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Unearthing congregational gifts, part 8

Once your church has unearthed its gifts during the interim season and planned new ministry initiatives, the work is not done. It is important to pre-set times for reflecting on these initiatives. (Note that if debrief sessions aren't calendared in advance, they are much less likely to happen.) The questions below offer prompts for ongoing discernment about the faithful use of gifts and celebration of God's work in, around, and through the people involved with the ministry.

Ministry reflection form
Ministry name:
Ministry date(s):
Ministry leader(s):
Brief description of ministry:

What were the main tasks in the planning and implementation of this ministry?


What relationships were started or strengthened?


How did we make faithful use of the following?

  • People’s time

  • People’s talents

  • Personal connections

  • Congregational connections

  • Physical space

  • Money

  • Other resources

What did we learn about the following?

  • Ourselves (individually)

  • Ourselves (as a congregation)

  • Our larger community

Where was God at work in, around, and/or through us through the planning and implementation of this ministry?


In light of our responses to the above, what is God inviting us to consider going forward?

Using the reflection prompts above will not only allow your church to tweak ministries to make them more effective but will remind planners that even if an event doesn't turn out as planned, the careful debrief of it means that no effort is lost in God's economy. This realization is especially uplifting during a pastoral transition, and it begins to set a pattern of discern-reflect-discern that can spill over into even the congregation’s longtime ministries - and into the lives of individual church members. So give thanks for opportunities to love, learn, and grow, and pray for God’s continued guidance.

Photo by Kalle Kortelainen on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 7

The season between settled ministers does not have to be a time of standing still. (The church, after all, is the people, not the pastor.) Over the past several weeks I have introduced ways to take stock of the gifts of individuals in your church, the congregation as a whole, and your surrounding community. I have also offered means of celebrating those gifts and assessing how they are currently being used. After completing all of this faithful work, leaders have much of the information needed to plan for the immediate future. Below is an outline for initiative design that is rooted in Spirit-led discernment rather than human-led decision-making.

Create an atmosphere for discernment. Prepare the gathering space in a way that is conducive to worshipful work.

Set aside distractions. Ask, “What does each of us need to turn over to God before we can focus on the work at hand?”

Worship together. Invite everyone to name where they have seen God at work throughout the process.

Review and celebrate all that the leaders have learned from listening and information-gathering.

Pray as Jesus did: "Not my will but Thine be done.”

Discuss the question undergirding the planning process: “Given all the information and reflections we have gathered, what is God inviting us to consider for the immediate future?” Notice where there is excitement or energy as well as where there is a feeling of flatness.

Identify the realization that seems (realizations that seem) to be emerging. Get every concern on the table for the invitations around which there is excitement. Refine ideas that bubble up related to these invitations.

Work toward agreement. What further exploration is needed to confirm or flesh out our responses to God’s invitations? What will faithfulness look like in moving forward with what God is inviting us to consider?

Test the agreement. Let the resolution(s) rest. If your leadership isn’t able to sleep on it/them, take a meal break and then discuss how leaders are feeling in their heads, hearts, and guts about the proposed way forward.

Ask the “next step” questions. What leadership will be required for what God is inviting us to do What current programs do we need to scale back or celebrate and let go of in order to respond to God’s invitation? To whom do we need to reach out to start living into God’s invitation? Who will be the primary point person/group or liaison? When and how will we stop to evaluate our progress toward our vision of faithfulness? (Next week I will provide a ministry reflection form to aid in this assessment.)

Take action. Make detailed plans for action steps. Who will do what? How, and by when? What support and/or accountability is needed? The planning team takes these responses and begins putting detail to potential initiatives, handing them off to standing committees and/or leaders for approval and/or implementation as appropriate.

Offer gratitude to God and ask for God’s help in the coming months.

As the work draws to a close, be sure to celebrate! You have done faithful, hard work on behalf of your congregation. And this effort will not only help your search team better know what a great-fit pastor will look like, it will also make your church more enticing to most candidates.

Photo by Daniel Fontenele on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 6

After taking stock of the full range of gifts in your church and community, it's time to move from inventory and celebration to getting curious about everything your congregation has noticed and experienced. This can be a very powerful moment for a church in an interim season, and for those congregations engaged in the intentional interim ministry process, the event described below can pull on the threads of both mission and connections.

Invite the congregation to gather around tables for storytelling. Sharing a meal together provides a great reason for people to come and fuels the conversational energy. Set the vibe by bringing the visual gifts display and the accompanying responses into the meeting space, and get people excited by explaining how their participation will contribute to movement into the church's next season of ministry.

