3. Can your congregation talk about difficult issues without it becoming contentious or divisive? Again, let me unpack the question. The question might also have been asked, can your congregation have a discussion at all? This question has two aspects: first, does your congregation regularly discuss things as a congregation? Or are all important discussions of the congregation’s life done by leaders behind closed doors and in gossip circles amongst the members? Second, are you capable of listening to each other? Is the goal of most communication in your congregation to understand each other or to get things done? If the latter characterizes the communication of your congregation, then you probably have damaged your ability to do the former. Finally, do you have the spiritual maturity to accept people who disagree?
This “metric” tells a lot about other aspects of your congregation’s health. Because I believe that the congregation is a product of the Word–in all of its senses–then the ability to listen and to speak is fundamental to what it means to be a congregation. Moreover, the capacity to listen to each other–to people who by virtue of their baptisms have the Holy Spirit–is crucial for determining to what God is calling the congregation. In other words, if you don’t have this capacity, you aren’t discerning the leading of God. You are likely, instead, making strategic decisions based on hunches and guesses or only an abstract notion of what God might be calling you to do or become.
Finally, this tells me about your capacity to listen to the voice of the stranger. The stranger in Scripture is often the one who sees the story for what it is, sometimes better than those who are devoted followers of God. Congregational conversations in which all voices are heard and welcomed, even the minority or odd voices, indicates whether or not you are capable of listening for the voice of the stranger.
This metric also tells me if the fruits of the Spirit are on display in your congregation. Gentleness, kindness, peace, etc, are often only in display in times of potential conflict. Let me say this boldly. If you don’t have conflict as a congregation, I have doubts whether or not you’re doing much of anything that matters. Growth often requires conflict. Congregations that create open and peaceful “holding spaces” for tough conversations (Ronald Heifetz’s term), are likely to be congregations with a high degree of spiritual vitality.
So, think about the last congregational conversations you had, if any, and measure how you did.