How not to pick a church fight

I spent time recently with a fried who leads a Church of Christ as a minister. He told me that the elders of his congregation had hired a consulting group to come in and help them determine a strategic direction for their church. This process included a congregational survey with a follow-up consultation Zoom meeting and subsequent visit to the congregation.

I’m a big fan of having someone from the outside come in and help congregations gain perspective on their direction. I also know that elders in Churches of Christ have a near impossible role. They feel uber responsibility for the wellbeing of the congregation, while at the same time feeling underprepared to lead. So, the offer of help in setting direction is tantalizing. I’m all for giving them help.

But I’m afraid the experience of this congregation offers little in the way of real help for the issues that confront them. First, the survey measured congregational satisfaction across a broad spectrum of congregational activities or services. Worship, preaching, youth and children’s ministry, etc. The problems with this approach are manifold. First, you’re raising congregational expectations for improvement in these areas, expectations which are often disappointed. You’re setting people up for resentment, or worse cynicism regarding the ability of leadership to move them in positive directions.

Second, when you’re inquiring into preferences over the direction of the congregation, you’re picking a fight. As soon as you ask five persons how to improve worship, you will have five different opinions. Now leadership finds themselves in the task of being a referee for competing visions of church life. There are simply better ways for getting at God’s preferred future for their shared life. Instead of inquiring around satisfaction, I find it far more productive to inquire around people’s perceptions of God’s involvement in their lives. The answers may not be terribly sophisticated, but at least you’re drawing the focus related to the future of the congregation around participation in the life of God.

Third, the short time frame for determining possible future pathways implies that the change needed is already in present in congregational capacity. It assumes technical change, that is a change that is in keeping within the capacities already present in the congregation. But for my money, the problems faced by most congregations are not primarily technical, but adaptive. Adaptive challenges require new skills and practices which lead to a new imagination about what it means to be a church in the first place.

Adaptive work is not fast work. It can’t be done around a survey and follow-up consultation or two. It is patient work which requires experimentation and deep reflection. Even if the insight gained by the survey and consultation lead to improvements in the congregation’s life, the congregation is only a slightly better version of what it already was. File cabinet drawers in congregations are full of plans that didn’t deliver on the hopeful outcomes they promised. Patient processes that take into account the complexity of congregational cultures typically promise less and deliver more.

Obviously, I have a dog in this hunt. I work as a consultant for Church Innovations and lead groups of congregations through a three year journey of spiritual discernment around the question of God’s preferred future for their collective life. This process is called Partnership for Missional Church, and obviously I’d be happy to tell you more about it. The point of this blog, however, is more to create awareness around some of the drawbacks of quicker, more technical approaches to the issues facing congregations today.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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