Posts Tagged ‘change’

I have been re-reading two books recently written by Alan Roxburgh: Structured for Mission: Renewing the Culture of the Church and Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The New Shape of the Church in our Time. Both books provide some very helpful insights into the process of the ways churches respond to the changed context in which they find themselves.

Structured for Mission is heavier reading than the very practical Joining God. It provides a more theoretical approach to the ways in which change happens in organizations. Organizations in crisis tend to respond by trying to make changes in their structures. However, says Roxburgh, what they should attend to are the underlying stories which are embodied in the structures. These are what are really driving and shaping the structures and the organization.

He calls these underlying stories ‘legitimating narratives’ — “an overarching story that provides a group . . . with a way to express its underlying values, beliefs and commitments about who they are and how life is to be lived. It’s a story that tells a group who they are, what is acceptable and what is a proper way to live” (p. 32) Organizations and groups lose the capacity to hold the attention and loyalty of people when increasing numbers of people no longer find that the legitimating narrative  helps them make sense of their lives.

The churches that are part of what used to be called mainline denominations are operating with a legitimating narrative that values the capacity to control and manage their life. “Strategic planning [is] one of its primary tools. In this way of planning, experts gathered data, studied the various elements of a situation, and identified the gap between where they were and where they wanted to be at a point in the future. On this basis a plan was developed to get from one point to the next.” (p. 43) This narrative assumes that we are the most critical agents acting in the situation. The choices we make are the actions that determine the future.

Part of the problem that churches encounter is that the situations in which they find themselves no longer are ones that can be managed and controlled. Too much around them is changing too quickly and too drastically. The legitimating narrative no longer works:  we find ourselves in “a place where [our] explanations no longer explain and [our] actions no longer fix.” (p. 116) Churches are having to find new ways to navigate into the future.

Roxburgh directs us to our original stories to find a legitimating narrative that will help us develop the capacity to continue in our journey. In those stories — the stories of the Bible — the most critical agent in any situation is not us but God. We are certainly involved but it is God who is at the centre of what is happening. It is God’s actions that are decisive.

The first work of the churches in this place and time is to learn again how to pay attention to God: to what the Holy Spirit is doing among us and in our neighbourhoods. We do that by learning to
1) engage the scriptures more deeply,
2) listen to each other more carefully especially our stories of where God is working in each other’s lives, and
3) re-engage the neighbourhoods and communities in which our church buildings are located.
One of the tools Roxburgh uses is “Dwelling in the Word”, a modified form of lectio divina that also involves careful listening to each other.

I find that it is hard to convince congregations to adopt Roxburgh’s approach. For one this, this is slow work. It will not give an immediate appearance that something is being done to fix the problems a congregation is facing. It is also soul work — something, ironically, many people in our churches are generally not too enthused about.

In a few months, I’ll be working with some congregations that are willing to try this out. We are embarking on a journey together where we do not know exactly where we are going but we are willing to trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us. It will be an adventure — something much more interesting and compelling to me than the attempt to restructure the ‘courts of the church’ on which my denomination is currently expending great time and energy.




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As the church moves into a new paradigm, ordered ministry personnel find themselves confronting questions about their identity and role.

Many different models and metaphors have been used to describe the role and identity of ordered ministers. When the Church existed in Christendom, the ordered minister often operated as a chaplain — tending to the pastoral and spiritual needs of people who lived in a culture that helped the church shape and form Christians and a culture that saw itself as  operating on Christian ethical principles. We live in a very different culture now.

A model or metaphor for ordered ministers that is being reclaimed is that of equipper — one who equips the culture of the congregation such that all the baptized know that they are ministers both in the church gathered (ekklesia) and in the church scattered into the world (diaspora). The ordered minister is a ‘ministry developer’ who mentors, guides and educates the ministers of the congregation for their ministries. S/he is the team leader, the overseer of the joint work of the people.

This model requires different kinds of leadership from the chaplaincy model. Among other things, it requires leadership that is willing to upset the status quo that prevails in the environment of most congregations. Major shifts need to be made in the ways congregations govern themselves and in their delivery of pastoral care, faith formation, worship and proclamation. They must be structured for relationships instead of programmes: relationships of trust, of truth-telling, of forgiveness, of compassion. That work of re-shaping congregations will require ministers who are cultivating a deep identity in Christ rather than in the work that they do or in the acclaim of the congregation.

