congregational transformation


By Rev. Mindi

“We’ve always done it that way before.”

You probably have heard of the Seven Deadly Words of the Church. And it doesn’t matter how often we talk about the need for change or transformation, or that we are in the 21st century, these words creep back up into board meetings, coffee hour conversations, and other areas of decision-making and complaining. Other variations of this are “We’ve never done it this way before” and “We tried it once, it didn’t work.”

All of these statements center us and our experience. The universal “we” can mean the whole church, or it can mean a small group of people, or it can mean just one person under the assumption that there must be more than one. Whatever the case, they are centering themselves. The reason whatever-it-is-you-are-trying-to-change won’t work is because from their experience, from their perspective, it won’t. They are putting their experience above any others.

How do we take a step back in these conversations in congregational life? How do we de-center the ones dominating the conversation when it comes to being the Christian Church in the 21st century? 

This question of de-centering has greater implications. In the current climate of the United States, too often white persons have centered themselves in conversations about race. White people have decided what is or is not racist, what actions are or are not racially motivated. Straight people have centered themselves in the conversations about welcoming and affirming gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Cis-gendered people have centered themselves in the conversations about what gender is or is not. Often, we center ourselves in the conversations that really have to do with other people and not with us, just whether or not it makes us comfortable, and we dominate the conversation rather than accepting an invitation to listen to those who are different.

If we are attempting to be the body of Christ and to “grow” the church (whatever “grow” may mean for you and your congregation), we need to allow for voices to come from outside. We need to de-center the insider voices and move to the outsider voices [Note: you may very well have outsider voices within your congregation—youth, elderly, people who work on Sundays, homebound, folks who come on occasion, children, disabled members, etc.] You may need to de-center the voices of those who are part of the congregation and listen to those who are not. Listen and center the voices of those in the community. 

All too often, churches find a perceived need in the community and decide to address it. However, they don’t always ask those they are supposedly serving if that is the real need that needs to be met. When we center ourselves in the context of mission and ministry, we are doing what we want, what makes us feel good—then we get upset when no one shows up, or they aren’t as grateful as we hoped they would be. We didn’t center the voices of those we should have been listening to.

In this post-Christendom 21st century, maybe it is high time we all de-centered the church voice. We are not the most important building in town. We are not the most important group. We are not the most important thing in people’s lives. God is still working in the world, in our community, and God calls out through the voices that we often have pushed to the margins. We have put ourselves first, our survival first, our prominence first. And we have failed.

I know. We’ve never done it this way before. Let’s take ourselves out of the center of the conversation, and move to listening to those voices that need to be centered. Maybe then the church can really grow into what is was intended—the body of Christ.

Can We All Be More Vulnerable?

By Colton Lott

At the risk of rant, do you want to know what my biggest frustration with the church is?[i] It isn’t that we frequently worship in mausoleums at the risk of financial ruin. It isn’t that we sing songs that reflect a theology or social outlook that we generally decry. It isn’t even that we get hung up on the silliest things and try to call it important aspects of ministry, like the color of the carpet runner or parliamentary procedure. What really trips my trigger and gets me riled up? The fact that we can barely talk about even the small things, much less the big things.

The lack of willingness to engage meaningfully and with sincere openness is, to me, the number one factor affecting the church negatively today. Much like an addict who refuses to name their problem, many churches refuse to admit that they will only have inauthentic conversations about surface issues.

To a degree, this is because leaders are not always the best at prodding and poking for the “real story” to come out. It’s a difficult job to discern when and where to apply pressure to the fault lines of people’s lives—do so correctly, and energy is released constructively, do so haphazardly, and the result is an earthquake. Naturally, I don’t really know how to do this yet myself, but I do know that it’s not being done enough.[ii]

But more pressing than some changes leaders should make, congregations refusing to have hard conversations presents the most detrimental effects on their collective ministry. I think the unwillingness is caused by a marriage between not knowing what a hard conversation looks like and a fear that such discussions, should they arise, would cause a church apocalypse. Any discussion that doesn’t protect and perpetuate the (crumbling) status quo is deadly and unwanted. Such conversations don’t attend to the “real challenges and concrete decisions” that a church has to make.

