Who’s Afraid of the Church Consultant?

Church leaders are notoriously slow to bring in outside help. 

The attitude of  “We’ll do it ourselves or be damned trying”  can come from miserable experience and not just from pride or prudence.     Church pews are lined with leaders who wouldn’t hire church development consultants to save their lives, likely because they’ve already been there and not done that.

I firmly resented consultants before I became one, and I’ll admit why:  again and again the consultants we hired had no sensitivity to the facts in front of them:  it was our church and we knew our household better than they did.  The little parade that came through our meeting room doors brought armfuls of skinny paper back books with shiny covers advising us to change according to plans and ideas invented by cutting edge theorists who were out to (make money and) convert us to their idea of what a church ought to be.  What we needed instead was to sort out who we were and why God had called us all together.  That essential clarity remained a mystery to the leaders and beyond the increasingly troubled congregation.

So:  consultants who arrive knowing what churches ought to do are not worth the money they charge to tell that to the leaders.

I firmly resented church consultants for a second reason:  all of them talked down to the non-clergy in the room.   They politely treated us as obstinately stupid, misbehaving children who were out to make the clergy’s lives miserable.  The church consultants we hired were all clergy, and thus projected a doubly special privilege in telling us the right ways of being and doing church.  They lost most of their credibility as soon as they opened their mouths to preach at us.   In the 1970s and ’80s, church leaders were still basically Christians nurtured from childhood.  They knew in their bones that church does not exist for the benefit of clergy; the secrets of the church are not given solely to Christians when they go to seminary; a clergy leader and a congregation share the issues, problems and context of faithful community.   

So:  consultants who condescend to church leaders from positional privilege, suck all the oxygen from the room and are not worth the money they charge for the experience.

A third reason for resenting and distrusting church consultants has to do with what Virginia Woolf has called ‘home truth.’  The home truth in congregations needing help, is that they need help and to receive that help, the leaders and the members of the congregation will have to change.  They know in their bones before the consultant arrives, exactly how they will have to change, and dammit, they don’t want to.  So they won’t, and they’ll pay money to insist publicly on blaming someone else, often the clergy.   

So:  congregational leaders who pretend to want health will do what it takes to stay away from good congregational development consultants.

I know.  I was that kind of church leader in several congregations that had that kind of attitude.  Everything came to a bad end in the churches where all of us made choices that justified our use of power or our agendas.  Such a bad end has a very long half-life, which may eventually be redeemed.  Church consulting has come a long ways since the 1970s, in particular that area of consulting based in principles of organizational development.  Consultants can bring health even to intransigent unhealthy congregations.

When I look back at the long string of miserable consultation experiences I had as a leader in succeeding congregations, I see some things we could have done at the outset to make a positive difference in our experience with the consultants:

  • Define and articulate precisely what we wanted to the consultant to help us do
  • Engage the consultant for more than one workshop or more than one session, so we could get over any of our defensiveness
  • Determine to learn to learn, and not to get answers, so we would know how to do it ourselves, afterwards
  • Evaluate our experience fully and frankly, measured against our own expectations, and share that evaluation with the consultant
  • Set expectations of ourselves to use what we had learned how to do, to foil the waste of our money

Good leaders are wise not to rush toward quick fixes, and wiser still if they know what they need help for, and how to get good outside help when they need it.

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About Churches on the Verge of Extinction

This posting is another on the subject of judicatories closing (or more formally, extinguishing) churches.  

I’ve been wondering what kind of due diligence really makes sense for judicatories thinking about the congregations in their midst that are on the verge of closing.

In a conversation about church closings with Bob Gallagher, director and founder of the Church Development Institute, the country’s premier training for congregational development, he suggested that determining a given church’s main task would be at least one of the questions to ask.

I notice that demographics and fiscal conditions don’t top his list.  Why shouldn’t they be the first and main points in determining a congregation’s viability?  