Leaders need different metrics for measuring what they are doing. Rather than counting bodies, buildings, and budgets, churches could count how many people have had their gifts identified and their vocation made clear. How many people in the congregation are equipped for ministry? How many lives have been transformed? What is the depth of community? Where are there signs of mutual love and support? Those metrics are relationship-based. They are developed through different skills and capacities than most clergy received in their formal theological training. They operate out of a different imagination than functions in most congregations. William Willimon suggests that the test for pastoral ministry is not, “How much have I been able to accomplish at my church?” but rather, “How much have I enabled the laity to accomplish at their church.” (William Willimon, “The Point of Pastoral Ministry: Lay Ministry”  March 26, 2007).

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Larry Walters was thirty-three years old, living in Los Angeles, when he decided that he wanted to see his neighbourhood from a new perspective. He went to the local army surplus store one morning and bought forty-five used weather balloons. He strapped himself into a lawn chair. Several of his friends filed the balloons with helium and then tied them to his chair. Larry took along a six-pack of beer, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a BB gun. He figured he could shoot the balloons one at a time when he was ready to land.

Larry assumed that the balloons would lift him about one hundred feet into the air. He was caught off guard when the chair he was seated in soared more than fifteen thousand feet into the sky — smack into the middle of the air traffic at Los Angeles International Airport.

He shot a few of the balloons but then dropped the gun.  He stayed airborne for more than two hours, eventually landing in Long Beach neighbourhood.

Soon after he was safely grounded and cited by the police, reporters asked him three questions.

Were you scared? Yes.

Would you do it again? No.

Why did you do it? Because you can’t just sit there.


The writer of the Gospel of Matthew would have liked Larry’s answer. When God invades the world in Jesus Christ, Matthew says, “You can’t just sit there. You have to do something to respond to this amazing event.” Matthew tells the Christmas story differently from Luke. Luke’s story has  Mary receiving a visit from an angel. It has  a decree from Caesar Augustus  that sends Jews across the country. Shepherds hurry to a stable after receiving news from angels in the sky.

Matthew, on the other hand, tells us a great deal more about Joseph, Mary’s fiancé. For one thing, Joseph is a dreamer.

Three times, Joseph dreams a dream. Three times, in response to the dream, Joseph changes his plans and gets moving in a different direction.

Joseph is a devout Jew and so, when he finds out that Mary is pregnant, he is prepared to follow Jewish law. He makes arrangements to break the engagement. However, as a devout Jew, he also knows that mercy is to temper justice. Out of love or consideration for Mary, he decides he will break the engagement quietly. He will save her from public humiliation. Then, the dream changes his carefully made plans. In obedience to the word he receives in the dream, he marries her and calls the child his own.

After the baby Jesus is born, it appears that Mary and Joseph have settled into life in Bethlehem. Then, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream, warning him of danger. He finds himself taking his young family on an unexpected trip to Egypt.

They settle into Egypt. Again, an angel in a dream sets him on the move again. This time, they are headed back to Israel. Even then, they do not go back to Bethlehem but to Nazareth in Galilee. All of this is done in obedience to a word from God.

When God comes onto the scene, says Matthew, nobody remains untouched. Nobody remains unchanged. Joseph finds his life turned upside down. Magi from Syria find themselves on the move to worship and bow down to a Jewish baby. Even Herod, ruler in Israel, cannot ignore what is going on. He is moved to murderous jealousy and resists God’s invasion with all the powers at his disposal.

In Jesus, people are confronted with the truth of God. You can trust and obey him or you can reject his rule but you cannot remain neutral.

This is a very hard word for us to hear. We are not accustomed to hearing truth talked about in this way. The prevailing myth is that all truth is subjective. Truth is relative. It is something we choose. You may choose differently from me and it does not really matter as long as we are tolerant of one another.

Matthew says truth is not a collection of statements to which we might give assent and others might not. Truth is not a group of convictions we choose according to our personal inclinations. Truth is a person we encounter. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We do not shape our truth. Truth shapes us and leads us where it will. We don’t ‘have’ the truth. The truth possesses us and transforms the direction of our lives.

