The Past Used to Be the Future
Let us begin with a deceptively simple question: “What has changed in the last fifty years?”
Perhaps you are old enough to reflect on this question directly. Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy was President, the first Roman Catholic elected to that office. Every boy wanted a Schwinn bicycle. Elvis Presley was wildly popular with teenagers, sometimes to their parents’ stern disapproval. The Soviet Union was considered the USA’s number one enemy. Thousands of drive-in theaters operated across the country. Telephone party lines were still common in rural areas. It was not acceptable for men and women to live together before marriage. Gasoline cost about nineteen cents per gallon. Honda made cute little scooters.
Now turn your attention to yourself: “What has changed for you, during your own lifetime?” For instance, have you lived in more than one residence? State? Country? How many schools did you attend growing up? Did you ever lose something or someone who was special to you? How many jobs have you had? Have you changed occupations? In what ways might your political or religious views be different than they used to be?
We hope that these two quick exercises remind you vividly of some unavoidable realities. Time does not stand still; life keeps moving. The biblical witness of our spiritual ancestors is filled by a story line that stays in motion. The way that things used to be is not necessarily how they are going to be. It has been common in our society to speak about this awareness in terms of “change.” In our experience as pastors, consultants and teachers, however, the two of us have seen how that word often is treated negatively. If you and your congregation believe that it “has to change,” you will find it difficult to muster the right kind of energy for the tasks ahead.
Consider, for instance, these highlights from one congregation’s story:
Promise and Peril in Center Street Lutheran
Center Street Lutheran Church was founded in 1855, the year that its Midwest farming community was incorporated as a town. Farmers and craftsmen had been immigrating to the area from northern Europe for some time, building new lives for themselves. Churches “immigrated” with them—assemblies that began meeting in homes and barns. By 1900, Center Street Lutheran had become the prominent congregation in town, with young teachers, physicians, and attorneys among its members.
During World War I, however, the use of the German language in public was being discouraged. After much difficult deliberation, Center Street Lutheran decided to continue the German language service, but to hold it at 8:00 a.m. The 11:00 a.m. service would be conducted in English. Two of the oldest members, who still spoke German at home, attended the 8:00 a.m. service but stopped participating in Sunday School, potlucks, and other events, and reduced their financial support significantly.
By 1950, the German language service had been dropped altogether.
One Sunday morning in 1975, a seminary intern at Center Street Lutheran brought a guitar into the worship service. He sang a Bob Dylan song during his sermon, speaking of the church’s call to social justice. At the next church council meeting, a motion to dismiss the intern immediately was defeated narrowly. Instead, the pastor agreed to preview all of the intern’s sermons for the rest of the year.
By 1990, the congregation provided a “contemporary” service at 8:30 a.m., with guitars leading music, all of which had been composed since 1965.
By 2000, Center Street Lutheran Church had been participating for a few years in an ecumenical food and clothing pantry. It was one of the last religious communities to get involved. For many of the pantry’s patrons, English was a second language, and basic matters of food, housing, clothing, and education were constant challenges. Center Street Lutheran sometimes was not able to fill all of its volunteer positions at the pantry. When the pastor reported at a church council meeting that the ministerial association was talking about a resource fair to be held in Center Street’s large fellowship hall, some council members balked.
In 2010, Center Street’s new pastor suggested to the church council that attendance was so small at the contemporary service that it be dropped and some of its features be incorporated into the 11:00 service. After a discussion that surprised her with its intensity, the council voted to drop the contemporary service and take no further action. That night, the pastor went home puzzled. The search committee had emphasized to her its interest in attracting families with young children.
Re-framing the Notion of Change
Unless your church is only a few years old, you probably recognize some things about it in Center Street Lutheran’s story. It becomes clear there that changes of different kinds occurred over a period of decades. How difficult is it, then, for a community of faith to account for change? Does it always have to throw us off or appear as a threat? What makes the difference in a congregation’s mind?
Thinking about life, the world, the passage of time, and our experience with congregations does make us vividly aware of how the future is not just like the past. This is especially true in today’s world, where the latest, fanciest electronic products often are surpassed by new models in only a matter of months. While Madison Avenue might have kept itself in business by creating infinite versions of the idea of “new and improved,” we are not always nor easily convinced. Change does not automatically generate a welcome!
What if we used a different term instead? Sometimes reluctantly, our congregations do understand—at least at one level—that “change happens,” that their futures likely will not be exactly the same as the past. But how do they perceive the impending circumstances? The two of us are suggesting that the idea of transition might be less threatening and hence more useful.
