Spiritual leadership is occurring wherever members of the faith community are weaving new strands of connection between the Source of meaning (as defined by their religious tradition) and their present situation—with all its perils, opportunities, and choices. The act of weaving, no matter who is doing it, is spiritual leadership.—Alice Mann, Where Does Vision Come From?

Once upon a time there was a church called Crooked Creek.…We begin with these words so that you will know we are going to tell you a story. It is a special kind of story, one about the power of story, and how a congregation tapped into that power through the work and prayer of many leaders.

Something about a story draws us in. As an engaging narrative unfolds, we begin to anticipate movement in the plot. Where is the story going? What will happen next? How will the central tensions in the plot be resolved? Congregations have stories. Living congregations have unfinished stories, and guiding a process that shapes the story of a faith community is an important aspect of congregational leadership.

Most often, leadership is defined as the act by which one person—the holder of the top position in the organization—both sets the agenda for others and brings them along, so that they adopt and implement that agenda together.1 But a different kind of leadership is emerging in some congregations—one in which clergy and lay leaders understand their role as the formation of narrative. In shaping the story, a community of people tells about what was, what is, and what might be. No one person dictates or controls this process. Instead, it flows from dialogue among members of the congregation as they listen and speak to one another about the unique history of their congregation, and about the relationship between their congregation’s story and the larger story of God’s work in the world. It is a process of meaning-making.(2)

E. L. Doctorow has observed, “[T]he gifted storyteller always raises two voices into the lonely universe, the character’s and the writer’s own.”(3) The same is true for those who shape the story of a congregation. Leaders who participate in the formation of narrative interpret the history of their congregation and suggest ways in which that history might be pointing the congregation into the future. We tell here the story of congregational leaders who guided a process of narrative formation in a long-established church. Their process offers an excellent model of cooperation and teamwork that connects heritage to vision. The work resulted in a renewed appreciation of the congregation’s history and its unique calling. It also generated a widely shared sense of expectation of how the present congregants could work as partners of God in writing an exciting new chapter in the unfolding story of their church.

This process we are about to describe included three key components. First, a team of laypeople researched the congregation’s history and shared what it learned with other members, who were invited to add their own memories and ideas to the team’s findings. Second, an evocative question was posed to the entire congregation, stimulating imagination and drawing all members into the work of narrative formation. Third, a pastor with a collaborative leadership style listened carefully to the congregation’s dialogue about identity and purpose, and used his role of worship leader to interpret that dialogue and to posit some of its implications for future ministry. Eventually, a vision of the future emerged. A path to that future was discerned. And because both the vision and the path were the result of an open, inclusive congregational process, church members now sense that their heritage informs this pilgrimage, and that God is present to bless and guide them on the way.

One Congregation’s Story 

Once upon a time there was a church called Crooked Creek. For 165 years, the Baptists of Crooked Creek grew and thrived and sent roots deep into the soil of their community on the northwest side of Indianapolis. Over many years, the congregation established a strong identity and a sense of purpose. As a new century dawned, the leaders of Crooked Creek Baptist Church sensed that their congregation was ready to embrace a new vision for ministry. In the early months of 2000, leaders met frequently to talk about the future. But they made little progress until an Alban Institute workshop prompted them to research their history and share what they were learning with fellow church members. We both were involved with this event—Alice as workshop presenter and Fred as staff from the Indianapolis Center for Congregations. The process launched at the workshop took nearly a year to unfold, but it continues to pay rich dividends. The congregation is now engaging in a process of change that flows naturally from its unique identity and purpose as expressed over time.

Henry Ford once declared, “History is bunk.” But if he had ever led a change process in a historic congregation, Ford might never have uttered those words. Indeed, he might have discovered that history can be a good friend to those leading change in congregations and, paradoxically, a powerful ally in the work of discerning a vision of the future. History can authorize and energize a future-oriented vision for ministry. In long-established congregations, the way forward begins with a creative look back.

“A group of us met for several months prior to the workshop to talk about our future,” reported the Rev. Michael Snow, senior pastor. “But at that time we were focused on statistics and programs, not on identity. The process with Alice Mann really helped us with identity.” Now in his mid-40s, Snow served as associate pastor of the church for 14 years before being called as senior pastor in 1996. He had read books and articles on church health and church growth. But which ideas touted in the books and articles were the best fit for this congregation? And how would new ministries relate to the congregation’s heritage?

