Pastoral Transition-Lifting the Veil of Secrecy

15 Jul

Organizations in all walks of life openly plan for leadership transition. The Church is unique in the veil of secrecy that we draw around pastoral transition. We don’t want to watch people grow anxious, so we withhold known information about departure. secretjpg_jpg_size_xxlarge_letterboxIn doing so, we postpone the hard adaptive work of leadership transition into the next chapter. New pastors walk into congregations that haven’t yet had a good ending, and clearly aren’t ready for a new beginning.

Pastors plan their retirements for years, but wait to tell their congregations about their plans until a few short weeks or months before the intended transition date. Or, a pastor discerns that his or her call to this congregation is drawing to a close. She begins feeling a pull towards a different kind of ministry. Rather than discussing this discernment with leaders in the congregation, she holds her decision tightly to her chest until another call is firmly in hand. Then she springs an announcement on church leaders, four short weeks prior to her departure.

Recently, a congregation contacted me to help them with some low level anxiety in the system (i.e., conflict) that was getting in the way of strategic planning. We decided to host listening sessions with leaders, to better understand what was happening.

The consultation began with the senior pastor pulling me aside for a “confidential” conversation. He wanted to talk about his planned retirement. The pastor was in his early seventies and had not yet spoken with a single staff member or lay leader about the end of his ministry. He had been their leader for twenty-three years. The church had experienced remarkable renewal and growth under his leadership. This pastor was certain that any conversation along the lines of retirement would create mayhem in the congregation. In fact, numerous leaders had told him over the years that he couldn’t possibly retire because he was so loved, and no one could replace him. The pastor didn’t believe that line, but he could sense the anxiety in his leaders, whenever he tried to broach the subject.

When I finished my conversation with the pastor I facilitated listening sessions with the board and the staff team. In both listening sessions the primary issue raised was the future leadership of the church. They loved their pastor, but they sensed a waning energy and enthusiasm in his leadership. The believed it was time for the pastor to begin planning for retirement, but they didn’t want to disrespect his leadership by saying so, directly to him.

Leaders were fearful that the lack of a transition plan would result in one of three outcomes. The pastor would experience a significant medical event that would abruptly take him out of leadership and leave the church in chaos. The pastor would stay too long at the fair, and the vitality of the church would wane, inviting malaise and decline that would be hard to reverse once a new leader actually came on board. Or, the pastor would exit from the system poorly, failing to release the leadership reigns gracefully to a new leader.

Why couldn’t the leaders of this congregation have an open and honest dialogue about pastoral transition? They were afraid. They had legitimate reason to be fearful about all of the possible things that could go wrong in such a conversation.

There is fear that too much time in role after the announcement will lead to “lame duck” leadership; pastors feeling sidelined and irrelevant in their own congregations. There is fear that the anxiety in the congregation will prevent good work in the present. Better to wait and let the congregation do their grieving and adaptive work during the official interim season. There is fear that the rest of the staff team will get nervous and bolt if too much time passes between the announced intention to depart and the actual departure. Finally, there is fear that announcing an intended departure will place control in the hands of everyone else, but the pastor.

The problem is, and always has been, that systems know when secrets are being kept. First, when it comes to pending retirements, let’s acknowledge that congregations can do basic math. They know how old their pastors are, they anticipate that retirement is somewhere on the horizon. Second, leaders can sense when a leader is anxious about their own call, or when a leader has begun the process of detachment. In the absence of information, people make up their own stories about what is happening, and the stories that they make up are almost always more dramatic and fatalistic than reality.

We have taught ourselves this culture of secrecy and dread around pastoral transition. And it’s time to teach ourselves a better way.

Over the past several years I have worked with a number of congregations who have courageously entered the pastoral transition conversation, with openness and transparency. This is what I am experiencing. Congregations have remarkable resiliency around pastoral transition. Pastors can effectively discuss their departure plans with leaders, even years in advance, when several good practices are put into place.

• The governing body of the congregation (or its designated sub-committee) has an annual performance conversation with the senior leader, during which an honest picture of the health and vitality of the church and the clergy leadership role is explored. The pastor, in conversation with this body, develops a clear picture of his or her vibrancy in the system.

