Navigating the changing waters of congregational identity is never a task for the faint of heart. As congregations grow and shrink, neighborhoods ebb and flow, cultures shift, and staffs evolve, churches struggle in overt and covert ways to discern who they are and what they are about. Navigating these rocky waters well can not only avert identity crisis, it can actually demonstrate pastoral excellence and result in congregational growth.

In our congregation, Plymouth United Church of Christ in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Ash Wednesday tradition is a prime example of the tensions that can arise when congregational identity is in flux. The service is at once bold and faithful. After an imposition of ashes, calling to mind the penitential nature of the Lenten season, worshipers are also anointed with oil and thus immersed in the healing power of the Lenten journey as well. By blending the traditional imposition of ashes with the ancient yet novel anointing with oil, the symbolism of these two acts breaks open the themes of the season in new ways. Yet, for at least one worshiper on our most recent Ash Wednesday, the additional ritual with oil did not serve its intended purpose as an entrée into the multivalent journey toward wholeness and healing that is Lent. Several days after the service, she proclaimed, “Ash Wednesday was just too…Catholic.”

This comment offers particular insight into the tug-of-war going on at Plymouth. Not only are anointings not a part of a Catholic celebration of Ash Wednesday, but Plymouth has celebrated Ash Wednesday with this multi-symbolic ritual for 10 to 15 years. What has changed are the ministers and the congregation. The former senior minister recently retired after 30 years of service, the former associate minister is now the senior minister, and a new associate is on the staff. In addition to these staffing changes, the congregation has been growing; this was our largest Ash Wednesday service in many years. Amidst changes in the culture of the congregation and its leadership, questions of theological identity are becoming more pronounced.

In a congregation that prides itself on its open-mindedness, whether or not something is “Congregational” has become a litmus test of orthodoxy. From clapping during worship to offering a sign of Christ’s Peace, all deviations from how things have always been done have become suspect by a small yet vocal population.

Underneath the Water 

In the midst of conflict it is easy to forget that congregational tensions can be only the surface layer of deeper issues. As Eric Law observes, we see only the top 10 percent of an iceberg. The vast majority of it is submerged beneath the water. As leaders in our congregation, it was important to search out the hidden issues in the conflicts we faced. To do this we needed to probe the stories of our congregation and our people.

Plymouth was founded in 1841 in what was then the Wisconsin Territory. Our founders came to Wisconsin from New England with the hope of recreating a Congregationalist Zion. Originally, the name of the church was First Church, but it was changed in the 1860s to Plymouth because, as a former minister says, “they wanted a more distinguished name.” We find that detail telling: just as significant numbers of immigrants began arriving in the city, our congregation renamed itself after a Yankee town.

Two generations later this story was repeated. Catholic and Lutheran immigrants from Germany, Poland, and Ireland moved into the church’s immediate neighborhood, spurring the congregation to move to the more exclusive northern part of the city. There they built a neo-Gothic sanctuary with Tiffany windows that looks more like a lovely English chapel than the white clapboard sanctuary that would have embodied the theological and aesthetical commitments of Congregationalism. Instead, the edifice was a physical reminder that they were English and not like their German, Polish, or Irish immigrant neighbors, thus emphasizing an ethnic identity over a theological one. This is significant because it tells us how important “being English” is to the congregation’s historical identity. The congregation had for a long time sought to assert its Englishness in a predominantly Catholic and Lutheran German city. When current members say something is “too Catholic” or “too Lutheran,” how much of the question is reflecting this long history of ethnic identity?

The Demographic Map 

Navigators require maps and sextants to find their way at sea. To understand the connection between our congregation’s history and its current situation, we created a demographic map of our community according to age, race, gender, zip code, family status, faith background, and length of membership. We first did this in 2005, repeating the process in 2007. This allowed us to not only visualize our community but to also observe its changing contours.

We knew that our congregation was changing as we continued to incorporate new members and their families. Now we had hard data on those changes. Several trends emerged as we compared our current demographics to those of two years earlier. Our median age has dropped from 43 to 40. More men than women are joining our community, creating gender parity (49 percent men to 51 percent women). The racial makeup has become slightly more racially diverse, though we remain whiter than our urban neighborhood. While we still draw primarily from the “car neighborhood” of the church (a two-mile radius), we are doing so from more economically diverse places in the city. In short, the map of our demographic changes highlights tension points of age, gender, race, and class.

