The Leadership Team of Lake Michigan Presbytery and I are reading Gil Rendle’s book, “Journey in the Wilderness, New Life for Mainline Churches,” Abingdon Press, 2010. I invite you to join us. My blogs this winter will center on Rendle’s insights and questions, with the hope that they generate a conversation of learning together. Feel free to share your comments to these and future blogs.
In this book, Rendle joins Jill Hudson, Phyllis Tickle, and many others, who have written to describe the sea of cultural change we’ve been navigating these past 40 years. He identifies the Biblical narrative of Moses leading freed slaves in the wilderness as a story which resonates with our experience. He points out that we are not alone in our disorientation and bewilderment as we navigate our way through a shifting cultural landscape which is global. As Garrison Keillor often comments in his monologues on Prairie Home Companion, the experience of winter is not a private experience. We are not alone in it. Everyone is experiencing these things. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness a couple of generations before entering the promised land as an organized people and nation. In the introduction, Rendle invites us to the wilderness.
Since the 1960s when mainline protestant churches began to struggle, we have navigated the life of faith in what seems a strange and bewildering place and time. We’ve learned a lot, which the book chronicles, and still we wander seeking the promise land. Rendle suggests, “that in our dominate North American bias toward orderliness, we perhaps expect too much from an exodus. We expect that the trip can be scheduled on a clear time line, that leaders will know the right direction to walk every day, that faithfulness will not be challenged, and that everyone will willingly take the trip together without argument. Were such an orderly trip even possible, the fact remains that neat, tidy trips produce little learning and perhaps, in the end, no change.” (p.3)
A major question of this book is, what have we learned so far? In Chapter Two, Rendle draws a map of the multiple directions we have tried in search of the promised land. The first path was learning all we could about church growth: from learning about passive barriers and counting sanctuary capacity and parking spaces, providing adequate signage and accessibility, to considering theological correctness and congregational expectations (a low or high threshold for membership); abandoning denominational identity labeling; marketing and generational niche ministries, to learning from large and mega churches, which seem to be most comfortable in this new cultural landscape. North Americans seem to like our organizations either very large or very small.
A second path has been Church Transformation. The question facing many congregations was not just one of growth but of change. “A basic principle in systems theory is that vital, vibrant organisms must learn how to be study in purpose but flexible in strategy.” (p. 23). Instead of just doing what we always have done, session worked on mission statements to describe who we are and what we do, and vision statements describing what it will look like when we fulfill our goals. A new endeavor by the Alban Institute and seminaries was launched to study congregations. Jack Stewart, a member of Lake Michigan Presbytery went to Princeton Theological Seminary as a Professor of Congregational Studies, a new discipline to understand what makes vital congregations healthy. We tried to describe and measure vital congregations which led to two insights, first, that there was no consensus on the variables of vitality, and secondly, “when seeking growth and vitality, ‘solutions are found within individual, motivated congregations taken one at a time.’ In other words, there was no single answer and no single group of actions or programs that, if adopted would make all, or even many, congregations vital.” (p.26) This led to denominational staff shifting from producing one size fits all programs, to a focus on congregational strategic planning and providing processes for discernment for individual congregations to identify what God is calling them to do in their particular context. We also started looking beyond our church walls to identify our neighbors, to understand them, and connect to our communities. Data based information like Percept and Mission Insight were developed to help us do this. Some congregations joined interfaith community organizing networks to make a difference in their communities.
A third path has been Clergy Development: “It became clearer that the leadership of congregations-especially clergy leadership—was of critical importance.” Continuing education was identified and required in terms of call. “But again it was only a partial advance and could not fully address the perceived problem of being lost in the wilderness. There were systemic and motivational limitations to what could be accomplished through continued education. The systemic issue centers on the reality that it does not help to change the leader if the system in which the leader operates does not also change. Focusing only on educating the leader amounts to a strategy of ‘fixing’ the person when actually both the person and the system need to learn and change so that different outcomes may be achieved.” (p.30) Awareness of personal and spiritual renewal for clergy was also identified. Spiritual Direction was discovered, and the practice of Sabbath keeping. In 2000, the Lilly Foundation began financially supporting Sabbaticals for renewal of clergy and congregations.
Rendle concludes chapter two with hope. “These decades in our particular wilderness have not been a time of desolation and lost. Instead our story suggests that our time of pursuing multiple directions on our wilderness map has been marked by exploration, hard work, new learning, multiple mistakes, and worry mixed with hope. It has been a time rich in discovery…. The way has not been sure, but I have always been reassured and encouraged by what was once shared with me as a Native American saying: ‘Stumbling is moving ahead faster!’ Being surefooted and correct in the wilderness is not the issue, but being in motion is a critical issue. A consultant friend of mine often pointed out that you can’t steer a parked car. There has to be some motion, some direction, even if wrong or inadequate. For when we stumble on the path currently being followed, it is not hard to catch ourselves and redirect our searching in more promising ways. I suggest that this searching and stumbling, along with its rich discoveries and learnings, is much more descriptive of the past decades than any hand wringing description of despair over what has happened to the church.” (p.32)
What have you learned on your journey of leading congregations?
Have you had experiences in stumbling? Has that moved you forward?