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.
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.
Andrew 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.