What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-21-21
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.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-9-21
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?”
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 2-19-21
Congratulations! First Congregational Church of Granby took an historic vote this past Sunday in a process of “re-uniting” with our UCC siblings, South Congregational Church of Granby. The “engagement” decision means that the two congregations will begin a more formal process of taking steps to become one, new United Church of Christ in Granby.
I’m aware that as a congregation we are experiencing quite a mix of feelings: grief, disappointment, hope, excitement, confusion, doubt, impatience, elation, and many others. This is normal and doesn’t necessarily speak to the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the decision. Our congregational ancestors handed down to us this practice of congregational meeting in which we prayerfully seek, to use the words of Jesus, that “not my will, but thy will be done.”
So, we did our best to seek God’s will and the outcome is that we will be pursuing consolidation with South Church using a “marriage” model (see last week’s column). And while there are questions of “what’s next” that the GUCCI team is working to answer, I encourage us to take a moment to sit, breathe, and appreciate this new place in which we find ourselves as a congregation. What does it look like? Feel like? Sound like?
Years ago I did training with the Mennonites in spiritual discernment for congregations. Mennonites practice Christian peacemaking. They come from the same branch of the Christian family tree as Quakers, Amish, and Bretheren. As I remember it, an important part of the discernment process is “resting,” that is, once a decision is made, take some time to search your heart. What arises? Was something overlooked in the process? Is something unresolved that needs more conversation? Is there a sense of peace? Regardless of our personal feelings about the outcome, is there a sense of completeness that allows us to take the next step forward with confidence?
I invite us to take this moment to deepen our walk with God.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 2-12-21
The GUCCI (Granby United Church of Christ Initiative) team has been using a marriage metaphor to describe the collaboration/consolidation process we are imagining.
In the book Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work the “marriage model” is one of four consolidation models that the authors describe. Here’s what they say about the marriage model:
“Marriage mergers occur when two comparable churches, similar in size and/or health realign with each other under a united vision and new leadership configuration. Marriage mergers in churches are a lot like a marriage of two people coming together as one bringing strengths, and liabilities to the new entity. and like a lot of human marriages churches coming together may have some difficulties, but they can work through them.”
This seems to pretty accurately describe our situation. In this metaphor, as I understand it, the past three years of Union Services and GUCCI meetings and other joint efforts could be described as “dating.”
The vote this coming Sunday is to “get engaged.” No metaphor is perfect. Different folks will have different understandings of what it means to “get engaged.” The important thing to keep in mind is that getting engaged is NOT the same thing as getting married. It’s a commitment that the parties will make whole-hearted and good faith preparations for making public and sacred vows of union.
So engagement is serious, but it doesn’t mean the marriage is a done deal. Even with the best of efforts things can fall apart. That’s OK. There’s no way to know for certain beforehand, but if we proceed with openness and honesty we can walk this journey together and find some blessing in it regardless of the outcome.
My wife, Nicole, and I are both children of divorced parents. We approached our engagement with few illusions. I asked Nicole to marry me Valentine’s Day (I know, so cliche) 1996. She said, “Yes.” Afterward we had a very serious but honest conversation about our expectations for our engagement and anticipated marriage. Nicole said to me, “This means that whatever happens, we do it together.” Fast forward, this year we are getting ready to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.
That’s my understanding of the step we as churches are being invited to take. What’s yours?
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.”
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1-29-21
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!
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1-22-21
Sunday evening, January 17, First Congregational Church of Granby engaged in a productive and enlightening conversation around two proposals for our future: one produced by the Downsizing Task Force and one produced by the Collaboration/Consolidation Task Force. I observed deep listening, careful questioning, and honest responses as we explored the proposals together.
Overall there was little disagreement, but one moment stood out for me. At one point in the discussion of the downsizing proposal, someone said, “Well, it’s clear this just isn’t going to work.” A few minutes later, someone else commenting on the downsizing proposal responded, “It is going to work.” Is it going to “work?” Isn’t it going to “work?” This is a great question for both proposals. The answer depends on what our goal is.
At the beginning of the meeting, moderator Bob Giles shared with us the now familiar church life cycle graph and reminded us that we had all agreed that as a congregation we were on the decline side of the graph heading toward death. The goal, Bob said, was to shift the congregation into a growth trajectory, in other words, to reverse the decline trend.
I understood the comment “This just isn’t going to work” in light of the goal that Bob had identified: reversing the decline trend. And to my ears, that seemed to be the unarticulated worry underlying the conversation: is simply cutting expenses really going to turn things around? Research and experience shows that it is common for churches to focus on deficits as a “problem” that needs to be “fixed.” Sometimes this is the case. But in a situation where a church has been declining over a number of years, deficits are a symptom of a deeper problem that budget cuts alone won’t fix. So in this sense, the downsizing proposal “won’t work.”
So was the person who argued that the downsizing plan will “work” wrong? Not necessarily. If the goal isn’t to reverse the decline trend but, in the words of the downsizing report, “maintain independence,” then the downsizing plan will work . . . for a while. As long as the underlying problem that set us on the decline trajectory remains unaddressed, simply cutting expenses will only prolong the decline process. The end will be the same.
What is the “underlying problem?” That would be a wonderful conversation to have. Proverbs 29:18 reads, “Where there is no vision (Hebrew: chazon), the people perish.” Bob pointed out on the church life cycle diagram that churches beginning on the growth trajectory begin with a compelling vision and continue by building relationships with people in the community. (By contrast, churches nearing the end of the life cycle have a greatly reduced vision and a primary focus on maintaining current relationships rather than building new ones.) As we consider these two proposals, we might ask, “Which captures my heart? Which provides a compelling vision for the future?” The prophet Joel wrote, “In those days young people will see visions and elders dream dreams.” What vision is God laying on your heart today?