Authentic Community: the transition from familiar strangers to a family of faith

For Baptists Today
09/01/11

Authentic Community: the transition from familiar strangers to a family of faith

By Beth Kennett

Authentic Community

The phrase Authentic Community creates an image of people living and working together, being honest and approachable, kind, compassionate, trustworthy, and open to healthy communication. This description offers a beautiful picture of positive attributes. However, this picture is not easy to paint. In order to be an Authentic Community, people must be willing to acknowledge reality, to be honest about likes and dislikes, and to confront difficult truths. Authentic Community is about relationships with depth, relationships that move beyond the surface of pleasantries, relationships that allow people to know something of others’ experiences and passions. Authentic Community allows people to be who they are, who God called them to be, and to nurture whom God is calling them to become as individuals and as a community of faithful people.

Congregations have an opportunity to create Authentic Community that will enhance and strengthen the lives of individuals as well as to create an impact on society that will make a difference for our current generations and generations to come.

Familiar Strangers

Unfortunately, individuals today are becoming more and more isolated. We work alone, we play alone, and we even make decisions alone — without thinking of the impact on others. We have been duped into believing that life is easier if we do not involve others. In his book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam states, “The single most common finding from a half century’s research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world, is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.” (p. 332) He goes on to say, “Where once we could fall back on social capital — families, churches, friends — these no longer are strong enough to cushion our fall. In our personal lives as well as in our collective life. . .  we are paying a significant price for a quarter century’s disengagement from one another.” (p.335) There is scientific evidence to prove that we are damaging our health through a lack of relationships and personal contact with others.

Every week, churches offer opportunities for individuals to connect through worship services, prayer times, Bible studies, programs and ministry — meaningful life experiences. Yet participation in these particular opportunities has been declining for 50 years. Every week fewer and fewer people, who really barely know each other, are gathering with the intent of making a difference in their lives and in the lives of others. Those who do gather, sit side by side with people they barely know or know only on the surface. Every week buildings are half-full of people who believe that they do not have the time to get to know each other as anything more than acquaintances. Every week church buildings contain groups of familiar strangers who are trying to function as congregations. Authentic community is nowhere in sight.

 

Transitioning to a Family of Faith

The apostle Paul understood the concept of Authentic Community. Throughout his letters to the early churches, Paul repeatedly shares ways congregations can live better as a group, as a church. He speaks of belonging and connecting, of communicating and accepting, of being a place where no one is an outsider. Paul encourages the church to focus on the teachings and actions of Jesus in order to develop into healthy communities of faith. Jesus, before his death, gives a new command to his disciples; he impresses on them the importance of living lives of love. It is in living love — incorporating love into every aspect of our individual lives and the life of our community — that we begin to understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It is through relationship with God and living the teachings of Jesus Christ that we can establish Authentic Community within the church. It is through nurturing communities that we experience healthier living.

 

Building Community

Congregations have many opportunities to build community and nurture relationships among individuals. But congregations must recognize and embrace these opportunities. It is easy to reduce the time necessary for shared prayer joys and concerns, planned fellowship activities, ice-breakers and other ways for individuals to learn more about each other. It is imperative in all of the programming that congregations do, to include opportunities for healthy relationships to develop.

I am part of a small congregation — 102 confirmed members and 36 active children. Two years ago, we intentionally began planning opportunities for individuals to connect other than on Sundays and we encourage people to connect through social media, email and texting. Our church is experiencing a stronger sense of community across generational lines. This summer, we have experienced more regular attendance than ever before during the summer months. This is a positive transition toward becoming an Authentic Community.

Through the natural process of congregational life, Authentic Community can be nurtured. If a congregation is purposeful in the day-to-day life of planning, implementing, serving and worshiping, familiar strangers will develop deeper and more meaningful relationships that will lead our congregations to being families of faithful people.

Source: Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone.New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000

Beth Kennett is network coordinator for healthy faith communities for the Center for Congregational Health (www.healthychurch.org) based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Please site Beth Kennett, Baptists Today and the Center for Congregational Health if this article is reprinted or quoted.

