The new year is a time for looking back and assessing. The question Joyce Madsen and I have been asking is the same one that Lorne Mead asked some thirty years ago - do consultants make a difference for a congregation looking for ways to deliver more effective ministry.
Lorne's answer after assessing the helpfulness of consultants for a half dozen or so congregations was "Yes." We took a little time for our assessment at the Congregational Life Centre. It became clear that in most cases there are very positive results. It also became clear that the results are never quite what you expect.
One of our first full transformation processes was with a city congregation that had once been very large and very prosperous. Now a hundred or so people were scattered around a 600 seat sanctuary. We asked them to imagine what their congregation would look like in the future. Every one of their drawings showed a sanctuary full of people and every seat in the choir loft occupied.
Crowded churches were a phenomenon of the '50s, and are not likely to happen again unless something very radical changes in the way we do church.
This congregation had been having great spiritual times in the chapel and study groups with depth. They had a small but solid children's ministry and grandmothers had been reading to children in the neighbouring school.
The break-through insight for this congregation came unexpectedly. It was at a Board event in the transformation process when one of the staff had a moment of inspiration. "We have been thinking we are failing because we think big is good and we are not big any longer. But we do small very well!" The sanctuary never did fill, but energy was released that made their ongoing "small" ministry even more effective than it had been.
Music In Our Ears
We were invited to meet with people from a Regina congregation in an older neighbourhood. Their congregation`s chairperson shared how that came about:
An important catalyst was a tirade one night at a Board meeting by one of our members who is in his 60's and has been a member for probably more than 30 years. He pointed out that our congregation was aging and that in 10 years or less most of the people here now will be gone? His daughter and grandson are members and he was concerned that there was nothing to keep them coming. We had spent $170,000 rebuilding our roof but we had spent absolutely nothing on our spirituality or on people.
Centre staff worked with them to explore their identity and identify their strengths. We helped them do the research that revealed where their strengths matched neighbourhood needs. There was excitement and some good things happening, but nothing that really caught the imagination of the entire congregation
. We had virtually finished the process when it happened. The two page article in the March 2001 issue of the United Church Observer magazine was hard to miss. "Rosemont United's new music program doesn't have 76 trombones - not yet, anyway. It does have a music man and woman, more than 40 students and about 20 donated instruments."
Looking back, the choice of a music ministry as a major focus seemed almost too obvious. The minister at the time played a wicked piano. The chair of the Board played guitar in a group that led the singing in worship occasionally. The turning point happened when a newly arrived husband and wife team volunteered to lead a children`s band and choir program. Instruments were donated. A fund-raising concert got city-wide support. The program saw its role to ensure that no child in the community would be denied a musical education. Meanwhile in the congregation, the occasional Sunday evening of music morphed into their "Sunday Night Live" featuring a local Christian band each week.
Out of the City
Sometimes we are invited to work with a congregation on specific occasions when they feel they are ready to take the next step forward in their journey. We have been out to one of the most isolated rural congregations in Alberta a number of times. The first time they clarified their ministry role in the community. Another time they wanted to explore how the two congregations in the pastoral charge could work more closely together.
A key event was when we asked the three questions that Jim Collins identified in his book Good to Great: "What are you best at?" "What are you passionate about?" and "How do you measure how effective you are at doing that?" The answer emerged very clearly. They were best at mentoring, and passionate about mentoring because it was the way they could best support each other on their life journey. They may have suspected this all along, but being able to express it openly has given focus to their ministry and energy to their mentoring.
Not every Time
We're not saying a congregational transformation process works every time. There are blocks that can stop the process at any point along the line, all to do with leadership. If there is a conflict in the congregation, that has to be dealt with before anything significant can happen. If the staff minister or priest has a need to be in control, that can keep lay leadership from developing.
On the other hand, if there are lay leaders who are opposed to any change - and entering a transformation process means there will be changes - that can bring down the curtain on any progress. Then if the staff person who was key in initiating the process leaves the congregation part way through, that can change the whole picture. Often this opens the way for "the old guard" to reassert their leadership and bring the process to a halt.
If committed staff have developed a team of strong lay leaders, chances are that God's call can be heard and heeded. We are very clear that being an effective congregation in today`s complex world requires a team. Any clergy who tries it on his or her own is only inviting burnout.
Our process is simple. We use work-shops, focus groups, research teams and questionnaires to help a congregation answer five questions about itself:
1. Do we have a clear picture of our identity - what makes us special?
2. Are we aware of needs in our community that we are equipped to meet?
3. Do we have a strong core of committed leaders?
4. Are we clear what God is calling us to accomplish through our particular ministry?
5. Is there spirituality behind every-thing we do - a deep sense of God's presence?
The process, however, is only a vehicle to provide the occasion for some special praying and listening.
We invite each congregation we work with to name a Transformation Leadership Team. They work with us to develop a process that fits the particular congregation. They act also as our eyes and ears to assess how the process is going.
Most important of all, they listen for the voice of God calling the congregation to the particular ministry for which they are equipped.
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Congregational News September 2007 Vol. 14 No. 1
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