The answer has to do with a church’s founding, I believe.  We found congregations to offer worship, to offer service and Christian care to others, and to nurture and form Christian lives.  The demographics and the finances of a new church are important, but never the main reason for founding a parish.  Neither should these be the main driving reasons for extinguishing a church.  At the beginning, they smack loudly of self-reliance, and at the end, they smack of convenience.

What’s done in the years leading up to extinguishment really matters.   Helping a congregation gain clarity around its main task takes time–lots of time.  Maybe years of time and patience.   Effective help takes commitment of resources and attention on the part of the judicatory leaders,  and not just to the single parish but to an overall vision for all the congregations within its oversight.  

If there is one single key moment when one can see a parish  standing at the crossroads between the short distance to extinguishment and the long distance to renewal and revival, it is the pivot between the last full-time clergy leader and whoever comes next.  Of course this can happen in any geographic setting–urban (church building too big, neighborhood long since past  being prosperous), small town (local industries folded and never replaced) or rural (farms not able to hold succeeding generations, remoteness of area unable to draw new populations).  And of course the decision not to hire another full-time rector or pastor is complicated.   Individual reasons should never be reduced to a theory or generalized to a category.  But that limbo, that semi-paralytic state in which so many parishes languish for so long before gray heads outnumber any other sort in the pews, has to be an early warning sign to everyone who cares about the Body as a whole (made up of all of us in all the congregations around, whether we are part of the denomination of the declining congregation we have in mind or not).

The first move with the church in question?  Identify its main motive power. Taking time to treat a congregation as viable is only due diligence.    (Did their strength lie in membership growth?  in outreach or service?  in the formation of Christians?  Does the current outside situation need any of those signs of Christ’s presence?).  Can they yet find energy and will to answer a calling?   If not, the lamp is out.  If so, a flame might yet be breathed into life there.

Of course it’s possible to bring churches  in a kind of permanent ‘transition limbo’ from the state of part-time retired clergy leadership to a fresh start.  Of course it’s possible to bring the parish out of slow decay.  A judicatory with half its parishes in transition limbo resembles a house with its front yard full of cars, trucks and boats waiting to be fixed or sent to the junk yard.  Don’t start seeing this as inevitable or normal.  But don’t wait to start thinking until the front yard is full of clunkers.

In plain language, even when a congregation has only 70 year-olds left in its pews, Christ’s motive power may still be present.  Is a congregation in a slow, remote little town or on the dusty side streets of a 3rd tier city?  Christ’s motive power may still be present.  Is it inconvenient and complicated to arrange for such discernment?  Is it discouraging, especially when ‘facts’ speak so plainly (no services held in half a year, no members baptized or buried in 12 months, no new leaders in 3 years)?   Are those Gospel excuses?  Under such circumstances, perhaps it is too late to ask clarifying questions.  But what can profit a judicatory in avoiding the struggle to find Christ’s power and purpose in a congregation with survival issues?  And what else is it, really, besides a survival issue, that creates the circumstances of transition and interim limbo?

Clarify the main task of said congregation.  Ask what resources are available both for development and for spiritual first aid in the membership.  Follow spiritual first aid with new emphasis on spiritual formation.  Become intentional about serious congregational development in the judicatory and in the parishes.   Emphasize judicatory leaders’ training in sound organizational development skills and competency.    Engage in serious leader development in the parish.  Consider wild and unusual ideas (yoking 3 or 4 parishes having the same problems, whether they are of the same denomination or not).  But start early and start with intention.  Why do less?

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Churches in Trouble Asking for Help

When should a congregation’s leaders ask for help?  And–whom should they ask?

It might be a good idea to ask for help before you die.  It might be a good idea to ask for help in figuring out what kind of help you need. 

More often than not, congregations don’t ask for help.  One wonders why.