Include the following in the congregational conversation:

Worship together. Invite the congregation, as an offering to God, to name aloud responses to the following. Have someone write them down as they are voiced. Be sure that people of all ages are included in this offering.

  • Skills and stories of individuals encountered in the community

  • Personal experiences in the community

  • Observations about the community, especially what surprised, delighted, and challenged

Distribute the information compiled from studying the demographics and naming local leaders and gather around tables to discuss the following questions. Ensure there is a facilitator and a scribe for each conversation group. It is important to have someone who is prepared to keep the conversation on track and ensure all the voices are heard.

  • Who are our neighbors?

  • How is God at work in/around/through our neighbors?

  • Where might we join in that good work?

  • What are the challenges in our community?

  • Who is affected by them?

  • Who is already doing good work around them? How might we support them?

Close with prayers of thanks for your neighbors and for wisdom and faithfulness in using your gifts. Be sure to collate the accumulated responses after the gathering.

Next week's post will take the noticing and curiosity to beginning to put ministry initiatives on paper.

Photo by Bogdan Kupriets on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 5

Pastoral transitions are perfect opportunities not only for assessing our church’s gifts but also for starting and renewing relationships within the community. These efforts allow us not only to notice challenges in our neighborhoods but also to uncover the gifts and stories of the people who live and work around us, making it less likely that we will rush in with well-meaning but wrong-headed (and sometimes destructive) "fixes" as part of our attempts to be faithful to the gospel.

Considering context first involves knowing who our neighbors are. Here are some ways to identify the people who live and work around you:

Conduct a demographic study. Check with the judicatory or denomination to find out if it has contracted with a demographic service. If not, contact your local chamber of commerce or search online for demographic information. Look for age, gender, race, ethnicity, age, family composition, population concentrations, economic levels, education levels, and any other available statistics. Put the demographics of the community with the demographics of the church side-by-side. What do you notice?

Learn who the local leaders are. Brainstorm (as a team or by a mini-survey to the congregation) or look online for the following:

  • Local government officials

  • School principals/superintendents/deans/presidents

  • Librarians

  • Chief emergency responders

  • Business owners

  • Directors of organizations/agencies/associations

  • Clergy of other congregations

  • Other influencers

Collate the above information and pray for the people in your neighborhood.

Considering context doesn't end with information-gathering, however. It also involves interacting with our neighbors. Below are some ways to go about that. (Note that the first three suggestions below are particularly family-friendly.)

Go into the neighborhood. Create a scavenger hunt to encourage church members to go into nearby businesses, particularly ones they might not normally patronize. (Be sure to contact businesses ahead of time to let them know about the purpose and date(s) of the scavenger hunt and to get their permission.) For example, go into the home insurance office and get a business card. Go into the comic book shop and take a picture with the life-size cardboard cutout of Spiderman. Go into the local diner and order a slice of its famous cherry cobbler. At each location, introduce yourself to at least one employee. Make note of the people you meet and your experiences going into the businesses.

Take a prayer walk or drive. Give church members a map of a fairly small walking or driving radius. Go in groups or families, praying for the people and places along the route. Afterward, talk about what surprised, delighted, and challenged you along the way.

Challenge church members to volunteer. Create a list of local service agencies or opportunities as well as conversation prompts for interacting with people. (Where is your favorite place in the neighborhood? What is something that makes you smile? What are you good at?) Go in groups or families to volunteer. Make an effort to talk with the people – particularly the “clients” – in that place. Afterward, talk about what surprised, delighted, and challenged you.

Encourage church members to attend a city council meeting, community forum, and/or a school board meeting. Listen for the good that is going on as well as the needs being expressed.

Invite community representatives to a panel discussion at your church. Ask them what they love about their jobs and the community. Encourage them to share where they see neighborhood gifts, both individual and collective. Get them to tell about good things happening in the community, challenges they observe, and places that the church can join in either.

Next week I'll share some ways to process the information your church gleans and the experiences congregation members have in the community.

Photo by Max Böttinger on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 4

Over the past few weeks I have been offering ways to unearth all of your congregation's gifts so that you can fully name who you are, what you do well, and what God might be nudging you to consider. Once the gifts have been identified and their current uses assessed through the survey and congregational conversations, it is time to celebrate these strengths! Chances are that your congregation will be floored by the volume of previously-unnamed blessings, providing your church with a reason to be hopeful about the future, fodder for some real creativity, and a much clearer sense of what pastoral leadership is needed. (Hope, innovation, and clarity can be big boons for a transitional season that is often very anxious.)

