A few weeks ago I attended a readers theater presentation Dr. Mary Garvin, SNJM had created capturing the experiences of the fifteen women observers at Vatican II. Mary served on both my MA and PhD committees so I was eager to see her again. The small chapel at the convent was standing room only with people eager to hear what Mary had prepared. They were also eager to support Mary as she is currently very ill. The attendees were nearly all Catholics, most of whom had experienced the changes of Vatican II and still upheld and embodied the vision of the Council. Near the end of the presentation we were asked “Who is the Church?” The chapel resounded with “We are the Church!!” We were asked again and again the group resounded with “We are the Church!!” This affirmation deeply affected me.

I understand that this rallying cry arises out of Vatican II and is currently used by the laity in the Catholic Church. It is also a rallying cry in support of the current experience of American nuns, which may be one reason for Mary’s choice of topic. Yet as I participated I realized that this rallying cry was a truly significant experience for me, a Protestant laywoman, as well. So I thought I might explore that a little bit.

Who is the Church? And whose Church is it? Well, if you want to avoid the issue, you answer, like most kids in Sunday School, “Jesus’ (or God’s), of course.” And in a theological sense that’s true. The Church is the Bride of Christ and answering Jesus (or God) to a question in church is always a safe bet (as most grade school kids know). But if you ask adults, and ask them to be honest, what do you hear? If you ask pastors what do you hear? How about denominational executives? Whose Church is it? And why? In many denominations the laity, the pastoral leaders, and the executives might answer differently. At least it appears that these groups, as a whole, have different and often competing interests. I don’t have any answers here, but I will tell you having a group resoundingly assert they are the Church is magnificent to hear.

I want to close with a quote from one of the participants in my PhD research. He was in his 70s at the time and was an ardent Catholic layman and an ardent defender of the changes Vatican II had tried to instill.

“It will take a long time for people to begin to drop this naïve way of functioning and just being sheep. . . . We are the church. It isn’t the buildings or the hierarchy. It’s us, the people of God. We are the church. . . . The church is us and our communities helping one another. That’s the church. That’s it.”

And I answer, Amen.


Recently I’ve been reading some articles as I prepare for the Academy of Religious Leadership conference this weekend. Two of these articles explore the sources of thinking about religious leadership. 

Norma Cook Everist’s article discussed, in part, that our theology and what we believe about the church (ecclesiology) forms our mental models of what a good leader should look like. For example, if we think of the leader as the protector of the flock and the source of all good (or safe) ideas, we may have (and want) a leader who lectures rather than facilitates discussion, who gives directives, and engages in tops-down leadership. Sometimes, in its stronger applications, this approach has been known as pay, pray, and obey. And, while I really don’t appreciate this style of leadership, many people want it (and leaders want to embody it) since it fits their mental model. Alternately, if we and our leaders view the church as a community of believers trying to welcome others into the faith, our leaders will spend a lot of time in pastoral care, relationship building and facilitating communal decision-making. Still other models are possible as well. This article leads me to think that what is often portrayed as a conflict in “styles” between leader and people or between people and people in reality is a conflict in beliefs and mental models. Those mental models are nearly invisible and for many are hard to articulate beyond “he/she is not doing it right!”

The other article that caught my attention was on what factors form religious leaders’ practice of leadership. This article was by Scott Cormode, et al. They point out that those wanting to be pastors do not come as blank slates to the seminary classroom. Instead, many factors, such as trainees’ early faith experiences, their lives in college, their previous careers, and the characteristics of the congregation in which they recognized God’s call have all had a significant influence on how these leaders embody leadership in their congregation. These factors may be independent of denominational beliefs of what a good leader is. All of these factors work to create mental images of what a “good” leader is. Students often come to seminary with more than one model or with models of leadership that aren’t supported well by seminary instruction. These models may also not be well-supported by denominational leaders even though the pastor may be highly effective with a particular congregation.   

