by Tim Shapiro

Almost every congregation in the United States is dealing with a problem just beyond its capacity.

Let’s make this less abstract. What challenge is your congregation facing? I’m not asking about just any challenge, but a challenge that you haven’t figured out yet. Such a challenge means your congregation has the opportunity to learn something new. That something new might be fresh knowledge or different behavior or a changed attitude. Are you trying to decide whether or not to hire a new staff person? Or maybe your congregation seeks to find a new way to talk about God in a world where theological language from 400 years ago no longer resonates. Perhaps you came home from a meeting last night worried whether or not there will be enough money for the new mission project in Kenya. All of these challenges are learning opportunities for congregational leaders.

Congregations are places where people learn about God and a way of life consistent with religious commitments. Congregations are also human communities that need to function well organizationally in order to focus on a way of life consistent with the purposes of God. For a congregation to keep up with ever increasing demands, new behaviors need to be brought out through interactions that are purposefully educational.

How a congregational leader frames the congregation’s particular challenges will determine how he or she deals with the issues. If the leader views the congregation as a system, he or she will diagnose a challenge as a structural problem, that is, perhaps some part of the community is over-functioning while another part is under-functioning. If he or she frames the puzzle as a weakness of the congregation, he or she will move to problem solving. The solution will be to fix something; someone will suggest a SWOT analysis (looking at strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) that will answer the missional question. Or the leader can choose to see the issue as a question of discernment. If that is the case, he or she may use spiritual exercises that will bring God’s intentions to greater clarity.

All of these approaches are valid. However, the underlying dynamic for any approach to congregational health is the dynamic of learning. The capacity of congregations is inseparable from their ability to learn new skills and behaviors that match the complexity of the issues they face. Congregations that are able to address their challenges and opportunities in effective ways are inevitably effective learning organizations.

The term “learning organization” was introduced several years ago through the work of Peter Senge (notably in his book The Fifth Discipline). The concept of a learning organization is helpful for corporations, schools, non-profits, family run businesses, and it is natural for a religious community to assume stances consistent with a learning community. After all, what context is more conducive for learning than a community that seeks to make sense of the unknowable transcendence of God?

A lay leader of a Methodist congregation wanted to build a prayer wall in their gathering space, a place where prayers could be written on paper and then inserted into the wall as an offering to God. With the council’s approval, she gathered a team that spent two months studying prayer practices, as well as the history of Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The team consulted with an architect. Soon, a stone wall was built for the gathering space. Now, new prayers are added daily, people carefully insert pieces of paper with their deepest joys and concerns written on them. “We started with the need to deepen our prayer life, we moved to learning, and then to action,” she explains.

Congregations experience the most beneficial learning when clergy and laity work together with the benefits of an outside resource. By outside resource, I mean any number of outside helpers that fit the capacity, culture and context of the congregation’s challenge—a consultant, a book, a training session, a website, another congregation, a theological professor, and much more.

The juxtaposition of homegrown knowledge and that of an appropriate outside helper creates just enough tension for new ideas to appear. The word juxtaposition refers to the act or an instance of placing two or more things side by side.When two ideas that are different are put together in the same room, the tension that is created can be used to fuel a learning experience. The gaps, the conflict, the energy creates inertia for solutions.

Your congregation is a learning community. To what degree will you become more conscious of positive learning dynamics to reach the goals that are most important to you? Regardless of the issue, regardless of what resource or method you use, know that gaining capacity to effectively reach your congregational goal is an educational endeavor. There is no diploma at the end, but there is the intrinsic satisfaction that you are using your heart, mind, and soul for God’s purposes.

Congregations magazine, 2013-07-10
2013 Issue 2, Number 2