What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1-28-22
Many of you likely saw the announcement earlier this week that I’ve accepted a call to First Church of Christ in Saybrook (Congregational). My last Sunday with First Church will be March 6. Between now and then we will consolidating the gains we’ve made during our time together and preparing for the bridge to what’s next.
My role at FCC Saybrook will be, once again, transitional. The church is interested in doing revitalization work before it considers its next move. I look forward to helping them in that effort. What revitalization looks like during what we hope is the tail end of a global pandemic is a question foremost in a lot of minds and will likely be a key question for FCC Granby regardless of the decision on consolidation. A consolidated church is not necessarily a growing church unless intentional efforts are made to reach new people.
What will church vitality mean moving forward? No one really knows. For some decades now the world has been shifting from the linear “progress” change model to a “disruptive” change model, which makes it very difficult to infer the future from the past. Nevertheless, Carey Nieuwhoff’s latest blog post entitled “Five Faulty Assumptions About the Future Church” rings true for me. Number 2: “The Building Will Be the Center of Ministry,” and number 3: “You Don’t Need to Take Online Ministry that Seriously” seem particularly relevant. Already expectations around online engagement have changed at First Church. We expect that there will be a Zoom option for meetings. We expect a livestream option for worship. What we have yet to develop is how to turn “views” into vital spiritual connections. My guess is that this will be a piece of future vitality.
Interestingly, another piece of vitality in a time of disruptive change came up at my annual physical exam this morning. In my conversation with my primary care physician the very popular topic of the pandemic and mental health came up. She talked about the importance of staying “grounded” and her personal daily practice of grounding, which sounded like simply finding a moment during the day to still her body and quiet her mind. It reminded me of my childhood church, which emphasized personal “quiet time.” During this pandemic time my meditation group shifted to Zoom and has grown exponentially because of it. Pre-pandemic we would get 6-7 people on a weekday morning. Now we average 20-30, sometimes more. We have folks joining us from places as far away as Columbia, Denmark, the UK, Germany, and Iran. How can First Church, South Church, FCC Saybrook, all our congregations stay grounded in a time of ongoing disruption? If we’re waiting for an extended time of “smooth sailing” to engage in vitality work, we could be waiting a long while. If my meditation group is any indication, leaning into the disruption can actually produce vitality.
All of this is easier said than done. I am not a person who naturally welcomes disruption. I prefer smooth sailing. Psalm 23 says, “He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” I have found that in stormy times the still waters are still accessible. Deep below the surface there are hidden aquifers of spiritual refreshment that will sustain our vitality if we stay grounded, like a tree that reaches with its roots down to the living water.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-27-21
The fall 2021 theme for worship at First Church and South Church is “Dreaming Together.” As a reminder, we will be sharing Union Services on the first and third Sundays of the month. The remaining Sundays we will be worshipping separately. In September and November the Union Services will be hosted by First Church. In October and December the Union Services will be hosted by South Church.
At our “What is Your Why?” workshops way back in 2019 and 2020, we watched a TED talk by Simon Sinek in which he refers to MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Sinek argued that over 200,000 people showed up on the Washington Mall that day in 1967not for Dr. King but for themselves. They showed up because they had already dreamed a dream of racial justice in the U.S. Dr. King’s genius was his ability to articulate a dream that many already shared and to translate that dream into concrete reality.
The purpose of the “What is Your Why?” workshops we shared together with South Church was to invite both of our congregations into a similar “dreaming” process. African Americans have faced and continue to face indescribable suffering due to system racism. The dream of racial justice arose out of that suffering. First Church and South Church are facing our own communal suffering due to diminished human and financial resources to support our ministries. Staff have been cut, beloved events have fallen by the wayside, programs have been discontinued due to lack of participation, volunteers face burnout, members have left, conflict has arisen, fewer people are supporting a greater share of the annual budget, the long term health of our endowments is threatened. The list goes on. Just as a communal dream arose in response to racial injustice, so too, a dream for collaboration and consolidation has arisen in response to decline among the congregational churches in Granby. Godly dreams arise out of real world suffering. Making these dreams real can change the world.
Over the summer six working groups composed of First Church and South Church members have been working on clarifying a dream or dreams of a new, consolidated Granby UCC. Worship at both churches this fall will focus on what it means to dream God’s dream for our lives. The work of dreaming together isn’t for the working groups alone. The dream of a vital, sustainable UCC movement in Granby will become reality when each of us takes up the work of dreaming together.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-28-21
“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.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-14-21
In Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change author 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.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-30-21
Last week we began exploring the second half of Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century by Paul Nixon and Beth Ann Estock. This section describes 21 models, forms, paradigms for doing church that the authors have observed emerging in the 21st century. There are a lot of unknowns about the church of the 21st century, but one thing Nixon and Estock seem fairly certain of is that the “neighborhood, denominationally-franchised church . . . with a weak local vision and identity” is about to disappear.
