One fall CiRCLe M (Centre for Rural Community Leadership and Ministry), a nonprofit I direct, organized a conference on the church and community development. In workshops, worship, and conversation, one church leader after another shared stories of how their congregations had cared for their communities, how they provided relief after fire and flood, supported grieving families, looked after youth and elders in the community, stepped into gaps in community health care, and much more. After the conference one participant who hadn’t been involved in church conferences before said, “I had no idea pastors and churches are doing so much good in their communities. I think the general perception is that they are just out there trying to push their ideology on people and get them to join their church.”
The truth is that all across our countries in thousands of small ways, faith groups are daily offering hope and care to their neighborhoods. But very few of these acts get public recognition; the sins of the church seem to make much better press than its acts of kindness. However, the sometimes prurient interests of the press notwithstanding, I think it is fair to say that the PR problem is at least in part the church’s own making.
I’ve noticed that a centripetal force, a kind of gravity, operates in church life that pulls Christians toward a temporal and geographic center. In my experience, that gravity includes a need to be with like-minded people, a desire for Christian friendship, a shared organizational history, the comfortable habit of regular worship, the joy of participating in corporate liturgy, a desire to access the skills of clergy or to please clergy, the need to organize maintenance for the physical church building, and so on. This centering force is a wonderful thing; without it, people of faith would drift away from each other. However, unchecked, the “gravity” can create problems.
Gravity may center a congregation in time. I did a study of congregations in Toronto and discovered that each had a honeymoon period. The churches looked back to a favorite pastor, a time of growth or active young families—a golden age. The stories most often repeated were drawn from that golden period.
Of course, all Christians center themselves on stories: the story of Israel, Jesus, and the church; the stories of their own personal and congregational origins. But sometimes more energy is spent hoarding, protecting, and polishing these gems of the past than spending them on new possibilities for the future. This is particularly the case when the golden age becomes the standard by which all later ministry is assessed. As golden age stories gain glory in their retelling, it becomes less and less likely that any present ministry can measure up to the heroic efforts of the past. The result is that congregations can live with a chronic sense of loss and low self-esteem.
There is also a centripetal tendency for a congregation to center itself in space, to pull in toward the church building rather than pushing (and accompanying) its members out into the community. After years of watching this happen in large congregations that I pastored, I began to feel that I was the chief operator of a giant vacuum, working diligently to suck the people and resources of our community into the programs and pews of our church.
In a small effort to reverse the suction, to breathe out, I started a group called “Faith Works.” I wanted to gather folks in their work sites to reflect on what God was up to in those places. We loosely used some fine material from the Lutheran Church in America called Connections: Faith and World by Norma Cook Everist and Nelvin Vos as a guide for conversation.
The initial meeting changed my perspective. I asked, “Who wants to be first to take us through their workplace?” A young woman put up her hand. “Where do you work?” I asked. She said she was a massage therapist. I was a bit taken aback. Never having had a massage, I harbored some unfortunate stereotypes about it. And one of our group was a distinguished retired pastor. I wondered whether he would regard a massage clinic (I was thinking “parlor”) as an appropriate place to begin our exploration of faith and work.
But the woman was keen, so off we went. She showed us her worktable, oils, and techniques and told us what it was like to give a massage. Then we sat down in the waiting room to think about how our faith connected to her work. No one spoke for several long moments. Then finally the retired pastor looked at the therapist and said with some intensity, “I think your calling is much like mine. You’re offering a physical form of confession and absolution. People come in here with knots in their bodies from all of the stresses and problems of their life. And they expose their bodies to you and allow you to touch those knots. It often hurts. You said sometimes there are tears—both from the physical sensation and from talking about what has created the tension. You accept them. You physically release the tension. You bless their bodies with your hands. And they go back out into the world with a new sense of grace and freedom.” The therapist listened to the old pastor with tears in her eyes and said, “I will never think of my work the same way again.” And, deeply humbled, neither did I.
