Monday, May 5, 2014

A Congregational Listening Experiment

With struggling congregations, there is an ongoing search for the action that will move the ministry forward. Many of the actions result in cosmetic changes, including things like adding a program, adjusting the committee structure, making changes in the constitution, cutting the budget. 

These are cosmetic changes because these actions only tangentially address the component that makes the church, the church. Relationships make the church what it is--relationships with God, and relationships with sister, brother, neighbor. Programs and structures are labor intensive and create an image that a congregation is making progress. 

For a congregation that is completely stuck in conflict and/or in an attendance tailspin, an intervention involves rebuilding of trust through listening. The concept of a listening post places strong boundaries on communication--the amount of time to talk, the way communication is delivered, etc. While the rules may seem heavy handed, the rules are necessary in order that all people in the congregation feel safe in communicating their appreciations and concerns. The listening post is a way forward for stuck congregations. There is no way forward without trust--trust that God is active in the life of the congregation, and a broad trust in the people of the congregation.

Why does intentional listening have to be limited to conflicted times in the congregation? Listening is part of a healthy rhythm in congregational life. The danger in listening is there is vulnerability and risk. When people invest in ministry, it involves an emotional attachment to work connected to the building blocks of life--birth, death, marriage, child rearing, illness, education. Listening opens up the possibility that an emotional investment won't be received well. With the risk, however, there is the possibility of return. It gives the congregation the opportunity to practice what it reads and teaches in scripture--an opportunity for confession and forgiveness. If people in the congregation trust that they will be heard, the collective buy-in for congregational ministry can multiply.

My current experiment involves a regular practice of congregational listening--a governing board-hosted, thrice-yearly forum over lunch. We addressed these questions in small and large group discussion during a one hour gathering:

1.    What is something for which you are thankful that is happening at St. John’s?
2.    What is something that is not happening that you think should be happening at St. John’s?
3.    What are you looking forward to at St. John’s in the next 6-12 months?
4.    What at St. John’s in the next 6-12 months may be cause for concern?
5.    When you invite someone to worship at St. John’s, what do you tell that person(s)?

This exercise in listening is an experiment. While the intent is that people in the congregation will listen and respect each other's perspective, there will be a careful balance of clarification and response. The response will come from a combination of board, pastor, and people in the congregation. This does not mean that what was voiced in the meeting creates a verbatim checklist for the board, but an opportunity to recognize how the congregation perceives the spirit of the congregation. 

Listening is not a simple act. In this day and age, listening borders on a radical act. Listening involves risk, but is an essential building block for trust--which makes ministry faithful and authentic.

1 comment:

  1. Dude this is wonderful! Spot on!
    I hope u will be at synod assembly in Everett next weekend it would be great to chat. ...Ben