Thursday, March 29, 2007

3 Big Questions Congregations Need to Ask

Today's post includes material from Chris, my UCC minister friend and colleague from New York. We both are participants in the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center "Clergy Clinic", a year long program that deals with healthy congregations and healthy leadership. With colleagues across the denominational spectrum, we've found lots of shared experiences and common issues in ministry. Here's what Chris had to share recently from an Alban Institute workshop:

"There are three big questions that all congregations need to think about and answer for themselves: Who are we? What has God called us to do? And, who is our neighbor? Although each of these questions can be answered quickly and glibly, in truth each calls for profound and prayerful discernment, over a significant period of time, not just by the pastor or the pastoral staff, but by the entire congregation.

Our three days together at the Alban seminar focused on congregational style and culture. Every congregation has a signature style—which we usually think of as being represented by certain key symbols. These styles and symbols can be greatly varied; often, they are evident in worship.

For example, three very different churches can all think of themselves as having “excellent music.” In one congregation this may mean Bach fugues, and piano-violin pieces by Mendolssohn. In another church, it may mean a contemporary service, complete with rock or rap music, and a monthly jazz vespers service. In a third congregation the emphasis could be on heartfelt African American spiritual music.

Our workshop presenter said something about the planning process that impressed me. There are three kinds of planning that churches typically do: problem-solving planning, which is quick, immediate, and addresses specific concerns (There’s no hot water in the kitchen. What do we do to fix it?); long-range or developmental planning which addresses the question, “What’s next?” (e.g., should we expand the sanctuary, or go to a second service to handle the large crowds?); and frame-bending planning, which is really strategic planning and asks those “Who-are-We, What-has-God-called-us-to-do, Who-is-our-neighbor” sorts of questions.

What I found interesting is that many of the problems facing churches today are complicated. They are triggered by external (e.g., environmental, economic, community) changes. They are systemic problems, and they require frame-bending planning. They require churches to ask those “Who-are-we, what-has-God-called-us-to-do, Who-is-our-neighbor questions.Yet many churches try to address such problems with problem-solving or developmental planning.

They apply linear solutions to systemic problems. But it doesn’t work. When the neighborhood changes, and giving, attendance and membership goes down, it may take more than a special program, or an invite-your-neighbor campaign to turn things around. Churches have to rethink who they are, what God has called them to do, and who their neighbor is. A simple but profound idea, this is. "

That's what Chris took away from a fine workshop with the Alban Institute. Getting beyond those quick-fix solutions and problem solving approaches is, nevertheless, quite a challenge. As Chris and I and others have been learning, there's often a deep-seated anxiety in many churches that narrows the kind of imaginative work that is needed to re-vision Christian discipleship and ministry in today's world.

Jesus spoke about these spiritual realities with keen insight in Mark 2: 21-22. "No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins."

In this season of Lent, that Jesus view is worth deep pondering. Are we just trying to patch something together to last a little longer? Are we afraid of the fresh, invigorating life of the Spirit that Jesus offers? What do you think?


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