• When it becomes apparent that leadership transition is on the horizon, a trusted and authorized group of leaders is assigned the task of designing a leadership transition process. (This is often the personnel committee or the executive committee of the board). The departing pastor is an active participant in this design process.

• Depending upon polity, or the stipulation of by-laws, an appropriate group authorizes the transition plan. (In some congregations this is the governing body; in some it is the congregation at large.)

• A communication plan for announcing the departure is thoughtful and deliberate. People receive as much information as they need, when they need it, in order to manage their part of the transition process. Once a critical mass of leaders is aware, the whole congregation is brought into the communication loop.

• A transition team is appointed by the governing board to provide oversight to the overall transition. The transition team is not the search committee; the search committee has its own demanding work to do. The transition team consists of four to six spiritually mature, trusted, strategic thinkers in the life of the congregation. Their job is to monitor the congregations overall transition process; and to help negotiate the effective transfer of leadership authority, responsibility and accountability. The transition team stays in place until well after the new pastor has arrived.

• The pastor stays energetically engaged in the life of the congregation, all of the way up until the last day. The body of work that they do may begin to shift as they prepare for eventual departure. But, they stay engaged, active and vibrant in the pulpit.

• The pastor plans for the next chapter of his or her life and actively communicates his or her excitement about beginning that new chapter to the congregation, so that the congregation is able to envision life after ministry for themselves and the pastor.

The process of pastoral transition doesn’t have to be nearly as frightening as we make it. It is time to lift the veil of secrecy and discover a better way.

Is Our Busyness Masking Spiritual Boredom?

10 Jul

The large church is known for the quality and depth of its programming, and for the exhaustion of its staff team. It’s true, every one of my client congregations is functioning with a burned out staff team, and pastors on the brink of exhaustion.

We assume that a growing and thriving church is always adding more programming, enhancing current programming, and making certain that there is something offered to satisfy every imagined need. We heap on more and more options in an effort to improve participation and engagement. But it isn’t really working, is it? Those who are already engaged and active feel compelled to participate in the latest new offering to show their support. In fact, we are creating more opportunities for those who are already over-engaged, while the under-engaged watch our frenzy with mild disinterest.676x380

As we design and facilitate more programs, what is it that we fancy we are accomplishing? Do we honestly believe that adding offerings to the already overcrowded lives of our congregants will lead them more deeply into relationship with the Divine? Does one more scripture study, an extra spiritual formation instruction, an enticing new worship experience, or a compelling social justice opportunity really contribute to the soulfulness of our people or our congregations? Wouldn’t it be better to teach people how to sit still, to be okay with the discomfort of confronting themselves in empty time and space, to see what might emerge?

I suspect that the busyness we participate in and contribute to masks a deep-seated spiritual boredom of our own. We have forgotten what an authentic experience of God feels like, and how it is nurtured. Experiencing God begins in silence and stillness. There are no classes, twitter feeds, blog posts or sermons that will produce this. We cannot manufacture silence and stillness for our congregants. We can only point them in the general direction, and then trust that God will meet them there.

Have we ourselves confused thinking about, speaking about, and acting on behalf of God with the deep personal experience of being with God? Are we fearful that if we enter the silence and stillness that we will find nothing there to satisfy our souls? Are we afraid that we will have nothing to teach our congregants out of that experience?

It is summertime. We dreamed of this time all through the busy program year. This is the season we imagined would involve long stretches of uninterrupted time to dream, to pray, to rediscover our relationship with God, and to invent a next chapter. Instead, many of us are secretly ticking off the passing of days, worried that the summer will pass us by with nothing productive to show for our rejuvenation efforts. Many of us are already secretly gearing up for the onslaught of fall programming, just around the corner.

Today, I read this marvelous piece from Maria Popova on “Why the Capacity for Boredom is a Good Thing”. Popova reminds us of the childhood experience of boredom that emerges from having long stretches of “nothing to do”. She quotes Adam Phillips:

“Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom; that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.”

We have to slow down the madness of our program offerings so that we, and those that we lead, can enter the stillness, experience the boredom, and rediscover the desire for God on the other side. We need the courage to lead others in this counter-cultural journey of discovery.