The generational tension is key at this point. The former senior minister retired after 30 years of service. In contrast, the current senior minister and associate are 35 and 33 respectively. Many longtime members suddenly find themselves with ministers younger than their children! The influx of younger new members has also shifted the generational balance in the congregation, with Survivors (Generation Xers) reaching parity with the Baby Boomers. This also means that our over-65 generational cohorts make up a much smaller portion of the congregation (14 percent) than they once did. And, as new and younger members assume positions of responsibility, the church’s leadership is shifting to younger generational cohorts.

When we focus on the older generational cohort, a striking anomaly emerges. Fully one-third of our members over the age of 65 either went to seminary or are married to someone who did. Almost no members under 65 (other than the congregation’s ministers) are theologically trained. The over-65 retired ministers and their spouses were ordained at a time when the mainline was dominant and fundamentalism was politically silent, women typically didn’t work outside the home, racial segregation was legal, and Roman Catholic churches worshiped in

How We’re Changing 

Analysis of our demographics has given us a more nuanced picture of how growth is changing our congregation. In particular, it helped us to see that our retirement-age members were undergoing significant changes in their experience of church. This group, which was the most concerned with our “Congregational” identity, was frankly grieving: grieving the longtime friends who had died and grieving the retirement of their long-serving minister. They were also grieving their own displacement.

While we can all appreciate the effects of grief, the grief arising from displacement seemed to warrant specific attention at Plymouth. First, many of our over-65 members joined the congregation when we were a pastoral-size congregation, with about 150 in worship each week, on average. Our congregation has since begun to grow into a program-size congregation, with average attendance now around 200. Continuing this growth tra
jectory is requiring us to change longstanding patterns of operation and design. In the last few years, new leadership has taken on key lay positions. These leaders are not simply younger than their predecessors, they are also newer to the community. Lay leaders who gave dedicated service to the church when it was a pastoral-size congregation have found it difficult to hand the church over to new leaders now that it is a program-size church.

Adding to this reality, our newer members, regardless of age, almost always come to Plymouth United from outside the United Church of Christ. In the last two years only 10 percent of our new members have been from UCC congregations, and half of those were either returning members or our own youth joining upon Confirmation. The plurality of our new members are former Roman Catholics. This is easy to discern by the number of folks who cross themselves upon entering the sanctuary or when receiving communion. What Congregationalist members called the “organ side” of the sanctuary is known by some of our former Catholics as the “Virgin Mary side.”

While the “Catholicity” of our new members and ministers is an often stated concern, we think this is a catchall for the fact that so few people in our community are, to paraphrase Paul, “Congregationalists born of Congregationalists.” Longtime members, especially those who were theologically educated, often find that our new members do not know the unspoken patterns of Congregationalism. For most of our members it is an adopted culture, one in which we bring the gifts and the habits of our former traditions.

A recent debate captured how this issue of cultural identity is playing out in our context. Several members became concerned that the clergy and laity were using the term “pastor” for our ordained leaders instead of “minister.” Oft repeated was the concern, “Minister is the only word we’ve ever used. It’s what Congregationalists say!” Underlying this statement is the belief that “pastor” is a Lutheran term. The assumption was that if Lutherans say pastor then Congregationalists must not. Ironically, one conversation about this happened next to a stained glass window from 1916 bearing the inscription, “dedicated to the memory of Rev. John Miter, our first pastor.” Pastor was a word our ancestors had used. In fact, both pastor and minister were familiar terms historically (as were parson and divine). Yet some of our members have told us they will leave the congregation if we continue to use the “un-Congregationalist” word pastor. How many other congregations remember their own traditions falsely? And how many congregations die not for reasons of faith or theology but rather for cultural concepts—even, as in this case, falsely constructed cultural concepts?

Crossing from Past to Future 

One natural response to these conflicts would be paralysis. The path of least resistance would be to acquiesce to the desires of a small number of people to maintain the church in accordance with their vision of the past. Another natural response, the deification of the need for progress despite longtime members’ concerns, could feel bold and future-focused. We have chosen a middle ground, rooted solidly in pastoral care while at the same time taking serious Jesus’s mandate to go make disciples. Thus, our approach to conflict about our identity has involved two core practices: engaging pastoral care principles at a systemic level and clarifying our theological vision.