These articles, as well as some others, have me thinking about how different congregations, as well as pastors, view good leadership. So, I’ll list some examples of good congregational leadership: Great administrator of large projects. Bible scholar. Engaging preacher. Effective evangelist. Community organizer. Skilled counselor. Relationship builder. I’ve known effective leaders who had only one or two of these traits and really struggled with the rest. Those who were in congregations that shared their mental model did pretty well. Everyone’s models meshed and everyone worked around or ignored deficiencies. Those serving in congregations with differing models didn’t prosper, even when the congregation said they wanted the pastor’s gifts. Models didn’t mesh and people were frustrated by a lack of something they couldn’t really explain. For example, you can be an engaging preacher, but if people believe the leader should be a relationship builder and he/she is not, you can’t preach your way out of that.

Tourist or Pilgrim?

March 23, 2012

I thought I’d offer something a little different than usual today. Here is a meditation by Macrina Wiederkehr. I have found it thought-provoking.

Tourist or Pilgrim by Macrina Wiederkehr

I stand on the edge of myself and wonder,
Where is home?
Oh, where is the place
where beauty will last?
When will I be safe?
And where?

My tourist heart is wearing me out
I am so tired of seeking
for treasures that tarnish.
How much longer, Lord?
Oh, which way is home?
My luggage is heavy
It is weighing me down.
I am hungry for the holy ground of home.

Then suddenly, overpowering me
with the truth, a voice within me
gentles me, and says:

There is a power in you, a truth in you
that has not yet been tapped.
You are blinded
with a blindness that is deep
for you’ve not loved the pilgrim in you yet.

There is a road
that runs straight through your heart.
Walk on it.

To be a pilgrim means
to be on the move, slowly
to notice your luggage becoming lighter
to be seeking for treasures that do not rust

to be comfortable with your heart’s questions
to be moving toward the holy ground of home
with empty hands and bare feet.

And yet, you cannot reach that home
until you’ve loved the pilgrim in you
One must be comfortable
with pilgrimhood
before one’s feet can touch the homeland.

Do you want to go home?
There’s a road that runs
straight through your heart.
Walk on it.

Change in the Mainline

March 7, 2012

Lately I’ve been reading “Protestant Spiritual Exercises” by Joseph Driskill. Driskill claims that mainline congregations share a similar spirituality, one that transcends denominational and theology boundaries. His idea is convincing and if it’s true it will affect how change and renewal efforts play out in mainline churches.

Decline has hit the mainline hard. Members often know little about spiritual practices, even those originating with their own founders. Congregations frequently score low in tests measuring passionate spirituality. Renewal and transformation strategies are common and reversing or slowing decline is a hot topic. Since these issues are so important in the mainline, leaders and members look for thriving congregations to emulate. Those congregations are often outside the mainline and are frequently evangelical.

Evangelicals, as a group, have a rich experience of praying for daily needs, devotional Bible reading, a relational approach to God, and a high level of lay participation. As a group, they tend to score higher on passionate spirituality tests. So, it seems like a good idea to bring those practices into mainline congregations to leverage transformation.

The problem is, it doesn’t work well and creates avoidable conflict. If Driskill is right, mainline spirituality doesn’t support these practices that work so well in evangelical circles. Asking people to engage in practices that don’t mesh with their theological and spiritual framework will be counter-productive. Further, in many ways, these practices don’t make sense to mainline members, so why would you do them?

Driskill spends time exploring mainline spirituality and these distinctive can be the subject of a following post. But what is significant is that he argues that yes, the mainline does need to deepen and broaden its spirituality. However, those practices need to be anchored within the current framework, not pasted on from somewhere else.

Driskill does offer a number of excellent suggestions for deepening and broadening mainline spirituality. Some are anchored in spiritual practices of denominational founders, such as Luther’s Simple Way to Pray. Others are based in Roman Catholic practices such as a prayer of examen or a practice of morning and evening prayer. Still others are more contemporary, such as relaxation exercises. But what is key is to understand and honor mainline spirituality as it is and anchor new practices within it rather than bringing in practices directly from outside.