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Resources for Conflict

The Center is available to help with community. We can provide consultation, coaching, and leadership development.

Learn more at www.healthychurch.org. If we can help you in any way, please contact us!

We are also on Facebook and Twitter.

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Recalculating

9/19/11
by Bill Wilson

It comes in a variety of accents. It can be a man’s voice or a woman’s (my favorite is the female Australian). It can break your heart or serve as a warning. It will mock you. It will scold you. When I am behind the wheel, to hear it makes me cringe. If you have a GPS in your vehicle, you know the word “recalculating”. It means you have taken a wrong turn, you might be lost, or at the very least you have wandered off the path your GPS prefers that you take. The unspoken message is “way to go dummy, now wait patiently while I figure out how to get us out of this mess.”

Every generation comes up with words that aptly describe their era. From “groovy” to “whatever”, the English language has an amazing ability to morph and shape itself to fit an ever-changing population. Could it be that “recalculating” is a word that describes congregational life early in the 21st century?

Every healthy minister and congregation I know is doing some form of recalculating. Most ministers come out of their theological training only semi-prepared for what they find when they go to work in a local church. No surprise there, that is the prevailing model of higher education in most specialties. Why do you think Medical School graduates go from Medical School to a Residency, rather than straight into practice? For most clergy, our theological education is the background for the ongoing education that begins at graduation. Every sensible minister understands that recalculating is the normative way of life for us. To be described as relevant is one of the greatest compliments one can receive as a minister or as a congregation.

While we serve an unchanging God and represent eternal truth, the methods by which we do so change daily. Recalculating is the standard operating stance for effective ministers. Every day, our antennae are up and sensitive to the ebb and flow of the world we live in. We must read, think, pray, and experience our culture constantly if we are to be able to link the Good News of Christ with those around us. We cannot assume that what we knew five years ago about our community or those we serve holds true today.

Likewise, congregations are awakening to the fact that recalculating is an essential skill that we must master. Some things do not change about us, and those unchanging eternal truths are the values at our very core. Everything else, however, is changeable. Whether it be worship times, styles, music, structure, facilities, VBS schedule, ministry partners, or staff job descriptions, the operative word must be “recalculating”. Everything that is not eternal is temporal, and should be regarded as open to recalculation.

Healthy congregations and clergy invest significant money, time and effort in this regard. They engage in proactive thinking, rather than reactive. This means they actually schedule time to think, brainstorm and project into the future. Most of us are so busy trying to do all that has to be done this week, that the idea of taking time away to think and reflect, in the spirit of Jesus, is laughable. Actually, it is laughable to imagine that we can do the work of the Kingdom without time devoted to recalculating.

To embrace “recalculating” as an essential ingredient in our congregational life will mean sending staff and key leaders away on retreats, to conferences, and insisting that they leave day-to-day operations to others in order to recalculate. It will mean we invite clergy to think more and do less, to pray more and perform less, to reflect more and talk less.

The new reality of congregational and clergy health includes a healthy dose of what the corporate world calls “R and D”: research and development. How are you going to make such thinking part of your daily and weekly diet of responsibilities? What you are going to do to encourage your ministerial staff members to recalculate regularly?

Occasionally, I get fed up with my GPS and it’s insistence on recalculating. I turn it off and launch out on my own, choosing to ignore the fact that I am hopelessly lost. Such journeys seldom end well, either for me, your staff or your congregation.

Perhaps we need a female Australian voice over our loudspeakers at church inviting us to stop, admit we are a bit lost, and “recalculate.” Would we be so wise as to cultivate a congregational culture that encourages recalculating among its leadership? If we do, we may find ourselves squarely on the path God has envisioned for us as we move into the future.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health (www.healthychurch.org).


Conflict as Blessing: Please Don’t Waste This Crisis

For Baptists Today
08/01/2011

Conflict as Blessing: Please Don’t Waste This Crisis

By Bill Wilson

Ask any minister, “What is the worst part of your job?” and nearly all will tell you, “Conflict!”. Ask any congregation member what they like least about their church experience, and most will answer the same. Conflict is everywhere people are, and it seems to be escalating. The incivility of our culture is having a toxic effect on ministry and congregations.

