Who are we? Where are we going? How do we get there? These are questions a church vitality coach/consultant that I’ve worked with successfully for many years suggested we at First Church Old Saybrook consider. This vitality coach, Rev. Paul Nickerson, also told me that this is the bulk of the work he’s doing with congregations right now. Following the COVID pandemic many congregations are feeling a need to reinvent themselves. Worship attendance is down 40%-60% in all sizes of churches and in all denominations. As Americans continue to explore the many options available to us to lead lives of meaning and purpose, where does the local congregation fit in?
This echoes some of the things I’ve been hearing from FCC Saybrook. At a recent deacons meeting one of the deacons raised the issue of identity and the fact that in her opinion the church didn’t have a strong sense of identity–the “Who are we?” question–and is nevertheless moving in a direction to better define that identity.
Paul suggested FCC Saybrook gather a group of leaders for a Zoom consult with him around the questions Who are we? Where are we going? How do we get there? My invitation to you is to consider whether you might be interested in being a part of that call. Stay tuned!
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.
Our transition coach Claire Bamberg has recommended we read Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century by Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon. Nixon and Estock are United Methodist ministers and consultants to churches of many different denominations.
The theoretical framework of the book is called “spiral dynamics,” “a particular theory of human bio/psycho/social evolution developed by Don Beck and Christopher Cowen, rooted in the work of Clare Graves” (p. ix). The gist of the theory, as I understand it from the brief sketch in the introduction to Weird Church, is that human history and culture has evolved through a number of stages beginning 250,000 years ago with the stone age, which in human terms was characterized by a “survival mentality.” 10,000 years ago humanity evolved to a tribal stage of “mutual reciprocity.” As we transition from ancient to modern times we see the development of an ego-centric stage, a “code of conduct” stage, a stage of “achievement and personal success.” The contemporary moment has given rise to a shift away from the individual toward a concern for the larger community characterized by various justice movements and concern about climate change. Evidence for further evolutionary stages include a stage characterized by a “value system that can respect all perspectives,” and a stage that “experiences the wholeness of existence through mind and spirit with mystical and intuitive sensibilities” (pp. x-xiii). What makes this evolution a spiral is that each succeeding stage includes the one before. The survival mentality persists even in the stage of “mystical wholeness.”
This framework–“color coded” for convenience–allows the authors to analyze how gaps between congregational cultures and changes in mainstream Western cultural assumptions have resulted in church decline. I had an “aha” moment many years ago when I realized that I had been taught that people don’t attend church because they’re “bad,” when, in fact, many–if not most–don’t attend church because they’re good and they just don’t see church as having any relevance whatsoever to their spiritual lives.
Much of what the authors describe resonates with my experience. The book was published in 2016. I find myself wondering what changes they might make to a 2021 edition. My guess is that they–along with pretty much every other thinker I’ve been reading/listening to over the past 13 months–would say that the pandemic has only greatly accelerated the changes they describe. I encourage everyone to get a copy of the book and read it.
A word of caution. Predicting the future is a tricky business. Organizations that endure go through periods of expansion and contraction. Darwin’s evolutionary insight about “the survival of the fittest” might be better phrased as “the survival of the adaptable.” While much of our work will inevitably be focused on what changes are needed for our congregations to survive, a more powerful set of questions might be, “How can we build our organization’s capacity for change? What behaviors, structures, values can we weave into the fabric of this new project that will keep the “change muscles” of the congregation strong for generations to come?”
In light of the February 14 decision by First Church and South Church to pursue a path of collaboration, I met with leadership to revise the addendum to my transitional call agreement. This addendum spells out “micro-plans” and “big picture goals” for our ministry together. One of the things that makes transitional ministry different from settled ministry is the inclusion of specific ministry goals in the contracting process.
Our assistant moderator, Lisa Reinhardt, is writing a piece this week on the updated goals for the transitional minister. The first of the updated “micro-plans” is to “remind people of the role of the transition pastor to the congregation.”
After nearly two years of serving together, my guess is most of us have a pretty good sense of the role of the transition pastor in the congregation. A transitional minister contracts with a congregation for a certain period of time in order to get a certain piece of work done, which the transitional minister and congregation define together. In our case, the piece of work was to find a sustainable future.
For about 18 months we explored a number of options. Six weeks ago we decided to pursue consolidation. The reason for updating the addendum at this point was so that it reflected a focus on the consolidation path. In terms of worship, this will mean more energy focused on worshipping together with South Church and developing a common worship liturgy. In terms of program, it will mean focusing more energy on developing collaborative projects with South Church. In terms of pastoral care, it will mean focusing more energy on working through whatever grief may arise as certain familiar aspects of what it means to be First Congregational Church are let go so that new, vital ministries have the space to sprout and grow.
Years ago in one of our conversations my spiritual director refered to a poem by Richard Wilbur entitled “Seed Leaves.” I keep a copy of it pinned to bulletin boards in both my home and my church offices. To me the poem speaks about the hard choices the path to maturity demands of each of us. When we try to be everything to everyone we often end up being of no use to anyone. Wilbur writes:
“This plant would like to grow
And yet be embryo;
Increase, and yet escape
The doom of taking shape;”
Yet the “stubborn” life force demands the plant take shape. A maple tree becomes a maple tree with its distinct characteristics. It can’t be an oak. Like a tree if we are to grow we can’t escape the doom of taking shape.
The great blessing of transitional ministry is the opportunity it creates for new, distinctive, and focused ministry to take shape.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column on different models of consolidation. For review, they were: assimilation, satellite, merger/restart, and “ICU.” If the goal of consolidation is to move from a decline trajectory to a growth trajectory, then the satellite and restart models offer the best possibilities. Satellite requires that a growing church “adopt” a declining church and redevelop it as a satellite location. Restart requires that two or more churches relinquish their prior identities in order to merge assets and create a new congregation.
Since that column I’ve done a little more digging for real world examples of some of these models. Below are a few examples and resources for further investigation.
Our Vitality Coach Rev. Paul Nickerson worked with three United Methodist churches that used the Restart model to create Lorrain Lighthouse UMC at a new location. The pastor who took them through this process is now retired but Paul assures me that if we inquire there are some church leaders who could share their experience. Their Web address is https://www.lorainlighthouseumc.com.
Paul also directed me to a United Methodist District Superintendent in West Virginia for information about a three church creative merger that she oversaw. I’ve sent an email and will let you know when I find out more details.
An example of a Satellite/Adoption model consolidation from the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church is Garfield Memorial UMC, which adopted South Euclid UMC. The pastor of Garfield Memorial is Rev. Chip Freed (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Learning from others’ experiences can be helpful for making informed decisions. Check out the Websites and let me know if there’s interest in setting up a call with any of these congregations. We’re not in this alone. Other congregations are successfully navigating transitions and coming out on the other side with a new lease on life!