Connecting: A Leader’s Guide for Using Your Congregation’s Results

The purpose of the Leader’s Guide, Connecting, is to help congregants understand the results of their U. S. Congregational Life Survey. The Guide is “for congregational reflection.” Four learning sessions are provided for participants to take others’ perceptions seriously and playfully. The fun is in the differences noted in looking at this snapshot of your congregation. It makes “sense” when you realize your individual experience may be “nonsense” to someone else, and that it is OK to be nonsensical. The serious work is found in the play of your effort to come up with “findings” that are your answer to “What does the report say?”

The book, A Field Guide to U. S. Congregations, discusses congregational mental maps — the socially constructed reality congregations operate by, often treated as eternal truth for which there is no alternative. The Guide creates a small interpersonal “mapquest.” There are hundreds of ways to use your congregation’s survey results. This Guide operates at a level where perception is reality. How members see things creates a reality that can be examined through new information and open communication.

The important word in this mapquest is the word “is.” Every congregation needs to suspend the words “should and ought” once in a while, and have its congregants confer about their current sense of what “is.” To do this, once again, is to learn to play with perceptions in order to get below the “really serious hard work” of building the realm of God. It means celebrating and developing the congregation’s strengths. It means reading Scripture as material for play, not material for ecclesiastical control. It means taking Isaiah and Paul at their word: God is up to new things and we have the chance to sing the new songs.

Congregants are asked to go up the steps and get on the balcony and see how it looks from up there. This view usually makes visible the fact that there are many ways to be a congregation and engage in mission. This view usually provides the realization that the worst thing to be done is trying to “fix” the perceived problems. It sees fixers at work fixing problems and the problems do not go away. That is because congregational culture is deep, thick, and layered with time and energy. It demands patient nurturing, not fixing.

So, Connecting is one very human and very small attempt to get congregants to sit and listen to each other with a document in their hands, the Connections Report from the U. S. Congregational Life Survey.

Download the Leader’s Guide, “Connecting” now.

Session One asks congregants to share images of their congregation and the community surrounding the church. What fresh words can be used to describe your congregation? Recently a group of congregational leaders described their congregation as a progressive, friendly, welcoming, pastor-inspired spiritual center for seekers with a unique liturgy. They also described themselves a so-so bunch of older nomads with a neighborhood diner serving clumpy mashed potatoes. The diner image sounds scriptural. What does the clumpy mashed-potato image do for you? The same leaders described their community as a diverse, isolated, income-disparate, suburban, middle class, close-to-everything place to live. They also described their community as a Republican, “not in my backyard” place where everyone is related to everyone else. When is the last time you took an hour to compare notes with members of your congregation about your congregation and community?

Session Two uses the material on worship and devotional life (your congregation’s Spiritual Connections) to ask about growth in faith and spiritual fulfillment. Psalm 139 is a basis for conversation about God’s searching and knowing us. Conversation about music, devotions, and attitudes toward the Bible lead to small group lists of what the congregation needs to grow in faith. This session is all about a congregation being a house of God — a small house of corporate life and worship within God’s large household of the universe. Get on the balcony to see what goes on at your house. James Hopewell, in his book Congregation, names every congregation as an “erotically capacious household of God.” Every congregation has a rich life, thick with passion, and expresses itself in a zest for life, a desire for community, a deep wanting to be loved by God. This is what Eros is all about. Wouldn’t you like to spend an hour talking about the erotic capacity of your congregation?

Session Three uses your congregation’s results in the Inside and Outside Connections areas to set up a conversation about context and commitment. Questions about community service, small group life, mission, and financial giving are related to Paul’s church and community in Rome. In this session small groups generate lists of how the congregation sees life within the congregation and life beyond the congregation, especially in the community surrounding the church building. After identifying strengths and weaknesses of these connections, participants can brainstorm about what “could” be done to address some of these findings. This list of “we could” statements is then set aside for work at another time. One congregation recently included in its mission statement the term “Spiritual Christians.” I asked if they knew unspiritual Christians or spiritual Unchristians. I asked them to pretend they just got off a spaceship from Mars and the first person they met had the name “Spiritual Christian.” What would they behold? How would they know? As they talked they found themselves in touch with Paul’s description in Romans 12.

Session Four, using the results about vision, leadership and identity (your congregation’s Identity Connections), asks small groups to name the “single most important issue” facing the congregation. This decision is in light of the “new thing” statements in Isaiah and Paul. Information on a sense of excitement about your congregation’s future is related to the new life that God brings. Session Four concludes by asking each participant to write a personal vision statement applying to the congregation. Each statement follows a format based on the vision statement of the Church of the Brethren:

Continuing the work of Jesus: simply, peacefully, together.

The litany of sound as participants read their statements aloud to the whole group can be quite moving, and humorous. When was the last time you stated the vision of your congregation in ten serious and funny words, such as these that I made up after visiting several congregations?

  • Preserving the museum: Exclusively, Expensively, Resolutely
  • Living on the edge: Electronically, Emotionally, Devotionally
  • Keeping the tradition: Conservatively, Liturgically, In German

Finally, to pick up on the fact that every congregation can be extraordinary, I created this vision statement for a forty-member urban congregation that truly is where it wants to be, although most congregations would not want to be there. Soup Kitchen Church
In deep trouble: Financially, Educationally, Culturally.

Download the Leader’s Guide, “Connecting” now.

Kenneth B. Byerly, Author Connecting: A Leader’s Guide for Congregational Reflection
Using the U. S. Congregational Life Survey
November 3, 2003