In fall 2000, the Indianapolis Center for Congregations invited Crooked Creek Baptist Church to become one of five congregations working with Alice Mann in a yearlong size-transition process. Crooked Creek’s leaders accepted the invitation enthusiastically. The first event of the project provided the direction they needed to begin connecting their heritage with present-day ministry opportunities. That connection has shaped the church’s vision of the future and has energized a transforming process of change.

Layman Fred Cartwright had an epiphany during that event, an all-day workshop led by Alice in October 2000. “At that first plenary gathering, Alice asked several questions that intrigued me,” he recalled. “I was especially intrigued by her question ‘What is the unique calling of your church?’ Our congregation had a pretty diverse group of members present at that event—young and old, male and female, black and white. I became a scribe for the group’s conversation, making notes as we talked together.” The give-and-take was particularly lively during an activity Mann called “The History Grid” (below).

In this activity, church members visited three significant eras in the life of the congregation: its founding, its “glory days,” and the present. The goal of the exercise was the formation of narrative—the emergence of the congregation’s story about itself—shaped by clergy and laity together. Reviewing the completed grid, they asked themselves if themes emerged, whether perhaps there had been a persistent calling or sense of purpose that had remained constant throughout the congregation’s history.

“In my work as a program director for General Motors, I frequently use a business card,” said Cartwright. “And I remember thinking to myself, ‘If Crooked Creek Baptist Church had a business card,
what would be printed on it?’ How could we describe concisely who we are and what we are about?”

At the end of this first size-transition event, the church moderator announced that he was forming four groups to pursue the work of size transition: a demographics team, a barriers-to-growth team, a communication team, and a calling team. While the word “calling” might normally conjure up images of telephone contacts or home visits, this particular “calling team” was charged with researching the congregation’s history to discern its unique vocation. As part of its exploration, the team would ask a key question: At this time in our history, are we called to make room for more people? Since Fred Cartwright had always had a keen interest in history, he volunteered immediately for the calling team, hoping that the group could help Crooked Creek Church discover, cherish, and build upon its heritage. Four others joined him.

Researching the Past 

The calling team was especially interested in researching an aspect of the congregation’s history that came to light during the history grid activity. Fred Jones, an African American who had been a member for many years, told the group that the church’s neighborhood on the city’s northwest side had long been home to black residents who had been deeply involved in community life. In fact, he reported, one of the church’s 14 founding members was an African American—a rarity in 1837 Indiana. This fact was news to nearly everyone present. Dr. Snow recalled having heard it several years before, though he had never seen confirming documentation. He would not have long to wait.

Few people are tempted to read through the voluminous yellowed minutes of old church business meetings. Still, each member of the calling team agreed to research a specific period of the congregation’s history. “It was a humbling experience,” Cartwright recalled. “We began to sense how important the church had been in the lives of those who had gone before us. We started to appreciate that our congregation’s heritage is a sacred trust. I was fascinated by what I read. I wondered what these folks had been thinking and feeling. For the most part, I had to read between the lines to speculate about such things. And that was a lesson in itself. If researchers 50 or 100 years from now seek to discover how we felt God was moving in our church in 2002, to what sources could they turn? I would like to see us develop a more comprehensive approach to cataloguing our history. Could we use time capsules? A different approach to reporting that would include more narrative? How would this new approach be developed and maintained? We have not yet answered those questions.”

Each member of the calling team made notes during its review of church records. These notes were collected into a 30-page document. Other historical material was added, including civic records from the Crooked Creek community. Eventually, the team developed a multilayered timeline spanning 200 years, from 1800 to 2000. It contained most of the data generated by team members’ research—church membership, church events, pastoral leadership, church building, community events, and world events. Cartwright recalled: “We put it all up on poster board, brought a video camera into the room, and then invited some of our oldest members to come in, look over the timeline, and talk to us about their memories. They brought in old pictures and reminisced. We asked them questions and learned some new things. For example, we realized that during our centennial in 1937, other people did what we were doing now: they stepped back, took stock, and claimed a heritage. Now those videotapes have become part of our heritage. Ten years from now we plan to pull out that film and show it during our 175th anniversary celebration.”

Prayer for the Future 

While the calling team was scouring the congregation’s archives and preparing to share its discoveries, the entire congregation was called to a “season of prayer.” As a Christmas gift in December 2000, Cartwright gave Dr. Snow a small book, The Prayer of Jabez. This little-known biblical prayer seemed an ideal petition for a congregation desiring to be open to God’s future for them.

