by Tim Shapiro

Two congregations in Indiana are from the same protestant denomination. They are located in similar neighborhoods.  One congregation has increased their mission giving by ten percent this year, supports a group of 20-somethings who meet weekly for prayer at Starbucks, and just began a strategic planning process.  The other congregation is talking with the local judicatory about merging with another parish or even closing.

Why do some congregations struggle while others thrive?  Why do some congregations falter while others face their challenges with the sturdiness of Jesus in the wilderness?  At the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, we have discovered that congregational strength is linked directly to the congregation’s ability to learn.  It doesn’t matter if the learning challenge is related explicitly to the congregation’s religious claims and commitments (preaching, teaching, pastoral care, mission, and so on) or if the learning challenge is related to maintaining and improving the organizational health of the congregation (decision making, planning, building issues, staff supervision and such).  The congregation’s ability to develop new skills and ways of thinking in order to meet their ever growing demands is the primary indicator of a congregation’s health.

The demands on congregational life, whether the demand is related to interpreting the theological reality of grace or whether it is trying to choose which asphalt company is the best to repave the parking lot, are much different and more severe than a generation ago.  This is true in almost all spheres of life, not just for congregations.   Think how dealing with health insurance companies has changed in the past decade.  Or think how different it is for an 18-year-old to choose a college now than in the 1970’s.  These greater demands, when experienced in congregational life, create a need for clergy and laity to learn new ways of addressing challenges so that they maintain agency over their problems rather than the problems acting on them.

The mission of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations is to strengthen congregations by helping them find and use the best resources for the challenges and opportunities they have identified.   Our overarching method is an adult developmental learning model.  We assert that effective, sustained learning in congregations almost always involves a pivotal juxtaposition:  connecting an excellent outside resource (a book, a consultant, a seminar, a website and so on) with a congregation’s own ingenuity.  The Center’s role is helping the congregation find and use the outside resource.

The Center’s work intersects with a congregation at its level of readiness.  We seek to avoid the common pitfalls of assisting another person or organization:  providing what is not wanted, providing too much of what is needed, and/or prescribing solutions that do not fit the energy, capacity or commitment of the recipient.  Rather than a systems-driven or a therapeutic approach, we use a developmental approach.  Clergy and laity construct their own understandings while interacting with resources. The Center refrains from prematurely teaching congregational leaders ideas and actions they can discover for themselves.

After working with over 3000 Indiana congregations, the Center has observed that congregational learning is rarely linear.  There are stops and starts along the way.  Learning depends on congregational initiative.  It requires a third party that takes a non-expert stance but is willing to walk alongside the congregation to offer support (at the Center we think of our role as similar to that of the family physician).  We ask congregational leaders lots of open-ended, non-rhetorical questions—questions to which we don’t know the answers—in order to engage God’s imagination and creativity in them.  We find it all but essential for clergy and laity to learn together.  And all this resource work serves to slow the congregation down so that anxiety lessens, a greater opportunity space appears, and a congregation’s thinking catches up with its praying (and its praying catches up with its thinking).

The congregations that are thriving, those that are doing beautiful and powerful things in relationship to their religious claims and commitments, are those that learn in ways that extend their capacity to take hold of challenges rather than let the challenges control them. These congregations use a wide variety of learning practices. And they use outside resources to learn how to address the demands that, for the moment, are just beyond their grasp but soon will be in their hands, being shaped and formed for the life God has given them.

Tim Shapiro is president of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations.

Congregations, 2010-10-01
Fall 2010, Number 4