Sharpening Our Focus

In 1999, I represented CCK at the conference where former DoC General Minister and President, Richard Hamm, launched what came to be known as his 2020 Vision for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the US and Canada. The vision included a 1000 new congregations and 1000 revitalized congregations by the year 2020.

Resources were mobilized to implement Dick’s grand and worthy vision. CCK’s initial focus was on the revitalization side. I spearheaded that initiative for the CCK staff. Former Kentuckiana Disciples Area Minister, Steven Johns-Boehme, later joined me in this initiative. The revitalization effort was a primary part of our two portfolios but all CCK staff members played a role in these efforts.

For more than a decade we tirelessly pursued a number of different strategies to help CCK congregations revitalize their ministries. You may recall these names, Listening to God, Natural Church Development, Healthy Congregations, George Bullard and his Spiritual Strategic Journey and Missional Church (Surfing the Edge). We were trained to implement each of these initiatives. We studied other models and pulled the best information from them to adapt to our work. Steven and I were both well versed in congregational systems theory which we sought to apply to our efforts. We did our best. Some participating congregations benefitted greatly. Many more were not so fortunate.

My overall assessment? these initiatives were less effective than all of us had hoped. We did, with each congregational experience, assess the process and incorporated what we discovered into the next opportunity. We asked ourselves what seemed to work, what didn’t work, and why we thought something did or did not work in this setting. Here are few of the takeaways.

You can’t throw programmatic fixes at systemic issues. They are like rocking in a rocking chair. It makes you feel good while you are doing it but doesn’t take you anywhere.

Cookie cutter approaches applied to the uniqueness of each congregation does not offer a high degree of success. One size does not fit all. The uniqueness of each congregation requires a “deeper dive” into systemic issues than most of these approaches offer. We worked hard to expand our toolboxes and customize our efforts to each congregation. That helped but still fell short in most cases.

More often than not, when a congregation gets to the point of being willing to implement a revitalization strategy it has exhausted its spiritual energy reserves. We learned that the role of the consultant, almost immediately, was to serve as a spiritual “battery charger” for the congregation long enough for a residual charge of spiritual energy to be restored to the congregational leaders involved in the process. This work should ground the initial stages of introduction and preparation for the journey ahead.

Sadly, this vital phase takes more time than paid consultants “on the clock” can give. So the process is implemented with little regard this key ingredient. Though we tried hard to overcome it, we discovered it took more time than regional staff could afford to give to one congregation as well. 

To address this issue we moved to the Surfing the Edge model (Missional Church). It was our attempt to work in clusters of congregations with the hope of overcoming those limitations. It helped but still fell short of expectations. This model did lead to several new and important insights.

One insight was that a congregation already has all the gifts, graces, and resources it needs to fulfill its God-given purpose in its neighborhood and community. It counters the “woe is us” mentality, the tool of the status quo. Neutralizing the “we can’t afford it” mantra opened the leaders to the new possibilities for the mission and ministry God set before them. 

Another insight was that God is already at work in those places God is bidding the congregation go (its neighborhood and community). The Surfing the Edge journey helped us discern God’s call and prepared us to join God there. All good so far.

Basic systems theory makes clear that every organization requires competent leadership, empowered and trusted, to actually lead if it’s going to flourish. I am drawing upon Robert K. Greenleaf’s “servant leadership” definition of leadership here. Yet, most Disciples break out in a rash whenever you talk about empowering the pastor(s) to actually lead. This is where many of the efforts began to stall. Every organization, including the church, requires empowered and trusted leadership to thrive. The absence of a culture that empowers and trusts pastoral leadership is the Achilles heel of many congregations today. The Surfing the Edge model knew that to be true.

This model led us to one insight that towered significantly above the rest. It had to do with preparing the pastor for a new role emerging from the revitalization process. None of the prior consultants under whom we trained ever acknowledged this need. Surfing the Edge (Missional Church) intuitively knew that the role of the pastor in congregational systems required special attention, but fell short of addressing it appropriately. What the “it” is will be the subject of the next blog post.