And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, “Oh, that you would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that your hand would be with me, and that you would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain.” So God granted him what he requested. [1 Chron. 4:10 nkjv]

Dr. Snow devoted a series of sermons to this prayer in February 2001. Members of the congregation were encouraged to pray this prayer each day, requesting God’s blessing for the purpose of an expanded witness. This process of simultaneously researching the past and praying about the future created an environment perfect for nurturing new visions based on historic strengths. The prayer created a sense of anticipation. How would God bless them in their life together? What forms would the blessings take? How would these blessings enable them to serve others in new ways? How would these new ministries of service shape the unfolding story of Crooked Creek Church?

The answers would come, in time, from the congregation as a whole. To stimulate dialogue, leaders began to pose an important question to all church members soon after the first size-transition training event. “What would it take?” This question was printed on buttons, banners, worship bulletins, and newsletters. For several weeks, the question alone appeared in a variety of places, with no accompanying explanation. This device created a buzz in the congregation. (“‘What would it take?’ What would what take?”) Eventually, church members were given the reference point of the question. It was rooted in the first size-transition training event, at which Mann had posed the question, “What would it take for your church to make room for its next 50 members?”

This question was discussed in a variety of settings for most of a year. The communication team designed experiences in which people could listen and speak to one another, openly sharing their hopes and fears related to change, growth, and hospitality. Connections were made between the church’s history and its future. The conversations centering on this question added a communal dimension to the church’s discernment about the future.

This, then, was the prelude to a compelling future vision at Crooked Creek Baptist. A large group of leaders attended a size-transition training event that started them talking about the relationship of the past to the future. They organized four teams of leaders, and these teams worked to include the entire congregation in the dialogue. Their history was thoroughly researched and shared while people prayed together expectantly for God’s new blessings and talked with one another openly about what it would take to welcome new people.

Discerning Themes 

Once the historical data had been collected, the calling group began a process of discernment. What themes emerged from its research? What threads of identity and purpose ran through the fabric of congregants’ common life over the years? The members of Crooked Creek had more than an academic interest in this matter, because their answers to these questions would give form and shape to their vision of the future.

“As a pastor, I have often been invited to guide individuals who were trying to figure out God’s will for their lives,” Dr. Snow observed. “Alice Mann helped create an environment for us to do that as a congregation. Just as individuals have unique combinations of spiritual gifts, personal experiences, and temperament, so also each congregation has a unique calling. Part of discerning that calling is to ask, ‘What has God already done here?’ God wil
l likely continue to work in a similar manner. The apostle Paul was addressing a congregation when he wrote, ‘And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’ [Phil. 1:6].”

“I understand my role to be that of interpreter,” said Dr. Snow. “As the congregation wrestles with who they are, and who they are becoming, I listen. Then I articulate what I’m hearing in a way that helps them gain clarity in the dialogue. And I keep our dialogue in conversation with the larger story of biblical narrative.”

Michael Snow is aware of the “pastor as vision-caster” model, in which the clergy leader comes down from on high and thunders, “Thus saith the Lord!” But he is uncomfortable with that model, because with its unilateral pronouncements, it fails to build ownership among people of the congregation, and leaves their gifts and perspectives untapped. On the other hand, he is not comfortable with approaches that leave the pastor out of the vision process altogether, as if the clergy leader had nothing to contribute. To Snow, the role of pastor as interpreter seemed to strike the optimum balance of clergy and lay participation in the envisioning process.

With great excitement, the calling team announced that its research had confirmed Fred Jones’s assertion that one of the 14 founding members in 1837 was black. His name was Morley Stewart; little else about him could be documented. But this knowledge confirmed that the church’s long-standing racial diversity was a reflection of its roots—it had been racially integrated from day one. Church leaders began to appreciate the strong connection between the congregation and its local community. Although some sections of Indianapolis had been virulently racist, the Crooked Creek community and church were markedly different. Residents of Crooked Creek had been involved in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape to freedom during the Civil War, and later they participated in the struggle for civil rights. Dr. Snow now sees the church deeply rooted in its community, stabilizing and strengthening generations of residents. “So much of who we are is rooted in where we are,” he said. “If we ever outgrew our facilities on this site, we would plant new churches in other parts of the city. I don’t think that we will ever move out of this community.”