Recently I attended a multi-convocation meeting of the Episcopal Diocese of Central PA, in which I am a member.  This is a gathering of congregations’ reps (clergy and elected delegates) within a given geographic region of the diocese.  In preparation for the annual meeting of all congregations within the diocese (called a convention), we heard an early presentation on the budget and resolutions we’ll be voting on when we meet again in June.

During this preparatory meeting, some 120 of us were given the first introduction to the closing of several churches, if we so vote.  Since the churches have already been closed, we can’t change the situation.  This is what’s known in the Episcopal vocabulary as extinguishing churches.  In our diocese, we’ve closed at least one church a year for three years.  This year, the diocese is closing three churches.  

 These are mostly little churches in small towns in remote areas of the state.   You’ve seen examples yourself–pretty little gothic structures in rural scenes that remind you of old timey Christmas card settings, or little buildings left in now uglified areas of tired old industrial towns.  Most of these churches were built to hold 100 to 150 people, when rural towns were stable and industrial towns were booming, at least a century ago.  In some cases, the areas can’t hold the population, and the church’s leadership recognizes no immediate future.  In some cases, the population is growing but is largely disinterested in that or any particular brand of church, and the church leadership is old and frail.  Changing to meet any evangelistic opportunity seems impossible. 

As the resolutions to extinguish were presented to us, many in the assembly stood to express shock and distress.  Those with oversight spoke about the need to close the churches, expressing surprise themselves.  One comment was, “Perhaps the churches should have asked for help earlier, but they might have been ashamed that they had come to such a pass that they needed help.”

That view seems  disengenuous.  An administratively connectional church–as in the Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and UCC systems–has plenty of opportunity to observe churches that are struggling.  Oversight at the level of presbytery, synod or diocese should include a staunch array of opportunities to give help, eagerly on offer.  The administrative idea that a congregation in a connectional denomination should ever imagine itself ashamed to need help is akin to the selfishness of Ayn Rand, who refused even to loan aid to a niece on the grounds that the family member should be entirely self-sufficient on principle. 

Healthy congregations with problems–and which ones don’t have problems?–should know that congregational development is not a sign of weakness but of strength.  Seeking help from professional organizational consultants is better than limping along with hands over eyes, knowing the precipice is ahead and willingly going in that direction.  What could be worse?  Churches that are not healthy need help, and if they can’t bring themselves to see the problems or ask for help, there lies the point of having oversight in the first place. 

In any case, the individual parish and the team or person with administrative oversight share accountability.  Probably a decade before it comes to pass, a church is able to tell that it can’t manage and thrive as things are going.  Any administration with oversight worth its salt should be able to see the same issues and have a full quiver of arrows for the needs presented.  There’s no excuse for letting churches die on the vine without doing due diligence.  Any judicatory can find excellent resources for intervention, and should put money into the research required–either to find consultants or to send members for training in congregational development.  

Check out http://www.edow.org/parish/congregation/development/cdi.html or http://www.congregationaldevelopment.com/index.htm to see what’s available for members of a congregation or a synod, diocese or presbytery in leadership training.  Don’t imagine your money is safer in a bank or a cd, or paying for the bills until you or churches in your charge have to close the doors.   Ask for help as soon as you know you need it, and if your judicatory doesn’t offer any, find out how to change that situation, or start looking for a consultant with CDI experience (they have the best training).  You may still have to decide to close the church, but you will have really made the strongest effort possible to find God’s other answers to your situation.

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Johari’s Window and Church Leadership

Once upon a time, two psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham, thought through an exercise that can help people learn more about themselves and more about others with whom they work.  The exercise is one of several that uses a standard 4-pane window design to show how we move from one stage or one area of feeling, awareness, action etc., to another.  The Johari Window is easy to learn about–here’s one link to investigate:  http://www.businessballs.com/johariwindowmodel.htm, and there are others (Bing! or Google the term).

