Thursday, April 22, 2010

Congregational Bromides: "We are a warm and friendly church"

Congregations reveal several patterns in displaying self-image. These patterns appear on websites, promotional literature, judicatory documents, and in general descriptions related to public discourse from members of the congregation. I often see these patterns in what the ELCA calls its "Ministry Site Profile," a 14-page document designed for congregational reflection, focus and articulation of mission, ministry, demographics and congregational culture and specific needs for pastoral leadership (among other attributes). These documents are shared as hard copies or electronically with pastors discerning a call. It is a significant part of my work in interim ministry to facilitate discussion, research and composition to complete this document. Though I see less of these documents than judicatory officials, I see many of them as a candidate to serve a congregation and the process in completing them.

Congregations generally struggle to reflect on assumptions about their community of faith. Add a group of leaders passionate about that community to a reflection and articulation process, and anxiety and passion escalate. I believe healthy congregations are able to reflect upon their assumptions, sometimes challenge them, and interface their assumptions related to executing a faithful mission and ministry. Over the years of reading Ministry Site Profiles and other pieces produced by congregations, I compiled a list of congregational bromides. "Congregational bromides" are frequently repeated statements related to self-image that are strongly held beliefs among members and displayed as truth. Yet congregations struggle to substantiate their church culture truth claims.

The first congregational bromide for reflection: "we are a warm and friendly church."

Some basic reflection questions:

+Would a congregation dare say it wasn't warm and friendly?
+What are the standards for warmth and friendliness?
+Can warmth and friendliness standards differ from congregation to congregation?
+Is a warm and friendly congregation a human concept or something connected to biblical theology?
+What is the purpose behind being a warm and friendly church? Can these purposes differ?

"Congregations believe they are friendly, because congregational members are friendly with each other." Though I've heard this statement from many different sources, the first source for me was Patrick Keifert from Luther Seminary. That point resonated with me because until that point I heard conversations in some congregations with statements like, "I can't believe this congregation isn't growing. If only people could see how friendly we are!"

For years I have seen congregations are friendly with each other, yet guests/visitors can walk in an attempt to participate almost unnoticed. These kinds of experiences are well documented. The unofficial congregational goal ends up being individuals in the congregation seek to have a warm and friendly feeling when they come to church, and thus the goal and ideal is to become a warm and friendly church--to build a circle of intimacy above all else. Keifert challenges the notion of intimacy and the church as a "family" in his book Welcoming the Stranger. Thomas Long for the Alban Institute gathers Keifert's and other works together in his short piece entitled Hospitality to the Stranger. Each of these works reveals some of the tensions between a desire for people to have intimacy, yet a calling to serve as a public worshiping community.

Some congregations are better than others living and serving as a public worshiping community. Whether a congregation is "warm and friendly" is actually of little value to me as I work with congregations in transition--especially when almost every congregation sees themselves that way. However, if a congregation is going to make "warm and friendly" a public claim, I will challenge them to substantiate that claim.

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