The FACT 2000 survey of 14,000 congregations found that, in the past five years, 75 percent of churches have experienced some level of conflict. At any given time, one-fifth of congregations are in active conflict. With our depressed economy and seismic job losses, many lives are deeply stressed. It comes as no surprise that churches are experiencing more conflict than ever. Regarding conflict as blessing seems foolish and naïve. Is it possible, however, to learn to manage our conflict constructively?

Speaking up early

Church leaders are wise to address conflict early and proactively before it escalates to become divisive. The issue is not whether you will have conflict, but what you will do with it. Following biblical commands means handling conflict with openness, compassion and as much transparency as possible. Speaking up early, rather than sweeping disagreement under the carpet, avoids a host of problems that over time can leave a congregation divided and deeply wounded.

Conflict within a congregation can begin as a simple difference of opinion over worship styles, carpet color or youth activities, or it can be as shame-filled as division over clergy sexual misconduct or staff financial mismanagement. It always causes discomfort, and it can be downright painful. And yet, conflict within a congregation can be a catalyst for healthy growth.

Growing through the pain

In my experience, it is the rare adult who makes any significant life change without discomfort and pain. Throughout the Bible, God uses conflict to grow his people. Paul, Peter, Martha, Mary, David and Jeremiah are examples of heroes who learned through the ache of failure and conflict. The letters to the early church are filled with instructions for managing conflict. We are not the first to walk this way.

Conflicts and crises make excellent teachers. They often lead to new and better ways of doing things. If a youth leader’s misbehavior results in a safer policy for adult interaction with teens, the youth ministry is strengthened. If employee theft inspires a smart policy that minimizes risk, congregational trust is enhanced. When bitter argument gives way to thoughtful conversation, community is built.

Keys to navigating conflict

At the Center for Congregational Health, we believe there are several keys to navigating conflict. One is to avoid triangulation. During conflict, it is tempting for people to talk about each other to anyone who will listen. Instead, we are called to take Matthew 18 seriously and learn to talk to each other about the issue. Such conversations must come in from the parking lot to the fellowship hall. Leaders can facilitate opportunities for guided conversations in a manner that allows everyone to voice an opinion. Mature leaders can help others learn to discuss deep issues of differences, disagreements and disappointments. When people feel belittled, ignored or disrespected, the outcome is very different from when they feel valued, included and heard.

A second practice is to anticipate conflict. Healthy congregations have regular times to talk about life together. Opportunities specifically devoted to open discussion create a safe place for the congregation to ask hard questions and relieve anxiety. Deacon or business meetings that include unstructured time for asking questions build trust. Congregational leaders who are willing to hear suggestions and critiques without undue defensiveness model maturity and deepen the fellowship.

A third practice is to get help. As with Paul and Timothy, in some cases, despite the best efforts of leadership and the congregation to remain open-minded and transparent, a polarity cannot be resolved. When conflict gets especially heated, a third-party intervention may be required to enable us to overcome our emotional anxiety and harmful habits.

Finally, we need to learn the art of graceful exits. If a conflict escalates beyond reconciliation, our goal as Christians ought to be to bless one another and then separate. Often, in a worst-case intractable conflict, the two sides take their focus away from the issue and set out to destroy each other. This tears at the fabric of the church and decimates our witness for Christ. We can certainly do better.

While the church of Christ may be filled with sinners and conflict, when we manage conflict in a way that leads to a healthier congregation, we become a message of hope to the larger world. There may be no better way for the church to witness to a conflict-weary culture than to handle its own, internal differences with wisdom and grace.

Crisis and conflict awaken our passions and can motivate us to a better way. When conflict arrives, as it must, please do not waste the opportunity to seek to turn it into a blessing.

Learn more about understanding conflict and a discussion of the levels of conflict, as identified by Speed Leas.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health (www.healthychurch.org).

Please site Bill Wilson, Baptists Today and the Center for Congregational Health if this article is reprinted or quoted.

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Resources for Conflict

The Center is available to help with conflict. We can provide consultation, coaching, leadership development and spiritual formation.