As I read through the weird church paradigms, it seems to me that a number of them might be components of a new UCC in Granby: “The Simple Cell,” “The Dinner Party,” “The Soulful Community,” “The Community Enterprise,” “The Pilgrimage,” “The Innovation Lab,” “The Tabernacle,” all might manifest themselves in some way even if they don’t become the dominant or “stand alone” model. The book gives current examples of churches following these models. Which one of these example churches would you like to learn more about?
My hope is that by the end of this process we will land somewhere with some kind of emerging, distinct local identity that new people can connect with. One of the reasons the denominationally-franchised church is headed for extinction is that too often it tries to be everything to everyone and so ends up unable to connect authentically with anyone. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus says to a “lukewarm” church “I will spit you out of my mouth” (3:16). Trying not to offend anyone, the church as we have known it has feared being weird.
I’m reminded of our “What’s Your Why?” training. Simon Sinek makes the point that the successful organization connects with the people who already on some level share the organization’s values. That’s why it’s so important as we go through this process to ask “Who is God calling us to reach next?” Rev. Paul Nickerson sometimes calls this person “unchurched Harry and Mary.” All of the weird church paradigms are targeted toward a specific group of people with particular spiritual, emotional, and social needs.
Several years ago Rev. Traci Blackmon, UCC Executive Minister for Witness and Justice, preached at a meeting of the newly formed Southern New England Conference UCC. Her text was the story of the Crossing of the Jordan God’s people were nearing the end of their forty year wilderness journey. Looking across the Jordan River, they could see the Promised Land. Like God did at the Red Sea forty years earlier, God had promised to part the waters for them so that they could cross over. But the waters didn’t part until the people at the front of the procession actually stepped into the water. A way opened up where there hadn’t been one before, but only after the people were willing to step out in faith.
Time and again I’ve found that to be true. And I’m finding it to be true now. I’ve had several exciting conversations with community members who are aware of our collaboration efforts and are interested in partnering with our congregations in creating something new. Every day has the potential to give rise to a clearer vision for our new combined future as long as we are willing and brave enough to continue moving forward in faith.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-25-21
The second half of Weird Church: Welcome to the 21st Century by Paul Nixon and Beth Ann Estock consists of nineteen short chapters describing different models, approaches, and forms of 21st century church that the authors have observed. As First Church and South Church consider consolidation I encourage you to read these chapters and mind your heart. Do any of these descriptions grab your interest? Do you feel energized? Do you find yourself thinking about how we could do that kind of church here in Granby? One of the keys to success in finding a sustainable future is “following the energy.”
I find very helpful the “notes of caution” scattered throughout the descriptions. In the weird church era, there are more failures than there are successes. Wise leaders learn from the mistakes of others. One small example that resonated with me: the coffee house church. Back in the aughts I was on a Church Development Committee that oversaw a church restart. The church decided to restart as a coffee shop. We found what Nixon and Estock also discovered: if people want coffee, they will go to a coffee shop, not a church disguised as a coffee shop. Our project ended up failing spectacularly. We also discovered that coffee shop church can succeed when it is supported by a larger organization. Not every creative idea results in a self-sustaining congregation. It’s helpful to be aware of diverse ministry models and the kinds of funding streams they are likely to require.
As I read through the second half of the book, I realized that I’ve had personal experience with a number of types of weird church. My encouragement is that First Church and South Church folks get out there and visit, experience, and interview people representing as many of these different types as we can. A first step in creating something new is getting a sense of what’s already out there.
For example: “The Neighborhood.” Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis is one of the more famous examples. I met the pastor, Rev. Mike Mather, when I was a church planter in Indiana. I recommend his book Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places. You can listen to a podcast of his approach to “The Neighborhood” here. Closer to home First Congregational Church of Stamford has adopted some of Rev. Mather’s strategies in their restart project. I’m glad to ask if Rev. Mather and/or the folks from FCC Stamford would be willing to chat with us.
There are at least two examples of the “Community Space” type right here in CT. Rev. Dr. Shelly Best is the founder and director of 224 Ecospace in Hartford. I’ve met with Dr. Best and toured the space. She is an amazing person from whom we could learn a lot. The second example: United Congregational Church of Bridgeport sold their historic building a number of years ago and moved into a community space in which they are developing multiple ministries and income streams. Rev. Sara Smith was very helpful with FCC Stamford and I’m sure would be glad to talk with us.
I’m aware of a number of other examples of weird churches that we could visit and talk with, but I will save those for the coming weeks.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-5-21
Today I invite us to consider a key to all successful congregational endeavors: momentum. Years ago I was invited to attend the first “Nehemiah Institute” in Atlanta, GA. It was founded by Rev. Cameron Trimble and the Southeast Conference UCC to train church planters and church redevelopers. Nehemiah Institute is known today as Covergence, one of the premier progressive church organizations in the U.S. One of the speakers was the pastor of a small church in rural New Hampshire that had recently experienced a dramatic turnaround from a dying, conflicted congregation to a healthy, vibrant, growing congregation. One of the conference attendees asked this pastor, “What is your secret?” She said, “I follow the energy.”
