I.I.M. Halfway Report

Now that we are halfway through this year of transition, it seems appropriate to say a few words about my observations, how to proceed from here, and some ideas of my own about what the congregation could become. 

In the process of gathering people together to talk about the congregation, I found significant agreement in their responses to a questionnaire. A total of  47 people have so far taken part, (roughly 3/4 of those on the role) similar to the typical attendance at church on Sunday mornings, and there is still one more meeting to go

In general, the participants perceived church members as different from non-church people in terms of what one looks for in life and how various issues are prioritised and dealt with.  I think this says more about their perception of what church life should be, rather than an accurate perception of non-churched people; i.e., what participants thought church people should be vs. a stereotype of the unchurched. Indeed, I think this was the intention of the questionnaire: to help people identify the positive aspects of belonging to a church.

There was agreement that our church life at Leopold was more comfortable than challenging, its members friendly and mutually supportive, but a bit frightened of commitment.

People were unsure of the degree that the congregation promotes a deepening faith and provides direction, leaning slightly toward a belief that while we do promote a deepening faith, we are less sure of an awareness of direction. There was a strong agreement on the value of gathering in small groups, e.g. Bible study groups, prayer groups, social groups, etc, although there was doubt that it could be easily accomplished.

In members’ opinion, the assets of the congregation clearly included an ample number of dedicated of workers and concern for outreach, with good support for its openness to the future and to new ideas.

The above comments do not include the my opinions, but are distillations of comments made by the members of the church.  My own observations and opinions follow:

The congregation is well-placed for the future. It has ample talented people to provide guidance, good buildings with an excellent worship space, and it is in the midst of a growing community. On the downside, it is, like many Uniting Churches, made up of older age groups, and is not representative of the newer, younger residents of the community around it.  It is too easy to jump to the conclusion that the congregation is not making use of its assets to attract these newer, younger residents. Two facts of life mitigate against this: 1) church is very much a stage-of-life choice and 2) churches tend to be homogeneous groups.

On the first, the questions the church addresses – the ‘spiritual’ questions concerning meaning and purpose of life – tend not to enter one’s consciousness until age 50+.  Those churches having a large number of younger people are satisfying quite different questions: Where do I belong? How do I fit in? These congregations provide a place of warmth and direction for the young who are seeking to answer these questions of their particular stage of life.  Our congregation is well-placed to serve those asking the spiritual questions of later life.

The second issue is a matter of reality over ideals.  Yes, the church should be a place for all kinds of people, and, when the whole of the church is considered, it is; congregations, on the other hand, inevitably organise themselves into groups of like-minded people.  People feel more comfortable with others like themselves, particularly when it comes to sharing their spiritual lives on a faith journey.

Far from seeing the Leopold congregation as inadequately representing the broader community and short on young people, we are better off understanding its role as ministering to people in the more mature stages of their spiritual development.  This need not mean accepting a fate to remain small, for there are a very large number of people over 50 in the community, in a nation of ageing people. It also does not mean that Leopold will never be a young church, for God many yet have surprises for us.  Having said this, it would be a mistake to focus on increasing membership as a goal in itself.  When the church and its members are seen as ‘People of the Way,’ as members of the early church were known, then this will be visible, and people will be drawn to it.

Where to From Here?

Pastoral Care is well-organised and has adequate people resources.  This could be the most valuable asset of the congregation, and if nothing was changed, it would be good enough. I think there is room for improving the confidence of those who minister in this area with some training, though.  It could make the work of pastoral care both more effective and more rewarding for all concerned.  

Governance: The congregation is blessed with strong leadership and several identifiable leaders. One could well apply the old axiom, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Nevertheless, there are a couple avenues to pursue that may pay dividends: 1) adopt the consensus model for meetings, not only because it is recommended by the wider church, but also because it is a vastly better way of doing business, especially for a church; and 2) consider making the congregation and the church council one and the same body. 

Regarding the first, the arguments for the consensus model are too numerous to list here, but it would have the added advantage of bringing us into line with the rest of the church.  As part of the meeting process used by the church, it is recommended that 20% of the meeting time is spent on spiritual formation/study/prayer, which is a good thing in its own right.

As for the church council, Leopold is a small congregation, and church council business could well be dealt with on a Sunday morning once a quarter, perhaps over lunch, with routine business taken care of by individuals or small committees in between congregational meetings.  This is especially true when using the consensus model, because discussion only occurs when there is not consensus on a given issue.  From my experience at Leopold, the absence of consensus is extremely rare, so there is little need for time for discussion.