Learn more at www.healthychurch.org. If we can help you in any way, please contact us!

We are also on Facebook and Twitter.


Levels of Conflict by Speed Leas

In reference to the article by Bill Wilson (in Baptists Today) titled Conflict as Blessing: Please Don’t Waste This Crisis, we have provided the Levels of Conflict as identified by Speed Leas.

Levels of Conflict

Levels of Conflict

Level One: A Problem to Solve

Conflicting goals, values, needs.  Problem oriented rather than person oriented.

Level Two: Disagreement

Mixing of personalities and issues, problem cannot be clearly defined. Beginning of distrust and personalizing problem.

Level Three: Contest

Begin the dynamics of “win/lose.” Personal attacks. Formation of factions, sides, camps. Distortion a major problem.

Level Four: Fight/Flight

Shifts from winning to getting rid of person(s). Factions are solidified. Talk now takes on the language of “principles,” not “issues.”

Level Five: Intractable Situations

No longer clear understanding of issue(s); personalities have become the focus. Conflict is now unmanageable. Energy is centered on the elimination and/or destruction of the person(s).

 Level Zero: Depression

Depression is defined as “anger turned inward.” Sometimes congregations do not know they are in conflict because they are in a state of depression. The task is to raise their awareness that there are problems to be solved.

The simplest way to manage conflict is to keep differences of opinion at Level One or to move them down to that level so everyone understands and agrees that “we have a problem to solve.” Write the problems out together as a “Workable Problem Statement” which should:

  • be free of blame
  • be specific and descriptive
  • not focus on the distant past
  • not be a “put down” of any involved parties
  • be agreed to by all involved as a definition of this problem

Discussion of the Levels of Conflict

According to Speed Leas, conflict often develops and escalates in a predictable pattern. It begins as a problem that needs to be solved (Level 1). Problems are issues or challenges that can be described and for which solutions can potentially be found.

If the problem is not solved, conflict can escalate to level 2, a disagreement. The disagreement is often about how to solve the problem and is a normal, expected part of solving problems. The key is to find ways to resolve disagreement or to convince all parties to come to a shared point of view.

If the conflict continues to be unresolved, a level 3 conflict can emerge, a contest. A contest is one in which there are winners and losers and no one wants to be a loser. Sides begin to form and clarity about the problem to be solved begins to diminish. It quickly becomes more important to win than to solve the problem.

If the conflict continues to escalate to level 4, individuals and groups begin to act in more aggressive, instinctual ways and the situation can quickly deteriorate. In a fight/flight situation, those who are conflict avoidant leave and those who remain are typically more committed than ever to winning. Principles and dogma are often evoked as justification for various points of view. This level is characterized by strategizing how to win the fight and garnering the resources necessary to do so.

Level 5 describes a level of conflict in which hope for reconciliation is generally lost. Emotional responses overwhelm thinking and problem solving approaches. Combatants are focused not just on winning, but even on punishing or getting rid of their opponents.

Level 0 describes a situation in which the conflict is not openly acknowledged or recognized. It may have been present for a long period of time and remained essentially underground—unacknowledged and not discussed. This does not mean the conflict has gone away.

In all cases except for level 0, the goal is to de-escalate the conflict to the lowest level possible—ideally to level 1. If the conflict has reached level 3 or higher, it is difficult to resolve the conflict without outside help since all the insiders are viewed as having a side in the conflict.

For level 0, the goal is to escalate the conflict to the level of awareness. As long as it remains unacknowledged, no work can be done to resolve it.


Congregational Shift: Can a Congregation Transition without Carnage?

For Baptists Today
07/01/2011

Congregational Shift: Can a Congregation Transition without Carnage?

By Chris Gambill

There is no change without pain. Change processes in congregations often have unintended as well as intended consequences. Unintended consequences can include conflict, anger, grief, loss of energy and momentum, or even the loss of staff or members. Regardless of how well intentioned a change process may be, it has the potential to bring more harm than good.