However, and this is an important however, very rarely do we stop and ask about how and why we really feel the way that we do. And this lack of reflection is showing. Why cannot we not crack open ourselves to answer questions that deal with the root of our decisions and indecisions? For example, one of my early “not my biggest frustrations” was churches who worship in physical spaces that are exceedingly too large or nonfunctional for their ministry, an inheritance from a time of single-purpose design, higher religiosity and birthrates, and lower upkeep costs.

The conversation about “what do we do now?” gets delayed because of reasons we all too often don’t want to speak out loud. Perhaps it’s because we’re afraid that we will make a financial mistake and due to poor stewardship cause the ministry to fold. We’re fearful that we’ll lose the memories we’ve attached to a specific location. We are personally satisfied and we are worried that changing something big will cause our own satisfaction to dwindle.  

These painfully personal conversations don’t happen because opening up is hard work that requires trust. And the human institution of the church, as much as we like to call it a family, is not always good at holding other people’s feelings in warm and close regard. Often, humans acting together do horrific things, things that make it hard to trust the collective with the individual’s intimate self.

Our unwillingness to be vulnerable is causing our Good News to be disconnected from our deepest self. We sterilize and package until all that is left is freeze-dried and unpalatable to even the most desperate. Goodness is mushed into blandness.

I understand that the church has lackluster obligations like paying the electric bill. But when our organizational leadership is most concerned with the earthly and not heavenly, or even the humanly, then a problem arises. I have yet to see a healthy church that doesn’t have a corresponding healthy governance structure, one that asks and reflects on the hardest questions while attempting to ask individuals to reach deeply into their feelings and ask “why do I really feel this way?”

I overheard a minister friend of mine say that whenever the folks in a church discuss important issues, one should ask “Why is that?” five times in a row to a response, causing the responder to dig deeper and deeper into their own answer, attempting to seek the root of their hope or their fear, their faith or their doubt.

Real truth occurs when we can have real conversations. They don’t just happen, though. I have to commit to trusting the group and trusting that the group will challenge and comfort me if I find out something that I don’t find savory about my own self. I have to resolve to aide others when I find out things that I don’t find appealing about them.

If you’re skimming this article, the take home pay is this: when you show up for your next church board meeting, are the folks around the table talking about something that’s deeper than replacing the lightbulbs? And if not, who is? And if no one is, then why not? And if you can, begin modeling rawness for someone else so that we can all begin to start being authentic, because authenticity starts with sheer vulnerability. Be raw, because so many of our churches are so well-done that they’re, well, done.


[i] By “biggest frustration” I mean “the biggest frustration I have today.” Tomorrow, it’ll be something different. Frustrating, isn’t it?

[ii] This is not to diminish the reality that some churches are willing to quickly fire or abuse a minister who tries dig too deeply. That is a subject quite different than this article is attempting to deal with. 

The Wooster Report

by Jeff Gill
A beautiful late September morning. In fact, not quite morning.
Like many dads, I wake up just before the alarm, get dressed in the dark, and drive out in pre-dawn murk.
Soon, though, the rising sun slants light through autumnal banks of mist and fog, in valleys and between ridges as the road curves along. An hour, another hour, and all the mysterious haze burns off. Amish buggies and roadside farm markets, community festivals and the occasional detour.
I’m on my way, as I realize I’ve been on so many September or October Saturdays, to a regional or general event where I’ll hear opening announcements, a long introduction, and then a keynoter who usually has a book out recently. And I go, against all evidence to the contrary, in hopes that this time I will hear a speaker who will change the church, whose counsel will uplift and inspire me, a program which will have a relevance to the congregation where I’m serving or the region that I’m part of, so that the sacrifice of this fine day, away from family and leisure and personal preferences, will be blessed with a utility in my ministry.

I'm looking for someone to save us. The old, old story.

