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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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I’ve been  doing some research on congregational amalgamations. One thing is very apparent: amalgamations have a greater chance of being ‘successful’ if they are driven by a conviction that the participating congregations are able to serve God’s mission better together than separately.

What is also apparent is that most congregations enter into the conversation about amalgamation when they are desperate: the leadership of the congregation are tired of working very hard to keep things going; the building is in need of major repairs; the finances are unable to sustain the ongoing costs.

Often, then, people enter into the conversation hoping that an amalgamation will solve those problems. Past experience indicates that that will probably not be the case. If nothing is done to address the dynamics that caused the decline and the crises in the first place, within a few short years, the new congregation will be facing the same problems again.

Addressing those dynamics is hard work. Once a congregation enters into the process of amalgamating with another congregation, its people can be easily distracted from that hard work by the technical details of making an amalgamation happen. However, figuring out why God has called them to be the church in a particular place and time is critical to their becoming a flourishing congregation. That work needs to be done before, during and after the amalgamation process.

In the recent past, many congregations tried to do that work by developing mission or vision statements and by listing their values. I am not convinced that that has been helpful or fruitful. Many congregational mission statements are merely generic descriptions of what the people think a church should be. They are seldom very compelling. They are usually focused primarily on the church rather than on the mission.

So, what does a congregation do in order to get a clear sense of what God is calling them to be and to do in their particular place and time? I suspect that the answer to that question lies in story-telling. The Church is a story-formed community. The Bible doesn’t list a set of values. It tells stories about the Triune God and about the people who have lived in response to and in obedience to that God.

What would it look like to reclaim that way of being the Church? People would need to know the Story well. It would need to dwell deeply in their hearts and their lives. The sad thing is that so many Christians have given up on our Story. They are not convinced that the stories in the Bible have much to say to the way they live their lives. It is a great challenge for their leaders to wrestle with the scriptures so deeply that the Story catches fire in their own lives. Then they will have something to offer their people.

The people will need to know the Story well enough that they are able to work with it creatively. Then, there will need to be a culture in the congregation that nurtures in them that creativity and celebrates it.

I am wondering if a way to start would be to give story-telling a more prominent place in the life of the community of faith. Have people tell the stories of what God is doing in their lives. Discover what biblical stories are living at the heart of the community. Learn those stories. Wrestle with them. Tell them to each other. Let those stories shape the decisions that are made. Let them be the lens through which the congregation sees what God is calling them to be and to do.

Does anyone know a congregation where that is happening? I would love to hear about it.

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Almighty God,
You govern the nations with justice and mercy.
Your Son shows us the path of sacrifice that leads to Life.
Your Holy Spirit creates order out of chaos.
For these, and all your blessings,
we praise your holy name.

We have wandered far from you, God of grace,
and from the communion with you for which we were made.
It has grown dark
and we cannot find our way home.

You are rich in mercy:
come to find us
and lead us home to yourself.

Then, Prince of Peace,
liberate your Church from visions that are too small
from mean and unworthy purposes
from the selfishness that seeks only its own comfort,
from giving up too easily and too soon.

Move us to truth and goodness and beauty.
Then, grant us courage and faithfulness and perseverance
when we face any power that denies your love.

We ask these things in Jesus’ name,
by whose sacrifice we live
and by whose resurrection we are set free.

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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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Something new is being created in various places across the United Church of Canada. A new congregational culture is taking shape, albeit often in tentative and fragile forms. Congregations and other faith communities are finding their way forward. Based on the conversations I have been having, some trends seem to be emerging.

There is a congregational culture emerging that is focused on the ministry of all the baptized, not primarily on the ministry of the ordered ministry personnel. Clergy-centred solo pastoral ministry is giving way to participatory leadership teams in all aspects of congregational life. Authority is being distributed among the people based on gifts, relational influence, and areas of mission; power is seen as something that is to be given away to others. Clergy are recognizing that it is not their role to ‘be the minister’ but to equip the ministers of the congregation and to cultivate a congregational culture where creativity and permission-giving and risk-taking are the norm. There is an expectation that people will be engaged in deepening discipleship throughout their whole lives since the work in which they are engaged cannot be done in one’s own strength and wisdom. What ‘deepening discipleship’ looks like is localized, depending on each different context and the gifts and passions of the people involved and driven by the missionary situation in which people find themselves.

A congregational culture is emerging that prioritizes the deepening of the ministry of all the people over the continuance of the institutional structure or the building. Organizations get the results for which they are structured. That which is given attention is what grows. Churches are changing what they are paying attention to. This includes changing the way the church measures what it is doing. Rather than measuring how many people are on the membership roll or how many dollars are being raised and spent, churches are beginning to measure the people’s depth of involvement in ministry and mission in the world. Rather than paying attention to who is serving on what committee, worship services and annual reports are providing opportunities for people to witness and testify to the ways in which the Holy Spirit is working in and through their lives in their neighbourhoods, places of work and leisure times. The conversation is about ‘sightings’ of the reign of God, not the needs of the institution.

The emerging congregational culture is finding ways to attend to the pastoral care and spiritual needs of its members (often through small groups) but the dominant conversations are not about getting one’s needs met but about discerning what God is doing and what God is calling the church to be in the world. The focus is not on programmes and membership privileges but on following Jesus as a way of life. People are learning ways of listening to others outside the church. They are learning not to approach situations as ‘fixers’, with their well-intentioned agendas; rather, they are recognizing that they are often on the receiving end of the hospitality and gifts of ‘the other’. There is a humility and openness in their relationships — and a recognition that it is about building relationships rather than fixing problems.

Not every renewing congregation or developing faith community exhibits all those characteristics. However, these trends keep emerging in the conversations I have been having. What is also apparent is that congregations often are finding their way forward in isolation from others. They need to be in networks with other faith communities that are finding their way. What another church does is probably not directly transferrable to another church. ‘Cookie cutter’ solutions will not work in the diverse situations in which congregations find themselves. We live out our faith incarnationally, which means its expression is shaped by the local context. However, what is working for one church may provide inspiration for a creative initiative in another congregation. Besides, we all need companions on the journey, especially on this journey where we have no maps but only Jesus who is himself the Way.

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The Triune God is already at work among us, making a new creation. We know from the scriptures that, if we are to see that work of God, we need to pay attention to what is happening at the margins, at the edges of what is ‘mainstream’. At the margins of the United Church of Canada, new patterns of being ‘church’, new patterns of leadership, and new patterns of ministry are taking shape. Many of them have been ‘flying under the radar’, quietly but courageously finding a way forward into God’s new creation. Sometimes they are at the margins because the realities of these faith communities do not fit the current structures and policies of the United Church. Sometimes not much attention is paid to them because they don’t look successful the way that we often measure success (numbers of people in the pews and dollars in the bank).

These faith communities at the margins are taking many forms: collaborative or regional ministries, house churches, lay-led congregations, base communities, fresh expressions, pub churches, congregations sharing technology and worship, intentional communities. In almost all of them, there is a turn toward reclaiming the ministry of all the baptized, although it may not always be expressed or experienced in such terms.

As new communities of faith emerge with a focus on being missional, there will be a need for other such experiments that are aimed at giving both individuals and local churches a new imagination and capacity to engage their neighbourhoods.

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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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