For some congregations, these potential liabilities are enough to check any movement toward change. However, as most faith communities surely know, not changing also has serious liabilities and consequences. Refusing change puts a congregation at risk of irrelevance or even extinction. Church history, both ancient and modern, is brimming with evidence that this can and still does happen. The choice should not be between change and no change. The real challenge is to create transition processes that produce the kind of results congregations hope for and avoid as much as possible those things they least desire. With careful and prayerful planning, a congregation can transition without carnage.

When considering change, congregations should seek to be faithful to their own particular sense of calling. Scripture and tradition offers various points of view about change that can inform a congregation as it seeks to be faithful and relevant. For example, in regard to change in general, scripture seems to revere and value both stability and change.

  • “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8, NIV)
  • “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV)

Regarding the speed of change and the energy or patience required to see it through, there also seems to be paradoxical guidance from scripture.

  • “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NIV)
  • “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’(Matthew 10:34-36, NIV)

In our experience at the Center for Congregational Health, most congregational change processes fall along a continuum where one end represents a revolutionary approach and the other end an evolutionary approach. A revolutionary approach is one that is typically carried out in a short timeframe and seeks to establish significantly different ways of thinking and behaving. An evolutionary approach typically utilizes a longer timeframe and may or may not seek to establish the degree of change sought through a revolutionary approach. The biggest difference between the two approaches is the impact on the congregation members, themselves. Revolutionary change is hard to miss. Evolutionary change can happen so slowly that the transition is almost indiscernible. Both have a significant emotional, psychological and spiritual impact on members of a faith community.

For congregations ready for a revolutionary approach, the sudden and often dramatic change is welcomed by most people. However, if a congregation is not carefully prepared and does not have enough of a sense of urgency to support quick and dramatic change, then the transition may be resisted or rejected. Quick change processes have less time to build cohesion and consensus. This means there is a higher risk of congregation members not “owning” the changes or of feeling left out of the decision-making processes.

Evolutionary change, because it is slower and more gradual, may be more readily accepted or produce less resistance. Because more time is available for the progression, it has a higher likelihood of producing broader ownership for the change and decision-making processes. On the other hand, the slow pace of evolutionary transition may be frustrating to those with a greater sense of urgency about what they perceive to be needed change.

Which is better, revolutionary or evolutionary change? Neither. Just as it is not an option for a congregation to simply choose change or no change, the choice is also not simply between a revolutionary or evolutionary approach. Picturing change processes on a continuum with the two extremes being revolutionary and evolutionary allows change leaders to move back and forth along the continuum to find the appropriate methodology, speed and forcefulness for any particular situation.

Those seeking to lead change processes in congregational life need to ask good questions. For example:

  1. Which theological principles should take precedence in the change process?
  2. How urgent is the need for change?
  3. How much time does the congregation have to devote to a change process?
  4. How much emotional energy surrounds the potential change?
  5. How much risk can the congregation afford regarding potential unintended consequences?

Listening carefully and answering these questions accurately can help congregational leaders determine the right speed and energy needed for a change process. While congregational transitions are never easy, they can be managed in ways that bring largely positive results.

Chris Gambill is senior consultant and manager of congregational health services for the Center for Congregational Health (www.healthychurch.org) based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Please site Chris Gambill, Baptists Today and the Center for Congregational Health if this article is reprinted or quoted.

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Resources for Communication

The Center is available to help with transition. We can provide consultation, coaching, leadership development and spiritual formation.

Learn more at www.healthychurch.org. If we can help you in any way, please contact us!

We are also on Facebook and Twitter.


Examples of Communication from The Key to All Transition

Examples of Communication from The Key to All Transition

Published in Baptists Today by Chris Gambill with Natalie Aho

Change is inevitable. Significant transitions do come, but because they occur infrequently, most congregations do not naturally have the tools to cope with them effectively. Transitions – positive or negative – create anxiety. Whether it’s hiring a new pastor, changing location, saying goodbye to a church patriarch or matriarch, adding or subtracting a worship service or even deciding how to handle a large financial gift – transitions can cause discomfort, distrust and conflict.

