“Just Listening” for Deeper Discernment

by Andrew Foster Connors

The worst part of hosting a listening session on church mission was the work it took to get ten leaders together in the same room for an hour. That was my immediate task last December as one of the 50+ trained facilitators for NEXT’s church-wide listening campaign. It proved harder than I first imagined. Talented leaders understand the value of their time and therefore resist putting themselves in situations where it will be wasted. So it’s hard to convince leaders used to “getting things done” that their time will not be wasted in a house meeting where the primary objective is listening.

I explained to each participant that many of us in NEXT, trained in the tools of community organizing, had learned the power of this relational tool. Unlike a survey, this kind of listening should lead to the deepening of public relationships. Unlike a complaint session, this kind of listening often led to deeper discernment. Unlike a debate, this kind of listening was designed for mutual learning that always happens when stories and experiences are shared with purpose and direction.

photo credit: ky_olsen via photopin cc

photo credit: ky_olsen via photopin cc

NEXT decided to launch a listening campaign in light of the changes occurring in leadership at the Presbyterian Mission Agency (with the departure of Executive Director Linda Valentine) and the Office of General Assembly (with the coming departure of Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons). Transitions are always crossroads moments for the church. Our conviction is that any agenda we might have for direction for the future resides within the leadership of the Presbyterian Church (USA) as it’s lived out in congregations. Only by listening broadly could we hope to have anything helpful to contribute toward the church’s discernment.

In the first house meeting I hosted, the energy in the room was palpable. Mission that is rooted in relationships was a common theme that both inspired congregations and fed back into their vitality. “It’s hard for people not to swing a hammer,” one leader observed, but then went on to share a story of the transformation that happened to them when they found a different way to encounter the Spirit. The trust in the room quickly led to a safe space for opening wondering. “More and more young people are participating in our missional engagement work,” one leader said, “but not as often for our worship. I’m wondering if the next church is going to look more like a community of people engaged in mission who worship here and there rather than a group of worshipers who engage in mission from time to time. And, is that a good thing?” Others wondered about strengthening the capacity of their people to share the good news of Christ in and through their missional engagement.

There was healthy criticism but no blaming. For example, several mentioned how important the PC(USA)’s “New Beginnings” process had been for their congregations, but named an important gap: “New Beginnings got us to a place where we announced to the world with joy, ‘Yes! We are called to live!’ And then we had to go and figure out on our own what to do next.”  thers chimed in and acknowledged how they, too, had wished for guidance at that point in the congregational discernment process. These same leaders also recognized that “another national program isn’t necessarily the fix.”

In other words, what was happening in our listening session was that leaders were encountering each others’ wisdom, experiences, struggles, and dreams, and were feeding off each other. They were engaging some of the challenges that our denomination faces on a congregational level with strategic thinking, imagination, and intelligence. In the process, I gathered more than just “data” to be fed back to someone in Louisville. Relationships of leadership were deepening, ideas were coming out of the isolation of individuals and into community where they could be played with, improved upon, and shared.

It’s precisely this kind of discernment tool that NEXT is hoping to offer to our church. It fits nicely with our view that the if the church is first and foremost a community of relationships rooted in Christ, then the nurturing of those relationships needs to be at the center of our work. When we first announced this listening campaign, many people had a hard time believing there wasn’t more to the campaign than “just listening.” Even the statement “just listening” makes listening sound as though it has little value or worth.

I don’t know yet whether the common themes expressed among the ten folks who gathered in the group I led are shared beyond the region where I live. But I know that the time we spend listening together in a strategic, directed way is never wasted. It’s relationships like these that give rise not only to the ideas for change, but also the power to make it so. I look forward to coming together at the NEXT Church National Gathering with others who have been listening so that together we can share what we’ve learned.

Build_GOTV_14.2Andrew Foster Connors is the pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD and the co-chair of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. 

Changing the Culture of Connection

by Jessica Tate

There are times and situations in which we must learn what no one can teach us. We cannot turn to others who have gone ahead because no one has been in front of us on the journey. We cannot point outside ourselves. We learn—teach ourselves—as a “community of practice.” [i]

 — Gil Rendle

Over the last few months, NEXT Church has been quietly undertaking a listening campaign about experiences of transformational mission. We are on track to have fifty listening sessions with five hundred Presbyterians by the end of January.

Our desire in setting out on this listening campaign was to give leaders in the denomination a relational tool for discerning God’s direction for our future. Rather than surveying for ideas or asking for opinions, this listening campaign invites Presbyterians into conversation with one another around their actual experiences of mission to mine what we can learn from those experiences on the ground. Bonhoeffer said we must listen long and patiently to others. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others and finally not even notice it…the death of the spiritual life starts here. Gathering together to share stories strengthens the fabric of faith and our connection to one another.

120-next-20140402-114712Through the campaign, we are hearing important experiences from congregations engaged in missional activities. This is often inspirational, but more than that, as we listen to these experiences we start to draw conclusions (or at least common themes) that can inform our collective work – be that in cooperative work locally, in our presbyteries, or perhaps even the future directions for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and our national church structures. Through the sharing of stories, we bring to the level of consciousness the insights and wisdom from experience of mission on the ground. We become a “community of practice” and teach ourselves by bringing to conscious awareness what we have learned from our own experiences.

Out of this listening campaign we hope to identify leaders at the local level who we can resource and connect together for common action that can inform the future leadership and direction of the Church. We have the power to change the way things are when we engage energized leaders who are connected to one another.

Each of our meetings followed a similar process. A leader was trained in this listening process – a tool we have experienced powerfully in the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation. They then pull together a group of 10-15 leaders for conversation. Opening with a prayer and sharing the purpose of the listening session, the bulk of the session is spent with each participant sharing a response to this question:

Can you share a story from the past five years where your congregation engaged in mission with those outside your doors that was transformational in some way?

After everyone has shared, conversation ensues as the facilitator probes more deeply into the stories and begins to unearth some possible points of commonality or difference. At the close of the hour, next steps are shared – namely, that the facilitator will summarize the conversation and report that back to NEXT Church leadership for synthesis and insight and that all participants are invited to the NEXT Church national gathering in February when we will share what we’ve heard across the country.

In the coming days, we’ll be sharing some experiences of these listening sessions here on our blog. You can participate in an online conversation as part of our January Church Leaders’ Roundtable. If you would like to host a listening session, it’s not too late to do that. Please be in touch with me for more information. We look forward to sharing these learnings and in so doing, helping to strengthen the future of the church.

[i] Rendle, Gilbert R (2010-10-01). Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches (Kindle Locations 293-295). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

Update: read Andrew Foster Connors’ latest blog to learn more about what a listening session at his church was like. 

2015 National Gathering: Linda Valentine

Linda Valentine provides testimony on the Presbyterian Mission Agency.