For one thing, transition seems to be a more neutral word. It is less likely for someone to use this term to describe something that he or she assumes is bad. Transitions are what they are—by nature, neither inherently negative or positive. This means, secondly, that transitions can be seen as a normal and natural part of life. Instead of thinking about “change” as an undesirable intrusion, we instead can appreciate how, over the years, we experience transitions of many kinds. The two of us believe that congregations that learn how to live with transition are equipped to stay resilient, as well as to be faithful in their ministry and mission. Embracing transition is how we learn to face our future fruitfully.
In order to become effective and faithful in facing the future, the two of us believe that communities of faith need two kinds of indispensible companions: one, learning new ideas; and, two, engaging new practices. In this article, the learning has to do with three distinct ways in which we have observed congregations dealing with the transitions that they are facing. We are calling these the three Rs. However, unlike the three Rs of readin , ‘ritin , and ‘rithmetic , these three Rs do not necessarily serve our congregations equally well.
Our three Rs are called “resist,” “react,” and “respond.” We will talk about each one and suggest why one of them in particular holds the most promise. The capacity to respond to transition is accompanied by practices that support the congregation as it engages the future. Church officers, pastors, and staff can help reduce the congregation’s anxiety about change. The two of us believe that this is one of the central tasks of those authorized to oversee the congregation’s life, ministry, and vitality. As a congregation learns to move beyond either resisting or reacting, it frees its own energy to be proactive and creative about how the new opportunity allows faith to be expressed afresh.
In our lifetime, as Baby Boomers, perhaps the most common form of dealing with the future is to resist. Whatever is identified as the source of change becomes the topic of conversation and the object to be rid of. Typically going unspoken in the use of resisting are deeply-held beliefs like “Everything is fine as it is” and “Those with the right to decide have been here longer and proven their loyalty.” In other words, the congregation overall feels that it will be able to maintain its present way of life indefinitely and to their satisfaction. Resisting the prospect of transition is a tactic in self-preservation.
As the two of us have observed, resisting can take two very different forms, even though the purpose (and result!) is the same.
Looking back on my (George’s) earliest years in pastoral ministry, I think that a very common way for congregations to deal with all of the changes coming out of the watershed 1960s was to resist passively . In passive resistance, as we are using it here, the persons with the most “cultural capital” in the congregation find a way to avoid transition without causing a ruckus. Whether the issues back then had to do with guitars in worship, considering a woman pastor, sex education in youth ministry, or starting a food pantry, the congregation’s key cultural bearers acted as gatekeepers. They might have felt a little distress over the presenting issue, but they did not see the need to start a fight. A phone call or two, an informal conversation with the pastor, or a statement of opinion at a committee or board meeting often would take care of the matter. Passive resistance to the prospects of transition uses up less of the congregation’s energy, even if a few persons (read especially “new or younger members”) get discouraged along the way.
In other words, whether one approves of the particular outcome to a specific situation, passive resistance to transition does have one short-term benefit. It preserves the current lifeworld of the congregation, its way of doing things, of relating to one another and to others. For the time being, there might be good reasons for passive resistance to have its way. However, for those of us who have watched our denominations lose members steadily for decades, passive resistance is not a long-term strategy. Actually, the two of us would suggest that it is the persistent “success” of passive resistance in a congregation that contributes eventually to the other, more damaging form of resistance.
Active resistance to the prospect of a transition tends to draw substantial energy out of the congregation, moving it more visibly into the public arena. What results from active resistance is what is often labeled as “conflict.” Probably most common is a situation in which a new idea is presented by newer members or staff, only to meet resistance by others who are longer-tenured members or staff. Differences of opinion that appear to be between two or three members or staff persons then escalate. The sequence might first involve a congregational committee, then the general board, and possibly to a synod, conference, association, or presbytery process. Members of the community feel themselves almost forced by the developing circumstances to take sides.
Our impression is that conflict, so defined, has risen among congregations in frequency and intensity over the last decade or so. The presenting issues are not necessarily any different than those that we see in passive resistance. What seems to be different, though, is the congregation’s capacity for dealing with the situation as a challenge to the status quo. Scenarios that not infrequently play out in these circumstances can drain much of the life out of a community. They give rise to public division, often resulting in departures of pastor, staff, and/or members, and leave the congregation low on energy and hope.