Imagine everything about yourself is in the four panes in your window drawing (I know–nobody likes being pinned down to one diagram, so for the purposes of this exercise, imagine that you are always free to fly out through the pane you are closest to–free will and freedom of conscience always supercede everything else in my book of rules and rationales).  But for the purposes of learning something about yourself and your church work, rather than affirming once again what you already know, draw the 4 panes in a square frame and accept that, like your name, the Johari window includes everything about yourself.  

Pane #1, on the top left (northwest corner) , has everything about everybody in your session or vestry that’s freely known to all–where the light switches are, when the priest goes on vacation, who  hasn’t come to the last three vestry meetings,  what mistakes were made during the last funeral reception that made the family of the deceased hurt and furious, and why the church leaders are avoiding the subject of praying in meetings.  All this is in the wide open space of knowledge everyone shares.

Pane #2, on the bottom left (southwest corner) holds everything you aren’t sharing with everyone else.  That can run from the fact that you are bored halfway through every single vestry meeting, no matter what the crisis is, to the fact that your daughter incurred a DUI and wrecked her car last Thanksgiving.  Some things in this pane are useful to share, and some are not.  The latter fact is not relevant to what you are doing in vestry, unless it keeps you from doing real work there.  The former fact–that you are bored in the meetings–is something to share with the group, because boredom is not a personal failure (as some imagine) but a sign of the whole group going off-task or over-functioning, or trying for a utopian solution to life as you know it.

Pane #3, on the top right (northeast) corner, holds everything that others know about you that you don’t know about yourself.  This could range from coming to a vestry meeting with chocolate pudding on your cheek, to the discouraging effect your comments have on people who listen to you take the whole meeting off task and into the functions of the committee of the whole.  You didn’t know that’s what you were doing, did you, when you start mentioning everything you know about Eagle Scouts when an Eagle Scout project is proposed by the Property Committee?  You probably wouldn’t want to talk so much if you knew that what you were saying is basically irrelevant to the matter at hand.  But you DO know by the effects on people’s faces as you talk–and you could at some point say, “Am I being relevant here?”  Someone who really likes you will say, “No, not really, but it’s ok–” and someone else will say, “I don’t know as much about Scouting as you do–if you don’t mind, I’d like to talk to you afterwards about a question I have,” and now –look well!  the area of common information is much greater.   And, your self-awareness has also been increased.  Plus, you will be able to help someone who really wants to know what you have to share.  Increasing what you know about yourself requires that you ASK others what they know about you.  We are all on common ground, after all, and we should have deep confidence in this if we are in a Christian leadership setting.

Pane #4, on the bottom right (southeast) corner, is what none of us knows about the situation and each other.  The whole of our group effort should be to encounter what we do not know, because it is in that encounter that we receive insight.  In other words, when we’re open to encountering what we don’t know yet, we entertain revelation.  The best work we’ll ever do in creating health and change in our time, comes from experiencing insight and understanding what is revealed to us–not individually, but as a group.  Becoming more aware, more alert to ourselves and each other, strengthens the common ground on which we stand as we work for the Body.

Common ground, the common table, the hospitality offered to stranger and enemy, the equality we share at the foot of the cross and at the edge of the empty tomb–the power of increasing what we all know of each other, increasing what we share with each other, increasing our new understanding, all strengthens the Body of Christ. 

Johari’s Window has all sorts of specific and facilitated uses, but much of what is true about the exercise is not new to Christians.  Much of the process for this exercise of mutual awareness would be understandable to St. Paul.  (“Since God in mercy has given us this ministry, we do not lose heart.  We do not practice cunning or distort the word of God.  By declaring the truth openly we recommend ourselves to the conscience of our fellows in the sight of God. “–II Corinthians 4:1,2)

Leaders will probably imagine they have no time to use this model of understanding and increased awareness; leaders will not have easy access to a trained OD consultant who can help them learn the skills to use the model and apply it to their own work.  Nevertheless, the Johari Window is an excellent tool for leaders who are willing to a) find a consultant who will think its use through with them and b) to humble themselves together for the good of the Body they have been elected and charged to serve, form and lead.

