Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Do You Care Enough to Do the Adaptive Work?

Do you care enough to do the adaptive work of renewal?

Without any question, many (if not most) denominational churches across North America are in decline. Some congregations are not even aware of their decline. Enough of the historic "strength" of the congregation remains to satisfy the needs of the members. Other congregations are aware of their decline. Members, however, have decided (perhaps through a silent conspiracy) to do nothing. They only hope the church is still there to host their individual funerals. Other congregations recognize the decline, are concerned, and want to do something to turn their church around.

What, however, drives the desire for the turn around? A "caring" for the institution or a "caring" for people whose lives have not been touched by the life giving gospel message? A caring for the institution can provide the urgency to get people moving and acting. The urgency, however, will dissipate as soon as the future of the institution (at least for now) seems secure. With an institutional urgency, people tend to search for solutions that will bring the least disruption to their long established attitudes and patterns of thinking and acting. Only an urgent caring for the spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being of individuals outside the walls of the institution draws members into essential shifts in attitudes, thinking and acting. And, nothing in the institution will shift without members shifting.

Do you care enough to do the adaptive work? Do you care enough to shift your attitudes and your patterns of thinking and acting? Or, do you simply want the decline to be fixed, reestablishing the strength and vitality of the church as you knew it in the past?

Robert Schnase (United Methodist Bishop in Missouri) provides congregations with a description of the five practices that are found in fruitful congregations. Clearly, a congregation engaging faithfully in the five practices will experience health, vitality, and growth. The congregation will have an "attracting" power. The congregation will be effectively connecting with people outside the walls of the church and connecting those people with the life giving gospel. That church will be a place that offers life.

Bishop Schnase also names the crucial essential factor for a congregation. Without addressing that factor, leaders who attempt to put in place the best programs for growth and attempting to put in place the best practices will not succeed. Bishop Schnase names the crucial factor this way: "(Congregations') ability to become vibrant, fruitful, growing congregations is directly related to their willingness to perform the five practices in a consistently exemplary way." (Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, page 130)

Willingness! We call this "the inner work of renewal." "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. 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." (Pathway to Renewal: Practical Steps for Congregations, page 28, 29. Smith and Sellon)

Do you care enough to do this inner work, this adaptive work? This inner work of developing a deep and passionate caring for God's people comes first. With the deep and passionate caring for people in place, with Christ-like attitudes in place, patterns of thinking and acting do shift and anything is possible. Without this adaptive inner work, a lot of activity may take place but nothing changes - at least for long. The declining institution remains a declining institution.

- Dan Smith

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Three Phases of Congregational Renewal

Congregational Renewal realigns a congregation with God's intents. Renewal describes what happens to the people individually and corporately – they develop a renewed heart for God, self, and other that results in action.

The process of renewal seeks to shift a congregation from personal and congregational self-absorption and aimless meandering to an outward focused community of disciples who have a shared sense of purpose and mission and whose relationships embody the "kin"dom of God. While aware of their past, the renewed congregation is fully aware of the realities of their present, and works to shape their future by aligning their efforts with their best discernment of God's aims.

Congregational Renewal can be broken down into three phases of work.
Phase One: Developing Readiness In phase one, something happens that alerts congregational leaders that what's currently being experienced is not enough. This might be a crisis that jeopardizes the future of the congregation, or an experience of God that provides a taste of the "something more" that's possible.

The first step in instigating renewal is the gathering of a small group of people who talk, study, pray, and wonder together about the "something more" that might be possible for their congregation. This germinating group is formational for those participating, giving them a deeper taste of Christian community than what might currently be experienced in the congregation. This group continues and expands informally until there is sufficient desire to make congregational renewal a formal, sanctioned effort.

At that point, the congregation's governing board (or more typically, a task-force they appoint) explores renewal as a new and intentional path for the congregation, a path different from that which it's currently on. The board assesses the current state of the congregation and its trajectory as well as participating in formational conversations similar to those had within the germinating group.

