck in a pattern of blaming their minister or the members of certain congregational groups for why they were not doing well as a congregation. As they examined the effects of blaming, they realized that it led to factions, to finding more fault, and to stagnation. This, they saw, was not helping them be who they wanted to be or to move in the direction they wanted to go.

So shift the conversation. Ask some different questions—and find a “way through.”

Larry Peers is a consultant with the Alban Institute. He specializes in whole systems approaches to congregational revitalization and coaches clergy and staff teams.

(12.)  Letting Go and Moving On

An excerpt fromA Wing and A Prayer: A Message of Faith and Hope

Copyright © 2007, Used by permission of Morehouse Publishing. To order call <ˋ> 1-800-242-1918 1-800-242-1918 or visit us at

by Katharine Jefferts Schori

Sometimes the comic strip Sally Forth nails our humanity. Here's one of my favorites: The husband has gotten a new video camera, and he's sticking the lens into every possible moment in the family's life. The daughter has put "KEEP OUT" signs on her door; the wife has to chase him out of the bathroom when she's taking a shower; and everybody is getting royally annoyed.

We live in a society that seems to pay a lot of attention to preserving memories—think about the industry built up around taking pictures, and now we have video cameras, and digital cameras, and tape recorders. I've seen ads recently for classes that will teach you how to build memory-boxes, or put together scrapbooks.

What would you take with you if you had to evacuate your house with five minutes' notice? Photo albums and legal documents seem to be what people most often mention.

What is so important to us about the past? Why do we try to hang on to it so tightly?
The prophet Isaiah, though, tells the people, "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old" (Isa 43:18). The great exodus from Egypt, that great and wonderful tale of delivery—how can Israel for-get that? But God seems to be saying, "Forget about the past, for I am doing a new thing—don't you see it?" (Phil 3:13). Paul talks about letting go of the past as well: "This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead."

What kind of letting go are they talking about? Why should Israel for-get about the exodus? It seems to have more to do with perspective, with focusing on the new thing, and what lies ahead, rather than on the past. There is something about an attitude that focuses on the past that keeps us from recognizing the new thing that is happening all around us.

If I have an image in my head of a little boy at age three, it's going to be very difficult for me to appreciate who he is at age six. My expectations color what I see. If my relationship with someone is focused on what she did to offend me three years ago, I'm going to have a really hard time greeting her with any kind of openness. If my self-image is based on having some disease, then that's going to shape and limit who or what I can be in the future.

Something closer to home: if our understanding of church is based solely on what it's been in the past, then how will we be able to grow and change as the culture changes and those who come to join us change? The idea isn't to give up every good memory or every good influence from the past, but not to let the past define who or what you are now, or who you might become. Isaiah is saying to Israel, "The exodus was great and wonderful, but God continues to deliver you. The passage through the Red Sea wasn't your defining moment—you continue to have a relationship with God."

New things aren't always so easy to accept. Consider the parable of the vineyard. Our natural tendency is to identify with the tenants of the vine-yard. They're rebelling because things are changing. They're being asked to share the produce with the landlord. But it seems like life has gone on for a long time without any account being asked, and now they resent the change, even though they knew it would come eventually. So they try to maintain the status quo by beating up the bill collectors. Finally they kill the heir. Forget the past, even if it was a liberating act, like getting out of Egypt, or receiving a vineyard to tend. Listen and watch for the new thing. The future is not going to look like the past.

Those messengers from the landlord are fascinating figures. I wonder how many messengers of change we beat up and throw out, because we don't want to hear the message. I have the sense that they are all around us, and it's probably not too hard to recognize them for who they are. If they bring a message that sounds like Jesus, we can probably trust that they're the real thing. If they call us to fruitfulness, if they call us to love our neighbor as ourselves, they've probably come from the landlord.

"The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone." The new building is being constructed out of the rejects of the last building. Who or what has been rejected from your building? Who doesn't fit the picture? Look well, for the rejected is probably of God.

Think about the parts of ourselves we are least willing to acknowledge—that part of us that seems most wayward, most sinful. Maybe it's a habit of shading the truth, or maybe we have a hard time remembering whose vineyard we're living in. Maybe it's that part of ourselves we think is least forgivable. But that part of ourselves is our greatest opportunity for relationship with God—that wound, if you will, has the most potential for healing. But nothing's going to happen until we can begin to let go of its defining nature. In some sense, we can't see the new thing God is working in us until we stop expecting this wound to define our future.

If we look for it, we can see new life springing up everywhere. None of us, I think, really wants to hang on to the dead past of winter. Why do we hang on to the past of our lives? What new thing is God doing in your life and in mine, if we will only notice?




Culture Streams by Beverly and George Thompson

    Culture is made of many different streams. These streams are like creeks and rivers, in that they flow in, around, and through the pond that makes up your church’s ministry set­ting. Cultural streams come in various sizes, from the tiny trickles inside your church, to the larger creeks in your neighborhood or town, all the way up to the wide rivers of American society. We call this phenomenon “cultural confluence.”


