Before my arrival as pastor at the United Church of Christ in Norwell, Massachusetts, the congregation had plans underway to revamp its organizational structure. Their experience was one that is true for so many Christian communities today: Too few people are doing too much work in the church. Church leaders, both lay and ordained, grow older and grayer and they eventually burn out. That had become the situation at UCC Norwell toward the end of the twentieth century. The church was only a few decades old, but the organizational structure had become a burden that fewer and fewer people were willing to bear. The church had significant lay participation, but the boards and committees that oversaw the day-to-day operations of the church were slowly breaking down. The nominating committee had to call people up and beg them to join church boards. The sales pitch was nearly desperate: “Will you please, please, please join the trustee board? No one else wants to do it.” Needless to say, that is not an effective means of drawing in new members.
The truth was that the different boards and committees were so overburdened with tasks that any sense of fellowship and passionate mission was drained out of them. The deacons, for example, were responsible for worship—and all of the minute tasks that that entails—as well as for following up on absent church members, collecting information from visitors, running new member classes, and making sure that coffee was available for fellowship hour. The tasks lacked a central focus, and the board members lacked passion for their work. In fact, it felt as if any miscellaneous task the church needed done but didn’t have a proper home for fell to the deacons.
Additionally, because the different task groups were already maxed out with their load of commitments, this meant that starting new ministries was not something that could be freely considered or encouraged. Even if the church could find enough leaders for its board and committee structure, the structure itself was preventing ministerial innovation and growth. If that was not bad enough, because all board and committee chairs had a seat on the church council, few people wanted the position because of that additional commitment.
Thankfully, a couple of years before I began my ministry in Norwell, the church begun a process of reenvisioning its structural and institutional life. A task force was formed with the explicit instruction to develop a new way of gathering around the varied tasks of the community. A church consultant was brought in to help energize the imaginations of the congregation. Project 2000, as it was called, was launched . . . and shortly thereafter a new pastor was called.
Project 2000 was a multiphased structural visioning process that took several years and numerous task forces to complete. Different task forces began to sense that the purpose of gathering people together in the structural life of the community needed to be more than just about completing a task. People rarely felt called to tasks, but almost always made room for relationships. If the work of the church was going to have any connection to the work of God, then the tasks in which the church engaged had to be primarily about relationships—relationships with God and relationships with one another.
Building Christian community was the first priority of the church; task accomplishment would be a somewhat distant second. This came to mean that the how of our gatherings was more important that the what of our time together. The way we gathered was of greater importance than what we did when we gathered. If teams were going to gather around particular tasks, then we had to set some expectations for how community could be more deeply cultivated while engaging in the work of the church.
The various Project 2000 task forces also began to sense that people should be prompted to ministry inside and outside the church, not by a sense of guilt but by careful discernment of call. In short order, the work of Project 2000 demonstrated the need to have a callbased organizational structure. If we were going to engage in a particular ministry, we would do so because a group of people felt truly called by God to engage in that work. We would no longer engage in ministries simply because we had always done so. If we were going to be a callbased church, we had to honor the fact that we might be called away from long-standing ministries that we had always deemed essential. This was one of the most significant leaps of faith our community took in the whole restructuring process.
As is the case with most churches, our community is quite reluctant to give up long-standing ministries, even if there aren’t enough people to support them. Moving to a call-based structure would potentially require some letting go. Following this line of thinking, we had to grapple with the possibility that if we did not have anyone stepping forward to teach fourth-grade church school, perhaps, as a community we were not called to offer fourth-grade church school. If no one felt called to make and serve coffee after worship, perhaps we were not called to have coffee at Fellowship Hour. If no one felt called to join Women’s Fellowship, perhaps we were no longer called to that particular ministry. This was a challenging ethic to consider implementing. How could a church not have fourth-grade church school, or coffee, or Women’s Fellowship? What would it mean if no one felt called to be a deacon, or a trustee, or a member of the finance board? The church could literally fall apart!