When we encounter the truth that Jesus is, we can be rather like the officer in the navy who had always dreamed of commanding a battleship. He finally achieved his dream and was given command of the newest and best ship in the fleet.

One stormy night, as the ship plowed through the seas, the captain himself was on duty on the bridge. Suddenly, off to port, he spotted a strange light, rapidly closing with his own vessel. Immediately ordered the signalman to flash a message to the unidentified craft. The message read, “Alter your course 10 degrees to the south.”

Only a moment passed before the reply came, “Alter your course 10 degrees to the north.”

The captain was determined that his ship would not take a back seat to any other ship. He ordered a second message sent, “Alter your course 10 degrees. I am the captain.”

The message cam back, “Alter your course 10 degrees. I am Seaman third class Jones.”

Infuriated, the captain grabbled the signal light with his own hands and fired off, “Alter your course. I am a battleship.”

The reply came back, “Alter your course. I am a lighthouse.”

We live our lives, choosing its course, commanding it values and goals. Then, we encounter the Light that Jesus is and discover that he is truth which cannot be shaped for our own purposes. Rather, he is Truth that shapes us.

In baptism, you decide to adjust the course of your life to the lighthouse of Christ. He gives your life direction that it would not otherwise have. Then, you are no longer just sitting here, putting in time. You let his truth shape your life and the little story you call “my life” gets caught up in the great and holy work God is doing in human history. You become a part of God’s work, healing God’s world and bringing the lost home.


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Conversations about equipping the baptized for their ministries turn quickly to matters of spiritual formation and discipleship. What Christian practices need to be embraced? What does evangelism and witness look like in our context? What enables people to discern not only where the Holy Spirit is at work but also what their call is in that work?

What is apparent is that behind those questions lie more foundational questions about the nature of our congregations. What does spiritual formation and discipleship look like in a church culture where that has not been a priority? It is difficult for people to discern where the Holy Spirit is already at work when they are unpracticed in such elemental disciplines as prayer, standing under the scriptures, and talking about faith together. Exciting new initiatives lose steam when those who participate in them are not deeply grounded in the Source of Life. As Elizabeth O’Connor articulated the wisdom of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., “If you do not attend to the journey inward, you will burn out on the journey outward.” Frank Viola has warned, “You cannot raise the bar on discipleship without raising the bar on the ekklesia—the living experience of the body of Christ—the native habitat in which true disciple-making and transformation take place” (Discipleship in Crisis, e-book).

What is needed is not simply a matter of offering more courses and seminars on discipleship or evangelism. What is needed is a shift in the culture of congregations. A new imagination for what it means to be the church needs to be cultivated. A different set of symbols, metaphors and narratives need to shape the ethos of the United Church of Canada.

Chris Pullenayegem, New Ministries Animator for EDGE, outlines the process of change as a matter of asking some basic questions:

*What has to remain?

*How do we do it more efficiently so that resources are freed up for new experiments?

*What do we need to let go of in order to create space for something new?

*What new things do we need to do in order to make this new thing happen?

Andy Crouch, in Culture Making, advises that “the only way to change culture is to create more of it. . . . If culture is to change, it will be because some new tangible (or audible or visible or olfactory) thing is presented to a wide enough public that it begins to reshape their world . . . if we seek to change culture, we will have to create something new, something that will persuade our neighbors to set aside some existing set of cultural goods for our new proposal” (p. 67).

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The report of the United Church’s Comprehensive Review Task Group, “United in God’s Work” recommended that the United Church “make a commitment to supporting new ministries and new forms of ministry through an initiative that tentatively would be called Chasing the Spirit” . It frames the purpose of this initiative in terms that come from the Missional Church conversation: “The task group believes the challenge, risk, and hope for the church lie in joining what God is already bringing to life”(p. 13).

The language of the missional church conversation is being heard in many places in the United Church. There is lots of talk about engaging the neighbourhoods around church buildings. However, the term ‘missional’ is often applied to congregational mission projects rather than connoting a genuine shift in identity: mission is seen as something the church does rather than what the church is.