Evangelism & Outreach:  These two activities are related, so I list them together.  Evangelism is about spreading the Good News and outreach is about doing good deeds, but by doing one, we often are doing the other at the same time.  Again, the congregation is strong in this area. Many of our people are involved in various outreach activities, within and without the church, and the Op Shop is a valuable tool that can be used for this purpose. 

The issue at hand is how to build upon these assets.  With regard to the Op Shop, there may be opportunity to bring some spiritual aspects into the corps of volunteers, but I wouldn’t recommend doing this until they asked for it.  There has been mention of creating a cafe as part of the Op Shop operation, and I see this as potentially a very, very effective channel for evangelism, and promotion of the church, particularly if it was created as a “conversation cafe’ and the ‘conversations’ used as material for a regular newspaper column.  

A major project such as a cafe is unlikely to work, however, unless there is at least one person who is passionate about running a cafe to take the reins. This provides an example of a major ingredient for success of church programs.  Every church program that I have witnessed to be successful and long-lasting has worked because one person has had a passion for it, and others have supported that person.  Warning: clergy-driven programs may work while the clergy person drives it, but they usually die out when the minister moves.

Small Groups: Small groups are generally viewed as valuable by the people of the congregation, and rightly so.  Small groups make it possible for people to feel comfortable with one another, let some of their barriers down, be a bit more vulnerable and thus, create the conditions in which the church can be the church as it was in the beginning.  Also, through such small groups, it is much easier to bring new people into the church, because these groups are naturally warm and welcoming and non-threatening. Small groups are where Church really exists; where people encourage and help one another along their spiritual journey.  This cannot happen in the typical Sunday worship service.  Ideally, Sunday worship is where people go to celebrate having met God  during the week in the relationships they’ve enjoyed in their small groups.

What Should the Congregation be Looking For in a Minister?

Strictly speaking, this is none of my business, but from the standpoint of a minister who would be looking to make the most of this congregation, I might have something to contribute.

The adjective that jumps to mind for an appropriate minister for Leopold is “enabling.”  The congregation has some wonderful people assets, and so the best thing that can be done is to enable them: train, encourage, stimulate, support, advise, et al.  I think a minister who is used to taking over and doing ministry; that is, running worship services, pastoring to the people, creating outreach programs, bringing in new people, etc, is not what the congregation needs.  It may be what it wants, but this will, to use the example of last Sunday’s sermon, take the congregation the way of the kiwi and the kakapo: their wings will not be exercised and they will lose the ability to fly.  (I’ve never been a natural enabler, so this a case of do as I say, not as I do.) 

Another characteristic that would be helpful for Leopold is openness to, and acceptance of, a variety of forms of spirituality and expressions of theology. In a small congregation, everyone needs to feel included, no matter what they believe.  A dogmatic minister, whether progressive, conservative or in-between, is to be avoided. The need is for someone who can lead the people along the path to life that Jesus trod without insisting on a particular belief system.

Leopold needs a minister who is a resource for things spiritual and theological, and who can teach, inspire, comfort and manage people; in other words, a minister for the ministers, recognising that the true ministers of the Leopold congregation are its members.  This minister will help others recognise their gifts for ministry, develop them and find ways to use them, and will particularly have the knowledge and gifts to encourage and provide for resources for small groups.  New directions will arise from the members of the congregation more than from the minister, and in this way, the congregation will own them.

What exactly should the congregation do to prosper in the future?  Only God knows, at least right now. However, I believe God’s will is made known to those who look for it.  It is made known in the things that give people life, in their passions, in opportunities that present themselves that call to us, in surprising and unexpected events.  Whatever it is will have the support of the Spirit moving among the congregation, and this is what will make it stand out from the many things that people think that Christians ‘should’ be doing.  Ministry, when serving God’s will, gives more than it takes.  Ageing, lack of energy, busy lives and all the other apparent restrictions on ministry will fade, because doing God’s will is inspiring, energising, life-giving.  If people are burning out in ministry, it is because their priorities are not being directed by God.  Real ministry is fun and is its own reward.

It will be the task of the ordained minister to be the spiritual guide for the people in their search for God’s will, so this person will have prayer and study as a personal priority and as priority for the people of the congregation. As one seeks to grow as a person and as a disciple, the will of God in both the inner and the outer worlds begins to be revealed. 

As the congregation looks for a minister, it should start from the belief that this congregation is a great place in which to minister.  The only difficultly that this congregation presents is that it is looking for someone part-time, which necessarily reduces the range of potential candidates.  If this issue can be resolved, there should be little trouble finding the right minister for the congregation.

Bob Thomas

July 2108