Here are some of the ways you can celebrate the full range of gifts:

Create a visual display of all the gifts and ministries gathered from the surveys, congregational storytelling, compilation of financial, physical, relational, and leadership gifts, and committee reflections. Ask one or more people who enjoy making art and/or organizing information to help with this task. Make all of the information movable so that it can be rearranged. Put the display in a high-traffic area where most church members will be able to see it over the course of a few weeks.

Use a number of communication means to point people to it, such as:

  • Moving the display around the building when events take place on different parts of the church campus.

  • Taking photos of the display and sending them to church members who cannot be physically present.

  • Creating one or more liturgies out of the gifts for use in worship.

  • Preaching or giving brief testimonies about various gifts or ministries.

  • Interviewing members with previously hidden or unusual gifts for the church newsletter.

As part of the display, write the following prompts and include space and writing utensils for people to respond to the following:

  • What surprises us?

  • What delights us?

  • What challenges us?

  • As we look at these gifts, what are we realizing about our congregation?

  • As we look at these gifts, what do we believe God might be saying to us?

On the display or at a congregational event, ask people to group gifts that complement one another or that could potentially be put together in new ways for greater impact. (For example, the church has a patch of unused land, a couple of adults with a propensity for gardening, and a youth group looking for a mission project. These could be combined into the creation of a vegetable garden, with the proceeds to be donated to a local food bank, or a flower garden, with the flowers taken by youth to people in nearby nursing homes.)

Celebrating the gifts will open hearts and minds to new possibilities, and getting curious about the gifts will start to move the process from naming strengths to generating excitement about the future.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 3

The time between settled pastors is a chance to reflect on who your church has been, is, and aspires to be. One of the ways to do this self-study is through the lens of gifts. Over the past couple of weeks I have shared a survey to get to know the gifts of individuals in your church better and some questions to help your congregation reflect on its collective blessings. This kind of noticing orients us to abundance and innovation rather than need, worry, or scarcity. It brings invitations from God to the surface. But to be able to recognize and respond to this divine nudging, congregations must consider how gifts are already being used. Some that have just been noted using the links above will be completely untapped, while others are likely being stretched in unsustainable ways. The assessment below will help your church zoom out to see the current concentration of gifts.

With the help of the church calendar, meeting minutes, and/or newsletters/bulletin announcements, ask each committee to list every ongoing and one-off ministry of the church that comes under its purview.
Categories might include but are not limited to:

  • Worship

  • Christian education/spiritual formation

  • Congregational/pastoral care

  • Welcoming newcomers

  • Outreach to community

  • Service to community

  • Fellowship

Using their lists, ask committees to reflect on the following. Make sure each committee has a scribe.

What gifts does each of these ministries utilize, and in what ways?

  • Person power

  • Time

  • Money

  • Physical space

  • Talents/skills

  • Relationships

Whom does each of these ministries reach?


How long has each ministry been running?


What do we need to celebrate about each ministry?


What are the hoped-for outcomes of these ministries?


What are the actual outcomes?


Thank God for all of the gifts that have been offered to make these ministries happen.

Leaders will gather the lists and responses to reflection questions from the committees, take time to mull them, and then discuss the following:

What people or groups are lightly or not at all involved in ministries (participation or leadership)?

What gifts are going untapped?

Which gifts are being stretched in unsustainable ways?

How are we out of balance with how we leverage our gifts and capacities?

About what are we feeling some excitement?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 2

After the first Sunday of Easter, the air begins to crackle with transition. Much of that has to do with the season - seminarians are graduating, ordinations are being scheduled, and pastors who accompanied their churches to the empty tomb are now announcing their moves to new places of ministry. These latter changes in particular (hopefully) prompt deep congregational reflection.

It matters greatly how churches frame these conversations. If we start with all that we aren't and all that we don't have, it will be incredibly difficult to imagine what is possible and discern what God wants us to do. But if we begin with gifts, we will be encouraged and creative and - most importantly - faithful with what God has given us.

Last week I shared a survey for taking stock of individuals' gifts. Below are some discussion prompts for a churchwide gathering to unearth the intangible gifts of the congregation as a whole.

Personal connections (Be sure to include all ages in this part of the conversation, adapting the questions as needed to varying developmental levels.)

  • When did I become part of this congregation?

  • What drew me here?

  • What keeps me here?

  • How has God been at work in/around/through me since I joined?

  • When/where do I feel most engaged with church members and/or God?

The communion of saints

  • Who are the saints (dearly departed) of our congregation?