The Missional Church conversation recognizes that the the Church does not have a mission; rather, it participates in God’s mission in the world. That mission does not just happen in distant places; the Holy Spirit is at work everywhere, including the neighbourhoods in which congregations exist. God works through the everyday, ordinary lives of the people of the church and through the congregation as a local expression of the Body of Christ. Baptism is a person’s ordination into ministry and mission. The church is not a ‘place’ where spiritual consumers come to get their needs met. It is an outpost of the reign of God from which disciples of Jesus are sent into the world. It understands itself to be both gathered and sent for the sake of God’s mission of reconciliation and grace. The conversation is not about, “What can we do to get more people into our church”; it is about, “Where is God already at work and in what ways are we being called to participate in that work?” As congregations make this shift in identity, the role of the ordered ministry personnel shifts from being “the minister” to being a leader who equips disciples of Jesus for their ministries in the world and who cultivates a congregational environment that “nourishes this work of discernment, experimentation, learning and engagement with God at work in their neighbourhoods” (The Missional Network website).

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These posts on the changing shape of the church are the result of a project I began as an attempt to discern what supports would be most helpful for lay people who were providing ongoing worship leadership in congregations that either could not afford or could not attract ordered ministry personnel. What has become apparent is that that question is only one dimension of a much larger and more complex shift that is happening in the United Church of Canada. Across the country, increasing numbers of congregations are moving away from a clergy-centred model of church towards a model that recognizes that all who are baptized are called into ministry.

Communities of faith are seeking training and support for the ministry of the baptized in a number of different forms. There is, indeed, a growing number of congregations that are lay-led. They are looking for help for those people who are providing leadership in worship, in pastoral care, in spiritual formation and in outreach ministries. Other congregations find themselves able to afford to pay ordered ministry personnel for only part-time work and look to lay people to provide leadership in areas that would, in the past, have been done by ordered ministry personnel. They, too, are looking for ongoing training and support for these people. Even congregations that still operate with a more conventional model of church are looking for ways to engage their members more deeply in spiritual growth and practice. In all these situations, the ministries for which support is sought are largely focused on the ekklesia — the church gathered.

In some places, there is also a growing recognition that there is an equally urgent need for training and support for the baptized as they exercise their ministry in the diaspora — the church sent into the world. The United Church has given a lot of attention to the work of the church in the world as it addresses systemic injustice and oppression. However, there is room for richer and deeper support for the ministry of the baptized as they live out their faith — as individuals in the places where they live and work and play and as a community of faith in relationship to the neighbourhood in which it exists. As the Rev. David Shearman wrote in a recent post on his blog, “The local church [has been] generally focussed on making sure that worship happens, the sick are visited, the young are raised in the faith and at the end of the day, there is a good and convivial feeling.” Congregations are re-awakening to their calling to be externally focused and to engage their neighbourhoods. They are looking for resources to do that. This includes figuring out what ‘evangelism’ and ‘witness’ mean in a post-Christendom culture and for people for whom those words carry a lot of negative baggage.

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In the posts that follow, I outline some of the core convictions from which I am working and about which I believe  “soul-stretching conversations” (Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass) need to happen. I recognize that these convictions will not be shared by many people in the United Church of Canada. I hope that they provide a starting point for the conversations since it is in the conversations that the way forward will be found. I also outline some of the implications of those convictions for the ways in which we train leadership in the church.

Conviction 5:     The Church is intended to be a community of ministers.

Christians know God as Trinity — a relational being who invites us to participate in that relationship.

The basic rhythm of church life is twofold: being gathered and being scattered. Worship gathers the community of disciples into God’s presence, receives their offerings of adoration and praise from the week that is past, nurtures them and sends them out into the world to live their adoration and praise in their daily lives, anticipating God’s new future. Churches that thrive in the future will be communities in which each person makes an active contribution, both in the church gathered and in the church dispersed in service. As much attention will need to be given to the formation of the so-called laity as to the clergy, to the church in diaspora as to the church in ekklesia.

The model of the church will need to shift to recognize the power, giftedness, and calling of all the baptized.