These very real fears began to point to our need to trust in the Holy Spirit’s ability to form community, more than in our need to fill boards and committees. We began to suspect that the crisis we were facing was not a crisis of structure, but a crisis of faith. Whose work were we really trying to do? Did we really believe that the fortunes of the church rose and fell primarily by our own efforts? Did we assume our nominating committee was the only force for recruitment within the church? During this time I began to feel fairly passionate about letting the Holy Spirit take a greater hand in the running of UCC Norwell. If Jesus Christ was truly alive and active in the world, perhaps he could lead his church better than we could. If the church was only focused on doing what we wanted to do, instead of trying to discern what God wanted us to do, perhaps our most faithful action would be to shutter the church and join a secular civic organization instead. Of all the many blessings of Project 2000, one of the most pronounced gifts was the realization that the church was entrusted to our stewardship, but it belonged to Jesus Christ. If we were going to be faithful to Christ’s call on our community, then we needed to trust in the Holy Spirit’s ability to call individual members of our church into service.
Having experienced both the blessings and the challenges of this call-based, Holy Spirit-reliant ministry structure, I remain not only a fan but an advocate for this organizational model. I have come to believe that everything that is done in the life of the church is about building community. The music ministry team’s focus should not be about producing a flawless Christmas concert, but it should find ways to build community through rehearsal and performance. The trustee ministry team’s primary interest should not be about ensuring the most cost-effective approach to facility maintenance, but rather should be about how our building promotes fellowship. A prayer shawl ministry team gathering should be as intent on caring for one another as they are about stitching baby blankets and comfy throws. The reason for having any church structure at all is to help enhance and secure the welfare of the community. Staff, the church council, ministry team members, and other lay leaders should understand that their work is foundationally about relationship. The sharing and caring that we have witnessed through our ministry team model is evidence that our organizational structure is helping us to pursue our most sacred task—cultivating Christ’s community in the world.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog
Adapted from Scattering Seeds: Cultivating Church Vitality by Stephen Chapin Garner with Jerry Thornell. Copyright © 2012 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Scattering Seeds: Cultivating Church Vitality
by Stephen Chapin Garner with Jerry Thornell
In Scattering Seeds: Cultivating Church Vitality , Stephen Chapin Garner and Jerry Thornell share the story of their home congregation, the United Church of Christ in Norwell, MA. This average congregation has approached congregational life in a not-so-average way. Garner and Thornell don’t claim to have the secret to church growth and vitality, but in sharing the story of their simple church in New England, they give hope and innovative ideas to congregations in regions all over the country.
Encounters with the Holy: A Conversational Model for Worship Planning
by Barbara Day Miller
Many churches have active worship committees or planning teams, and an abundance of books and resources guide pastors and laity. Encounters with the Holy offers a conversational model of worship planning that was developed to train practitioners to be more reflective in their planning of worship experiences.
Practicing Right Relationship: Skills for Deepening Purpose, Finding Fulfillment, and Increasing Effectiveness in Your Congregation
by Mary K. Sellon and Daniel P. Smith
In a book that is both profound and practical, Mary Sellon and Daniel Smith make the case that the health of churches and synagogues depends on congregations learning how to live out love in “right relationships.” Practicing Right Relationship offers theories, stories, and tools that will help congregations and their leaders learn how to build and maintain the loving relationships that provide the medium for God’s transforming work.
Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple-Forming Congregations
by Jeffrey D. Jones
Traveling Together takes readers on a journey, providing a guidebook that maps out the factors facing congregations in this postmodern, post-Christian world and the Biblical foundations for understanding the purpose of the church—to become a disciple-forming community. Anyone concerned for the life and ministry of the church and who is seeking a new understanding of congregational life and mission will find hope and help in these pages.
NOW IS THE TIME TO GATHER YOUR GOVERNANCE TEAM, THEN SIGN UP TO LEARN THE KEYS TO A CONGREGATIONAL GOVERNANCE SYSTEM THAT EMPOWERS MINISTRY
Register before August 9 to take advantage of TWO discounts:
Discount #1: $30 Early Bird discount available on every registration through August 9
Discount #2: Additional 15% off all team members after your leader registers (team discount available throughout the registration period)
Governance and Ministry: Leading your Congregation through Governance Change
Leader: Dan Hotchkiss, Alban senior consultant and author
October 9-11, Techny Towers Retreat Center,
(near) Chicago, IL
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