The primary way to decrease discomfort and anxiety and to increase trust during a transition is through communication: intentional, consistent, multi-modal communication. While effective communication is important to any faith community, it is vital during a time of transition. Communication engenders trust when leaders do what they say they will do. Effective communication can move a change process forward by creating positive energy and anticipation. Where transition can be foreseen, congregational leaders should create a communications plan and assign responsibilities.

Read the rest of this article.

We wanted to provide a few concrete examples of when we have seen churches using communication effectively during a transition.

Quarterly Church Conference:

Search Committee Process:

  • As mentioned in the article, the church first created a “logo” of sorts that provided some graphical consistency (colors, font type, font words) – example: “2011 FBC Pastor Search”. In their printed pieces (newsletters) and online (website), they provided a timeline with the full search committee process (in the consistent colors) and they would move an electronic arrow along the timeline as they moved through the process. They also created a “life-size” version of this timeline on white board and hung it in a main hallway of the church. They moved the arrow along this timeline as well.

Moving Forward:

  • To provide a participatory experience, the church created a time capsule. They wanted to say “good-bye” to their past in order to move forward with a new plan and a new future. They put in the time capsule the things (or image representations) they want to stay in the past and they also included gifts to the future members. This was an opportunity for them to physically “bury the past” and expect there will be a future. They held an elaborate, focused outside service. One particular memory for Chris Gambill was of a very old member pointing to a group of young children watching her place a “future” item into the time capsule. She then said to them, “I want you to give this to my great, great grandchildren.”
  • One congregation wrote a play depicting the life and history of the congregation. They had vignettes portrayed by characters in costumes from the past. This is a great way to mark a significant time in the life of the congregation and then move forward into a new time.

Financial Gift:

  • The best way to communicate effectively when the church receives a significant financial gift is to have a policy in place NOW (before any gift is received) to prevent any problems. The church should not have react but should be proactive. Eliminate designated funds (the outsider now handling the gift may not know if the designated fund still needs money). There should be a process of review, input, and decision making. Be thankful and acknowledge the gift. Put it in escrow, and then move through the process of discussion and input opportunities for anyone who has an investment in the outcome of this fund (which should be every member of your congregation). Every idea should be heard, and then evaluated. The conclusion of what to do with the fund should be a decision process with a possible range of outcomes (the fund may not be used in just one way).

Significant Transition of Change:

  • Recognize that a lot of change-related decisions are really about trying to resolve a polarity, rather than solving a problem. The question may be, “Do we want to be innovative or traditional?” and the answer is “yes.” Options that seem to be opposites must be held in tension with one another. You need to be able to recognize when the question at hand is really about polarity and develop a strategy to wrestle with the benefits and liabilities of any decision (from both sides). The Center for Congregational Health has experience in helping your congregation make a better decision. Contact us to learn more about polarities through a workshop or a consultation.

Interactive Communication:

  • The wide use and availability of the Internet and mobile devices has allowed the average church to communicate instantly and, in some cases, intimately, with its congregants. Visit the icm4clergy blog created by Natalie Aho for tips and theories on how to use the Internet for communication during transitions.

If your church has other examples of successful communication plans used during times of transition, please comment here or on our Facebook page.


Communication: The Key to All Transition

For Baptists Today
06/01/11

Communication: The Key to All Transition

By Chris Gambill with Natalie Aho

Change is inevitable. Significant transitions do come, but because they occur infrequently, most congregations do not naturally have the tools to cope with them effectively. Transitions – positive or negative – create anxiety. Whether it’s hiring a new pastor, changing location, saying goodbye to a church patriarch or matriarch, adding or subtracting a worship service or even deciding how to handle a large financial gift – transitions can cause discomfort, distrust and conflict.

The primary way to decrease discomfort and anxiety and to increase trust during a transition is through communication: intentional, consistent, multi-modal communication. While effective communication is important to any faith community, it is vital during a time of transition. Communication engenders trust when leaders do what they say they will do. Effective communication can move a change process forward by creating positive energy and anticipation. Where transition can be foreseen, congregational leaders should create a communications plan and assign responsibilities.