For renewal to pervade the congregation, congregational leaders must serve as yeast. They need to have a sense of the difference renewal can make personally and corporately. They must want it for themselves and want it for the congregation. When they are convinced that the congregation's current trajectory is no longer acceptable, they make the formal commitment to find a new path and lead the congregation in renewal. If an urgency of crisis originally drove the push for renewal, the urgency must now be shifting within the leaders to an urgency of hope and opportunity.

Phase Two: Surfacing a Guiding VisionIn phase two, the broader congregation is invited into formational work to deepen their awareness of and openness to God. This emphasis pervades all areas of congregational life. This phase is best directed by a sub-group (Vision Team) commissioned by he governing board. This group, comprised of the pastor and key laity, develop strategies for preparing the congregation and leading them through a discernment of God' vision for the congregation. This group is formative for its members and for the governing board to which it reports.

In this phase, the congregation and its leaders study the scriptures to anchor themselves in God's will and ways. They reflect on the congregation and how God has worked in and through it in the past and present. They celebrate what has been and determine what, from their past, needs to be carried into the future and what, though it may have once served, should be left behind. Naming and then letting go of pre-conceived notions of what God wants and what their future should look like, the congregation enters into discernment with the aim of surfacing a picture of the future God would have them live into.

This vision is refined and tested. The congregation and its leaders reflect on the cost of saying "yes" to letting it guide them and name what they may have to let go of personally and corporately. When convinced of the rightness of the vision, the governing board official adopts the vision as what will guide the congregation's living and decision-making. The board, to ensure they stay true to this commitment, develops ways to hold itself accountable for what it and the congregation have said they want

Phase Three: Living into the VisionWith a destination in mind and a sense of urgency about getting there, the congregation develops strategies to align all parts of congregational life in service of its mission and vision. Renewal is likely to fall by the wayside or efforts denigrate into new forms of the same old patterns, unless a group is authorized to shepherd the process.

In phase three, the focus is on six areas: development of new initiatives; realignment of existing ministries and programs; congregational care; staff development; lay leadership development, and ongoing personal and corporate formation. Attention must be given to each of the areas. Ignoring any of them will lead to trouble.Up until now, changes have been talked about, but few have been instituted. Actual changes can be unsettling. Phase three can generate significant conflict and resistance. Care must be taken to communicate often and regularly and to listen deeply and compassionately. Part of the challenge of phase three is using conflict and the energy it produces constructively and creatively.

Renewal can be considered complete when spiritual formation is seen as regular part of every member's life, relationships embody the "kin"dom of God, and the congregation has a deep and pervasive concern for the temporal and spiritual well-being of those beyond its doors that manifests in action.

- Dan Smith and Mary Huycke

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

5 Hallmarks of Declining Congregations

Is your congregation healthy or does it need renewal? The usual way to answer that question is to look at measurable performance indicators such as worship attendance, membership growth and financial giving. In a healthy congregation, we do generally expect to find growth in numbers, participation and stewardship. But, while statistical indicators measure some of the results of congregational health, they do not measure health itself. These numbers can even be misleading, indicating health when really the congregation is in decline.

How do we define decline? A declining congregation focuses on

• growing the church rather than witnessing to their faith
• running the church rather forming disciples
• being people-led rather than being Spirit-led
• participating in mission projects without having a mission
• fixing rather than creating.

Growing the church, running the church, being people-led, participating in mission projects and fixing can all, at certain times, serve a congregation and contribute to health. However, when they become the primary focus, the congregation is in serious trouble. Congregation renewal efforts should addresses the foundational issues of health rather than simply attempting to develop and strengthen the institution. We value a developed and strong institution—but that needs to be a fruit of a faithful congregation, not its primary aim.
To help you assess if your congregation is in need of renewal, let’s take a closer look at these five hallmarks of declining congregations:

People focus on growing the church rather than witnessing to their faith
Conversations about the nuts and bolts of running the church replace faith talk. Members are out of touch with their own faith stories and how their lives have been changed through their own spiritual formation. They don’t know how to talk with others about God and faith issues. Rather than reaching out in personal ways to other people, the congregation waits for people to “reach out” to them.

