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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Learning from Instagram

Photo by NASA

Every one of us has a unique identity. As James Taylor said in an Instagram post about Jimmy Buffett’s death, “We all … invent, assemble, inherit, or fall into our inner identity.” One important source of identity is our associations—the social groups we join, including congregations. It’s important to appreciate new forms of association that are emerging in our time.

Congregations are an important source of identity, but not the only one:

  • Some of our identity is given to us genetically—traits like hair texture or math ability or Morton’s toe that are a curse to some but a blessing to others.
  • Some of our identity comes to us through family—behaviors repeated over generations that we may not even be aware of or experience as choices, but which can affect how or even whether we feel love or appreciated.
  • Some of our identity comes from the culture that surrounds us, like the lifelong propensity of WWII-era family members to save tiny bits of string and jars of nuts and bolts because they grew up during a time of scarcity.

For people in the United States, participation in associations has always been an especially important building block of identity. Alexis de Tocqueville was one of the first to notice this about us, saying in Democracy in America in 1835, “In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used, or applied to a greater multitude of objects, than in America…. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.” (as quoted in James Luther Adams, On Being Human Religiously)

Voluntary Associations

Early in our history, we gathered into voluntary associations to address community needs like libraries or fire prevention. Over time we expanded the number and purpose of our voluntary associations to include labor organizations, hobby groups, agricultural cooperatives, social clubs, cultural groups, service organizations, and professional academies. Churches, too, came to resemble these associations in this country. Americans gathered in associations not just to accomplish particular tasks but also to experience fellowship, practice leadership, and draw lines of status.

Now, however, our culture is migrating away from institutional associations toward connectional association—still voluntary, but with “association” taking place through connection or relationship rather than membership. While membership in institutions like Rotary and congregations is declining, social media like Instagram are full of groups who share specific interests. In this sphere, “joining” takes the form of clicks and comments rather than a roll of members.

BadAss Quilters

This summer I learned about connectional association when I went in search of textile artists. (In my semi-retirement I’m trying to spend less time managing things and more time creating them.) On Instagram, I discovered the BadAss Quilters Society. Maddie Kertay, the founder of BAQS, is a professional quilter who champions quilting as a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community. She also shares about the house she is remodeling, the garden she has planted, and the sick and neonatal kittens that she fosters.

Just to be clear—I don’t quilt, can’t garden, and am scared of power tools. I love cats, but don’t live close enough to help with kittens. However, I love Maddie’s energy and the wisdom brings to her work, so I buy T-shirts to support her. I check her posts multiple times a day to see how everything is going and leave comments for her and my fellow followers when things get hard or animals die. In this connectional kind of association, we might see each other someday at a national quilting show, and we would have ways of recognizing each other when we do, but we associate primarily by social media, not face to face.

Many in mainline congregations see this kind of connectional association as a strange and threatening alternative to church membership. When I hold up my iPhone in workshops to demonstrate how my adult children connect to their friends, for example, many long-time church members just shake their heads and frown. It makes no sense to them that anyone could form a solid identity, Christian or otherwise, without time together face to face—praying, studying the Bible, serving food, and going on mission trips.

At the same time, youth and adults who are well established in this connectional, social-media form of association can’t see what’s appealing about turn-of-some-century hymnody, or “membership,” or maintaining aging buildings, especially when issues like climate change are threatening the planet’s existence. They may have pressing questions about God or faith, but they do not expect such questions to be answered by a group that so often claims faith but withholds love in the name of Jesus.

Two Ways of Associating

The difficulty here is obvious—adherents of these two kinds of association—institutional and connectional—regard each other as irrational and inauthentic, and because their identities are solid and deep-seated, it is difficult to imagine where they might meet. Institutional folks keep hoping they can convince connectional folks to “come in” and join their institution, while connectional folks keep searching social media for newer and better connections.

What we need is some room-making. We need to make room:

  • For the authenticity of those we don’t completely understand,
  • For awareness of the limits of our own perspectives,
  • For learning from each other what is good in each type of association,
  • For some of us to stay comfortably within our version of association if it would be too hard or take too long to change,
  • For awareness of a God who can create and sustain multiple versions of church, including some we haven’t yet imagined.

Everyone’s identity is unique and precious, and association remains a powerful shaper of human identity. The world would be a better place if more of us could see that others—whether formed by institutional associations, in the online, connectional world, or both—are worthy of respect and worthy of associating with.

Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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