That’s been the story, anyhow. Today is a bit different. I’m going because Derek Penwell is speaking in Wooster, for an elder’s workshop. He does, in fact, happen to have a book out (I’m about to buy my third copy, in fact, this one to be inscribed no matter who I have to push aside), and it’s about the state and fate of the church (writ small or large, either way), but I’m not going with any expectations.
Unlike many also heading to this event, I’ve read the book; over the last couple of years I’ve read Derek’s thoughts, and I’m sanguine about the likelihood of him coming up with a panacea, a solution for the parlous state of the mainline church in general or the Disciples of Christ in particular.
And my worry is borne out, to jump ahead a bit, in that the questions and comments from the floor are more than a bit clueless. Yes, I’m tired, I’m frustrated, I’m cranky. I should speak more kindly of my peers and fellow congregational leaders in the Body of Christ.
But seriously, clueless. Clueless as to what’s just been said by the keynoter, and tin-eared as to the challenge of the day even without the framing assembled by the speaker.
On the speaker, a quick note. Derek, you suck at selling your book. People who have books for sale who do programs? They mention the book by title, in full, about every third paragraph. By which I do not mean a rhetorical “every third paragraph,” but I mean each time two paragraphs of content have been spoken, you must invoke your latest title in full during the third. Other books you wrote earlier which may be offered for sale can only have titles name-checked every nine or ten paragraphs, but the new book has to keep getting mentions.
I believe Derek mentioned his book twice, sort of. In three sections of presentation covering almost five hours. And in his on-screen slides? The cover was shown not at all, and I don’t recall even seeing the title mentioned in the graphics at all. Dude.
Sell the book, okay?
Ah, the discussion and the response. The talk could be, cruelly, summed up in the phrase “Love the body you’re in.” Like body image issues from Barbie dolls, or expectations from the Disney Princess cosmos, you can start to jones for a bod not your own, and assume any non-optimal outcome is due to your lack of plastic surgery.
“Love the body you’re in.” Especially when it’s the Body of Christ. So BE the body, and go do things as and with that body/Body, “making the most of the time.” Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a body, so don’t worry about that. Go be the Body.
When the good people of Ohio and the blessed elders of the Christian Churches therein spoke, I confess to being disheartened. Why? Because as is so often the case there were less questions than statements, and the statements were either akin to Kevin Bacon’s character in the climactic scene of “Animal House,” or they were shouting the exceptional exceptions of their preferred aspect of the Body of Christ . . . and insisting that what’s needed is for more church people to “come to us.” The very attractional model Derek had gently critiqued a few moments earlier.
Men, come to men’s events, and all shall be well, or at least better. Youth and older folk who can be counselors, come to camp, and all shall be well, even better. Women, come to women’s stuff, and there we shall find the true path to wellness, or at least betterness. Clergy, come to regional clergy events, and you will have a rich head of full, curly hair, plus your growth in faith and vitality will allow you to facilitate making all things well back home at the congregation’s home place. Cue swelling music and title cards.
Derek was gentle with them, God bless him. He spoke more of the good news and the Boss’ imperatives, aka Jesus the Christ, than did any interlocutor. The audience asked for respect looking back over their achievements, even as the same speakers swiftly and generally condemned social media and tech as not worthy of respect, or use. “Sell it all, and come sit and talk to us.” Rev. Dr. Penwell asked re-directive questions, nudged comments towards the bigger picture, affirmed those speaking out of their own pain, but the reaction to his “and on the other hand” responses was usually more oblivious than appreciative.
“Do what God has gifted you to do where you are, as long as you can” is pretty good counsel. A few prickly rejoinders of “we are, and then some” didn’t outweigh the broader sense that what really struck home was the stark observation “some churches would rather die than make major changes.” That silence was palpable. For reason.
It was a joy for me to meet Derek, editor of Dmergent and all-around good guy and gifted pastor, and former classmate and ongoing friend of my colleague and friend here in Ohio, Rev. Kevin Phipps, whom I got to know through our Commission on Ministry. Kevin and Derek and I have tended to say the same things even before blogs and books and Facebooks confirmed our pre-existing agreements.
But I’d not expected the consensus, at least the vocal consensus, of those in attendance to be so tone-deaf. Derek (or Kevin, or anyone else there) may dispute my account, and it could be circumstances have left me more sardonic and surly than is useful, but every time he’d talk about how we need to not be so needy and clutchy, someone would speak up to sing their own particular song of neediness and clutchtasticism. “If only more people would just come to [insert their preferred program here], things would be better.”
Things will not be better. That’s me, not our speaker, at least not the “official in front of everyone” perspective. We’re in for a winter season in church and faith and culture, and the more we can do to store up some reinforcement, and prepare for a day soon to come, we’ll be ready to survive and gently thrive in a day when our worldview and faith stance will be even more at odds with our surrounding culture than it is right now.
We will, on the other hand, continue to see folks curious to learn what we’re doing, how we do it, and it won’t even be unusual to have some of them come in over weekends to work on projects. But we just can’t count on major church growth through that time. Denominations and regions and most congregations are simply not going to grow over the next ten years or so.
How will we deal with this reality? There are paths forward in this dark wood, but picking the right ones, and not ending up walking past good campsites and off of cliff edges, is going to take some eyes-open, shared perspective, candid-discussioned, reality-based communication. If we’re focused on waiting our turn to make a speech on behalf of our own preferred identity group, we’re going right over and down without even a Wile E. Coyote pinwheeling moment in defiance of gravity.
On the other hand, if we look honestly at ourselves and what each of our congregations and commissions can do to declare the good news of God’s love, proclaimed in our actions and our service, there’s quite future ahead for us. It might be a future that ends in a blaze of “well, how ‘bout that!” . . . but that’s better than “whatever happened to the Disciples, anyhow?”
“They sure went out in a blaze of glory” doesn’t sound that bad in comparison. Plus, we already know that the end of the story is a little further on down the road.