   Your discovery team might decide to begin its process by examin­ing the broadest of these cultural streams, the “macroculture.” Think about the value that U.S. society places on independence, “my rights,” individualism, democracy, being number one, even baseball and apple pie—not to mention something called “economic opportunity.” These examples all point to the presence of a large-scale culture that exists to one degree or another across the United States. Macroculture is that as­pect of American life with which everyone in the country must deal, whether they know it or not, understand it or not, like it or not. Many of these macrocultural artifacts and espoused values flow right into the culture of your congregation, shaping you in ways you may not even realize.


    What might it mean, for instance, if your church is in an area where local businesses can no longer survive because of a factory closing? What would it mean if your church were located in an area of offshore drilling, where fishing or tourism was a primary way of making a living? What happens to the church when members who have taught school for years find their salaries cut, their benefits reduced, and their job threatened due to budget cuts? What happens to your congregation if many members can no longer find employment in your town? Each of these scenarios is related directly to macroculture. Sometimes changes from this large-scale stream race like a tsunami through your church, reshaping its reality. Active waiting allows time for you to identify these external elements and to consider together how they affect your church’s ministry.


   However, the macroculture is not the only stream that lives and moves outside your congregation. Between the macroculture and the local culture immediately surrounding your church location exists a scale of cultures that are in between large and small. We call these “mesocultures,” from the Greek word meso, or “middle. Out of these streams flow distinct cultural presences from a variety of sources. For instance, the various regions of the United States have developed certain cultural characteristics that distinguish them from one another. Our country’s many ethnic groups maintain treasured traditions stemming from their nations of origin. The cultural world of old family wealth is very different from that of families and communities who are “just getting by.” Generational differences between groups of Americans cre­ate distinctive streams at this middle-level of culture. The baby boom­ers who came of age in the 1960s questioned the practices and values of their parents’ “silent” generation. Now, our society is increasingly shaped by the children of boomers, a generation that has grown up in another kind of world—post-civil rights movement, post-Cold War, less idealistic, awash in nanotechnological savvy, and perceiving life through the Internet instead of the morning newspaper.


    No congregation can thrive in ministry and witness without paying attention to mesocultural streams. They affect (often very subtly) the ways in which your congregation understands similarities and differ­ences among those who are part of your community. The specific pres­ence and configuration of these streams in your local community will change over time. If your church is to be both hospitable and responsive to change, it will need to keep all sorts of mesoculture on its radar.


    In your in-between time, you will want to use your active waiting process to imagine how any particular stream of culture is either flowing through, or being log-jammed by, the culture of your church. Here are a couple of extended examples to help you see how crucial your attentive­ness to these streams will be for your church’s vitality.
As a woman of the South, I (Beverly) know what food means to the culture of a Southern church: Food is caring. If a family experiences sickness or death, they can expect an onslaught of casseroles delivered to their door. If you are a new pastor in the South and nobody brings you a pie or a cake, watch out! Of course, the food choices vary from region to region. Folks coming into Southern churches from other areas of the country might be dismayed to see tables filled with greasy fried chicken, gravy-laden creamed potatoes, and loads of carbohydrate-filled casseroles and tempting sweets. George always grins when he’s asked if he wants his tea “sweet or unsweet”; his response is a dead giveaway that he is “not from around these parts!” Southerners can always tell a Yankee when they make faces at our ordering of grits, or begin to pour sugar or milk on them—yuk! George grimaced the first time he saw fried green tomatoes. Imagine that!


    Let us also think a little more about the effects of the generational stream on your church. You have probably noticed that older adults in your congregation tend to prefer more traditional worship, while teen­agers and young adults outside your doors are often looking for some­thing very different. For these younger generations, music that is faster, sometimes dissonant, with guitars and percussion, feels more like their world. Unless these differences are uncovered and discussed, they can logjam the many streams flowing into and around your church. You then risk dealing more with conflict than possibility, for years to come.


    A congregation may become dismayed when its new pastor comes in using fancy theological words that don’t mean much to most of its members. This new pastor may not realize that the culture tends to place more value on stories and real-life examples. Streams of culture that flow out of “orality” share wisdom through proverbs and learn through stories. Communities that are primarily oral in culture don’t respond to abstract terminology. At the seminary where we teach, we often encoun­ter students whose home congregations send them to seminary with some trepidation, afraid that those students will lose their voice as they earn their theological degrees. They worry that these young will forget where they have come from and their words will lose their meaning. Yet those same congregations have much to offer if their pastors can learn to honor the oral culture. Stories and proverbs give real life to technical terms.


    Paying attention to these various streams of culture and discuss­ing them together will help your congregation understand why some folks respond in ways that don’t seem to match your expectations. An “oral culture” congregation might better understand the need for active waiting if it is expressed through the metaphor of planting and harvest­ing. Rather than abstract conversations about the need for new “vision,” such churches do better with down-to-earth language—something like, “We need to take time to find out just what God wants us to do to help our neighbors." Culture is complex—because the communities that people create are complex. Once you learn how to pay close attention, you will be able to use this discovery process for every transition you encounter. So, get ready to dig even deeper. You are preparing to discover the sources of energy to be found at the deepest level of your church's culture.


Adapted from Grace for the Journey: Practices and Possibilities for In-Between Times by Beverly A. Thompson and George B. Thompson, Jr.

14. Innovation Requires Brokenness, By Tom Ehrich