Making Up Church

February 15, 2012

A few days ago my son sent me a link to a great post by Jeff Kloha from Concordia Seminary. He was reflecting on a recent Bible study series on Acts. It’s a thought-provoking post and well worth reading. Here is the link: http://concordiatheology.org/2012/02/with-one-accord/

Jeff argued, and rightly I think, that the apostles and the early Church were making things up as they went along. They didn’t have their own plan, they largely ignored the given plan, and they didn’t really know what they were doing. The Holy Spirit was working mightily but the early Church had a very mixed record for really listening. Some of those failures are detailed in Acts, in the epistles, and in history. Jeff goes on to claim that we continue to make things up as we go along since we have to adapt to a constantly changing environment.

 It’s nice to have someone admit that we’re making it up as we go along. Or at least that we should be making it up as we go along. We’re currently in the midst of major change in society and in the Church and we need to return to making it up as we go along. In leadership this is called building the bridge while you walk on it. Building the bridge while you walk on it is fine enough with a lot of skill, a good plan and good materials. Without skill, plan, and materials it can be a hair-raising experience, full of fear, ambiguity and risk.  That doesn’t look much like any Sunday morning or church planning meeting I’ve been to lately. Instead, we seem to be sitting on bridges that were built a long time ago that no longer go anywhere important, holding on tight as the bridge begins to crumble.   

Building the bridge means abandoning the old crumbling bridge that goes to nowhere. That can be pretty intimidating since we’ve been using it for so long. It also means being open to not knowing what to do, to not having all the answers. It means being open to different materials, different skills, and different plans than we’re used to. Some of these materials might be tried-and-true, but used in new ways.  Others will come from new places (and I’m not just talking about technology here).  It also means learning, yet again, to listen to the Holy Spirit, who knows a lot more about this process than we do. In fact, learning to listen to the Holy Spirit rather than pursuing the old plan is the beginning of building the bridge. 

Unfortunately, listening for the Spirit’s guidance is not a common practice in most congregations. After all, we know what we’re doing since we’ve been doing it for a long time. If we want to walk on the bridge while we’re building it learning to listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit is the place to start. There’s no time to waste. The old bridge is dissolving around us.

Our Feelings in Pictures

February 2, 2012

For Christmas I received “Grief and Organizational Change” by Kerri Kearney. This text is Kerri’s PhD dissertation published as a book. She explored how teachers and staff experienced change in their school and in their school system. I was interested in getting the book because there is very little written about how people in organizations experience and work through the grief that comes with change.  So, for me, it’s a great book to have because Kerri read all the existing literature at the time and thought deeply about how it applied to her study.

 One thought-provoking thing to me is that one of the methods she used for her research was having her participants draw. Each participant completed two drawing revealing how they felt about the changes they were experiencing. One drawing concerned the local change of a new school administrator. The second drawing concerned a system-wide reorganization. These pictures were then used as a way for Kerri to open her interviews by asking “Tell me about your drawing. . . .”

 Kerri’s participants were not artists by any means. Many pictures are stick figures or simple sketches, yet they are very revealing: A person crying; a person pulling his/her hair out; a person red-faced with frustration; a person with a stunned expression. There were also some happy faces, especially regarding the local change.  People were incredibly honest in their drawings and seemed to relish the experience.

 This use of drawings resonates with my experience leading a retreat on the Psalms last fall. One of my workshops was on using art media to portray a psalm portion. I asked the women to portray the essence of the psalm or feeling the psalm portion gave them rather than creating a piece of representational art (e.g. no streams in a meadow for Ps. 23).  It was a way of praying a psalm not using words. I was leery of doing this workshop since I’m not artistic and lack skills with even basic media. Yet this workshop was very significant for a number of the women. It gave them another way to encounter their psalm.