So, today I invite you to quit work early. Put aside the sermon prep. Go for a walk or sit by a stream and stay there long enough to remember the sweet invitation of boredom. Invite God into that space with you and see what happens.

How to Have a Better Conversation

2 Jul

Board leaders long for meaningful meetings. Instead, many participate in mind-numbing meetings that repetitively chase topics, with little forward momentum. Agendas are rigidly structured around the receipt of reports, with little work that actually impacts the future of the congregation. What would it take to foster more fruitful board conversations?

BetterConversationRecently, I observed a board conversation about declining worship attendance. The decline followed three years of slow, but steady growth. The topic appeared on the agenda as “worship attendance.” The conversation was introduced by the pastor as part of her regular monthly report. The pastor pointed out that every other indicator of church health looked positive; membership was up, the budget was growing, more people were serving in volunteer positions, and new programs were well attended. The pastor wondered aloud what the dip in attendance meant, and whether or not the dip was a foreboding indicator of future decline.

Immediately, the gathered leaders plunged into frenzied dialogue with a lot of “worrying about” attendance numbers. There was some brainstorming about cause, some speculation about how to solve “the problem”, and lots of worrying about long term budget implications. The conversation lasted twenty minutes, without any clear consensus as to whether the congregation actually had a problem, and no plan of approach as to what should happen next. Leaders agreed to watch the situation, and the conversation was tabled until the following month, where it was re-introduced again, with much the same outcome.

During my visit with the board, I asked the leaders if they would humor me in an experiment. The leaders agreed and I introduced the language of Richard Chait, et al., in their book Governance as Leadership. We discussed the differences between fiduciary, strategic and generative modes of governance, all of which must be nurtured within the life of a board. I introduced the following distinctions.

The fiduciary mode of governance focuses on the effective use of assets. It concerns itself with preventing theft, waste or misuse. It explores issues related to budgets, assets, compensation, facilities, fundraising and staff team performance. It considers the ethics of a situation, the safety of the constituency, the legality of things and appropriate boundary setting.

I asked the board to talk about the dip in worship attendance, purely through the lens of fiduciary governance. They talked about possible budgetary impact, and the long term correlation between attendance and giving patterns. They engaged in some worrying behaviors, but their overall conversation was directed towards specific asset areas. They asked themselves if giving patterns were historically correlated with attendance patterns. They wondered what a plateau in growth would mean for long overdue salary increases anticipated at the end of the year. They asked themselves what percentage of the operating budget was actually allocated to the production of the Sunday worship service. If people were changing the way that they participated in the life of the congregation (by worshiping less), should the assets devoted to worship attendance be re-allocated?

Next, I introduced the language of strategic governance. A board is operating in strategic mode when it explores the long-term impact on identity and future of the congregation. It examines the topic for its intersection with the questions: Who are we? Who are we here to serve? What is God calling us to do or become? Strategic governance builds authority, responsibility and accountability into the system by empowering others to act in pursuit of an agreed upon strategy.

I invited the board to wade into the conversation about attendance again, this time purely through the lens of strategic governance.

They had a rich conversation about the link between worship attendance and their identity as a disciple-making congregation. The wondered if less face time in worship actually reduced spiritual growth and relationship building within the congregation. They explored whether or not their mission suggested a particular sized worshiping community. They wondered aloud how they would know if they were being successful in worship, and whether or not worship attendance was an appropriate indicator of discipleship success.

The group decided that they needed better information to determine if the dip was problematic or not. Had some people dropped out of worship entirely, and if so, who were they? Or, was the dip reflective of a stable but growing body of worshippers that were attending with less frequency. The board decided to assign the research of these questions to the Director of Membership and asked for a more complete reporting, by demographic group, at the next scheduled meeting.

Finally, I introduced the mode of generative governance. This mode of governance seeks to unleash the power of creative thinking. Generative thinking invites meaning making about the knowledge, information and data. It involves re-framing problems/challenges so that the congregation can understand and approach them in new ways, by introducing paradigm shifts. Generative thinking typically requires noticing cues and clues, choosing and using new frames of reference, and intentionally constructing a dominant narrative.

