Discerning a Faithful Future

Discerning a Faithful Future

And why do you worry about clothing? 
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,
yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
But if God so clothes the grass of the field,
which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven,
will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying,
‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’
For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things;
and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given to you as well.

~ Jesus

Scripture is a book of movement. Exodus moves from slavery through wilderness to the promised land. Exile stories go from stability to foreign lands and cultures and back to a new home. Jesus rarely spent two consecutive nights in the same place. The Apostles moved through cities and countries teaching about the revelation of God in Christ. Death and resurrection is a common metaphor and reality.

Statistically, every organization will go through a place of core change in identity, governance, and/or mission every 50 - 80 years. Churches when they look closely at their history will see these moments of profound paradigm shift.

As scholars have delved into this historical moment in human history they are seeing similar trends. There is a profound shift, often labeled ‘the changing landscape’ in how people understand and interact with every element of social, political, scientific and economic life. Phyllis Trickle documents a pattern of a fundamental revision of church every 500 years and sees this moment in the life of Christendom as the next expression of this.

Some of our churches are in crisis. Some are not. All of us are in a moment of change. It is full of that classical description of danger and opportunity.

This document is a synthesis of some of the best (most faithful and effective) models churches have used to engage this moment in partnership with God.

For additional resources, go to The Center for Transformational Leadership, Transform@SNEUCC.org


 2 Corinthians 5: 17: So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:
everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

The First Movement (Prayer)

Prayer is integral and essential to this process. Fundamental to this is listening to God. If this movement towards a new creation does not begin with prayer within the leadership and congregation it is reduced to a strategy driven institutional plan. There is value in this, but too often these plans have ended up based upon the needs of the congregation as expressed by the most vocal or influential members.

The Second Movement (Calling a Team)

The congregation and leadership select and commission a group of trusted members whom they perceive to have the Call and gifts to lead a process of discernment.

The Third Movement (Assessment and Discernment)

This process involves cycles of prayer, listening, reflection, feedback without moving too quickly into strategies and solutions.
Fundamental to this process is a partnership with God, the congregation and the community to determine the answers to 3 questions (from the book Holy Conversations by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann):

1. Who are we (our skills, assets, character, gifts, and historical trends and DNA)?
2. Who is our neighbor (around the community and commuter radius and around the world)? What are their burdens, dreams, longings and strivings, Spiritual needs, challenges, fears, struggles?
3. And given the answer to the first two questions; What is God Calling us to become and to do in this current time and place?
The result will be a discerned compelling image of what God Calls the church to do and to become in 3,5 and 10 years.

The Fourth Movement (Implementation)

As the compelling image settles into the heart of the congregation plans, goals and tasks emerge. Resources of funds, assets, governance, lay and staff leadership are realigned to move towards the compelling outcome. The congregation and leadership remain open to creative new approaches that may arise.



 Isaiah 43:19:  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

The First Movement is Prayer.

Too often folks have jumped into visioning with strategy: analyze, diagnose and fix it. Resist this temptation. Too often it results in very good plans collecting dust on shelves. Perhaps more troubling it results in implementations that meet with resistance and undermining because the plan does not represent the wisdom of God or the faith of the people.

Martha Grace Reese in her book series Unbinding the Gospel suggest 6 months of prayer. Some churches have set aside the period of Lent or Advent. Some have suspended regular leadership committee meetings for a month to devote that time to prayer.

• In this prayer time the church begins with surrender. Consciously intentionally let go of what you (individually and collectively) need the church to be so you can let God evolve the church into what God needs it to be. Some churches provide a common prayer for use regularly in home and in worship
• In this prayer time ground yourselves in God. Share memories of times when you sensed the touch of God’s presence, love, compassion, joy, peace. Pay attention to how folks know and recognize that touch
• In this prayer time notice. Often there are glimpses of change springing forth in subtle ways before the more profound shift happens. Invite God to help you perceive it.
• In this prayer time wait. Prayer often has more to do with silent listening and waiting than requesting.

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory. ~W. Edwards Deming

The Second Movement is Calling

A team is brought together to discern, lead and champion the process. Crucial to this is not choosing people to balance perspective or demographics or camps within the church. Too often this representational model encourages a focus on meeting the needs of church members rather than what God needs the church to become and to do. The discernment team should be comprised of people that leadership and membership consider to be Called and gifted in this work. This team must be a group that meets 4 criteria:

1. They are respected ‘elders’. (This is not about age or longevity in the church it is about their character and their role in the church.) These are folks that the vast majority of the church knows they can trust because they know the church, they have a trusted personality, wisdom and perspective.
2. They are recognized as people who are spiritually grounded. They are known for their participation in prayer, worship, faith formation, and actions of love, justice and compassion.
3. They are known as folks who ‘play well with others’. They do not insist on their own way nor do they capitulate to keep the peace. Rather they have the skill of holding that space for safe and faithful conversation. They speak well in times of presentation and they are even better at listening.
4. They are adaptive. They can question their own presumptions. They can think both inside and outside the box. They are able to perceive a new thing and let it grow without having to prune it to old patterns of thinking and being that may no longer be helpful. Rather they can prune it to new ways of letting God work in and through.