Multi-modal communication

A multi-modal approach is essential. Every individual has a preferred way to receive and process information – some of us prefer to read, others to see, hear or witness an event. Church leaders should engage all communication methods – newsletter, worship bulletin, oral announcements during worship and other community gatherings, as well as online communication tools like the church website, Facebook church page, Twitter and email newsletters and groups (see examples).

Visual communication is often neglected. One church that I know of did it effectively by placing a large, multi-colored timeline of the pastor search process and moved a large arrow along the timeline to show the congregation where the search committee was in the process. The same graphic appeared in the newsletter. (Read of other examples.)

For oral announcements, it is important to find a spokesperson with excellent speaking skills and a presence that inspires trust. The speaker should have written remarks, prepared in advance, that give the appropriate amount of information. Be thoughtful and intentional about how much to communicate. Too much detail, too soon in a transition process can increase anxiety if those details change. Too little information leaves people distrustful and wondering what they are not being told.

When using online communication, it is important to remember that most of these platforms are accessible to the general public. For example, the church website is likely to be viewed by a visitor or non-member. Be selective about what is shared with the larger population. Consider providing a “members only” area, which requires a log-in. Emails should be limited to regular releases once a week to refrain from overwhelming inboxes. One suggestion would be to set up a separate news list that members can choose to subscribe to for information regarding a transition (see example).

Talk among yourselves

Besides communicating effectively to the congregation during transition, leaders need ways to foster healthy communication from and among the congregation. Congregation members and leaders need the capacity to dialog about important issues. For example, during a pastoral transition, leaders must engage the congregation in a discussion of the gifts, skills and experiences needed in a new pastor.

Social media platforms like Facebook can be an effective means of online communication. Relationships and boundaries should be established before serious discussions begin. It is important for the congregation to encourage friendly engagement, learn about one another’s lives, and when meeting in person, reference status updates and photos seen online. It is a good idea to create a church covenant of guiding suggestions for online interaction (see example).

Sometimes for efficiency, a church uses non-conversational methods for data gathering, i.e. surveys. Using a survey alone to gather data can be a mistake, because surveys do not address the emotional concerns and deeper issues raised during times of change. There is no substitute for a good conversation.

Planned dialog

Churches can use a structured process to ensure good face-to-face conversation about sensitive issues. This can be as simple as a community gathering with a volunteer moderator and a few ground rules. Or it can be a structured dialog led by an outside moderator such as one from the Center for Congregational Health. Both are appropriate, depending upon the anxiety level surrounding the topic and the skill level of lay leaders.

These days congregations rarely have conversations about the life of the church. Most time spent together is in worship, working or learning. Even fellowship events are usually unstructured and don’t facilitate healthy communication. Most leaders only hear from the most upset “squeaky wheels,” who may not accurately represent the majority of the congregation. Consequently, every faith community can benefit from regular opportunities for conversation without decision-making. I recommend quarterly gatherings for discussing “our common life together as God’s people in this place.” This type of relaxed forum allows leaders to take the pulse of the congregation and address needs before they become problems. And when the gatherings conclude, leaders can share the thoughts with the community at-large by posting on the church website, Facebook page or blog (see example).

Good communication is the key to all transition, and it is a key to a healthy congregation. When a congregation has already established intentional, consistent and multi-modal methods of communication, transitions go much smoother and can become opportunities for positive growth.

See examples how a congregation can actively use these communication tools.

Chris Gambill is senior consultant and manager of congregational health services for the Center for Congregational Health (www.healthychurch.org) based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Natalie Aho is communications consultant for the Center for Congregational Health.  Follow her Interactive Communication for Clergy blog at icm4clergy.wordpress.com for tips.

Please site Chris Gambill, Natalie Aho, Baptists Today and the Center for Congregational Health if this article is reprinted or quoted.

A few questions for thought:

1. How has your church used communication to help with a transition?

2. What was one of your communication plans?

3. How do you communicate “from and among” your congregation?

4. When did your congregation last discuss the life of your church?

Comment here or respond on our Facebook page.

Resources for Communication

The Center is available to help with communication and transition. We can provide consultation, coaching, leadership development and spiritual formation.

Learn more at www.healthychurch.org. If we can help you in any way, please contact us!

We are also on Facebook and Twitter.