  • How was God at work in/around/through them?

  • What legacies of these saints do we carry forward?

  • How were their values our values?

  • What ministries (formal or informal) did they begin that we carry on?

Congregational history

  • What are the key moments/turning points in our congregation’s history?

    • Pastoral changes

    • Physical plant changes

    • Conflicts

    • New ministries

    • Rapid change in membership numbers

  • How was God at work in these seasons?

  • What did we learn or how did we grow at these critical junctures?

  • Where is additional healing or resolution needed?

Close conversation with a prayer of gratitude for God's faithfulness or a ritual of celebration. Be sure to collate the accumulated responses from the session for further use.

Of course, not all congregational gifts are intangible. Leaders (staff and lay) can brainstorm/research and note responses to the categories below, which are based more on records and spreadsheets.

Financial

  • Giving units

  • Cash on hand

  • Reserves

  • Special funds

  • Endowment

Physical

  • Space currently utilized

  • Space currently not or (under-) utilized

  • Accessibility to people with disabilities (mobility, hearing, sight, etc.)

  • Location

  • Movable items (communion sets, tables/chairs, tools, etc.)

Relational (congregational level)

  • Name recognition

  • Reputation

  • Community partners

  • Denominational partners

  • Global partners

Leadership

  • Staff

  • Recognized lay leaders

  • Informal lay leaders/influencers

As with the intangible gifts, be sure to give thanks for these more measurable blessings as you record them.

Taking the time to inventory your church’s gifts will set the stage well for thinking about how God is leading your church into a new season of ministry and thus what kind of pastoral leadership your congregation needs.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 1

When a pastor departs, the congregation must re-learn who it is apart from that minister’s influence. This self-study work lays the foundation for a search that can result in a good fit and a long tenure. It provides an opportunity for church members to grow in relationship with God and one another. And, if done well, it keeps the focus on what God is calling the church to be and do and what kind of leadership that direction requires, not on the wide-ranging anxieties and personal preferences that are impossible for an incoming pastor to meet.

Over the past year I have been developing an approach to congregational self-study and planning that is grounded in an ongoing exploration of gifts, both of the congregation and community. It is intended to re-focus the individual and collective gaze from a narrative of scarcity - prominent during the early stretches of most interim periods - to noticing the often-overlooked workings of God all around us and honoring gifts from God in each person.

Over the next few weeks I will be sharing elements of this process. To kick off this series, I offer to you a survey that answers the question, “Who are the people in my congregation?” The prompts are designed to get beyond Sunday morning small talk, digging deeper into each survey-taker’s engagement with the church, gifts, networks, aspirations, and spiritual journey.

Survey pre-work

Plan well for survey distribution. The survey will have the highest rate of completion if it is handed out and worked on during some sort of extended gathering time (Sunday School, congregational meeting, etc.). Everyone who is able to communicate should take at least part 2. Helpers can read the questions, adapting them as needed, and record the responses for those who don’t read or write well. Be sure to mail, email, or make the survey available online for those who are unable to fill it out in person.

As part of an invitation to take the survey, communicate some key information for transparency and trust-building. State clearly the overall purpose(s) of the information-gathering, which information will be collected anonymously and which will have names attached, and who will collect and collate the information.

See the people survey

Part 1 – Demographic survey – anonymous

  • Age

  • Gender identity

  • Race

  • Ethnicity

  • Family composition (e.g, number of adults and children in the home)

  • Distance from residence to church

Part 2 – Individual gifts survey – named (detachable for submitting separately from demographics)

  • Name

  • Address

  • Phone

  • Email

  • Length of membership at this church

  • Church leadership roles held (past and present)

  • What are the three things about our church that you love most?

  • Relationship-related questions

    • Where do/did you go to school?

    • Where do/did you work?

    • Where do you volunteer in the community?

    • What clubs, organizations, or professional networks do you belong to?

    • What businesses in the community do you frequent?

  • Gift-related questions

    • What skills or talents do you use in your work (paid or volunteer)?

    • What do you make/create?

    • What do you most enjoy doing?

    • What do others tell you that you do well?

  • Aspiration-related questions

    • What community issues do you care most about?

    • What would you do if you had unlimited resources, including time?

  • Faith-related questions

    • When you feel closest to God, what are you doing or where are you?

    • When you feel most distant from God, what are you doing or where are you?

    • What would you most like to learn related to the Bible, your faith, or church life?

Survey post-work

Collect and collate the survey results. Offer a prayer of thanks for people’s gifts and their willingness to share about them.

