When ‘knowing’ isn’t ‘changing’: A new language for congregational development

By Greg Syler
Posted Aug 29, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] The church where I grew up in Chicago is celebrating its 150th anniversary. The Maryland church I serve as rector was established in 1638. My home church was the neighborhood’s Old First Church and it had a sense of place, but St. George’s in Valley Lee has an entirely different rootedness – an historic church and cemetery; truly sacred ground. Many families here trace their membership in the Episcopal Church back centuries, some to the colony’s original settlers. It’s a foolish priest who forgets that many folks are as connected to this church as they and their people are wedded to this particular land.

Every congregation has its own personality, its own DNA. It’s important to know the story, and there are plenty of methods to help. But there’s a fine line at which many of those methods cross over into manipulation. It may be more pronounced in a congregation a few decades shy of 400, but I suspect it’s true across the church. Becoming cognizant of the system and one’s role in it isn’t the same as changing it. Overall, I’m not convinced, given the literature, that the focus of congregational development always begins and ends with an appreciation for a church’s health, even if it’s not the kind consultants prescribe.

Don’t get me wrong: I know there are troubled congregations. I also know there are troubled individuals. But what the historian A. G. Dickens said of creed-writing could be applied to congregational development: “Above all, let [us] impose as little as possible of any man’s corrupt and arrogant imagination.” Beyond the cases of definitively abusive relationships in which power and Christian values are mangled – clear causes for changing a congregation – I think we need a new approach to knowing one’s story.

When I first met the parish I serve, I fell in love with its story and character. The parishioners act in ways that, sometimes, are unusual to me but my perspective is different. That’s why I spend a lot of time listening and, when most situations turn out to be different, not bad, I run with it and learn from God through them. In a church that’s been here nearly as long as English settlements in the New World, it’s fruitless and arrogant to suggest that they should become a mission-statement-driven, pre-canned organization. For one, that’s not going to happen. For another, there’s quite profound health in a church like St. George’s, although it’s been seldom detected nor loved into its greatest potential.

I’m afraid there are too many congregations that have been told to change before they’ve been understood. They’ve heard: “You’re not what we want.” Congregational-development thinking that is good, but hardly universal, has been uncritically consumed. With sensitive listening and more objective analysis, one could see the majority of our congregations as OK, if not vibrant. The numbers are against us, especially in this economy, but solving the numbers problem only involves a willingness and boldness to re-deploy assets and avoid falling mindlessly into past models. That’s easy. And it’s something we can do, repositioning assets and roles in order to respect a congregation’s DNA.

We know that the science of congregational development emerged alongside the fear of declining numbers. Congregations were the subject but I’ll bet many of them also felt like a target, feeling ignored at best, or mishandled at worst. I sometimes wonder whether the rise of the overhyped congregational development industry partly contributed, unwittingly, to even further decline.

So here’s a proposal: let’s replace the mechanical, manipulative baggage of “congregational development” with something more identifiably faith-based and promising. In a world in which people aren’t seeking a church organization but, rather, a profound spiritual experience of community with others and communion with God, let’s focus on growing the Body of Christ.

Let’s take Christ’s Body to where the world has already shifted. Once we stop probing and start listening to our congregations, we’ll have energy and resources left over to bring God’s Good News into those coffee shops and empty store-fronts and after-school ministries and pubs. Perhaps the key to unlocking mission is merely re-orienting our attention, which sounds a lot like what Jesus said about the Kingdom of God.

– The Rev. Greg Syler is rector of St. George’s in Valley Lee, Maryland, co-chairs the Collaborative Ministries Exploration Group of Region 6 of the Diocese of Washington.

Comments (7)

  1. Bill Burt says:

    Your ideas are spot-on. After two years of hard work, I’m leaving a parish that isn’t showing any signs of life which is heartbreaking and terrifying for me, since I have no job to go on to. In a nut-shell, I sense that you’re saying, “The steeple-worshipers are staying put; do mission around them.” If so, then the idea is solidly incarnational. I’m guessing that you’ve already embarked on this course then, yes? If you have experiences to share, I’d love to hear them! Once we’ve gone out to the pubs, coffee houses, etc., what should we do once we have their attention? Should they be introduced to the parish? I guess I’m asking, “what happens next?”

    1. Pam Chaney says:

      I began working in a chemical dependency unit of a hospital (Rosary Hall in Cleveland, Ohio) and almost immediately heard the hunger of the people in recovery for a deep experience of the god of their understanding. After three people asked for spiritual attention, a friend and I began offering Saturday 3/4 day spiritual retreats of a spiritual, not religious, nature. The retreats are filled to capacity and we can only invite people by word-of-mouth due to the constraints of the space and the need to keep the numbers small enough to offer individual attention. We have found people are starving for a passionate, human experience of God – radically inclusive, un-tamable, mysterious, One God Experienced Infinite Ways. We are inspired in our mission by Father Greg Boyle in Los Angeles, founder of “Homeboy & Homegirl Ministries.” As Father Greg says, “People ask if I ‘bring people to Jesus.’ Actually, they bring me to Jesus.” Peace today.

