I was recently coaching co-pastors who wanted to help their congregation name and claim its identity, but they weren’t sure how to help the church get its arms around such a big topic. During their tenure, they hadn’t yet picked up on a narrative that felt like it captured both the past and current character of the congregation.
The pastors mentioned that there had been some good conversation around All Saints’ Day, when church members were telling the stories of people who were key figures in the congregation’s history. In recounting the names, the pastors recognized that the departed were loved for the ways they welcomed others through the things they did and by their very presence. The theme of hospitality emerged - not mere friendliness, but a deep sense of embracing everyone who comes through the doors. The co-pastors realized that hospitality is still a lived value in their church today. This awareness created excitement around a through-line that not only resonated but could be built upon in a number of ways in the coming year.
During pastoral transitions it is important for congregations to learn to tell their stories in ways that are informative, accurate, and hopeful. A resonant identity gives newcomers a reason to return, members a way to assess which ministries to undertake, and - perhaps most importantly for the purposes of a pastoral search - the congregation a sense of what they need in a clergyperson. Just as in the case of my co-pastor coachees, however, it can be difficult to know where to begin in sussing out church identity. If everyone in the room is shrugging their shoulders and looking to others for answers, ask about the congregation’s saints. Who are they? What are some anecdotes about them? How are they part of the church’s DNA? What are the legacies that the congregation has built on? Look for the commonalities and try them on: is this who we are? If so, what does that mean for what we do going forward and whom we call as our pastor?
This kind of historical study promotes hindsight rather than an unhelpful nostalgia for days gone by. Done thoughtfully, these questions about individuals can prompt laughter and tears and bring to light clarifying and encouraging through-lines that the church has never considered.