Congregational Change Meets Geese & Dirt - Part One

Last week, I took to the mountains and immersed myself into the goodness that is the Wild Goose Festival. Although I've been attending for a half dozen years, this was my first time as a team member for CPR and Convergence. Every single year, my arrival in Hot Springs sets on fire something in me that is difficult to explain – a combination of anticipation for what will come and a coming home to all the things and people I know to be true. This dance is not lost on me.

I got to the festival a day early in order to assist with the Convergence Leadership Project pre-festival with Brian McLaren. Eighteen folks joined us as we unpacked the concepts surrounding congregational change – what it is, why it's necessary, and how to get it accomplished. 

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The Wild Goose Festival was the perfect place to engage in this kind of conversation with one another. This campground on the edge of the French Broad River, a little stop-off on the Appalachian Trail creates a fire within folks – many whom simply must come home and figure out what change is necessary for their lives, their families, their congregations or their organizations. If you haven't made it to Hot Springs in July yet, put it on your calendar for next year.

I think if we are all being honest, we don't need the answers to the first two. We know full well what it is and why it's necessary. For those of us in congregational constructs, we have been in the midst of change on more than one occasion. Some of those change initiatives we lead while some are led by others, but all become occasions where the congregation either hears and embraces the message or fights it tooth and nail. 

As Brian and I unpacked the elements of change for the group gathered, recognition arose – our contexts are all drastically different. Some of us are in pastoral leadership in a congregational setting while others lead groups within the congregation itself. Some of us have retired from ministry but still assist congregations on this path. Others of us aren't certain if we have a place in the Congregational church any longer and are looking to establish skills that echo beyond our understanding of "church."

The other recognition we all agreed upon is this – change is hard; brutal even. When done well, people are going to leave. When done poorly, people are going to leave. People are going to leave. But here's the thing: people are going to leave if you don't change. No one wants to eat stale bread. No one wants to be a part of something that feels so stagnant that movement isn't just uncommon, but nonexistent.

There are three main components of this change process: the pain, the process, and the proposal.

The Pain
This is where the change process begins. What is it that is keeping you awake at night? What hurts you so deeply that if it doesn't change, it could harm your ability to keep going? Identifying this pain, this trigger point will be the thing through which change is instigated. But if you are a leader, you likely know that the pain needs to affect more than just you. The pain needs to also be painful for those whom you will lead into change. Simply saying "this bugs me...and it should bug you too" isn't enough. 

Perhaps try asking questions of your team that lead them into also feeling the pain. "Have you ever noticed how many children in the neighborhood around our church aren't being fed well?" "I'm worried that our worship service isn't inviting God into the hard conversations that our community is facing." "Do you ever worry that there aren't enough of us to get all this important work accomplished?"

Identifying the pain point, the problem, in a way that invites conversation to happen will create buy-in from your team. If the pain is your collective pain, it will feel more important to tackle.

The Proposal
What's the plan? How does this much-needed change actually come into being? Does your worship service shift from liturgy about the world to liturgy directly related to your community? Is there a structured plan by which inviting new friends and engaging with the neighborhood creates an increase in attendance? 

It's not lost on me that I've skipped the Process part of the plan. Quite frankly, it's the meat of the work and it's the part that causes the most excitement and tears. As such, we'll dig into it in Part 2 of this post.