Building in Relationality

By Karen Sapio

safety net copyI’ll admit — when my congregation first began to be involved in broad based organizing, I was intrigued by it only partly because I saw its potential to make our community activism more effective.  I was equally–and perhaps more–attracted by its potential to help rebuild relational capital within our congregation.

I arrived as pastor of Claremont Presbyterian Church in 2006.  For the first few years I assumed that I was the newcomer and that everyone else in the congregation knew each other.  The longer I was there, however, the more I learned that this was not the case.  There were some in the church that had long-standing friendships, but those were the exception.  Many felt that they had a strong connection to only a few other members of the church, or only to one of the pastors.  When we held a listening campaign during Lent 2013, the biggest thing we heard was “We really don’t know each other very well.”

This disconnectedness can impact ministry in so many ways:

  • good ideas don’t gain traction because the person with the good idea doesn’t know who else might be interested;
  • those who volunteer to lead teams or chair committees turn to the Pastors to recruit other team members because they don’t know others well enough to invite them directly;
  • folks make decisions about coming to worship based on whether they “like” what’s on the program for that Sunday rather than upon relationships with friends with whom they long to gather after a week apart;
  • invitations for playdates among children aren’t extended because the parents aren’t one hundred percent which kids belong to who.
  • And it impacts wider activism as well: people who are not having sustained conversations rarely discover common cause.

We certainly haven’t solved this problem yet, but I think we are making progress.  We haven’t done this by adding another layer of programs to help us get to know each other– that sounded like a burden to everyone’s over-scheduled lives.  Instead, little by little, we are trying to build relationality into things we are already doing.

A few examples:

  • Instead of the Pastor offering a generic opening prayer at the beginning of a meeting, we asked people to break into groups of three and share any burdens that might keep them from attending to the work that was before us.  This was followed by a bidding prayer in which those concerns could be lifted up by anyone in the group.
  • When the Session met with potential new members, instead of our former practice of having each one give a brief introduction to the whole Session, we broke into several groups and asked each person in the group–new members and Session members– to give a five minute “snap shot” of their faith journey.
  • Both pastors have preached at least one sermon recently in which they asked a question and invited those gathered to turn to those close to them and share possible responses to that question for a few minutes before the sermon resumes.  We’ve also begun to invite more testimony into worship through interviews and storytelling.

None of these are wildly creative, but this slow cultivation of relationships does seem to be bearing fruit among us.  We are trying to discipline ourselves as leaders to seek opportunities to make small shifts toward relationship building in everything we do.

Jesus found his earliest disciples when they were at work mending their nets.  We like to think that we too are mending and re-weaving a network of relationships that will lead to stronger ministry.

SapioKaren Sapio is the Pastor of Claremont Presbyterian Church and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

Start-ups, Phoenixes…..and the Rest of Us

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Karen Sapio has been curating a conversation around ministry in long established congregations. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Karen Sapio

pheonix smallIn a follow-up to his family’s wildly successful “Christmas Jammies” video, Penn Holderness recently released “Christmas Jammies, part 2”  in which he laments the disconnect between the hipster ensemble his wife gave him for Christmas and the realities of his middle-aging body.  Go ahead and watch it. I’ll wait…

I have to admit that when I return from NEXT Church conferences and regional gatherings, I often have something like the refrain from this video buzzing in my head:  They looked so good on that guy from the Internet—but they don’t look so good on me…”

It worked so well for that speaker from the NEXT Conference–but that won’t work so well for me…..

NEXT conferences often showcases fantastically creative ministry startups, or formerly dead congregations rising phoenix-like from their own ashes.  The host churches for the national gatherings have all been large, vital, resource-rich congregations able to support their current ministries with funds to spare for experimentation and innovation.

Like many who are inspired by NEXT Church’s vision, however, that’s not where I live.  I am pastor of a medium sized congregation with about ⅔ of the members over age 60.  In another year we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of our founding.  We can just about make the budget work most of the time, and we are keeping an anxious eye on our small cushion of reserves.  We are not in immediate crisis, but it is becoming clear to those who are paying attention–and there are thankfully a number of those attentive, faithful people–that the current trajectory is not good and that our current strategy of hopeful tweaking is not enough.

I attend NEXT Church gatherings and wonder: How can we generate the energy and excitement of a start-up when we are a long established institution?  How do we foster the kind of urgency and focus that attends a true crisis of viability when we’ve got enough resources to maintain at least some semblance of the status-quo for another decade or so? How do we find the imagination and resources to operate in two worlds: the traditional church we’ve inherited and the new form of church we need to create, especially when we feel like we’ve got barely enough people and money to keep one world afloat?

During February the NEXT blog hopes to foster a conversation around these kinds of questions.  How do we bridge that disconnect between what works for the kinds of ministries that are so inspiring for us at NEXT gatherings and the kind of ministry that seems to be possible in our own contexts?  How do we discover what’s NEXT in the inertia of long-standing habits and traditions?  How do congregations embark on a journey toward the future while carrying the blessings and burdens of the past?  How do we find the energy and urgency to apply ourselves to this task NOW even when there is no immediate crisis to impel us toward big changes and bold risks?

We know it’s a mistake to go for hip and trendy if that’s not our style.  We also know that we can’t keep wearing grand dad’s clothes forever.

Jesus told his followers:  ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’

How are you making these connections?  What have you found helpful if you are working toward transformation in an established church that is still doing okay in many respects?  How are you finding ways to generate energy and excitement? To  foster a sense of urgency and focus on the future?  To walk the tightrope between the current church and the NEXT church?  Join the conversation.

And hey, Penn Holderness–I hear you have Presbyterian connections: what do YOU think???

SapioKaren Sapio is Pastor of the Claremont Presbyterian Church a NEXT Church Advisory Team member.

Illustration credit: shutterstock/robodread