Q: Our Congregation feels stuck. How do we get unstuck?

A: It’s fairly common for congregational leaders and members to sometimes conclude that their congregation is “stuck.” When this happens, the underlying belief may be that something other than what is currently going on should be happening. Or there may be a desire that the congregation move forward in some direction—any direction! While the temptation is strong to move quickly into trying to “get unstuck,” there is a danger in moving too quickly—in other words, before learning from the present experience.

Grounding Your Assessment

Before rushing into action, take some time to explore what is actually occurring. First, be curious about why this feels like a “stuck” time in your congregation. Other than a feeling, what is your assessment based upon? Listing the facts or the events that you are basing your assessment upon will help to ground your assessment of “stuckness.”

Have you noticed how often we make assessments or judgments that are not grounded in facts or actual events? In fact, sometimes assessments are taken as facts. When we are open to having our assessments reviewed, we might discover that others are looking at the same events and coming up with different assessments or judgments of those same facts.

I have sometimes encountered congregations that get so enamored with their assessments, opinions, or judgments that they don’t think to ground these opinions in actual events. Sometimes congregations become so attached to their problem-saturated story about themselves that they don’t see the exceptions to this story (see story, page 19).

How Grounded Is It?

So first, be curious. Then examine how grounded or ungrounded your assessment may be.

When I am called into a consultation with a congregation in some sort of turmoil, I often start out by asking them a question like, “If I were to spend some time with you over the next few months, what would I come to appreciate about you as a congregation?” This is a disarming question for those who are ready to move into a litany of complaints about the congregation and its various problems. However, it is also an opportunity for the congregation and its leaders to affirm who they are outside of their current problems and complaints. So I encourage you to consider asking a similar question: What would those who encounter our congregation say they can appreciate about us?

A “Way Through”

Sometimes we may move forward haphazardly or prematurely in an attempt to “fix” things. The poet Robert Frost wrote that “the best way out is always through.” Based on my training in narrative therapy and my consulting work with congregations, I have found that asking questions can often provide a “way through” the stuckness so many of these congregations describe. Some of the questions I have found most effective for helping congregations decide upon a direction in which to move are as follows. I suggest trying these out in your own congregation.

  1. Where would you like to be headed as a congregation? What would you like to be as a congregation?
  2. What constrains you from heading in this direction or from being what you have just described? Rank the seriousness of these constraints.
  3. What are the effects of these constraints on who you are and on who you can become as a congregation?
  4. What supports you in moving in this direction or in being what you have just described you’d like to become as a congregation?
  5. Do you, as a congregation, favor where you are now? Why or why not?
  6. If not, what would you like to be doing instead?
  7. How will you notice that you are moving in this direction?

One congregation I know realized that they were stuck in a pattern of blaming their minister or the members of certain congregational groups for why they were not doing well as a congregation. As they examined the effects of blaming, they realized that it led to factions, to finding more fault, and to stagnation. This, they saw, was not helping them be who they wanted to be or to move in the direction they wanted to go.

So shift the conversation. Ask some different questions—and find a “way through.”

Larry Peers is a consultant with the Alban Institute. He specializes in whole systems approaches to congregational revitalization and coaches clergy and staff teams.