National Moment of Silence 2014 #NMOS14

by Rev. Mindi

Michael Brown became the latest victim of unarmed black teens murdered in this country on Saturday afternoon. He was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri. As a response to this, to the killing of Eric Garner and many others by state violence, a National Moment of Silence has been organized via social media, and there are vigils taking place across the country. To find one near you, search on Facebook or twitter #NMOS14 +your city’s name. If there isn’t one for your area, consider holding one—there is still time. Also, check the national site on Facebook for further instructions. The goal is to have a peaceful vigil as a response to the violence happening especially to young black men in our country.

Now, here’s the thing: most of you probably won’t bother to look. I know that the readership of this blog is primarily white. I’m writing this not to insult you, but to make you look at yourself, your congregation, and what we value. All too often, White Christianity ignores the experience of Christians of Color around us. I know I have. I have taken up the cause of my LGBTQ siblings, I have spoken up for rights for people of all abilities, but rarely do I write or speak about racism. It’s not because I don’t know that racism exists; it’s that while I can temporarily look at the world and see oppression through the lens as an LGBTQ ally, or look through the lens as a mom of a child with a disability, I do not look through the lens as a person of color. I see the world through my whiteness.

Only rarely, occasionally, have I had a glimpse of what my friends who are black have experienced. I have been in the car with a black friend when he was pulled over by the police, asked to step out of the car with his hands behind his head and searched, then released with no ticket, no explanation but that he was swerving in his car (he wasn’t). I have been pulled over for speeding and received a warning, even when I spoke up to the officer that I wasn’t speeding. Let’s face it—I talked back. If I was black, I do not think I would have gotten off so lightly. I have black children in my church whose parents and grandparents have told me about the times they have been harassed by store clerks because their kids were “attempting to shoplift” when all they were doing was picking up toys and looking at them. My child is loud and runs up and down the aisle, and I can explain that he has a disability, but he is still seen as white first. 

But the truth is I don’t think about it much at all. I don’t think about the systemic racism in our country that filters young black men into the prison system—or worse, they end up dead. I don’t think about the numbers of times that black men are pulled over verses white men. I don’t think about the Stand Your Ground laws and assumptions about black people that protect white folks and cause black youth such as Trayvon Martin and Reshina McBride to end up dead.

