July 2013
Vision & Planning

Shattering the Status Quo

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

The closure of Wurtsmith Airforce Base changed everything.

St. John’s Episcopal and Hope Lutheran both had a long and proud history of self-sufficiency, full-time clergy, vibrant Sunday Schools, and fierce devotion to their faith. The 1993 closure of Wurtsmith Air Force Base signaled the beginning of the end for congregational life as they knew it.

Faced with a devastating economic loss and dramatic population loss and realignment, both congregations fought separate but parallel battles to maintain life as they knew it. In 2002, they began to informally share clergy while maintaining separate worship spaces. A few years later, worship was consolidated at St. John’s while Hope became a community outreach center. Ultimately, economic reality forced a consolidation of all ministries into one building for the organically, if not canonically, merged Episcopal-Lutheran congregation.

Firmly and graciously resisting diocesan and synodical visions for their combined future, the people who are Hope-St.John’s Parish in Oscoda, Michigan, settled into congregational life with cautious regard for one another, enthusiasm for shared worship and outreach ministries, and tenacious guarding of such sacred spaces as the kitchen and all its contents! Clearly, if the Episcopalians owned the building, the women’s guild would exercise jurisdictional control! All that changed the night the kitchen cabinets mysteriously detached from the walls, shattering the Episcopal dishes and glasses.

What had never been fully accomplished by diocesan or synodical consultation, vestry or parish council initiative, or privately brokered agreement was made real and true through the power of the unexpected. Struggling for years to claim a new and united identity, the simple acts of cleaning-up the mess, selecting and installing new cabinets, and shopping together for new dishes, jolted the “merged” congregation into finally “gathering around one table.” Finally, Hope-St. John’s had found the elusive answer to the question hanging in their midst: Who are we? We are one.

Time in the Wilderness
Congregational leaders (and diocesan officials!) seem to prefer tightly organized, predictably executed, linear processes for visioning and planning. While occasionally successful, all too often the results restrict rather than empower and quickly get filed away to never be seen again or get hidden in plain sight by printing the vision statement on all publications, quickly becoming unheeded background noise. The experience of Hope-St. John’s is a vital reminder of the need for vision and planning that is open to the lived realities in our midst and an openness to the unexpected winds of the Spirit.

The story of Hope-St. John’s is a holy narrative of exodus --- a wandering in the wilderness for a period of time while getting Egypt (Episcopal or Lutheran prejudices, personal agendas, territoriality, etc.) out of their systems. Meanwhile, their wandering produced moments of clarity and success coupled with times of distress and confusion. All the while, they went about the rhythms of their corporate life looking for pillars of cloud by day and pillars of fire by night --- seeking God’s guidance in manifestations of the Spirit rather than a tightly organized strategic plan.

Being Nimble
Vestries and other congregational leaders embarking upon strategic visioning and planning processes can no longer afford to be rigidly tied to a carefully crafted plan with a three or five year horizon. Today’s leaders must remain nimble and visionary, able to discern the signs of the times and to act with dispatch when opportunities arise. Few congregations can afford a plan that does not make space for the surprising signs of the Spirit’s presence often encountered as we journey to become the people God has called us to be.

A few years ago, I began using imagery from the exodus from Egypt in visioning retreats with vestries and governing bodies. Specifically, I focused on the guidance that Moses and the Israelites received from pillars of cloud by day and pillars of cloud by night --- signs of God’s holy presence and “markers” guiding the people forward in their journey to the Promised Land. This imagery invites leaders to move beyond maps with rigidly prescribed routes and to look imaginatively toward God’s beckoning toward a future which may not lie in a straight line ahead --- it may even take a bit of wandering in the wilderness to get there.

Seven Habits for Successful Journeys
A helpful tool along this imaginative journey is one whose authorship has long been forgotten but has proven invaluable to many. Explore Seven Habits for Successful Journeys with your congregation’s leadership as you move toward God’s beckoning.

  1. Curiosity
    Adaptive congregations notice what is going on around them. Declining congregations often barely realize that the world has changed. Curiosity is engaged by investigating what is happening both in “the neighborhood” and in the larger community of the congregation.
  2. Honest Self-Assessment
    What are the foundations and resources that the congregation already has? What is your history and what stories from the past inform your future? Looking at yourselves takes courage, but also invites laughter and grace!
  3. Playful Experimentation
    Try new things . . . experiment . . . succeed . . . fail . . . laugh . . . celebrate!
  4. Entrepreneurship
    Think “outside the box” about who might help do what needs to be done. Discover where treasures are hidden in your midst.
  5. Using Drama and Symbols
    Engage the imagination and the heart. Actions speak louder than words and stories communicate better than lectures. Find ways to embody struggles and visualize signs of the future.
  6. Practicing Hospitality
    Being friendly and welcoming . . . making room at the table for all . . . perhaps, even entertaining angels unaware!
  7. Embracing Conflict
    Congregations that change are congregations where there is conflict. Embrace conflict! Discover that it is possible to disagree but still move forward --- a critical difference between a peaceful-but-stagnant congregation and one that is willing to disturb the status quo.

Who Are We?
Moses and his band of fellow former slaves knew who they were --- God’s Covenant People --- and what they were called to do --- journey from slavery to freedom and occupy the Promised Land. Our task in visioning and planning is first to ask ourselves the same questions: Who are we? What are we to do with that knowledge? Second, we are to open ourselves to the sacred journey of a lifetime that takes us from our bondage to fear, caution, complacency, and a lack of creativity into the promised land of hope, courage, energy and imaginative faithfulness.

May your congregation’s journey in faith be blessed with plenteous pillars of cloud and fire and an abundance of imagination.

Todd Ousley is Bishop of the Diocese of Eastern Michigan. Following 10 years of parish ministry in the Diocese of Texas, Todd served on the Bishop’s staff in the Diocese of Eastern Michigan for five years focusing on congregational development and clergy deployment. In 2006, he was elected as the 2[1] Bishop of Eastern Michigan. His diocesan ministry has focused on strengthening small congregations, discovering creative solutions for clergy staffing, and ministry of all the baptized. When not involved in church-related activities, he focuses his energies on his wife, Ann Schumann-Ousley, Director of Development for Saginaw Valley State University, and their three sons: Ian, a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Dae, a 19 yr. old freshman at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI; and, Josh, a 16 yr. old high school junior.


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This article is part of the July 2013 Vestry Papers issue on Vision & Planning