Board leaders began their conversation again, this time adopting the generative lens. They began with open brainstorming about all of the challenges, problems and opportunities that might contribute to worship decline. They discussed the busy lifestyles of the congregants, the increase in competing activities on Sunday mornings, and the presence of a new mega-church across town. Someone suggested that members might be experiencing more authentic Sabbath by staying home on Sunday mornings. They talked about a recent article from ABPnews/Herald on national trends in reported worship attendance, and they explored whether or not the article had anything to do with this congregation. They brainstormed possible ways to infuse more energy into the existing worship experience, and they suggested potential new worship venues to better meet the needs of congregants. They wondered what qualified as meaningful worship. Ultimately, they decided that they weren’t ready to create a narrative about worship attendance. They wanted to see more information first.

At the end of our experiment, leaders agreed that this conversation had been more meaningful and future focused than previous attempts. The board agreed that they wanted to delegate more of their fiduciary work, so that their future conversations could take on more generative and strategic overtones. They agreed that artificially separating the three modes of governance was an interesting experiment that they would adopt from time to time moving forward.

Most importantly, the board chair and pastor realized that they had important work to do in framing agenda items before bringing them to the board. The framing of an agenda item influences the mode of governance that the board assumes as it enters a conversation. The board chair decided that the agenda item for the following month’s meeting would read, “Changing patterns in worship attendance, by demographic group.”

And the conversation moved forward from there.

Size Matters

25 Jun

Size Matters…at least it does in the world of congregations. Don’t get me wrong. The size of a congregation doesn’t automatically make it any more or less impactful. Small churches and large churches can be equally effective in ministry. However, a congregation’s perception of its size, and how it functions in relationship to that perception…that matters.

size-mattersMany congregations today are suffering from something akin to a dysmorphic disorder. When they look at themselves, they see something remarkably different from what the outside world sees. They act on self-images that no longer reflect reality, but images to which they are still strongly attached. They organize themselves to serve the image, rather than the reality.

One expression of this is the little congregation that has inadvertently grown large over the years, but refuses to see itself as a large and complex institution. Leaders cling to their values of intimacy and family-feel, an image that hasn’t accurately described the church for years. They repeatedly select staff leaders who are most effective in small church contexts. Then they burn out those leaders by emphasizing a relational leadership style, in a system that requires a more managerial approach.

Another expression of the same problem is the congregation that “once upon a time” was a flagship church in the denomination. This is the church that has declined in size and scope, and continues to live in a larger shell of a structure. Leaders can’t bring themselves to right size their space or their leadership structures, because that would involve surrendering an image of prestige and importance which they hold dear. And so, the church wastes resources trying to sustain systems and structures that are inappropriately over-grown for a mid-sized congregation.

A healthy congregation has an accurate body image. It understands that systems and structures must serve the actual complexity of the organization. The healthy congregation understands that size is not an end unto itself, but that size must be understood in relationship to the soul and the mission of the institution.

Recently, leaders of a congregation that I worked with posed the following question to members, as part of a self-study process: “What are the essential, central characteristics that make our congregation unique? “ A disturbing phenomenon surfaced as we began reviewing the collected data. A significant number of people responded to the question about central essential characteristics with some version of, “Well, I guess what makes us unique is that we are big.” These statements about the size of the congregation were often made without any qualifiers about why big was important, or what it helped the congregation to accomplish. People simply thought that what made them unique was their size. Size was an end unto itself.

As we probed the responses a little further, we discovered that people meant many different things when they named size as an essential characteristic of the congregation. Some talked about the fact that the size of the congregation generated enough resources to ensure that the congregation could make an impact in its community. For others, size produced a capacity for excellence in worship and education that they valued. For still others the size of the congregation was a measure of prestige. They valued being part of the “biggest and richest” congregation around. (Leaders expressed a collective “ouch” in response to that last interpretation.)

Today, this congregation is only half the size that it was ten years ago. It is still a large congregation, but linking the congregation’s strategic identity to its size is problematic. How does a congregation feel good about itself at a smaller size when its fundamental self-image is related to being large and impactful? The leaders of this congregation realize that they have a lot of work to do around congregational image, strategic identity, and right-sizing operational expectations.