I have to change my way of thinking. I have to stop talking and to listen. Go to these vigils. Listen to the stories in our cities, in our communities of the loss and harm that black families have experienced. Work for systemic change. Go to your police departments and ask what sort of training they have to end racial profiling. Find out what the demographics are of your community and how many police officers of color serve. Work to educate your own church and community on racial profiling and violence against persons of color. And White Christians, may we start listening to the experience of Christians of Color in our congregations, in our denominations, in our communities.

Proverbs 21:3 To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.

An Uncertain Trumpet

By Rev. Jeff Gill

[In this third of three articles Jeff Gill offers a reading of the mainline church’s decline over the past 50 years, specifically its roots in the social, historical, and political factors unfolding in a changing culture.  This article originally appeared in the Newark Advocate.]

In First Corinthians 14:8, Paul asks who gets ready for combat when they hear “an uncertain trumpet”?

The full King James Version verse is “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?

American churches after World War One had somewhat the opposite problem.

They had played “Charge” to their congregations, whose sons had found themselves in mud-mired trenches facing barbed-wire no-man’s-lands and artillery duels punctuated by poison gas. After the equivocal end of post-war deliberations at Versailles, many in America said “What were we doing there, anyhow?”

None of this is to say that Germany under the Kaiser was in the right, or even that America shouldn’t have joined with the western Allies. But there was a passion for battle and bloodshed on the part of the Christian churches in 1914 and after that, once the war ended, looked in retrospect rather unseemly at best, discreditable at worst.

In this third of three columns about the centennial of World War I, there’s a bit more to say about how that event shaped the role of churches in American life (and possibly European, but that’s more complex and even further outside of my skill set).

For the generation or two before World War I, church-related organizations had played a dominant role in national policy formation. The Temperance movement made Prohibition the law of the land, blue laws and other proscriptive legislation had passed to constrain and define American life, and churches – especially the so-called “mainline church” bodies, were tone and trend setters on social policy and education. Read newspapers of the era, and you can see that mark of a dominant Christendom on almost every page, on a wide variety of subjects.

The so-called “golden age” that people are talking about when they say “how things used to be” with the place of faith in civic life is, I would argue, more the turn of the last century than it is the post-war boom years. Yes, pastors and others are always hearing about how in the 1950s all the education wing was filled (or we built one and filled it) and how there was a line around the block to get in for Easter services, and those reminiscers usually blame some combination of “The Sixties”, Vietnam, and Watergate for the breakdown of respect for authority and particularly for the church.

I realize I’m committing the practice of sociology without a license here, but I would argue as a pastor myself, who is a bootleg historian of sorts, that this is a confusion borne of the fact that like so many things, the wake of World War II created a ferment and to some degree a smoke screen that hid developments already under way.

Folks came back from the common mobilization still saluting authority, and got right to work having babies and raising children (hello, Baby Boom!), and there was a surge of church attendance. But those numbers hide the decline behind them back in the Depression era, which was both financial and numerical.

My reading of the national and denominational and local records has led me to say this: in the wake of the hyper-patriotic ferment that swept church life in World War I, the manic passion for “slaughtering our foe” which became nearly mandatory *within* congregational walls, not just in the public press, there was a very strong reaction afterwards. On the one hand, churches lost moral stature in the public arena; on the other, internal hand, denominations winced and withdrew from nationalism in ways that still are being debated within congregations and among clergy to this day. It was in the 1920s that church-founded colleges & universities pulled back from their denominational heritage in a decisive manner; it was in the 1920s that arguments over a conservative/modernist worldview began to split and formally divide denominations in ways that hadn’t been seen since the 1840s over slavery.

In the 1930s, Prohibition ends to general approval, and social improvement is seen as more the province of government (New Deal programs) or secular wisdom (Jane Addams, settlement houses, social work). Churches close in record numbers, and the place of faith in social efforts becomes steadily more supplemental than central. In the African American community, the church is still central, but when the civil rights era begins the mainline bodies flinch, and that record can be read in heartbreaking full with Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

And what is the role of church & faith in the society we’re making in the 21st century? That trumpet call is yet to be played.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you think the church’s role should focus at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.