Every congregation has an energy or “momentum.” The key to shifting from the decline side of the church life cycle to the growing side is shifting the momentum. It is looking for those signs of life–where the positive, healthy energy is manifesting–and nurturing them. This builds momentum. Failing to do this means that the congregation will simply keep sliding down the decline slope. It’s like looking around your yard while the snow is melting and the spring sun is shining and noticing what is coming up and then putting your time and attention into protecting those shoots and helping them grow.
Momentum is also key to church consolidation. In a “joining model” in which there is a “lead church” and a “joining church,” the “lead” church is the church with momentum. It is a common misconception that the lead church is the bigger church. NOT SO. The lead church could be the smaller church if that is the church that is growing, reaching new people, starting new ministries, and building momentum. (See Better Together, p. 7) Since First Church and South Church are NOT pursuing a joining model but a “marriage model” in which two congregations join as equals to create a new congregation, it is vitally important that we build momentum together. If not, we will encounter difficulties.
Under the leadership of our Vitality Team, First Church has been building some wonderful momentum. Already in 2021–in the midst of a pandemic!–we have welcomed seven new members! First Church has momentum. The question for our marriage model consolidation is: How will we build momentum together with South Church? It was the topic of our last Vitality Team meeting and I hope a topic in our upcoming conversations with South Church. Our combined efforts promise to bring even more new life and even stronger forward momentum.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 2-26-21
At our February 14 discernment meeting an FCC Granby member repeated something that had been said in an earlier conversation about the consolidation/collaboration proposal: “Let’s just get to know each other first. If we do that well, the building issues will work themselves out.”
Research on successful (and failed) consolidations bears this out. Even though up to this point most of the anxiety at First Church and South Church has been around buildings, research shows that buildings and facilities are the least likely deal breakers in consolidation projects (only 4%). The most likely deal breakers are conflict over personnel (28%), trust issues/power struggles (22%), traditions (18%) and culture (10%), (Better Together, p. 108) . . . Which brings me to the concept of “below the green line.”
Put very simply, the “green line” is an imaginary division between what is concrete, rational, and public in an organization and what is relational, irrational, and subconscious in an organization.
Above the green line are the “rational” parts of the organization, such as “structure, process (operations), and pattern.” In a church organization, these are the pieces that what GUCCI is calling the “nuts and bolts” working group will be dealing with: governance and by-laws, staffing and personnel, legal work for creating new identity, finances, endowments, financial audits, insurance, and properties, including memorial gardens.
Below the green line are the “irrational” parts of the organization, such as information, relationships, and identity.
Information is “like oxygen in the system . . . access to information greatly minimizes the negative rumors that can occur within organizations.” GUCCI team has committed itself to regular, clear, and consistent messaging around what’s happening with our collaboration work and what we envision the next steps to be.
Relationships: “People need to have open relationships with the people they work with, trusted relationships that lead to commitment and powerful work getting done. Relationships occur not only between people, but between programs, departments, and organizations (think connections).”
Identity “looks like repeated opportunities for self- reflection and connecting personal beliefs and values to the mission and vision of the organization. It means being reminded of why we come to [church], what’s most important to us” about our faith, and “finding ways to stay true to ourselves” while building a new congregation that wil have a new identity. This is our “Why.”
For the reasons above, below the green line work will be critical to the success of our project.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 2-5-21
As you all hopefully know by now, First Congregational Church of Granby will be voting to approve one of two proposals for moving forward as a congregation: 1) collaboration/consolidation with South Church or 2) downsizing. As your transitional minister I’m clear that the decision is up to the congregation, so I’ve been preparing myself for both outcomes by staying up to date with the latest in best practices. Three resources have come to my attention.
Should we end up deciding to continue on the decline trajectory, I’ve been reading Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection by L. Gail Irwin. In case we decide to move toward collaboration/consolidation, I’ve ordered and will be reading Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work by Jim Tomberlin. If either of these books sounds interesting to you I encourage you to get a copy. If you are a podcast listener, I encourage you to listen to the latest episode of the Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast (#367 with Jim Tomberlin). You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. The more we have a common understanding of the work we’re facing the more productive our conversations will be.
Just as the path that led us to this place has been made with countless small decisions, so too, the path forward will involve many decisions along the way. My understanding of our decision on February 14 is that either way it’s not the end of the line. It’s simply a way of agreeing as a congregation that we will devote ourselves to pursuing a path in good faith one way or the other. If it’s downsizing, then we will downsize and do our best to figure out what that means for the future of our congregation. If it’s collaboration, we will do our best in good faith to make that proposal work. I’m confident that the GUCCI team has done a good job laying the groundwork for a successful consolidation, but I’m also fairly certain there will be difficult decisions and obstacles to success ahead.
No transition process is perfect. Messy and difficult is the name of the game. But that shouldn’t be too surprising. Life is messy and difficult, and church is just a particular (and peculiar, perhaps) form of life. The good news is that the process doesn’t need to be perfect to be successful! In my experience, the transition processes that have “worked” have worked because the people involved in them wanted them to work. So let’s make our best effort trusting the results to God. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”