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.


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.


Managing Time and Setting Boundaries While Remaining Accessible

For Baptists Today
5/24/10

Managing Time and Setting Boundaries While Remaining Accessible
By David W. Hull

I love the song by Kyle Matthews called “A Rhythm to Live By.” Phrases from the song keep running through my mind:

I need a rhythm to live by

Time for work and worship, rest and play

I need a rhythm to live by

So my feet can keep the beat of my heart

Help me find the balance I was made for, from the start

(from the CD, The Main Event, 2008)

One of the toughest challenges in ministry is time management. There is never enough time to do all that we think we need to do. How can we find this “rhythm to live by” that is vital to healthy ministry?

The Bible is a good place to start. Ephesians 5:15-17 says, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (NRSV) The word that is translated “making the most of” has as its root the Greek agora. The Agora was the marketplace of the Greek world.  This idea of “making the most of the time” could also be translated as “spending.” Just as you might go to the marketplace and exchange money for an item you want, so with our lives it is wise to think of spending or investing our time that produces something valuable in return.

Using this biblical instruction as our frame of reference, good time management is spending our time wisely. We need to be asking the right questions. What is our purpose in life and ministry? Do we understand what “the will of the Lord is” for the work that God has called us to do? If so, what items in the marketplace of life will we say “No” to so that we will be able to say “Yes” to what matters the most? Boundaries help us to say “No.” Accessibility keeps us in tune to say “Yes.” The “rhythm of life” is the right balance between these two ways to spend our time.

Boundaries

I do not know who coined the following expression, but it has helped me to set boundaries in my ministry. “To be healthy, we should divert daily, withdraw weekly, and abandon annually.” Think about these three ideas as a way of setting boundaries.

Divert daily. Determine the most important tasks in your ministry. These may be priorities that are critical to your mission. They may also be tasks that only you can do – nobody else has this assignment on a regular basis. Then, invest time each day in this task. In fact, you may need to divert from other opportunities so that you can focus on the thing that matters most.

As a pastor, I am the primary preacher in our church. No other person stands up four times a week and preaches/teaches to the congregation. That means I must divert from doing other things so that I can invest some of my best time and energy into the task that only I can do. I choose to have my study in my home, separate from my office in the church. This forms a boundary. It allows quiet time for study and prayer away from the noise and congestion of the church office. I study at home in the morning – diverted away from many good things I could be doing at the church building in order that I can invest my best efforts to a task that only I can do. What is most important in your ministry? How are you diverting from some of the other attractions in the marketplace of life to ensure that your very best resources are invested in what only you can do?

Withdraw weekly. God commanded that we observe a weekly boundary in our lives. It is called the Sabbath. For those of us who minister in congregational settings, our Sabbath will never be on Sunday. It is clearly a day of work for us. However, that does not excuse us from keeping the commandment. After a week of work we need to withdraw and find time for “worship, rest and play.” My Sabbath is on Friday. When is yours?

Abandon Annually. I have heard a self-righteous pride among ministers who brag about never taking a vacation. “After all, the Devil never takes a vacation,” they say. The response to that should always be, “And look at the shape that he is in!” A much better way to find rhythm in our lives is to get away for a period of time each year. I learned long ago that one week of vacation was not enough time for my soul to rest so that “my feet can keep the beat of my heart.” For years, our family has taken two weeks of vacation together at the beach. It is a ritual now – sacred time that is far away from home and church. What will you be doing to “abandon” this year? Amazingly, the church will get along fine until you return!

Accessible

“Help me find the balance I was made for from the start.” Balance is crucial for a healthy ministry. Something that is out of balance will fall. Too many wonderful ministries have fallen for lack of balance. While boundaries are important so that we can invest time into what matters most in our ministry, there is another side to this coin. Ministry is about people. We must be accessible to the needs of people. If we are perceived as always “diverted, withdrawn, and abandoned,” we will not have a healthy ministry. We need to develop practices that work for us in finding this rhythm between boundaries and accessibility. Here are some of my practices. See if they would be helpful for you:

Walk slowly among your people. Take time when the church gathers on Sundays and Wednesdays to move among the people of the congregation to listen and speak into their lives. You will always be busy; never be in a hurry. This will create an open door for accessibility and communication.

Be reachable even when you are inaccessible. When I study at home, I do not answer the home phone. I am alone and quiet in my study. A boundary has been set. However, my cell phone is right beside me, and I can be reached in a moment’s notice from the church office if I am needed for an emergency.

Be a master, not a slave, to new technology for communication. Use new technology such as a smart phone to be very accessible. Master this new technology by keeping some boundaries in place. For example, I never answer the cell phone or text messages during a meeting. I want to be very accessible and present to the ones I am with at the moment. Then, right after the meeting or appointment, I check messages and get back in touch with the one who is trying to reach me. Mobile communication is a wonderful tool for ministry. Use it . . . but do not let it use you.

Schedule times to be available to colleagues. If you supervise staff or work closely with volunteers, set regular times to meet with them individually. While your boundaries may mean that you are not always available, these regular meetings will be times when important conversations can happen about the work that you do together.

These things have helped me to find a “rhythm to live by.” What will you do to “make the most of the time” that God has given to you?

— David Hull is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama.

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