Why Congregations are Stuck

By MaryAnn McKibben Dana

We can do itI had an “aha” this weekend about why many of our congregations seem so stuck.

I attended a “Building and Empowering Communities” leadership training sponsored by VOICE, a group of congregations and institutions in northern Virginia that are doing community organizing around issues of affordable housing, immigration, and other issues.

The tools of community organizing are not just for engagement in the wider community; they are also helpful within the congregation, as you seek out leaders and discern a vision.

The crux of the training centered on the one-on-one “relational” meeting, in which you try to identify potential leaders through getting to know people and learning their stories—their histories, their passions, and what “keeps them up at night.”

To give us a taste of this, each presenter offered a bit of personal history before launching into his/her topic, and it was easy to connect the dots between the person’s past experiences and his or her life’s work. One person’s aunt and uncle was the victim of a predatory loan. Another saw her single working mother face discrimination and sexism and was driven to empower herself and other women in her community as a result. You get the idea.

Then we practiced one-on-one meetings, and I was struck with how many stories (mine included) were some variation of “I had a pretty comfortable life… and now I just want to give back and make the world a better place.”

Now, admittedly, many of us were brand new at this relational meeting stuff. The organizers who trained us (and whose dots were so easy to connect) have been telling their stories for a long time. And granted, it was an artificial exercise, taking place in a fishbowl, and we could only go 8-10 minutes long instead of the 30-40 minutes that is suggested.

But these rather bland, generic responses revealed to me how we find leaders and volunteers in the church, and how we talk about service. And how it’s killing us.

Here are three realizations I had:

1. We do discernment primarily around gifts rather than stories. We need to stop doing that.

Whether we’re the nominating committee trying to put forth a slate of officers, or a youth director trying to find confirmation sponsors, we think predominantly about a person’s skills and gifts. “This person is a teacher, so I bet he’d be a great Christian Education elder.” “She’s chief operating officer of her company; maybe she’d serve on the stewardship team.”

It’s not that gifts are unimportant. After all, spiritual gifts language has been with us from the very beginning. But one of the tenets of community organizing is that good leaders are made, not born. As a pastor, I can teach skills. But I cannot teach passion. Getting in touch with a person’s history allows you to find those deep hungers that will motivate and drive them even when the going gets tough. No wonder so many of our congregations are boring and lethargic—we’ve been talking about the wrong things!

2. We need to get way more concrete in our language about service.

“I want to help people because Jesus tells us to love our neighbor” doesn’t get us anywhere. Yet it’s our default response when people ask us what drives us. The content of a relational meeting is why andhow. “Why do you want to help people? Why does that matter to you? How have you seen that impulse lived out? How do you see that not being lived out in your community?”

Just as we’ve relied on gifts as the primary mode of discernment, we have not taken the time to drill down past our surface responses about service. Many of the overworked pastors there (myself included) were searching for shortcuts—Can’t you do this work in group settings? Does it have to be one on one? What do you suppose the response was?

3. Anger is not the enemy. It is a resource. 

Maybe you’re one of those who had a genuinely untroubled childhood. You didn’t see your aunt and uncle’s devastation at almost losing their home because of that predatory loan. But I bet there is an injustice that makes you furious. We don’t like to talk about anger, especially in the Church of Nice that so many of us belong to. Anger is bad, we tell ourselves—something to suppress. But anger, properly contextualized, is also energy. Anger is fuel for action. And there is plenty of holy anger in scripture. One of my favorite benedictions has the line, “May God bless you with anger—at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people, so you will work for justice, freedom and peace.”

There are plenty of injustices in the world that I worry about. But when I look back on my personal history, the key issue for me has been women and girls, again and again. The specifics of that have played out in different ways over the years, and the pivotal events that sparked that anger are for another post. But yeah. Women and girls.

My favorite quote these days is this one by Howard Thurman:

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go and do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

But how do we know what makes people come alive unless we ask them?

mamdMaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church and and author of Sabbath in the Suburbs. She is a Co-Chair of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. This post was originally posted to her blog The Blue Room in June 2013.

photo credit: DonkeyHotey via photopin cc

7 replies
  1. Robert Austell
    Robert Austell says:

    MaryAnn, very insightful and rings true in my own experience and in conversations I’m having right now. Thanks for sharing these insights!

  2. Kelly Allen
    Kelly Allen says:

    MaryAnn, I agree wholeheartedly! Ever since I learned the one-to-one process about 15 years ago, I have used it in congregational ministry in many ways. It is so surprising how, in church where we think we know people, give folks 10 minutes with this process and they realize they only knew a tiny bit about the person next to them. Just did this with our session 2 meetings ago –everyone raised their hand that they learned something important about the person next to them. Have you read Abundant Communities by Peter Block?

    • Jessica Tate
      Jessica Tate says:

      I, too, have had the experience of leaders learning new things about one another. It’s a powerful tool and quickly breaks down assumptions we have about one another. I encountered Community by Peter Block first and that’s the one I often go to.

  3. Greg
    Greg says:

    I saw the other post about this earlier hear on NEXTChurch and I have a question.

    Doesn’t this lead to the Pastor being the gatekeeper of who does what? Or at least it becomes the pastor’s responsibility to find and connect people with a passion?

    I’m all about talking to people about their passions and turning them loose to follow them. I all about doing away with a traditional committee structure, but I wonder if this puts too heavy a burden on the pastor as cultivator, creator, sustainer of people’s passion.

    • maryann
      maryann says:

      Yes Greg, I can see how that might happen. But I know churches like Church of the Pilgrims have created a culture with their session in which elders do relational meetings with members of the church. So it’s not just the pastor cultivating these relationships and possessing this knowledge of members’ stories.

      In fact I think that they have an expectation that elders do one (?) relational meeting a month. I suppose there needs to be a central repository where that information gets shared and processed. But that could be a team rather than just the pastor.

      I also should say that I wrote this some time ago and Tiny Church has been slow to move to this kind of culture. So I’m glad Jessica reposted it because it gives me a kick in the pants 🙂

    • Jessica Tate
      Jessica Tate says:

      I’ve seen this work when a team of leaders are doing relational meetings. Or when relational meetings are done around a specific campaign. Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore has done a lot of relational work that has significantly changed the way they do stewardship. Fairfax Presbyterian in Northern Virginia did a relational meeting campaign around their children’s ministry as well. We’ll post about those later this month. Stay tuned!


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