“Baptism and the ministry of the laity is the starting point for the ministry of the church to the wider community. Although ordained ministries have historically received greater attention, the ministry of all the baptized, sometimes called the ministry of the laity, is now the subject of widespread recognition. Importantly, newer occasional rites associated with baptism also include rites of blessing for the vocations of all the baptized, the ever-present and perennially overlooked complement to ordained ministry. Such attention to the ministry of the laity is crucial, for it is in the daily encounter of Christians with non-Christians, in life at the border, that significant missional activity occurs” (Robert D. Hawkins, “Occasional Services: Border Crossings,” in Thomas H. Schattauer, ed. Inside Out: Worship in an Age of Mission , p. 186)
In conversations about elevating the ministry of all the baptized in churches, two kinds of comments often surface. The ordered ministry state that they have a hard time getting the people of the congregation to make commitments to serve on committees and to attend programmes. The people of the church indicate that they do not feel qualified or adequate for the tasks that they are asked to do, that meetings are not a good use of their limited time, and that they are they are weary from taking care of the ‘business’ of being the church. They are tired of expending all their energy on fundraisers and on the administration of the structures. They are yearning to attend to the nurture of their souls. They are often strangers to basic Christian practices but, when they experience them, find that the practices feed their souls. They want their churches to be places of transformation: places where they themselves experience the transforming, liberating power of Jesus Christ and places where they are trained to invite others to experience that same transforming power.

Ed Stetzer has likened the church to a “bear fed by tourists . . . What happens when you feed the bear is eventually it can’t fend for itself.” The models of church and of ministry that are operative in most churches leaves most of the power in the hands of the paid ministers. The rest of the congregation, restricted from exercising real ministry, becomes dependent and weak. Paid ministry personnel need to be given authority to give their authority away to the rest of the congregation’s ministers. The baptized need to be commissioned to expressions of ministry that really matter — the kinds of ministries that will challenge them so deeply that they will be compelled to pray, to search the scriptures, to seek out the companionship of others in order to find the help they need to live into their ministry. “When people are grounded in spiritual practices and are growing in faith, they are more willing to take up the exercise of their spiritual gifts and calling” (from a conversation with Rev. Dr. Richard Bott).

Some Implications for Leadership Training

A) The leaders of a church will need to be trained to equip others for ministry, helping the  church to be the church. Their work will be less about providing chaplaincy services and more about cultivating environment where all the people of God thrive. They will need to be trained in cultivating an environment where each person knows that s/he is indispensable to the Body of Christ. They will need to stop trying to rescue the church by working harder when others do not step up. They will need to trust that a congregation’s mission endeavours will develop organically, i.e. from the callings and passions and commitments of the people.
B) Leaders will need to be actively engaged in apprenticeship in Christian practices. Training for leadership will need to include a strong emphasis on formation in what the scriptures call ‘holiness’, i.e. formation in spirt, character, and virtue. It will include training in faithful use of power and in exercising creative authority.

C) Congregational leadership will need to develop the capacity to nurture structures that help people discern their callings and the gifts that the Spirit has given for those callings. They will need coaching in trusting and empowering people to own their ministries and their identity as God’s ambassadors. Such participatory leadership cultivates a community that comes together to discern their participation in God’s mission. Elizabeth O’Connor describes such a community at Church of the Savior in Washington, D. C.: “Everyone was needed and everyone was aware of the point at which he was needed” (Elizabeth O’Connor, Call to Commitment: The Story of the Church of the Savior, Washington, D. C., p. 43.)


These days, many people are looking for hands-on-ministry. They are not interested in being passive consumers in a church that operates out of a solo-minister model. They want to participate. More than that, they want to participate in activities that emerge organically, from the grassroots, not in activities that are dreamed up by someone else and managed from the top down. Leadership for such people consists of participatory teams. Most United Church ministers have not been trained in team leadership. They do not know how to do it. There will need to be ongoing training provided for ordered ministry personnel who want to move their congregations toward ‘every-member ministry’.

There seems to be very little attention given to training people for participatory team leadership in the United Church of Canada. One possible exception is the Camino D’Emaus congregation in Quebec. This congregation includes five ‘base communities’ which meet weekly in addition to the Sunday worship services. These base communities are located in their neighbourhoods and each one has a different focus. Each gathering includes a spiritual dimension; for example, a sharing dialogue on biblical passages and life experiences. They are lay-led. The animators, or lay leaders, of these communities are part of the parish council. The church provides very intentional leadership training once a week. The focus is on “popular education” rather than academic. This is not to say that the quality of the training is not high. Rather, it is based in liberation theology’s model of praxis and reflection. Through participation and discussion, the participants develop their faith and leadership skills.

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