A declining congregation views people outside the church more in terms of what the people can bring to the church rather than the life-changing difference the church can make for them. Visitors who look like they would fit in and have something to offer are warmly welcomed. Those who seem different or needy may be noticed, but receive very different treatment. The marginalized and hurting people in the community are not viewed as potential pew-mates or fellow disciples, but as recipients of the church's benevolence.

Efforts focus on running the church rather forming disciples

The congregation is attached to certain programs and ministries and particular ways of carrying them out. They see their work as offering activities rather than the spiritual and faith development of people. Tiring, yet needing these activities staffed, the congregation sees newcomers as resources to be mined. Faithfulness is defined by a person’s willingness to do the church’s work.

In a declining church, the congregation serves the institution of church. People attend meetings because the calendar says to. What the church needs to keep it running takes precedence over what the participants need in order to grow as disciples of Christ. Leaders spends time and energy enticing and motivating people to serve on committees and take on tasks, rather than creating opportunities and venues for their development as followers of Christ.

The congregation is people-led rather than Spirit-led

People are confident in their ability to run the church and do not turn to God, or even think of turning to God, for guidance in running the church. They direct the church like a business, adopting the best practices of the business world, without under girding those practices with a radical dependence on God.

The declining church depends on the pastor, church members, or other human experts for guidance and direction. Meetings are business meetings. They may include a token reading of scripture or an opening prayer, but rarely if ever does a group think of bringing faith into the discussion at hand. People think of and refer to the church as "our church" not "God's church."

The congregation participates in mission projects, but doesn’t have a mission

The declining church likely has a missions committee that plans several mission projects across a year's time. These projects flow out of and reinforce the congregation's self-image of being "mission minded." Projects generally do not reflect a shared missional aim of the congregation, but the mission interests of individuals or groups. Success is measured by the amount of support generated for the project and the amount of satisfaction the congregation derives from the work.

While there may well be a mission statement written at the top of the worship bulletin or posted on the narthex wall, the mission is not used to align human and financial resources. Leaders may be able to recite it, but it does not drive planning. There’s no shared and compelling sense of purpose that undergirds congregational life and ministry.

People focus on fixing rather than creating

The declining congregation's strongest desire is for the church to feel comfortable. When challenges or new situations arise, people view them as problems to be solved so that church can get back to normal, rather than as opportunities to move in a new direction. They feel most comfortable replicating what’s been done before. Though this saves a great deal of time and effort, it takes away the energy that comes with creating something new.

When faced with new challenges, the congregation looks to others for their answers. They seek out experts who will tell them what to do – a new pastor, a consultant, denominational help, etc. At the same time, the congregation balks at engaging in activities that feel new or different.

Renewal is not just for overtly "sick" churches, but for any congregation whose life together and decision making exhibits a growing preference for these tendencies. Destructive attitudes and values are already infiltrating the decision making process. The ideal time to address renewal is when everything is going well. Done early, before these shifts have become ingrained, it's a matter of slight realignments. But, most churches don't address renewal then. "Things are fine. Why give energy to something that isn't causing us any problems?"
Most pastors and congregations don't think about renewal until the church has reached, or is nearing, a state of crisis and confusion. When leaders finally do respond, they typically move into a fix-it mode. Seminars and books offer a myriad of solutions to a congregation's stall or decline - learn how to better welcome visitors, move to a growing suburb, prepare your nursery, upgrade your marketing, add video screens in the worship space, change the music and the preaching style, start a small group ministry. When such "fixes" prove ineffective, the congregation then turns to the personnel committee demanding they figure out what's wrong with the pastor and fix him or her. A new pastor may provide a shot of energy and hope, but most typically the congregation returns to where it was in short order. If not during the tenure of that pastor, then following his or her departure.

The congregation seeking renewal must look beyond simply improving its programs and its building and work to shift their preferences and focus. Without this change in attitude and behavior, nothing really changes.

- Dan Smith and Mary Huycke