God, we’re grateful for your call, and we’re grateful to those you’ve sent. We’re grateful for the prophets of old. We’re grateful for their words of warning and comfort. We’re grateful for healers and teachers, care-givers and protectors, warriors for justice, makers of peace. We’re grateful for all who gave the full measure of their devotion in service to this country and our world. Make us worthy of their sacrifice. Amen.
“I’m afraid of losing our identity.” This was a response that came up in one of First Church’s transition workshops back in 2019. Transition coach Rev. Dr. Claire Bamberg first led us in a workshop on thecongregational life cycle, then a second on the grief process. We located ourselves on the decline side of the congregational life cycle bell curve, past the point of sustainability. We talked about what that meant for our future and what some of our options might be, including the option that a group from First Church had been working on for some years at this point: consolidation with South Church.
Identity sounds like an abstract, philosophical debate, but, in fact, it’s at the core of some of the most intense conflicts within congregations and in broader society. Take America’s culture wars, for example. The culture wars are a series of conflicts over different aspects of America’s identity, including white nationalism, gender hierarchy, class loyalties, regional identities, “Christian values,” economic systems, and systems for choosing its leaders. Will America stop being America if white people are no longer the dominant race? Will America stop being America if the gap between rich and poor becomes so great that economic mobility is no longer possible? Will America stop being America if Christianity is no longer the dominant religion? As you can see, identity is a big, emotionally fraught issue. Emotions are intense because conflicts over identity are conflicts over power: who has voice and who gets resources.
Conflict over identity defines what it means to be a church in transition, according to sociologist Penny Edgell Becker in her book, Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life. Churches in transition are characterised by what Becker calls “between-frame conflict.” In between-frame conflict, two different visions of identity, that is, “who we are and how we do things here” compete for power, that is, voice and resources.
This is contrasted to “within-frame” conflict, where everyone agrees on identity, that is, “who we are and how we do things here.” The conflict is simply disagreement over approach or interpretation. We have memories of the “good-old days” of “bipartisanship” in the U.S. for example, because for a brief period in the 20th century we were sending leaders to Washington who more or less shared the same “frame.” By contrast, the Civil War was an extreme example of “between-frame” conflict. Between-frame conflicts in churches rarely get violent, but they can be intense.
Between-frame conflict is unavoidable in the consolidation process. We have two distinct congregations with two distinct identities. Does this mean we’re doomed to fight until one identity dominates the other? No. The other option is to expand the frame, or “ABC”: “a bigger container.” We can build a space where diverse voices can be heard and celebrated, where resources can be shared. I’ve witnessed this happen, for example, when a church I served shifted from a white-dominant model to a mutli-racial, multi-cultural model. Some white people were so afraid that we were becoming a “Black church.” Their fears turned out to be unfounded. A new, beautiful identity emerged: neither “Black,” nor “white,” but a celebration of the best in all of us: a slice of heaven on earth.
This week I was describing our First Church South Church consolidation work to a colleague. He commented that in his therapy practice, he has been noticing that the competitive “divide-and-conquer” mentality we see on display in our politics is seeping into everyday the interactions and relationships of his clients. He continued, “In your church consolidation work you’re trying to build a culture of unity, and unity is in short supply these days.” Two implications of this observation: 1) If we’re finding consolidation work difficult, it’s because we’re going against the wider culture in some important ways, 2) The work of consolidation itself is important work for the wider culture. We’re demonstrating to Granby and beyond that “e pluribus unum” (our national motto: “out of many, one”) is still possible.
The competitive mindset is everywhere. It’s a basic component of our economy, for example. And I admit I can be an incredibly competitive person. I enjoy the feeling of “winning.” Which is why I found Pastor Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast this week so helpful. Listen to it here.
Carey Nieuwhof’s guest is Simon Sinek. You remember him! He is the “Start With Why” guy. We watched part of his TED talk during our “What is Your Why?” workshops last year. If you need a refresher on Sinek and his teaching on “Starting with Why,” you can find his TED talk here.
In his interview with Nieuwhof, Sinek applies his insights directly to congregational life. One that I found helpful is the distinction between “finite” and “infinite” games. Sinek got this idea from the book Finite and Infinite Games by theologian James P. Carse. A finite game has a definite beginning, a definite end, clearly defined rules, and is played to win. Think of chess, pretty much any sport, etc. An infinite game has no particular beginning, no end, and no clearly defined rules. The goal of the infinite game is to perpetuate itself. Think of “life,” for example, or “marriage,” or “parenting.” How does one “win” at life? Who decides?
The problem, Sinek argues, is that we confuse infinite games for finite ones, which leads to suffering. Current politics, for example, is played as a series of battles between political parties with winners and losers. If one approaches “marriage” as a finite game, for example, I wouldn’t think it would last long. I can’t imagine many people would want to live in a continual battle for domination with their intimate partner.
How would our consolidation work change if we viewed it as an “infinite game?” A colleague of mine uses improv theater exercises in working with congregations. Improv is a wonderful example of an infinite game. The point of improv is to keep the scene alive. The principle of improv is “Yes, and . . .” The audience or your scene partner offers a line, the improv artist accepts what’s offered and builds on it. It requires trust. The scene could completely bomb. The players risk losing their audience. Players are willing to risk and willing to trust because the point of an infinite game is the joy of playing. This simple process takes the scene into fresh, unexplored–pehaps infinite–territory. Some might call it Promised Land.
In Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Changeauthor William Bridges writes about “using the Neutral Zone creatively.” The “Neutral Zone” is also known as “wilderness time.” It’s the time between the ending of the old way of doing things and the hoped for new beginning. This is the shape of transition: ending–neutral zone–new beginning. In Biblical language there’s “crossing the Red Sea” (ending of enslavement), “wandering in the wilderness” (neutral zone), and “crossing the Jordan River” (new beginning in the Promised Land.)
The Neutral Zone is a tricky part of the transition journey. Much of the work is “below the green line”–that is, it has to do with intangibles such as “information,” “relationships,” and “identity.” It is the inner work that is necessary for something truly new to emerge. It’s sometimes said that at the Red Sea God took God’s people out of slavery. During the wilderness journey, God took slavery out of the people. On the one hand people can become impatient in the Neutral Zone because it seems like “nothing is happening.” On the other hand there’s a danger of becoming stuck in the Neutral Zone. Transitions aren’t meant to last forever.
How can we–in Bridges’ words–”use the Neutral Zone creatively?” Here are two of Bridges’ suggestions. I invite you to share yours:
Consider: “what new roles, reporting relationships, or configurations of the organizational chart do you need to develop to get through this time in the wilderness?” (p.46). One possible org chart change: consider combining committees where appropriate. It’s natural for the old way of doing things to begin to fall apart in the neutral zone. For example, in the wilderness God’s people had to adjust to spending their nights in tents instead of in houses and their days walking instead of making bricks for Pharaoh. One of the things that happens in the Neutral Zone (if things are moving forward in a natural way) is that long time, established leadership will begin to step back, which makes space for new leadership to emerge. What if that new leadership hasn’t emerged yet? My suggestion: combine First Church and South Church teams and rotate leadership or establish co-leadership. Deacons, for example, might consider this. Also the music ministries. Perhaps also the Finance Teams. Rather than try to patch something together, let it fall apart to make space for the new.
“Step back and take stock” (p. 50). This is one of Bridges’ suggestions. I would love to hear your perspective on how things are going thus far. Give me a call (860-990-1073), or send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. You call also schedule a time on my calendar through our office administrator (email@example.com). I’m a data guy and you have data on how things are going. The data are your thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and experiences of this transition time.
In a “Union Service” on April 25, First Church and South Church commissioned six working groups composed of both First Church and South Church members whose purpose is to “imagine a new entity, including: its sense community; its infrastructure; telling its history; its program; its property and its staff and technological communications.” Each of these working groups will be assigned its own coach, who will be meeting with the groups to support their work.
Many of us are familiar with coaching through our work with Rev. Dr. Claire Bamberg and/or Rev. Paul Nickerson. My transitional ministry contract includes the expectation that I will provide “coaching where appropriate.” But what do we mean by “coaching?”
People use the term “coaching” in many different ways. The definition that Claire and I use comes from the International Coach Federation (ICF), which sets global industry standards for professional coaching. Methodist pastor J. Val Hastings, Founder and President Coaching4Clergy, puts the ICF approach this way: “Here is how I define coaching: As a coach, I help people get the results they want by bringing out the best in them. I’ll also explain that coaching isn’t about fixing people or solving problems, rather coaching is a developmental or discovery-based process. Similar to athletic coaches, we further develop the skill and talent already inherent in the people we coach.”
Coaching is often confused with “consulting.” Consultants tend to “tell you what to do.” They have expertise in a particular field and apply that expertise to your particular situation. Paul Nickerson, for example, uses more of a consultant model. Consulting is helpful. That’s why consulting is such a big business.
Coaching in the ICF model relies on deep listening, powerful questions, and something called “artful language” (which is a discipline of atuning oneself to the client’s preferred vocabulary and style of expression.) These are the basic tools that when deployed effectively can lead to “a-ha” moments of discovery on the part of individuals and groups.
What are some “a-ha” moments that you have noticed in our coaching work so far? Perhaps you’ve had a personal moment of insight. I would love to hear it. Perhaps you’ve noticed a moment in a meeting or one of our Sharing Services in which heads were nodding and there was a feeling of connectedness. The word cloud exercise we did last year that revealed a common “Why” around the words “inspire” and “love” was an “a-ha” moment for many. Discovering these insights and then building an action plan around them is what coaching is designed to do.
We are so blessed to have access to have this much coaching for our project. I’m not aware of any other consolidation projects that have coaches assigned to each working group. I encourage all of us to engage the process wholeheartedly.
Mother God, womb of the world, thank you for mothers, who gave us life from their bodies. Life is the gift that makes all other gifts possible, so we say “Thank you, mom, for life.” A mother’s love can be so intimate as to be overlooked. We repent taking our mothers’ love for granted. A mother’s absence can be so painful as to leave us forever scarred. Give us the grace to embrace our own mothering, as imperfect as it may be. Give us the wisdom to honor our mothers in their full humanity. Give us the will as a nation to pay mothers more than just lip service. We pray for equal pay for equal work. We pray for paid maternity leave. We pray for access to health care and housing and education and all of the tools mothers need to flourish. Amen!