Reforming your church

Constant reformation is needed to keep the church viable.

By Bill Wilson

I have worked with numerous congregations to clarify their identity and lean into the future proactively. When it goes well, one consequence is nearly always true. The fresh vision requires a significant shift in the organizational life of the congregation.

David Cooperrider, one of the founders of Appreciative Inquiry, says: “If people do great work with the processes of inquiry and dreaming, then rarely, if ever, do the older command and control structures of eras past serve the organization. The new dreams always seem to have outgrown the structures and systems.” 

This is where many visioning processes get derailed. When the visionary rhetoric of a vibrant future collides with the realities of established precedents, facilities, job titles or traditional methods, the result is conflict.

The organizational inertia usually favors maintaining the status quo, and so the congregation talks a good game for a season, but eventually settles back into whatever patterns predated the visioning process.

How might we anticipate the impact of a fresh vision and welcome the inevitable shifts it will demand?

1. Design your visioning process to be as inclusive as possible. I believe the best processes are radically congregational, engaging as many people in as many formats as possible. Doing so is messier and more time-consuming than a top-down model, but in the end it promotes ownership and buy-in. This will be invaluable when it comes to implementation of the uncomfortable parts of the plan.

2. Help your congregation learn to distinguish among essentials, icons and opinions.

Essentials are the parts of the congregation that are non-negotiable and not up for debate. You’ll find these in Scripture (see Acts 2). If we changed these, would we cease to be the church. Not included in essentials are buildings, existing staff models, styles of most anything, schedules, budget models or most organizational charts.

Icons are those things in our church that have deep and powerful symbolic meaning to us that disguise themselves as essentials. Some of the icons I see most frequently are facilities, liturgies, staff members, traditions (especially around holidays) and organizations. Icons hook us emotionally and make us illogical.

We can lose our icons and still be the church. Watch what happens to a congregation whose sanctuary burns. Almost always, while the smoke is still rising from the rubble, someone says, “Our church is so much more than a building.”

Every building of every church in every part of the world is iconic, not essential to being God’s people. That doesn’t keep us from being irrationally devoted to them.

Opinions are our feelings about any and every part of congregational life. When we turn our impressions and opinions about a staff position/program/schedule into fact, we lose crucial objectivity. I recently heard someone proclaim in an implementation meeting, “We cannot do church without our Wednesday night activities.” Really?

3. Once those differences are clarified, work hard to make these words come alive:

-- Nimble. Congregations that are effective in ministry in the 21st century will be able to respond quickly and nimbly to opportunities. The old structures that prized lengthy deliberation and glacial progress must give way. Beware of overcompensating and becoming unmoored, but know that pace matters.

-- Lean. Vibrant congregations are pancaking their organizational structures and simplifying their decision-making life. The cumbersome models that strangle us are a product of the post-industrial models that dominated the last 75 years of congregational life. Vibrant congregations are morphing those structures into leaner, less redundant models. An annual church business meeting is plenty. The decisions and work of the congregation must take place in smaller settings where teams/committees/ task groups are empowered to act.

-- Collaborative. One of the most predictable outcomes of a healthy visioning process is the recognition that the gifts of all the congregation are required to fulfilling the mission of the church. Staff must adjust to laity as partners in ministry, rather than subjects. Laity must step up as engaged in their call, rather than hiring staff to do the work of the church. Staffing models that assumed an over-functioning paid staff and under-functioning laity need to be rebalanced. 

-- Leadership. Your new vision will require real leadership. Many congregations will need to define leadership (I’d suggest following Jesus’ example) and allow their leaders to lead. This is easier said than done, but does not change the fact that it is essential.

Most congregations don’t start out to reorganize staffing models, worship styles, Bible study groups or leadership structures, but they soon find that the old wineskins of the past cannot always hold the new wine of 21st century ministry. The good news is that this constant reformation is at the heart of what has kept the church vibrant for centuries. Let it continue!

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.