The calling team invited many church members to participate in a dialogue about the congregation’s heritage and the implications of that heritage for future ministry. The team made presentations followed by small-group discussions at business meetings, Sunday school classes, and leadership retreats. Every person’s perspective was treated respectfully. Broad participation in the dialogue created interest in the calling team’s research. Eventually the congregation discerned five themes that had remained constant over the years:

1. Family-focused with a tradition of generations of worshipers.
2. Loving, caring community of believers who convey a cordial welcome to all.
3. Committed pioneers, drawn together far and wide as one family of God.
4. A cultural kaleidoscope of believers.
5. Strong and steady pastoral leadership.(4)

Connecting Themes to Vision 

Crooked Creek Baptist Church now had a renewed appreciation of its heritage, an atmosphere of spiritual expectation, and some sense of what it would take to make room for 50 new members. But how could the leaders make specific connections between the congregation’s heritage and its vision of the future? Dr. Snow addressed this need by interpreting the congregation’s story in his role as worship leader. The church’s annual stewardship emphasis consisted of a series of worship services on the theme “How to Leave a Legacy.” One service focused on the subtheme “Pass It On.” Drawing from the biblical account of the influence Eunice and Lois had on Paul’s young coworker Timothy (2 Tim. 1:1-9), Dr. Snow noted how families pass on cherished values from one generation to another. In the same way, he said, values in the family of faith—the congregation—are passed on. The sermon included a presentation by Fred Cartwright, who shared the calling team’s report with the entire congregation. In his teaching on this topic, Dr. Snow introduced the image of a bridge. The bridge spanned the distance from Crooked Creek’s past to its future, he said. The pillars supporting the bridge were the congregation’s cherished values. To pass on these precious values effectively to a new generation, the congregation would have to express them in fresh ways.

This symbol captured people’s imagination. They became conscious of their place on the bridge. They began to plan ministries and programs linked to the congregation’s historical identity and purpose. For example, many families active at Crooked Creek Baptist have deep roots in church and community—some family names can be found in church records well over a hundred years old. But this multigenerational stability comes at a price: such churches are at risk of becoming insular, parochial, and closed to newcomers. How could the congregation’s values of inclusion and hospitality be used to balance the strong ties of fellowship and family tradition? Balancing close fellowship among members with hospitality for the stranger is an ongoing challenge for any growing church, but few congregations deal with the issue openly. Crooked Creek, however, scheduled a conversation about what it would take to reach out to those who were not yet a part of the congregation. One suggestion was made repeatedly during this dialogue: add a new worship service. That service was launched in September 2001. The congregation’s pioneering spirit is expressed in the new service’s nontraditional style.

The church’s history of being a “cultural kaleidoscope of believers” also had implications for the future. Congregants are now claiming their diversity as a gift to be celebrated, reaching out to their racially diverse neighborhood with a message of welcome and inclusion. Bilingual Hispanic church members are teaching classes in beginning and intermediate Spanish, so that other members can learn a new language to reach out to the growing number of Hispanic residents in the neighborhood. The congregation is planning to offer a Spanish-language service in the near future. The church also took under its care a local seminary student from Myanmar (Burma). He was hired as church custodian, though he also devoted many hours to caring for the needs of Burmese refugees in the community. He eventually became the church’s “coordinator of cross-cultural ministry” and started a Burmese congregation after Crooked Creek ordained him in June 2002.

Responses to the question “What would it take?” have brought other issues to the surface. Including more people has implications for the church’s facility, leadership development, programs, staff, and budget. Church leaders are now setting priorities and pacing the work to be done, so that the congregation may continue to thrive. They are gaining a renewed sense of purpose and focus. “This has really helped our self-esteem,” said Dr. Snow. “It’s easy to get discouraged—you’re not the biggest church, you don’t have the most programming. But then you realize that that’s OK—you’re unique! And that gives you a sense of freedom, because you don’t have to try to be all things to all people. Just be who you are.”

Fred Cartwright concurred. “This process has been a real affirmation for those of us who worked on the calling team. . . . We’ve seen that God has been at work in our church in the past, and now God is working among us today in similar ways. God has blessed us. God is blessing us.”

Where this venture will lead, no one can say for sure. But the spiritual leadership
provided by clergy and lay leaders at Crooked Creek has helped to produce a renewed spirit in this historic congregation. More and more people are stepping onto the bridge connecting the congregation’s past to its future. The old story is shaping a new story. The congregation is drawing from the best of its heritage to address the challenges and opportunities of ministry in a new day. There is joy in the journey.

1. Jerry B. Harvey, How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed . . . (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999), 111.
2. Wilfred H. Drath and Charles J. Palus, Making Common Sense: Leadership as Meaning-Making in a Community of Practice (Greensboro, N.C.: Center for Creative Leadership, 1994).
3. E. L. Doctorow, ed., The Best American Short Stories 2000 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), xvi.
4. Fred Cartwright, et al., “Discovering Crooked Creek Baptist Church’s Calling” report (Indianapolis: Crooked Creek Baptist Church, 2001), 1.