      1. Pam Chaney says:

        Dear Pat – I just read your comment on my comment – I’m sorry I didn’t see it sooner. Your work in the building run by the city of Chicago sounds difficult, challenging, spirit-filled, inspiring, and oh so needed. Are you still involved in this work? I sometimes think – even if I cannot provide much more – the gift of embodied human presence is healing and frequently, rare. Our retreats are ongoing, so if you’re ever in Ohio, come see us in Rosary Hall. Peace today.

  2. Jeff Paul says:

    This is one deeply provocative idea posed by Greg. I’ve served in Carson City NV for 18 years in a soon-to-be 150 yr old parish. Even within that shallow time frame, there is deep history that goes beyond the parish itelf, somehow embedded in the very landscape of northern Nevada. Discerning the nature of what really makes us grow in depth as well as breadth has required setting my clerical ego aside and listening deeply, akin to putting my ear to the ground and breathing in order to catch the pulse of the land and the people. While doing so I’m pressed to the earth, admittedly an odd stance for church leadership. Yet I can’t help but wonder if, rather than a cop out for not engaging formulaic congregational development, it is the heart of it. The longer I’m hear, the more I see Jesus, not just in the church, but in the very fabric of the community. I was raised in a neighborhood where the sidewalks had eyes and ears, which may have been good formation for me. Go Greg. I’d like to hear more…

  3. Greg,
    as in any analysis of an organization, there can be an over emphasis on process, method and the way to “fix things”, at least in the perspective of the analyzer. The true keys to congregational development are the sensitivity to the individual church, a keen interest in understanding their uniqueness and being a holy listener. God has worked among the people in each place in unique ways and seeing and understanding that distinctiveness is at the heart of thoughtful congregational development. Indeed, ‘congregational development’ never works if anyone thinks you can force a church into a particular box. I work under that title and I too think it is probably time to name the nature of my work something else. For it is about the spiritual health, faithfulness and vitality of each congregation, no matter the size, the mission or core value statement. Now having said that, there is no doubt that a congregation can benefit from knowing what it deeply values and why it exists in the first place. I have seen congregations be able to focus their energies in very fruitful ministry as a result of understanding their distinctiveness. Any work done in that regard is really congregational development. In addition, life and vitality is dependent on movement and change. Sometimes helping a congregation see itself more clearly can set a church on a holy path of mission. I have seen it countless times. So perhaps we all need to think of congregational development in a new light, throw out the boxes, and through the gift of holy listening and the ability to inspire and teach work alongside the people of God to build the Kingdom of God together.

  4. Dear Greg,
    I’m not sure exactly how congregational development works in other dioceses, but the way it’s practiced and taught through the College for Congregational Development in the Diocese of Olympia is antithetical to the straw man you’ve caricatured here. Rather than abusive and manipulative, its relational and appreciative — seeking not to help each congregation arrive to a preconceived end, but to help each congregation develop the heart and mind and practical skills for saying ‘yes’ to God’s mission and ‘no’ to the shadow missions, no matter how old and beloved they may be. For us, and all those blessed to have participated in the CCD program in Olympia, congregational development is an effective, transferable way in which to, as you say, “reposition assets and roles.” If there is any implied difference between what you’re after and what CCD is after, it’s that we might say “a congregation’s DNA” traces back beyond its founding charter — beyond its originating context and ministry — back to the work of the Holy Spirit, working in and through Jesus and given to the Church in Acts 2. As such, no congregation, despite the amount to which it appreciates its own history and tradition, can escape the whirling challenges of change. Congregational Development, properly practiced — gently, appreciatively, and consistently — simply aims to help congregations discern which steps to take first in the slow, steady process of on-going renewal. It’s deeply spiritual work, not the franchise management model you rightly criticize.
    Blessings on you & your good work in God’s Church!
    Grace & Peace,

    P.S. If you’re wanting more info about the College for Congregational Development in the Diocese of Olympia, check them out on-line at http://www.cdcollege.org/.
    P.P.S. While Spokane is close to Seattle (only 4.5 hours away), it is not IN Seattle. So this endorsement comes with no cash benefit or episcopal favors.

  5. Dear Greg and others

    I’m befuddled by the impressions of what congregational development is and isn’t in Greg’s post . Here’s the working definition we use in the College for Congregational Development:

    Congregational Development is the development of congregations of all conditions, sizes and locations into more faithful, healthy and effective communities of faith that are:
     *Focused on and faithful to their unique reason for being/primary task as congregations which are local expressions of the Body of Christ
     *Connected to and expressive of their unique ecclesial tradition, ethos and character
     *Self-renewing and responsive to the challenges and opportunities before them
     *Sustainable or working toward greater sustainability in terms of a “fit” between the elements of their organizational life: vision for ministry, leadership, culture, size, property, finances etc.

    So there you have it. For us congregational growth and change is only useful inasmuch as it assists the development of the above.

    Greg, we would love to have you come to the College (which is now conducted in Olympia, through the Cooperative College for Congregational Development coordinated by the Diocese of Mississippi and in the Diocese of New Westminster) to see this definition and the teaching of the skills associated with this definition in action.

    In Christ,
    The Rev Canon Melissa Skelton
    Rector, St. Paul’s Seattle
    Canon for Congregational Development and Leadership, The Diocese of Olympia
    Director, The College for Congregational Development

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