Similar experiences occurred again and again as we visited each other’s workplaces. Essentially we were doing a faith form of appreciative inquiry, though I didn’t know that language then. We were discovering that God is active in the 99 percent of people’s lives that are lived outside the church, and we were naming, celebrating, and trying to faithfully interpret that divine activity.
When churches take seriously life outside their buildings and their Sunday morning sacred time, they give their communities an inexpressible gift. Weekday life tends to be filled with routines: getting children ready for school; braving heat, cold, or traffic to get to work; moving paper, hammering nails, applying bandages, doing whatever the work requires just as one has for years; coming home to make meals, watch TV, sleep, and start all over. Ordinary life can feel flat and featureless.
Yet we humans want to feel that our lives are meaningful. In Gregory Pierce’s anthology of workplace theology, Of Human Hands, Hal Miller claims that we are “transcendence junkies.”We want to know that what we do matters. Studies of happiness around the world show that people have a much greater sense of well-being when they can see a clear purpose to their lives.Unfortunately, we tend to look for transcendent meaning in the brief and exceptional rather than in the ordinary moments of life.
The church can fall into this trap too if it testifies only to stories of great failure and rescue. But churches transform the spirit of their communities when they help them see, beneath their pavement, pastures, and office panels, the divine mystery, the triune God at work.
This article is excerpted and adapted from Discovering the Other: Asset-Based Approaches to Building Community Together by Cameron Harder. Copyright ©2013 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Discovering the Other is an introduction to two tools that community builders have found helpful: appreciative inquiry and asset mapping. Instead of asking, “What’s wrong?” appreciative inquiry asks, “What’s right?” Asset mapping asks, “What resources do you have personally that we could bring to our future together?” Out of these questions can arise a sense that every congregation is rich in history, people, and resources. Ideas emerge as people, inspired by the Spirit, listen and talk to each other. The leader’s task is to facilitate, coalesce, and connect ideas, to catalyze and stimulate the development of vision. The creative connections lead to programs and projects that will enrich your congregation’s mission. But most importantly, in the process they will engage you with others, with their stories, their hopes, their gifts—to build community.
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Grounded in solid theory and real-life practice, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations is a groundbreaking work of narrative leadership and the first book to apply the principles of appreciative inquiry to the lives of congregations. By focusing on memories of the congregation at its best, members are able to construct “provocative proposals” to help shape the church’s future.”
The Power of Asset-Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts
by Luther K. Snow
Asset mapping isn’t a new system or theory. It’s a way of thinking, a doorway into an “open-sum” perspective rooted in the Bible and common experience. The Power of Asset Mapping, by long-time community developer Luther K. Snow, shows congregational leaders how to help a group recognize its assets and the abundance of God’s gifts and to act on them in ministry and mission.
Where in the World Are You? Connecting Faith and Daily Life
by Norma Cook Everist and Nelvin Vos
Everist and Vos challenge congregations to take a new look at mission — to see themselves as God’s people in the world. Explore exciting new understandings that come from starting with people in the world rather than with church structures. Professors Everist (clergy, Wartburg Theological Seminary) and Vos (laity, Muhlenberg College) bring their insights to bear on how people’s daily struggles, needs, and hopes can connect to God’s mission through practical steps. These include spiritual growth and the challenge of mutual accountability. A reflections section helps readers discern God at work in their lives.
Reflecting with God: Connecting Faith with Daily Life in Small Groups
by Denise W. Goodman
Abigail Johnson offers a structured process for engaging in theological reflection by looking at a situation or event through a series of questions designed to help individuals and small groups to think through situations with the eyes of faith. Johnson demonstrates how theological reflection will enrich the faith life of the individual and increase group members’ sense of belonging to God and to the whole people of God .
Ever wish there was a “Congregational Conflict 101?” There is, and this is it! Don’t wait until you are mired in conflict. Learn skills that you and your congregation can use right now for healthy communication and decision-making.
Dealing with Congregational Discord
Presenter: Susan Nienaber, Alban senior consultant
July 30 – August 1, 2013, Roslyn Retreat Center, Richmond, VA