At the Center for Congregations, we believe that congregations are learning organizations—that they have the capacity to learn and change. They are communities of leaders and teachers, students and learners, and educational events are great learning tools for them. Attending a conference or workshop provides fresh ideas, new insights, and generates enthusiasm. Putting the innovative ideas and plans presented into action, however, can get lost, forgotten, or met with lukewarm reception once the event is over. In the Center’s 12-year history, we have learned that when clergy and laity attend events as a team, the likelihood of the ideas getting lost once they’re back home diminishes.
Many clergy doubt that they can get others to attend seminars or workshops because their members lead such busy lives. When the Center started, we thought that would be the case, too, but we have since learned that even on weekdays more than 60 percent of our workshop attendees are laypeople.
Laypeople have a high level of investment in and commitment to their congregations. At a recent daylong conference on using positive change tools in congregations, there were participants from 40 congregations. Forty-four clergy were in attendance. But what’s striking is that 120 laypeople attended on a Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. That’s not unusual in our experience.
So spread the word and invite a team. They’ll probably say yes. As a clergy leader, you may be the first person to hear word of an educational opportunity. Let people know that you are interested in attending and invite them to attend with you. A broadcast invitation may do the trick. But a personal invitation to those individuals who are most involved in the topic of the educational event yields better results. Along with the personal invitation, offering to pay for everyone else’s registration fees out of the pastoral professional development fund or a designated fund will also increase the sense of team learning as important.
Look for events that offer registration discounts for teams. Also, ask workshop presenters to include group activities and make time for participants to ask how the material presented is relevant to their particular congregations.
One pastor who has attended several Center educational events told us about the benefits she has experienced from attending with key leaders in her church. “Laypeople often look to pastors to have answers and insights,” she said. “But when a team attends an event, they are able look to themselves for answers because they have all shared an experience and have common information to draw upon. Being able to address their challenges, questions, and opportunities is empowering to laity.”
Crucial to gaining this empowerment is setting aside time and space to reflect on one’s own congregation. Treat the educational event as an opportunity to get a balcony space.1 A frequent comment made at education events after lay leaders have engaged in conversation with members from other congregations is how reassuring and normalizing it is to know that other people in other congregations are experiencing the same problems. This speaks to the greater theme of seeing one’s congregation from an outside perspective.
Attending a conference or workshop provides this kind of balcony space for clergy and laity to reflect on their congregations through the lens of other congregations’ experience and the new information they hear from a presenter. If you haven’t taken the opportunity to examine your own practices, you may not know how important they are. Your congregation might think its small group ministry is run-of-the-mill. But given the opportunity to tell the story of the ministry, you may see it reflected back to you in a way that makes you excited about it all over again.
We’ve also found that excitement multiplies when a team attends an educational event. For example, a congregation whose clergy and lay leaders attended a Center event about positive change processes has made use of the tools in various ways, but by talking about what they learned to members who didn’t attend the event, they passed on their excitement. Key ideas then got introduced in parts of their church’s life not represented by workshop attendees.
Participating as a team of clergy and laity in educational events empowers the whole congregation. When multiple people participate, they bring to bear multiple lenses through which they generate their own interpretations, insights, and applications for new ideas. Conversations “back home” reach deep and wide and have a longer shelf life than when only the pastor presents new learnings and ideas. ?
1. Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press), 51–55.
Kara Faris is education director for the Indianapolis Center for Congregations