At Marble Collegiate Church, we have gone through an extensive process of exploring and embracing our church culture, an experience I shared in an earlier Alban article on church ethos. Ethos is an intangible quality that is forged through shared experience, and it has a bearing on all aspects of church life.

My reflections prompted a number of inquiries as to the process we used to define our culture.

First, after crafting the work of our vision, mission and values, we stepped back. We began an intentional time of asking questions and listening to the people in the pews as they described what was sacred to them about the church community. We asked questions like: “What are your most vivid memories of [church]?” “Use three words or images to describe [church].” “What keeps you in [church] or keeps you coming back?” “When are you most disappointed in [church]?” “How would you invite someone to attend [church]?”

Interestingly, the elements our members held up as sacred were not always “theologically correct.” That’s okay; it’s our reality, and we have to own it. Certain phrases and concepts bubbled up frequently: “relationships,” “welcoming,” “a place where I knew I belonged,” “healing and caring friends,” and “community.” These were uttered again and again.

Next, I took intentional time to meet with key staff in one-on-one sessions and in group formats. We brainstormed and explored our impressions of our people’s moods, passions, interests, disinterests and interpretations of history. We kept coming back to one central theme: ours is a church of belonging, no matter who you are or where you come from, and in that space of belonging, relationships are significant. Yes, we have great preaching, superb music, outstanding programs and solid outreach. But the reason people come and stay is that they experience a sense of deep connection with each other. In this place of warmth and openness in New York City, they feel “home.”

 The staff and lay leadership then had a one day “intreat” where we refined this initial concept. As we came to define our findings into a cohesive construction, “Covenant Community” became a predominant identity.

With feedback from staff and lay leaders, I put together a presentation of Covenant Community that I shared in a series of conversations – first with the Consistory (Board of Elders and Deacons), and then the staff as a whole, and then the Ministries Council (a body of representatives of each ministry along with staff counterparts). In each setting, I heard validation of our findings, as well as suggestions and even a few conflicts. These were opportune times to refine our understanding and further shape the overall scheme.

Perhaps the most important insight from these conversations came in the form of a question: “Now that we better understand who we are, what do we do with that knowledge?” The process of answering that new question has led us to integrate our vision, mission and values into a comprehensive theme for the program year that all areas of the church can fully adopt.

This year is proving to be an exciting one. Collaborations and strategic alignment for the Covenant Community’s programs are coming together better than we could have hoped or dreamed before we began this process. The staff feels we now have a goal to reach and an exciting path for getting there.

Here are a few observations that we gleaned in this process:

  • It is absolutely critical that you know the church’s history — where it has been and where it seems to be going. Records capture dates and key facts, but a community’s ethos lives in the stories people share. Pay attention to the key words and phrases they use when sharing their memories.
  • Write and re-write. In each draft of our concepts and findings, we got closer to capturing the essence of our culture. But even now, these ideas continue to evolve. Churches, like all living things, are organic organisms that adapt and resist internal and external forces.
  • Do not be surprised if some of your best leaders struggle. Sometimes individuals are unable to step out of their own ethos and project personal ideals and agendas that don’t mirror reality. Pay particular attention to your own biases and challenge them. To be faithful and true to the process, leaders must step away from what we “want” the ethos to be, and embrace what exists. I suspect the ethos of some congregations may directly challenge the scriptural, theological and ethical ideals that we are called upon and historically embrace in the Christian faith. These instances will certainly require a separate process of engagement and discernment.

Discerning and claiming a culture can be daunting. Ethos is reality, whether we readily enthusiastically embrace it or not. Naming and claiming its presence is the first step to navigating out of the storm and sailing into a thrilling adventure.

The Rev. Dr. R. Mark King is the executive minister at Marble Collegiate Church in New York, NY.

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