These are circumstances that are not pleasant to consider or review. However, conflict is all too common today in communities of faith. What the two of us hope is that you can learn to re-frame these experiences, to see them as ways of resisting a perceived threat. Whether active or passive, we believe that resistance is normal. However, if allowed to play out on its own, resistance does not serve the congregation in the long run. We propose instead that those who hold offices of responsibility in and for congregations learn to look for the challenge of transition underneath the surface details of resistance.
Which forms of resisting do you see in the story of Center Street Lutheran? Why do you think they were used? What were their short-term effects? Long-term effects?
Reacting to Transition
A transition looming on the congregation’s horizon does not always lead to resistance. Some congregations—a smaller ratio—are able to recognize that some things are changing and that they want to do something about it. This means that they have more capacity to adapt than congregations that resist. Members and staff are willing to try something new, even if it means they will have to adjust here and there.
We are suggesting here that reacting to transition—changes in your neighborhood, the region’s economic base, etc.—stands more of a chance of being a positive congregational experience. It can usher in some new forms of ministry, new networks within the community, and hopefully
some new members who like what they see. However, there is a subtle and usually unrecognized hazard in the reacting mode. It is that the larger scope of decisions and implementation is not thought through very carefully.
In other words, the reacting mode tends to put the congregation into imitating mode. Members –or a new pastor—might start talking about how so-and-so congregation started a new youth ministry model a few years ago and now has three times as many participants as you do. Or that such-and-such faith community built a senior citizens’ complex; or that the other church in town of your denomination began an informal worship service on Saturday nights and increased its worship attendance by thirty percent in the first year. Well, imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is not the most effective way to handle your congregation’s future! While willing to try something new, the reacting congregation tends to take its lead outside of itself.
Where in Center Street Lutheran’s history might it have reacted to transition?
Reacting to transition by adding something that “works somewhere else” can contribute to your community’s faithful witness, especially for the short term. However, it leaves a key question unanswered. In simple terms, this question is, “How does this new opportunity help us to pursue our vision of God’s preferred future for us?” Beyond making your community of faith more busy, or appearing to be creative, or increasing its visibility and community standing, even adding more members—why try the new thing?
This matter of the central place of vision gets addressed by the last of the three Rs.
Responding to Transition
We are proposing here that the notion of responding to transition becomes a much more faithful and constructive way of honoring the past, while still wrestling with how the Spirit might be calling congregations ahead. We are suggesting by this term that congregations can learn to become proactive about their futures. Rather than allowing circumstances or other communities to set the pace, we believe that learning to contemplate more deeply, to look ahead, to anticipate challenges as well as opportunities, and to revisit vision all can become deeply spiritual activities. The congregation learns, because our world these days creates continuous change, to develop its own cycle of reflection, discernment, decision, planning, action, and assessment. This process becomes central to the congregation’s rhythm of life and witness; it can become as natural as breathing.
Our third “R” is based on the premise that congregations always are related to their contexts, and that changes of all kinds—whether internal or external—present our faith communities with issues of transition. Even more, no congregation is disconnected from its environment, so isolated that it can ignore what goes on around it. Responding to transition does not mean jumping on someone else’s bandwagon, approving of whatever new thing appears. Instead, transition can be treated as space for the congregation to step back and take stock of itself and its ministry.
What does a “responding” congregation look like, that is different from resisting or reacting? Space here does not allow a detailed treatment. One key difference, however, is that responding congregations have learned how to move beyond anxiety or oppositional thinking. This learning in itself is a significant step, especially in light of American society’s penchant for litigious behavior! Make no mistake: our congregations must become very intentional if they are to model an alternative approach, a third way, that expresses what it means to be the people of God.
Another key difference in responding congregations is that the pastor and governing board have developed the trust and respect necessary to work together. New pastors often do not appreciate how difficult it is for congregations, when the world around them appears to change so dramatically. Pastors bear a great responsibility in gaining the trust of key church members. Otherwise, the best that a new pastor can expect is a new program to which enough of the right people agree to begin.
Books like Mark Lau Branson’s Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change and our new Grace for the Journey: Practices and Possibilities for In-Between Times provide not only tools, but insights and processes that help to refocus your congregation. What we hope this article helps you begin to understand is that our faith communities do not have to act as either victims or copycats. For the long foreseeable future, change will be constantly in the mix. In order to stay alert and capable of sensing God’s call afresh, congregations in any kind of transition must learn to respond. To accept such a challenge is to claim heritage with our biblical ancestors.
How might Center Street Lutheran Church’s new pastor focus her pastoral work in such a way that this old congregation becomes a responding one?
How might your congregation engage the future by responding, rather than resisting or reacting?