Q: You wrote an article in the Summer 2006 issue of Congregations titled “Leading into the Promised Land: Effective Lay Leadership in Resilient Congregations.” Given the ongoing realities of mainline decline, has your thinking about congregational resilience changed in recent years?
A: The answer to that question is both yes and no. When I look back over my consulting practice of the past year and listen to the work of my colleagues at Alban, I see so many congregations successfully adapting to new realities and charting their courses for the future. There is an abundance of gifted lay people and clergy who are deeply committed to the health and vitality of their local congregations. I’ve never been so inspired. One of the greatest joys for me has been to see congregations taking spiritual growth and development so seriously—getting back to the basics of what it means to be part of a community of believers.
The answer to that question is both yes and no. When I look back over my consulting practice of the past year and listen to the work of my colleagues at Alban, I see so many congregations successfully adapting to new realities and charting their courses for the future. There is an abundance of gifted lay people and clergy who are deeply committed to the health and vitality of their local congregations. I’ve never been so inspired. One of the greatest joys for me has been to see congregations taking spiritual growth and development so seriously—getting back to the basics of what it means to be part of a community of believers.
However, I read the numbers just like the rest of you and the part that continues to be so scary is the downward trends in attendance and participation and the language of “death tsunami” (coined by Lovett Weems) as the death rate in our country increases and continues to affect mainline participation. I have also seen the effect of the recent economic recession on our congregations. Some have just had the stuffing knocked out of them. I used to believe that most congregations could be resilient but I see many more congregations that are “living beneath the threshold of change” (as one of my colleagues used to call it). And, yet, even for these congregations, there are many more creative options for their futures than ever before.
A new and very personal metaphor has come to me recently. My family and I have been going through a major developmental change in the past year and a half—one that just about every family goes through at some point. Our only child left the nest in August 2011 (a year early!) to do his senior year of high school in a college setting. While many parents are thrilled to have a more “spacious nest” our nest suddenly felt big, empty, and too quiet. To make matters worse, our elderly golden retriever died a few months before our son left for school. I realized very quickly how much of my identity as a person was tied to being “the mom” and I didn’t have that job to do in the same way anymore. This sacred part of my existence went by too fast. I wasn’t fully prepared for the transition.
Rev. Kara Root recently wrote,
There is often so much I wish I had said or done, or hadn’t said or done, and the moments slip through my fingers. But we do the best we can with what we have, and we entrust them into God’s hands, and then ourselves as well, as we lie down at night and contemplate what a holy and terrifying endeavor it is to be part of shaping people” (Thin Places, December 2012, Vol. 14, Issue 2, Number 73).
There are so many congregations that feel empty and cavernous now and so many older members that remember how it used to be when there was much more life and energy in God’s house. Some of our congregations are still deeply grieving what once was and haven’t been able to adjust even though it may have been decades.
Thankfully, and by God’s grace, I have been adjusting to our new life as empty nesters. My son and I have shifted our relationship into one that is beginning to look more like a friendship. (He could actually tell one day through a text message that I was a little down and asked if I was okay! The technological sophistication of this generation is staggering!) I have reaffirmed what Fyodor Dostoevsky once said that “the soul is healed by being with children” as I have entered into what I am calling my “pre-grandparenting stage.” I will always need kids in my life and am blessed by great friends who let me hang out with and spoil their kids. I also realized that I need animals in my life and started volunteering at my local humane society. What a joy it is to witness the connection happening between a potential adopter and one of God’s furry creatures!
Ted Bowman (a professor, writer and consultant here in Minnesota) shared with me a unique way of understanding an old concept in a quote from Mary Lynn Pulley, which I have used many times: “Shapeshifting is a fluidity of thinking and acting that allows for continuous adaptation to change.” I also love the quote from Henri Bergson I’ve sometimes used on my Alban webpage: “To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” I have changed the way that I think about resilience. Rather than simply being the ability to bounce back from misfortune I find Judith Jordan’s definition much more helpful. She has challenged the notion of resilience as some form of intrinsic toughness that only a few special folks could experience. Instead she defined resilience as a human capacity that can be developed and strengthened in all people through growth-fostering relationships. Once again, it’s all about the relationships with one another and with God.
Our congregations are going through a miraculous and inspiring time of change and adaptation and I am so excited to see the changes that have needed to happen for a long time. Not every congregation is going to survive intact but I am now convinced that we will be stronger and more faithful communities in the future.
2013 Issue 1, Number 1