 The reason I’m bringing all this up is when we think about change and work with people moving through changes in congregations we do a lot of talking and, if we’re wise, a lot of listening. Yet much of what people experience goes beyond their ability to easily put it into words, especially if they’re upset or afraid. Creating a drawing enables people to access feelings other ways. And, it gives those leading through change information they need and perhaps can’t get any other way.

Opposing Viewpoints

December 20, 2011

Recently I was talking with a group about congregational culture. Those of us who have moved to different congregations within the same denomination know that congregational culture can have a large effect. Two congregations that, on paper, believe exactly the same doctrines and engage in the same practices can be very, very different. As I was talking with this group I explored the different factors that can create culture. I’ve explored those here the last few weeks.

What I haven’t done is offered a good definition of culture, and there are many out there. Some of the more well-known explain how cultures consist of ways of doing things, of rituals, of conversations, and how those are passed to others. But a definition I found intriguing stated: “A culture is not a pattern of total agreement, but a dialogue between opposing forces that agree on the nature of their opposition.”

The idea that culture is an ongoing dialogue is a useful one for keeping congregations healthy. Even within one congregation, there can be an ongoing dialogue (hopefully not a debate) about how to best be church in its community. This dialogue can be lively (or heated) at times, and there will be opposing or at least differing viewpoints. However, in unhealthy congregations, dialogue has ceased. It has ceased not because the congregation has solved all its problems, but because it has refused to entertain alternate ideas. Those who don’t conform must be silent or leave. I also like this definition because it surfaces the idea of agreeing on what we disagree about, which is the start for dialogue.

Another useful way to think about culture is to use the image of an iceberg. In healthy groups, much of the iceberg sits out of the water. People can clearly see what the culture is and can avoid bumping into it. In unhealthy groups, the iceberg is nearly submerged. People bump into the cultural views and practices and don’t understand why or how they get hurt. Yet to those within the group, the culture becomes completely invisible. It’s just the way things are and how could anyone not understand it? The challenge for congregations is to make their culture as obvious as possible. That involves explicitly thinking about what the group does and more importantly, why.

Will You Dance With Me?

December 9, 2011

 Yesterday I was watching some of the finalists of the “Dance Your PhD 2011” competition. Sometimes seeing an idea portrayed differently generates new ways of thinking. One of the finalists really got me to consider what happens in congregations. The video is entitled “Learning in a Physics Classroom Community” by Sissi Li (http://vimeo.com/30123248). The video is short, lasting 3.5 min. and I recommend watching it while considering your own congregation.  

First, I was struck by how creating an identity is a type of dance. Identity is based on our roles, our experiences, and who we interact with. Li showed that people entering a classroom begin to interact with ideas and each other creating a “dance” that is adapted to the music (environment). Some students are adept at dancing to the music. Others need to be taught the steps and welcomed in. It’s the adept dancers who welcome in those less adept.  

What’s the link to congregations? Sometimes spirituality is portrayed as a dance. Indeed there are even praise songs working with this idea. A congregation can be seen as a community with people dancing to the music they hear and like. But how do they welcome in others? How do the new people learn to dance? And do we welcome their attempts?  

Second, Li did a great job of portraying how change affects the group. As the music changed, some key dancers were now on the edges and others became central. As the music continued to shift, the dancers and their repertoires began to adapt. The community incorporated some practices (and dancers) and ignored others in an attempt to adjust. But it’s important to note that the music was not stable so the dance needed to adjust to the music (not the other way around).  

When new people come into the congregation, they bring perspectives, gifts, and abilities. Each person subtly or not so subtly affects the music and the dance. The congregation can choose to welcome the variations on the theme, the changes in rhythm, or a new tune all together. Or, the congregation can create a lock step where everyone dances the same dance all the time.   

Finally, Li asked what teachers (aka leaders) should do in a community with an ongoing dance full of dancers. Do they stop the music and teach the explicit steps outside of the dance? No! For Li, teachers pay attention to the dance. They model expert abilities (steps) so students can join in by imitation inside the dance itself. They lead interactions, which will shift the dance over time. And, they provide emotional support as people begin to learn new variations on the dance. These new variations are called “learning” and “growing.”  