What stories does your congregation tell about its size? Does your congregation have a size that it thinks it “ought” to be? Listed below are a set of dialogue queries designed to help surface assumptions, and right size leadership expectations:
1. If we are successful in our mission as a congregation, what size will we be? Why?

2. How do we measure our size? What are the most important indicators that we look to, to determine whether we are growing or shrinking, succeeding in our mission or missing the mark?

3. When we tell ourselves the story of our congregation (its history), where does size enter into the storyline? Has size ever been a defining element in our congregational story? What size congregation did our founders imagine that we would grow to be?

4. What are the core values of our congregation? Do any of our core values seem to require “smallness” or “bigness”?

5. How does the size that we are today compare to our size at other moments in time? How big was our congregation in its glory-days? Does it bother us that we are bigger or smaller today?

6. In what ways are we clinging to leadership systems that would more appropriately serve a different-sized congregation? Where do we need to right-size our structures, to effectively serve the congregation that we are today?

If-Then Plans

25 Apr

The problem with most planning is that people simply don’t do what they have declared they want to do. There is a goal setting technique that claims a 300% increase in the likelihood of goal attainment. It is called the if-then plan.

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Heidi Grant Halvorson, the associate director of Columbia Business School’s Motivation Science Center, wrote a featured article on the topic in the current Harvard Business Review, and in a recent issue of Fast Company.

Let’s look at how it works, and explore how we might work with it in congregational contexts.

If-then planning works by building contingencies into our neurological wiring. If ‘x’ (a condition) occurs, then I will engage in ‘y’ (a specific action). This very specific form of planning improves individual and group performance by sharpening focus and by prompting members to carry out agreed upon activities in a timely manner. It’s about creating instant new habits.

The problem with most goal setting is that the goals are stated very broadly. Many goal statements are not much more than a statement of intention.

    We will improve communication within our staff team.

The difficulty with a broad statement of intent is that people rarely know what they are actually supposed to do to impact the condition, and even if they do know, they often don’t deliver.

If-then planning creates an explicit link between our intention and a desired behavior that is likely to produce the intended state. It creates a clear trigger for action.

If we have reached the end of a program staff meeting, then we will stop to consider what information from our meeting needs to be communicated to the admin staff, and how that information will be delivered.

• If it is Tuesday afternoon at 4 pm, then we will have an all staff gathering around the water cooler, where our head of staff will provide a 5 minute update on the decisions made in the Executive Team Meeting that impact the rest of us.

The language may feel artificial and forced, but the tasks and the time frames are clear, which makes it more likely that people will engage the behaviors.

Halvorson recommends a four step process to create your if-then trigger statements.

1. Establish the broad goal.

    The work schedule of all staff will be transparent, so that those with a legitimate need to find staff are able to reach them.

2. Break the goal down into specific, concrete subgoals.

    a. Each staff member communicates their expected calendar of meetings/events for the upcoming week.

    b. Staff members communicate when they are on campus and off campus.

    c. Staff members working off campus communicate their availability for contact when off campus, and their expected time of return.

3. Identify detailed actions-and who, what, when and where-for reaching each subgoal.

    a. Each staff member updates a shared online calendar on Tuesday morning, indicating their expected schedule of meeting & activities, both on and off campus, for the next seven days.

    b. The receptionist oversees a color coded magnetic board that hangs next to the church office door. Each staff member moves their magnet to indicate their presence or absence from the building.

    c. Each staff member completes a pink slip when they go off campus during the work day. The slip is handed to the receptionist. The slip indicates whether the staff member will be reachable during their absence from the building, how they may be contacted if needed, and when they are expected to return.

4. Create if-then plans that trigger the actions.

    a. If it is Tuesday morning at 9:00 A.M., then staff will update their online calendar for the upcoming week.

    b. If a staff member is leaving the building, then they will come to the office on their way out of the building, to move their magnet to “out” on the board, and to turn a pink slip into the receptionist.

    c. If a staff member is entering the building, then they will first stop by the office to move their magnet to “in” on the board.

That’s the essence of an if-then plan. Give it a try on one of your tough behavioral challenges and let me know how it works for you!

