Many pastors and leaders know that one of the biggest sources of conflict and decline in long-established congregations is the lack of a clear sense of purpose and direction. Not being clear is quite costly for congregations. Without direction and purpose, most congregations deteriorate into social clubs where participants compete to get their individual wants and preferences met.
The good news is that many congregations have successfully taken on this challenge. It takes time and sustained attention to this work, but the rewards are enormous. My colleague David Brubaker has made some concrete suggestions in his article “Who are We and Why are We Here?” Congregations that shift their culture and grow in vitality focus on fulfilling their core purpose. Successful congregations keep the main thing the main thing.
The Main Thing
Too many congregations focus instead on trying to keep everybody happy—an impossible task that only sows the seeds for future conflict. By the time a congregation has a full-blown case of “social club-itis,” pastors and leaders have a hard time knowing what to do to change the congregation’s culture.
How can you shift your congregation’s attention toward the main thing? Here are some ideas that have worked in other places:
Research what language your congregation has used in the past to describe your congregation’s purpose. Most congregations have attempted to clarify their purpose and direction. Sometimes that work ended up in a filing cabinet and was forgotten, but there might be some useful tidbits with which to start. As my colleague, Alice Mann, has said, it’s helpful to ask “What does this language mean for us now?” If you are part of a larger denomination check, with its leaders. It might be easier to begin by using language already worked out by others. In my system, we believe a congregation is a vital expression of our faith tradition when it is helping people grow in their relationship with God, reaching new people and meeting critical needs in the community. It’s easier for congregations to determine their purpose and direction when they have some clear initial language.
Get the congregation centered and grounded. This is key. It is hard work to break the habit of focusing on individuals’ wants and preferences. And even after you have begun climbing out of that ditch, it’s easy to slip back. Your liturgy and traditions can help the whole congregation to get focused. In my tradition, we often begin with a prayer initiative, using a type of prayer that helps folks surrender to God’s will instead of their own. We ask the pastor to work with a couple of spiritually mature folks to write a prayer for this purpose. Regardless of your tradition it is helpful to find language that teaches people how to let go and become more grounded in their spiritual practices.
Look at the Big Picture
Create space for big-picture reflection. After folks have become more spiritually grounded, help them to learn to reflect together (a.k.a., spiritual discernment). I love the image of getting up on the balcony and looking down on your congregation as described in Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s Leadership on the Line. Most congregations with a case of “social club-itis” are very busy with what I call “inconsequential busyness”—activity based on individual preferences. We need to slow down to do deeper reflection.
Develop the capacity to notice when paths are opening. Discerning what to let go of and what to embrace is not easy—it requires testing and experimentation. Does a particular suggestion feel like just more of the same? Or does the idea bring joy, excitement, energy, and passion? Does an emerging path feel fresh and faithful? I would pay attention to those nuances.
Be willing to take risks. As a congregation gets aligned with its purpose, participants may experience feelings of loss, anxiety and even fear. Not everyone will be willing to get onto the train right away. Some may never want to go in the chosen direction and will complain or even leave.
Connect with People
Communicate well. Communication in volunteer organizations is really challenging and is getting more challenging all the time. Speaking of preferences! We all have our preferred ways of receiving information—phone, text, email, Zoom. Congregations that get into the most trouble with change management are usually not communicating well. Each message needs to be over-communicated. Folks need opportunities to contribute, interact, and ask questions.
Bring people along. Years ago, a mentor told me leading change is a dance: leaning out ahead of the congregation and then knowing when to drop back and keep pace. If you get too far ahead, folks get confused, which leads to resistance. Energy and momentum get lost when we don’t move quickly enough. Another pastor said the difference between planting a new church and a leading a long-established one like riding a jet ski vs. turning an ocean liner. It’s going to take a long time to turn that ocean liner! As congregational leaders, you will need an accurate assessment of their congregations’ distress tolerance, and of what messages and teachings you will need to share over and over.
Revitalization work requires a deep mental and spiritual shift, which challenges even congregations that seem most ready for change. Keeping the main thing the main thing is not just a nice idea or an interesting option. It is the core work of being a faith-based community. Without this essential piece, we are no different than the local volunteer organization down the block.
Susan Nienaber brings a background as a psychotherapist and mediator and combines compassion with independence when working with congregations. She embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church and consults with congregations on issues of conflict, crisis, personnel matters, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.