As can often be helpful in individual pastoral care, we have worked hard to help our grieving longtime members honor our past. We do so by intentionally remembering and celebrating our congregation’s history. As stories of significant events and movements that shaped the congregation are told, we ask members to write them down or share them more widely via children’s sermons, adult education sessions, or other venues. Whenever possible we strive to tie our new movements to the congregation’s historical core. Our former senior minister modeled the importance of maintaining our historical memory very well when the congregation was debating the acceptance of gay and lesbian people in membership. She framed the question historically, reminding the congregation that it had been on the wrong side of the abolitionist movement. This was a time to get a social question right.

Lifting up the importance of our historical legacy also takes the form of observing the church’s anniversary and taking church tours of the cemetery where our founders are buried. We also include stories from our congregational history in sermons. More significantly, as our growth toward program-size requires changes in our use of the building we frame these adaptations as reestablishing older patterns. Since our congregation was once a corporate-size congregation, we have many precedents to draw upon for our program-size adaptations. For instance, we moved the church office to an upper floor in order to reclaim the ground-floor office space for Sunday morning fellowship. We emphasized that this change was a return to how the building was originally designed to be used. It was not change but restoration. Like Nehemiah, we discover things hidden in the temple.

Addressing issues of grief systematically has also meant creating forums to discuss the changes in our congregation. In the last few years we’ve held congregational meetings more often, publicly addressed concerns, and privately sought to assuage grief arising from displacement and change. Often in these conversations we’ve found it helps to take people below the surface of their initial concerns to name hidden issues.

Mindful that some of our older members feel displaced by new leadership, we have sought ways to seek the counsel and guidance of these church elders. In the coming year we are forming an advisory team of former moderators as one way to formally cultivate those relationships.

Our second practice is to work with the congregation to clarify its theological vision. This process began as part of a strategic planning process. In our process we trained a group of lay members in our congregation to have one-on-one conversations with members to elicit their hopes, concerns, and core convictions about our congregation. A core group within the congregation continues to have these conversations with new and existing members. This process was key to helping us identify the congregation’s theological vision.

What emerged from the one-on-one conversations, as well as reflection on our heritage, was the importance of basing our community on a covenantal relationship with Jesus (instead of a creedal affirmation about Jesus), the preservation of local congregational autonomy, a commitment to social justice and civil rights, and a renewed energy for evangelism.

Such a theological vision is not surprising for a historically Congregational church. At the same time, our vision is not simply a reenactment of what the oldest generation thought or did. In particular, the renewed energy for evangelism harkens beyond our immediate past, where evangelism was a dirty word, to the values of our founders. What is emerging is a traditional vision reformulated in light of our current experiences. We are working to teach our congregation that fidelity to our tradition is not the same as living as a reenactment society, nor does outreach to new members mean living as if the present was not rooted in the past.

We work with our boards, adult education programs, and in our sermons to explore how we express our theological commitments. For instance, during the last year we’ve departed from preaching on the lectionary text to do sermon series on the Books of Acts, Ruth, and Jonah. A subtext in these books is inclusion in God’s grace of new people. Preaching on these books gave us a way to help our congregation deal with the impacts of evangelism: new people with new ideas. Knowing the theological vision of our cong
regation along with the sources of grief gives direction to our preaching and teaching.

In all of this we are working to help our members, new and longtime, learn our core theological commitments. When we work this way, our core convictions can help guide how we answer questions like “what do we do about clapping?” or “how often should we have communion?” Without a theological vision we might mistake clapping for an ultimate value. Instead, mindful of our vision, we can ask how clapping or not clapping helps us live out our commitment to share the Gospel with more and more people.

For us, the key to dealing with longtime members’ concerns while at the same time incorporating new members well has been to refine and remember who we are. This has not always been easy. We have chosen to address concerns head on, engage in honest self-assessment, offer pastoral care in a systemic way, and keep sight of our vision. In doing so, we are a healthier church than we once were, and poised to continue growing. The waters are still swirling, but now we have an idea of what lies below the surface.


Navigational Questions 

  1. Develop a demographic map of your congregation. You can do this by making a database listing everyone in your congregation and then recording age, race, gender, zip code, family status, faith background, and the year each person joined. Such information can be compared with the demographics generated by the U.S. Census for your zip code. What contours do you notice?
  2. How do members or regular visitors in the last two years challenge and support the status quo in your congregation? Do their reasons for joining differ from the reasons longtime members remain?
  3. How and why are longtime members grieving? How can this grief be acknowledged and helped to heal?
  4. What are the core theological convictions and community virtues of your congregation? Which of these are worth dying for? Are some of your core convictions “good news” that need to be shared?