Myth Busters-Supervision

15 Apr

Our unstated and unexamined assumptions about supervision prevent us from being more effective in the role of supervisor.

Myth #1: If I could just get the right people on my team, I wouldn’t have to spend so much time supervising them.

The Truth: If you lead a congregation with more than 400 people in average weekend attendance, then you will be spending at least one third of your time on the task of supervision. You have a choice. You can either spend that time squelching the chaos caused by your under-performer, or you can spend your time actively setting up a performance management system to align the collective energies of the entire staff team. Either way, you WILL spend about a third of your time on supervision.

Supervision is performance management, not people management. Supervision is NOT about making people do the work that you want them to do. Supervision IS about aligning the resources and energy of each staff member in pursuit of a common goal or mission. This means that you should be spending your time setting expectations, providing ongoing feedback, and aligning the energies of all your workers, not simply cajoling your under-performers to step it up. Our best workers should receive at least as much attention, if not more attention, than our problem employees.

Good performance management takes time. It’s not something that you “get out of the way” so that you can get back to the real work of ministry. Supervision is ministry.

mythbusters-final2Myth #2: It is too late to introduce accountability! If I have an employee on my staff that has been under-performing for a long period of time, without correction, then there isn’t anything that I can do to fix the problem. I just have to wait this one out, especially if I inherited the problem from someone else.

The Truth: It is never too late to invite accountability into an employment relationship. Righting an employment relationship begins with clarifying expectations and then providing ongoing feedback. Every member of your staff team should have three clearly defined sets of expectations for their role.

1. 8-10 essential functions of the job (these describe the basic duties and tasks of the position.)
2. 8-10 core competencies of the job (these describe the behavioral attributes, characteristics and skills that you expect the employee to demonstrate as they engage the essential functions.)
3. 2-3 performance goals (these describe the growing edge, or focus of the role for the current performance cycle; these align the energies of the staff member with the overall goals of the congregation.)

Ongoing feedback should include a regular (weekly, or bi-weekly) one on one conversation between the employee and their supervisor to establish priorities, clarify expectations and provide feedback on the basic expectations. This should be augmented with a quarterly goals update and an annual performance review.

Problem employees will often step it up once the expectations become clearer; or they will choose to leave because they are uncomfortable with the increased accountability. Either way, it’s never too late.

Myth #3: Every employee is redeemable and deserves another chance.

The Truth: All of the people on our staff team are the beloved in the eyes of God, but not all of our employment relationships are redeemable.

Once we have appropriately defined the expectations of the employment relationship, and provided ongoing feedback, with invitations to step up to our expectations, then we have done our part. If the employee demonstrates an inability or unwillingness to satisfy the basic expectations of the employment relationship over time, then the employment relationship should be brought to an end.

Myth #4: A good supervisor should be able to create a good ending for both the employee and the congregation.

The Truth: You cannot control how a terminated employee leaves your system. You cannot control how congregants will respond to the departure. You can create an open and transparent process, and you can invite healthy behaviors from the departing employee and from your congregants, but you cannot control what any of them actually do!

You best defense in a difficult employee termination process is a good offense. Gather a group of healthy leaders about you. Equip each leader with a transparent and consistent message that is appropriate, given the situation. And then, stand firm and non-anxious and let the disequilibrium work its way out of your system. You cannot control what happens, you can only respond to what happens with equanimity of mindfulness and heart.

You can learn more about replacing myth with good sound principles of supervision in, “When Moses Meets Aaron: Staffing and Supervision in Congregations”

Will You Be Joining Us?

25 Mar

(On the need to separate assimilation and membership)

Once upon a time, people understood that the way to assimilate into the life of a congregation was to join that congregation. The typical indoctrination process began when newcomers attended the Sunday morning worship service and registered their presence on a pew pad. The act of registration triggered a series of welcome communications from the congregation, and perhaps a visit from a church or staff member. Within several months of the first visit, the newcomer was invited to attend a “newcomer” class, which connected them with staff and church programs. The class almost always resulted in an invitation (actually, an expectation) to join the church. Upon joining, the newcomer was paraded in front of the congregation. It was a well-orchestrated process that helped the newcomer become known to the congregation. Being known was instrumental to being connected, and being connected was instrumental to being accepted and ultimately assimilated.Join Us Button purple

We know at a cognitive level that once upon a time is long gone. We understand that many of the newcomers who explore our congregations are suspicious of membership, but they do want to belong in community. More specifically they want to feel that WE belong to them. They are not interested in being assimilated and becoming just like us; but they are interested in acculturating. (They want to belong to a community that will change itself to receive them, as much as they will adapt themselves for that community.) People want to be known and accepted, but they don’t see what any of that has to do with membership.