This discernment team has a clear job description or task description that is understood and agreed to by everyone in the congregation. They have a mission/purpose statement.

There is often great wisdom in having an outside consultant, coach, mentor, guide hired to help support and develop the process and prayer.
The Discernment team is commissioned in worship and prayed for regularly (daily and weekly)

 If you are not afraid to die, death is a learning experience. ~Battlestar Gallactica

The Third Movement is Discerning

This is the development of a process that will lead to a compelling image for the future that comes from God. A compelling image is one that can be described with vibrant clear sensory descriptions (things that can be felt, heard, seen, tasted, sensed) that enter deep into the consciousness and unconsciousness of the organization/system nurturing and provoking healthy and faithful change.
Fundamental to this process is a partnership with God, the congregation and the community to determine the answers to 3 questions:

4. Who are we (our skills, character, gifts, and historical trends and DNA)?
5. Who is our neighbor (around the community and commuter radius and around the world)? What are their burdens, dreams, longings and strivings, Spiritual needs, challenges, fears, struggles?
6. And given the answer to the first two questions; What is God Calling us to become and to do in this current time and place?

The process moving forward can be described in broad sweeping terms. Specific approaches to these principles can be found elsewhere.

Once the decision was made with ownership to move forward

• The Discernment team creates a series of listening activities and/or surveys that explore the question “Who Are We?” ( approaches from "Holy Clarity" by Sarah Drummond and "Completing the Circle” by David R. McMahill can be used),

o The Discernment Team oversees teaches the spiritual practice of discernment to the congregation and keeps reinforcing that teaching. 
o People can gather in subgroups (6 – 12 people) at home meetings or at church
o People can be grouped by geography, interests or demographics.
o It is usually helpful to break up existing groups (programmatic or committee) to help broaden the experience and perspective.
o Forums or dinners can gather larger groups. (Consider break out small groups to encourage more participation)
o People can create a timeline of the history of their church to look at trends, threads, patterns, highlights and struggles that give a glimpse into the personality and patterns of the church, its DNA and the movement of God.
o Along with history these groups can describe their experience of the current moment in the church and the community/world around the church. What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats?
o Another similar approach is to utilize the technique of Appreciative Inquiry

• The Discernment Team with help from appropriate folks with expertise, can review the current status of the churches assets

o What is the current state of the facilities/buildings?
o What are anticipated building needs/expenses in the next 5 – 10 years
o How is the building being utilized: by whom, when, how often, how extensively
o What is the current status of finances; current expense to income, endowments?
o What would an audit demonstrate?
o What are the demographics of the church and how are they changing?
o How does the church’s demographics compare to town demographics?

• The Discernment team leads a process of listening to voices and perspectives and experiences beyond the walls of the church to help answer the question “Who is our Neighbor?”

o Materials from MissionInsite (demographic and lifestyle research available through the Conference) can be reviewed and analyzed for insight into the second fundamental question.
o Read materials and books regarding the changing landscape of ministry. Phyllis Tickle, Cameron Trimble and Mike Piazza, Brian McLaren and Diana Butler Bass are particularly good sources. The whole congregation should be included in the invitation to read a book together.
o Many teams seek out partnership with another local congregation’s wise ‘elders’ to have another objective set of eyes look at their process, results, analysis and feedback. In some cases churches going through the same process partner with each other to provide this perspective and insight and prayer.
o Interviews should be conducted with town leaders, civic groups and business people and Interviews can also be conducted with neighbors and members of the town/community.

§ The interviews are looking for peoples perspectives on what gives them meaning and excitement in life, 
§ how is the church (both The Church in general and your church specifically) viewed (reputation),
§ What are the needs and challenges within this community?

• The Discernment Team will give regular (weekly/monthly updates)

o The need for transparency and communication is essential to build trust, to fine tune learnings, to test presumptions and observations and to create ownership of the process and outcome.
o Each meeting within the church needs a summary posted in the church, sent by email, posted on the web, included in newsletters. The summaries are always tentative observations, not conclusions and they invite feedback for clarity and correction and deeper understanding and open wondering about meaning.
o Periodically, open forums (framed in prayer, scripture study and worship) are offered to invite people into dialogue about the lessons learned (The group discernment work of Margaret Benefiel can be very helpful for framing this conversations.)
o The updates always intentionally invite more prayer and reflection. This needs to be a back and forth rhythm between listening, synthesizing data and observations, reporting, feedback and response and prayer. Don’t rush this. The rhythm is often where the Spirit moves things deeper and richer.
o Intentionally build in celebrations of the process and affirmations of the church’s willingness to do this work.

• The Pastor’s role is to champion and cheerlead the process. The pastor also helps educate and encourage the congregation. The pastor is not necessarily on the committee. The pastor is a visible, supportive, constant advocate, encourage constant intentional prayer, The pastor may develop and attend, though not always, an ongoing prayer team. (provide a common prayer for all the church to use) The pastor gathers needed resources. (there are a lot available from the Conference) The pastor holds sacred space and keeps framing the process Biblically, theologically, worshipfully and spiritually.

