July 20, 2012

The Paradoxical Gift of Viability Threatened Congregations

Part 3 of 4: Exercising Leadership with Viability Threatened Congregations. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

In my chaplaincy at a level 1trauma center I learned new meaning is often found when people experience extreme losses that fundamentally change their lives. Times of traumatic loss can become a paradoxical space of resurrection where loss and mini deaths often lead to new life. I recall movies about people whose traumas have revealed to them new meaning and transformation. Two such movies come to mind:

  • The Dolphin's Tale (2011) - Winter, the dolphin whose tail was injured found hope through a prosthesis and a young man injured in the service of his country finds renewed hope in Winter's story.
  • The Shipping News (2001) – The main character has a childhood experience of "drowning," an uncaring father that affects his life, and is able to find new life in new place, is able to see how the past gets dragged into everything, and finally how to break free of that past. See http://www.textweek.com/movies/themeindex.htm.

In a similar manner viability threatened congregations, i.e. "churches at risk" or "churches in decline" have the potential to teach the rest of The Episcopal Church about grief over loss and discovery of radical new meaning. As the Episcopal Church begins the process of rethinking its governance and structure, we will need to hear congregational examples of rebirth to lead the way to discover new life. Like people who have undergone sudden trauma, viability threatened congregations who successfully rediscover their viability and vitality did not just encounter and rely on iterative change processes but rather were open to and accepted radical redefinition of their fundamental identity and purpose.

Those congregations that do not recognize and name their viability challenges may miss the need for radical redefinition and instead expect their historical iterative change processes to continue to be sufficient to restore congregational viability. Trauma patients slowly learn that all that worked in the past now undergoes relearning. In the relearning process trauma patients learn that their function never quite returns to the fullness of "normal" and the way things were prior to their trauma. The greatest challenge that trauma patients face is the permanent loss of their once comfortable normal status of their life.

Continuing with the trauma patient metaphor, in many ways, the Episcopal church and viability threatened congregations may be in the very early stages of their willingness to grieve the past in ways that let go of the old normal so that transformation emerges that address new needs. The trauma patient who insists on recovery of their former normal postpones their healing process. Viability threatened congregations that insist on the recovery of their old normal state waste valuable time and often not only postpone their transformation but lose the small window to restore viability.

When viability threatened congregations have been able to let go of their old normal state and were open to radical redefinition they have learned some of the following life lessons:

  • Adaptability offers a bridge from vitality to viability.
  • Availability for necessary adaptive change is only possible through spiritual freedom.
  • Spiritual freedom emerges when we are free of inordinate attachments (church buildings) that obscure and distract us from our fundamental faith identity commitments.
  • The process of becoming spiritually free as a congregation is nurtured through weekly healing prayers and abundant individual and communal anointing.
  • As losses increase congregations name and celebrate their gains.
  • Unconditional love is food for the spiritual and ministerial journey.
  • Congregations live more vibrantly the Mission of God through the ministry of the baptized.
  • When congregations shed those buildings that no longer serve God's mission the entirety of their treasure is free for mission
  • When congregations are clutter free for mission, they hear the still small voice of the Holy Spirit and are more likely to be called into bold mission.

Join the conversation: If your congregation has encountered viability challenges or closed, in what ways have you been surprised by your transformation and new identity? Our collective learning through losses and rebirth will nurture vitality and viability of local congregations. Likewise The Episcopal Church will let go of the self limiting restructuring efforts and re-imagine new possibilities for its future mission and identity as a church.