October 20, 2016

The Need for Connection

The leadership of a congregation is responsible for creating a vision, that is, developing a plan that enables the church to respond to the future in a creative manner. Given all the demands of a parish, it takes great discipline to attend to the future but the clergy and vestry need to ask the hard questions such as: What are we called to do in the name of Christ? Who is our neighbor?

Once God’s dream for a church takes shape, the response is naturally to get rather excited and to start making things happen. The leadership will probably share these dreams at a parish meeting and assume the work of communication has been done. There is also a natural assumption that the parish knows about the plans and is ready to get started.

The work of discernment asks the leadership to consider slowing down the process and allowing the congregation to enter a more substantial conversation. A textbook used in many Episcopal seminaries to instruct future clergy on leadership is Generation to Generation by Edwin H. Friedman. Friedman makes a convincing case that a leader needs to define his or her own goals, often referred to as self-differentiation. There are times when it is extremely helpful for the leader to occasionally give an “I have a dream” speech.

What is often overlooked in Friedman’s work is the idea that the leadership stays connected to the congregation (p. 229). I once heard Friedman say that if he were to return to the synagogue, he would spend more time with each member of his board. Staying in touch takes considerable time and requires the patience to listen well.

When the leadership creates a process for a meaningful conversation about the future needs and purpose of the church, members adopt more investment and ownership in the planning. Since the leadership is looking for support of the vision, both spiritually and financially, an environment that is safe and structured is vital.

While a parish meeting is a good beginning to communicate the vision, a small group setting provides more communication. Very few people are brave enough to share hopes and concerns in a large setting, while a small group setting creates better conversation.

We live in an environment that does not easily trust leadership or institutions. A key concept for our time is transparency. Allowing a congregation to understand why a planning process began and hear how the plans were adopted goes a long way to creating trust.

A congregation I have consulted was somewhat skeptical about the discernment phase of the ECF process since they had had numerous parish meetings about their building plans. After some conversation, the leadership decided to adopt the plan to involve the entire parish in a structured conversation.

To the surprise of the leadership the conversation galvanized the congregation. The congregation was delighted to be asked to be part of the planning process and the leadership gained some needed input about how the plans could actually be improved. The leaders also heard that there ‘was a real hunger for more information.’

Discernment is essentially a spiritual process. If done in the right spirit, God is able to intervene and guide the parish to a faithful response. In the process the congregation is often transformed.

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