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Right and Wrong in Church Leadership–Johari’s Window at Work

Well, I suppose the title could be a little misleading.  This posting isn’t about specific issues on either side dividing sheep from goats.  This posting is about leaders’ behavior.

I have always been right.  So has my friend across the aisle (in church) who sits on the left hand side.  Where we sit does not represent our politics–just the opposite.  What’s significant is that we both know we’re right, and we share an approach to working together from which we are both likely to learn more than either of us knows, and more than we both know.  Together, we are going to change our church community.  And why will our fellow leaders listen to us?  Because we are working together for the common good.  In this case, the common good is a stronger funeral ministry to the families of members in our congregation who have died.  We are now very bad at connecting all the elements in a caring, reliable way, and this fellow leader and I have begun thinking through the system and possible changes to help the ministry.

Later, when we arrive at a point of disagreement on some issue neither of us has in mind now, he and I are going to remember that we worked together to do something of health for the Body, and we will make more room for each other in the process of discussion.

How will that function, precisely?

We will remember that we didn’t know everything about each other or the work at hand.   We’ll be aware that we proceeded not just with civility but with a stake in learning what we didn’t know about ourselves that the other person knew.   We’ll be willing to be more vulnerable, ourselves, to each other.  And we will remember that the process of opening to the other, as well as the process of being more open to hearing about ourselves from others. 

What applications could there be for this kind of behavior?  I can see three, right off the bat. 

1)  The habit of submitting oneself to others leaders for their view of how one is conducting oneself as a leader–clergy included in this without exception–keeps us from assuming anything absolute about our own views.  Thus, no bishop can say ‘because I say so’ without assessing the effects of her leadership, and no vestry or session member can spew self-righteousness in the parking lot or the meeting, without knowing that it’s just spew and not all corrective insight on offer. 

 2)  The habit of expecting to learn more from others requires an attitude of openness and curiosity, both qualities which are evidence of maturing minds and hearts, not to mention being one of the fruits of the Spirit.  And

 3) We all would be slower to react and instead, stronger in response.  We’d know more about ourselves than our own opinions.  We’d know more of how our convictions affect others. And if we are leaders, we’ll be better at knowing how our convictions can effect true change, instead of blowing hot and then cold and eventually retiring to lukewarm because it’s a more comfortable place for those who don’t look too closely at themselves and their effects on others.

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What Do Christians Learn from Scientists?

Church leaders’ use of scientific terms (paradigm shift, emergence) commonly devalues the precision of scientific thought on observation, and distorts the words with fuzzy thinking bent more toward desired ends than observed changes taking place in Christian communities and involving us socially in the world.

In the late 1980s,   ‘paradigm shift’ was a common buzz word in church leadership meetings.  I asked people using the phrase to tell me what it meant, and the best they could manage was a mash  along the lines of “I think it’s describing a basic change in how we understand things.”  Because we wanted to change things, we felt better when we had a scientific term as a tool of persuasion that made us sound intelligent and right.   No one ever defined the concept of a ‘paradigm shift’ for me, and as I look back on what we were trying to do, without the strength of its specific clarity, the term very soon ceased to be of help to any leaders with oversight responsibilities.   One result of this fuzzy talk and fuzzed thinking was ineffectual leadership during a time of severely need change in church perceptions of youth and young adult needs.  In the long run, we just repainted the old ways as if they were refurbished furniture.  There was no  paradigm shift.

Scientists themselves were even then struggling with the term paradigm shift.  A historian of science teaching at Harvard coined the term in the 1970s to describe revolutions in science occurring almost without intention.  Within a decade, other scientists were challenging his thoughts and reacting against his insights.  Books continue to be published about the concept.  For as many Christians leaders who were entranced with the term for as long as it seemed useful,  there are no churches that actually managed to apply the term to their experience.   

