image credit: pexels.comby Tim Shapiro 

Congregations, or perhaps more precisely, congregational leaders, need to learn new skills all the time. Such are the demands on congregational life.

What do you do when your congregation either needs or chooses to do something new? Perhaps your congregation wants to serve the homeless, an entirely new endeavor. Maybe your congregation is working on a renovation of the building and it has been a decade since a significant building project. Maybe your congregation wants to think about worship or faith formation. Perhaps the new thing is addressing a long-term issue that the congregation has collectively avoided. No one needs help in creating a list of new demands on congregational life. Each can seem like starting a deep-space mission. Any congregation, your congregation, is expected to think and behave in ways that it has not yet learned with knowledge it does not yet hold.

Knowing how your congregation learns is essential to learning to do any number of activities. How congregations learn is a meta question that shapes the answer to all kinds of questions.

The Indianapolis Center for Congregations has worked with more than 3,000 Indiana congregations over 15 years. The Center has observed a learning framework used by congregations developing new capacities. The framework includes seven overarching behaviors. The behaviors apply to almost any congregational challenge. They are not complicated.

The learning framework is part of a deep structure of capacity development taking place in congregations that are effective at learning new skills. When a congregation adopts most of the activities that make up the framework, they are more likely to effectively address any challenge.

The seven behaviors do not come from a psychological framework, though they add to the emotional well-being of a congregation. They do not come from an organizational framework, though the activities strengthen the congregation as a system. The frame is religious in the sense that it reflects a theological understanding that congregations are basically healthy and able to sustain the learning they need to address challenges if given the right amount of assistance and time. The seven behaviors fortify strengths already present in a congregation while also enhancing the congregation’s relationship to its mission.

Here are the seven elements that make up the learning framework that the Center for Congregations has observed:

Congregations that learn well find and use outside resources.Congregations learn best about almost any topic when they use an outside resource in juxtaposition with their own ingenuity. An outside resource provides new perspective. The congregation’s ingenuity makes sure the learning is contextual and relevant to the particular congregation’s faith experience.

Congregations that learn well live within a worldview of theological coherence. Congregations that are grounded in a lucid theological perspective are more likely to have the maturity to act consistently with their religious commitments. This coherence provides opportunities for God to be noticed during the learning. Cues of theological coherence show up in mission statements. It is supported by adult education. Theological coherence is exhibited in everyday conversation—prayer during hospital visits, comments in hallways, Facebook messages, and so on. Learning to think clearly about faith, and articulate that faith publicly, aids congregational learning.

Congregations that learn well ask open-ended questions and practice active listening. Congregations learn when congregants do not assume there is a pre-determined answer to complex issues. It is obvious but rarely practiced: human beings, including congregants, learn best by asking questions for which they don’t know the answer.

Congregations learn well when clergy and laity learn together. It is not just that clergy and laity should work together. It is that they need to learn together. When shared learning takes place, respect and trust grows. Projects maintain their momentum because they are not too dependent on either clergy or laity.

Congregations learn well by attending to rites of passages. When new learning is taking place, it is important for congregations to pay attention to tender and mighty moments of existence: birth, graduation, marriage, divorce, illness, recovery, and death. Nothing teaches like life. Attending appropriately to rites of passages is also a way to practice theological coherence.

Congregations learn well when they slow things down. Creating a sense of urgency makes sense when there is an emergency or when the congregation is becoming stagnant. Some congregations need a sense of urgency to consider a new endeavor, but are best served when they use their momentum to discern, not rush to action. Learning requires thoughtfulness, which requires time. Slowing things down is a way for congregations to allow their thinking to catch up with their praying and their praying to catch up with their thinking.

Congregations learn well when they say “no” and say “yes”: When a congregation takes on a new initiative, another activity likely needs to be discarded. Congregations that affirm what matters most as well as that which matters less are best able to gain new capacity to address their challenges. Congregational capacity is not a zero-sum game. Focus is.

Some congregations follow the learning framework naturally. Their leadership is wired to learn in this way or they have integrated the behaviors into their life together based on experience. Some congregations need to initiate, for the first time, some of these learning behaviors.

Congregations are by necessity learning all the time. New challenges require new capabilities that require learning. Whether paving the parking lot or training in monastic prayer, adopting the seven learning behaviors as a part of congregational practice strengthens the possibility of positive outcomes. Your congregation has all kinds of new challenges waiting and it deserves to learn its lessons well.

Tim Shapiro is president of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations. Prior to this, he served 18 years in pastoral ministry, 14 of those at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Xenia, Ohio. Prior to his service at Westminster, he was pastor of Bethlehem Presbyterian Church in Logansport, Indiana. He is the co-author of Holy Places: Matching Sacred Space with Mission and Message.

Congregations Magazine, 2012-06-15
2012 Issue 2, Number 2