Next week’s post will focus on taking stock of the congregation’s collective gifts.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash.

Gifts gratitude calendar

“I don’t have enough time to do all the things.”

“I don’t have anything worth contributing.”

“Our congregation is so much smaller and grayer than it used to be.”

“We’re gonna have to send these church budget requests back to committees to be pared down, because our projected giving is down 10%.”

Do these sentiments sound familiar? They play in loops in individuals’ heads and reverberate through sanctuaries of all sizes. They are the product of scarcity thinking, of focusing on what we don’t have. The scarcity mindset is rampant in our culture, manifesting in the beliefs that we need to guard what we have and prepare for the worst possible scenario. And unfortunately, while we worship a God who created the universe out of a dark and formless void and follow a Savior who was all about opening up the law and the bounds of community, this thinking has trickled down into our churches. The result is that many of our people are afraid to dream and reach out, instead turning inward and wondering how long our congregations will be able to hold on.

The scarcity scourge is a huge barrier to growing our faith in and love of God. (It’s also a huge hurdle in a pastor search, because few clergy want to lead a church that can’t imagine a vibrant future.) Luckily, the season focused on removing such obstacles to our discipleship is almost upon us, and I want to offer a resource that might help individuals and congregations note the abundance that God has blessed them with in the form of resources, talents, connections, hopes, and ministries. The calendar below gives a gratitude prompt for each day of Lent and the first day of Easter. (A printable PDF is available here.) Feel free to download and/or share it. I hope that those who use this calendar will talk with one another about the unexpected ways they have realized that God is at work in and around them.

Gifts gratitude calendar.jpg

New (external) resource on clergy sexual misconduct

Unwanted hugs.

Comments on my clothing and body.

Lewd jokes.

Revelations about his marital (and extra-marital) activities.

All of the above have been done to me by senior pastors when I was serving in associate pastor roles. All of the above fall into the category of clergy sexual misconduct. All of them, though damaging, were relatively mild compared to what many other subordinate clergy and parishioners experience from ministers.

Clergy sexual abuse is defined as using one’s pastoral role to exert power over someone else in order to meet the perpetrator’s sexual desires. The abuse includes unwanted touch as well as sexualized talk such as jokes and harassment. These overtures and acts make the church an unsafe place for work and worship for the targeted person(s), and the emotional and spiritual trauma congregation-wide of abuse takes years to work through.

Before the #MeToo (and related #ChurchToo) movement got a foothold in the larger culture, Baptist Women in Ministry and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship formed a task force to address clergy sexual abuse. This task force has just released resources designed to help congregations discuss what clergy sexual abuse is, create policies and procedures that both prevent and respond to incidents, and locate services to aid survivors in their healing.

The resources include a series of videos intended for congregational discussions, guides for those discussions, a policy and prevention guide, and articles with survivor stories and biblical bases for setting good boundaries and caring for victims. Note that while these pieces were created by Baptists, their applicability is ecumenical.

I bring your attention to these resources because the time in between settled ministers is ripe for having hard discussions about leadership needs and putting new policies in place. If your congregation has endured clergy sexual misconduct, some intentional conversation around the trauma will make your church more ready to trust the next pastor. And taking this subject seriously will signal to pastoral candidates that your congregation is a place of mutual belonging - a signal to predators to stay away and an indicator to healthy pastoral leaders that your church is a good place to be.

Image courtesy of Hermano Leon Clip Art.

New resource: readiness checklist

When it was originally published, the Searching for the Called materials included a list of reasons your church might choose to use them. It did not include an assessment to help congregations assess whether this approach to ministerial searches is right for them. This checklist is now available.

Searching for the Called is best suited for congregations that resonate with the statements below:

There is high trust and good communication among the congregation and its leaders.

While eager to call a new minister, the congregation and its leaders are ready to take the time needed to search well.

The congregation and its leaders understand the search as a spiritual process, one in which God is at work and through which people can grow in relationship with God and one another.

The congregation and its leaders are willing to be curious about what God is up to, to wrestle with hard questions about the church’s past, present, and future, and to be open to the unexpected.

The congregation and its leaders want to encourage all candidates they encounter and bless the larger church through the search process.

The congregation and its leaders view the pastor-parish relationship as one of mutual ministry and care.

The judicatory affirms all of the above and supports the congregation in utilizing Searching for the Called.

[Note that the term “congregational leaders” includes the search team (once formed) as well as such standing decision-making bodies as deacons, elders, vestry, session, board, council, etc.]

Photo by Atish Sewmangel on Unsplash.