If you think about the behaviors of leaders in congregations, Li’s suggestions about how teachers should act are revolutionary. But her suggestions are not all that different from how Jesus worked. Discipleship, which is one of the main goals of a congregation (vs maintenance) is indeed a dance. We all bring ourselves and our identities to the dance as we begin to learn new steps in dancing with Jesus. Leaders need to be working within the dance to teach the steps and their variations as the music changes.








Last post I talked about congregational identity and how denominational issues, ethnicity, and geography all play a part in constructing that identity. Very early in the group people make choices regarding these issues and as those choices are made repeatedly, the congregational culture is created. In this post I want to look at a couple of other factors that will affect identity.

Many congregations are founded (and indeed, largely persist) as generational cohorts. A lot has been written on the characteristics of different generations so I’m not going to address that here. However, the effects of the dominant generational cohort will persist in the culture. Those congregations formed in the ‘30s or the ‘50s will be different from those formed in the ‘70s. A congregation founded as a generational cohort is going to have a more difficult time attracting and keeping those from different cohorts since the culture is set up to serve the dominant generation.

The economy is also a factor. Research is showing that the current economic woes will have a long-lasting effect psychological effect on those most affected, especially young people just starting out. These effects will also be manifested in congregational culture and determine how the congregation views its resources. For example, does the group live with an attitude of abundance or scarcity?

The surrounding culture also affects identity. Many congregations were founded when there was strong social support for Christianity. Congregations depended on that goodwill and good image. That’s no longer the case. Congregations planted today will have a different view of what it means to be faithful in their community and how they negotiate cultural issues.

Finally, how was the congregation founded? Was it a top-down plant from the denomination? Was it a bottom-up Bible study looking for a denomination to be part of? Was it a daughter mission church or the result of a split? Those realities form how the congregation thinks about authority structures. They also form how they think about the idea of church and who is in charge of the congregation.

Why We’re Like This

November 14, 2011

I’ve been busy leading a retreat and a weekend conference this fall so I’ve let the blog slide a little as I’ve been preparing for those. But now I’m back. . . .

One of the topics I talked about at the conference was how congregations construct their identity. Anyone who has been to more than one congregation knows that even within the same denomination congregations can be very different. Congregational identity is the foundation for these differences. Research shows that identity forms very early in a group, often beginning with the second or third meeting. Very early on, congregations are working on how they understand themselves, make decisions, and interact with the world. Several factors work together to create identity and this post will look at a few.

If a congregation is founded within a denominational framework then obviously denominational theology, requirements, and viewpoints will have a role. However, denominations change over time. To see this change, one need only look at the past 100 years of hymnals. But congregations also own the denominational issues of the time they are founded. Are there denominational arguments occurring? Does the denomination feel threatened in some way? Is there a major theological shift occurring? What does the denomination say about what makes a “good” congregation? The congregation will develop its own stance on these issues and that stance will be perpetuated.  

Some congregations are founded as ethnic enclaves. This makes sense for immigrant populations since an ethnic congregation can be a safe haven for immigrants. However, what happens with the second and third generation? Does the congregation continue to perpetuate its ethnicity? If so, how? For example, many Lutheran congregations were founded as German or Scandinavian enclaves. The need for the enclave no longer exists but the rituals and perspectives continue to have a strong role in the congregation. How a congregation chooses to navigate its ethnic identity is important for long-term survival. So, is the Oktoberfest or bazaar a fun event or is how people make cookies or lefse a deadly serious issue?

A final aspect for this post is geographic location. Congregations founded in rural areas will be different from those founded in large cities. Similarly, congregations founded in the Pacific Northwest or the Northeast, both of which are largely unchurched, will have a different identity than those founded in the Midwest or Bible Belt. Whether or not a congregation has external social support affects how it sees itself and the world.