We say that we understand these things, but our behavior suggests otherwise. Our behavior towards newcomers is very much about assimilation, not acculturation. Our behavior towards newcomers is still deeply rooted in unstated assumptions about membership, and still deeply tied to our membership processes. How does a person who is not interested in membership get acculturated into the life of your congregation?

Let me offer myself as a case study. In the last year I began attending a new congregation. I believe that my experience of assimilation into the life of this congregation is pretty typical of what many people experience in our traditions.

I attended my new congregation for a period of three months before deciding that I really wanted to invest myself in the life of these people and this community of faith. For a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here, becoming a member was not appropriate for me. But, I very much wanted to belong.

So I kept up my semi-regular attendance and I met with the pastor, declaring my intention to be a part of the community. He assured me that I could participate fully in the things I wanted to do without becoming a member, and that membership wouldn’t really matter to people. I signed up to have an official nametag made so that I looked like I fit in. Over time I attended all of the available worship services; volunteered to help with housing the homeless; made several tentative visits to a Sunday school class that didn’t fit me well; stood awkwardly in the fellowship area after church hoping that someone (anyone) would talk to me; and generally hung around the edges of the congregation. Two rounds of newcomer classes came and went, but they were clearly linked into the membership process, so I didn’t sign up.

Each week attendance pads were passed around in worship, inviting me to register my presence. The form prompted me to check off whether I was a visitor or a member (no other option). After the first three months it seemed silly to keep checking off visitor, so I just left that section plank. The act of completing the form each week, and leaving that section blank, is a constant reminder that I’m not one of them.

During worship we greet one another during the passing of the peace. During this ritual people often approached me with, “Where have you come from?” After trying to answer that question in a variety of ways, none of which seemed to satisfy the asker, I came to understand that they wanted me to tell them what church I had previously been a member of. People sometimes asked me if I planned to join the church, and their eyes quickly glazed over when I tried to explain why I wouldn’t be joining (TMI… we didn’t really want to know, we were just making small talk and wanted you to know that we have a usual process for how this all works). I never saw or received a church directory, nor did I receive the electronic newsletter, or information about the church budget, or an invitation to participate in the financial stewardship of the congregation. Several congregational meetings were held for “membership” business. I didn’t feel welcomed and didn’t attend.

At the end of my first year I hadn’t formed a single meaningful relationship with anyone in the congregation. It was frustrating, and it was becoming painful to attend worship. I thought hard about moving on, but decided that the church really was a good fit for me and that I needed to try harder.

So, I finally bit the bullet. I signed up for the newcomer class, announcing my intent to stop just short of the act of joining. I realized that my assimilation was going to depend upon getting to know more of the staff and church leaders who could help me connect, and I knew that meeting other newcomers would introduce me to people who had not yet formed solid relationships in the church and might be open to friendship. And I was right! After three sessions of the newcomer class I met enough people that I actually began to feel a little more known, and a little more at home. I was starting to feel connected. But my progress didn’t come without additional awkward moments, of needing to explain why I wasn’t joining the congregation.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to berate my new congregation. I love this place. My assimilation would have been warm and wonderful if only I could have/would have embraced membership. And I suspect many of your congregations would have offered me the same experience. Our cultures of assimilation are deeply embedded with assumptions of membership.

So, what does that mean for all of the people sitting in our pews that cannot or will not invest in membership? It means that they are regularly sidelined and reminded that they are not really one of us. It means that many of them leave us before we ever get to know them, because it is just too hard to find their way in. I know that this is not what we intend. It’s time to wake up and be more intentional about our behaviors and processes.

We have a lot of adaptive work to do in this area!

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