• Many Discernment teams (and some open forums) utilize a couple retreats for the team literally surrounding themselves with newsprint of data, comments, research and immersing themselves prayerfully in all the content, analysis, emotion, facts and feedback. Some churches have framed the compelling image to answer the question: “What does God hope to hear members of the community saying about our church in 3, 5, 10 years?”

• This is more art that strategy and science, but typically and gradually a clear synthesis will begin to emerge that will look like something new. It will not just be a new way of doing the same old thing. It will have elements of new ways of the church understanding and describing itself and news ways of doing things. It will have the feel of coming from that place that people have identified as the place where God moves within them and within the heart of the congregation. From this synthesis will come that compelling image of what the church will look like, feel like, act like and be perceived by the world around it in 3 – 10 years. Often this step in the process arises from a day and a half prayer retreat

• This compelling image is brought back and tested with the church for confirmation and fine tuning. Since faithful change rarely comes without some resistance, notice the silence or the active resistance and wonder what needs or fears may lie behind and beneath these. It is not expected that everyone will be on board. Statistically, 10 – 20% of any organization will automatically resist and say ‘no’.

Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transience, we suffer. ~Shunryu Suzuki

The Fourth Movement is Implementation.

Do not move into a strategy of implementation too quickly. The congregation needs time for the compelling image to settle deeply into their souls. From that place new creative energy will emerge that will often surpass immediate strategies of implementation.

A good compelling image can be reduced to 3 – 5 simple and memorable statements that can be ritually repeated and celebrated and shared.
Some churches evolve the monthly worship theme to begin to cycle through each statement for one week each month.

One church used the phrase “Imagine a church that _______ … “ They filled in the blank with each of their theme statements that tied into their compelling image and left the imagination open for the congregation to continually seek new ways to complete the statement.

Rituals and reflection materials can also be developed to allow folks to reconnect with the image and themes during the week at work or at home.
Art work will normally emerge that expresses the image and themes. Children and church school can be particularly good at this.

Watch for, name, celebrate, notice individual articulations (elevator speeches) of the vision. Build it into faith formation for all ages. Share children's insights with congregation. Post on the Internet...web and Facebook. Twitter it out. Hang the art work around the sanctuary and other meeting or traffic areas.

Eventually (sooner rather than later) leadership and congregation will begin to encourage aligning budget, assets, governance, policy, decision process and outcome to vision language and goals.

  • They will reexamine job descriptions and governance with leadership (both staff and disciples/volunteers) to see how it helps or hinders vision.
  • They will share stories from this emergence of ministries, mission and identity.
  • They will find new ways to tell their story beyond the ‘walls’ of the church into the community. (and vice versa)

Notice and celebrate those places where it opens up new energy, creativity, faithfulness and leadership. Notice how this emerges organically and manifests in changes of behavior...expecting that it will. Notice the feeling tone of the spirit of the church and individuals...

Evaluations will move from performance based judgments to strategies of how the whole church helps each part understand and have the resources and training to fulfill their role in achieving the God vision, of staff and leadership aligned to vision.

Church Revitalization pointers:

Many churches talk about revitalizing after a long period of decline, but there is much confusion about what it really takes to do this.  Below are some of the essentials to actually do a church revitalization.

• Stabilization: If a congregation has been in decline for a significant amount of time, the “bleeding” has to first be stopped. This process may take anywhere from 2-5 years depending on the situation.

• A “new pastor”: Every revitalization begins with a “new pastor”: either a pastor newly called to the congregation or an existing pastor who has had a transformation and is “new”. If the pastor is not excited and motivated about the faith and reaching new people, revitalization does not happen.

• A team of lay leaders who are willing to lead change: It takes a team of people who will work with the pastor and make changes. Business as usual will not turn a congregation around.

• No financial secrets: The pastor and a few key lay leaders need to know the giving patterns of the church and to have in leadership only those people who are financially committed to the church. Financial secrets kill congregations.

• Nominations: The pastor and a few key lay leaders have to take control of the nomination process. As Jim Collins says in the book, Good to Great, “get the right people on the bus”.

• Mission Field: The pastor and leaders of the church have to prayerfully discern who they can reach in the community and spend time with the unchurched and/or de-churched people. This requires that a Pastor spend at least 33% of his/her time in this mission field. Preaching and programs: Based on the mission field discernment, preaching and programs have to be on target to the needs of those who the church is trying to reach.

• Culture of Invitation: 87% of the people in this country who go to church do so because someone invites them. Revitalization churches develop a culture of members inviting guests regularly to events, mission efforts, programs and worship services.

• Balancing Act: In revitalization congregations there is a need to balance pastoring to the existing church while also reaching new people. Pastors and lay leaders should be spending at least 33% of their time involved in the community surrounding the church. Pastors and leaders have to learn how to be nimble in balancing a variety of needs.

Revitalization work is not easy! But congregations all over the country are going deeper in faith and reaching out in powerful new ways. Go and build God’s Realm of Love and Justice.

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