A paradigm is an accepted model or pattern that allows replication of examples of that pattern.  Sunday School is a paradigm, for example, and so is passing the offering plate during the worship service.   You might call it ‘a tradition,’ but the offering plate is also a paradigm for gathering the gifts of stewardship in the church.  You know what’s happening when the choir sings and the ushers proceed up and down the aisles with plates or baskets.  You know in a general way what will happen afterwards to the money collected.   We have all accepted this model of supporting institutions and mutually extending help to others as a way of dramatically illustrating the gifts of God and our gratitude for God’s Providence.  Churched people share this understanding without articulation.  The offering plate is a paradigm, repeated among Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Greek Orthodox, and variants of the by-ways like the Church of Jesus Christ and Elvis or the Church of the Daily Bread.     

A paradigm is not, however, what in churches is often called a ‘best practice.’  That is to say, the precise way that an offering is given or planned and taught in one church, is not imitated exactly in another church, even one of the same denomination.  A paradigm is rarely the object of replication.  Instead, a paradigm is a pattern that people can keep using and developing with new or more specific conditions attached.  Think of the One Great Hour of Sharing offering in Presbyterian churches, or the Episcopal Relief and Development offering in Episcopal churches–everybody knows it’s an offering in the accepted pattern of offerings, but the funds gathered are going to a specifically different purpose than is served by the usual Sunday collection.  Often the specific means of gathering those gifts is different in outward shape from the regular offering, but we know it is an offering and all our expectations still apply. 
 
And a paradigm that continues to offer valuable insights is one that prompts fruitful questions.  In passing the plate, for example, what causes members who are rich to give so little of their substance, and what causes members who are poor, to give proportionately more than the rich?  Or, what causes American Protestants to be so resistant to tithing?  Or, what causes American churches to stubbornly interpret stewardship as fundraising, when in Biblical understanding stewardship expresses the full relationship between God and God’s people?  All good questions, none of them exhausted or fully answered.  The paradigm stands–there is no shift occurring there.
 
Take another case.  When church leaders first looked at the loss of youth and young adults in church settings, some research statistics were used to prompt changes in Sunday services–music styles, language, dress codes–were altered in response to the research showing that youth were bored with the way things looked and sounded in church on Sundays.  This was not a paradigm shift–even if it was a change in style and to some extent, substance.  No new idea had risen and taken hold, reshaping Christian understanding or opening completely new questions for Christians.  That would have been a paradigm shift.
 
For the moment, the point I want to make is that adoption of scientific language which does not carry with it the understanding that science has developed with the term.  We should learn the entire meaning of their language before we adopt their words.  If we don’t humble ourselves in this way, we sound foolish to those who know the language we are aping, and we waste the power of word and meaning.  For a people who depend on the word, that is a sad thing to do.  Without knowing the original meaning, there’s no way Christians can adapt the word for their own needs.  If a deep and important thought expressed in a scientific term becomes a mere catch phrase, we have offended on two counts–first by speaking as though words mattered but meaning trivia,  and second, by devaluing a concept that was not ours to begin with–in both cases blunting a neighbor’s tool without even acknowledging it didn’t belong to us in the first place.
 
We have paradigms, and paradigm shifts are occuring in the church and in Christian understanding, but Christian leaders will not understand what any of this means, unless we learn a certain patience, a trust and an interest in the workings of our paradigms, as we develop awareness of our problems and their meanings.  We leap to solutions so quickly we can’t really see what’s going on–with changes in implication for ordination as validation of calling,  for example, or with changes in what membership in a congregation means. 
 
More in another post on paradigm shifts, and then on emergence, which is another specific scientific term the church has, in its light-fingered way, just lifted from its context without really looking at what the phrase describes or the questions raised.   In the meantime, I suggest being very careful about using the term ’emergent.’  Look up Thomas Kuhn http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Kuhn or read his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, or read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence or go to http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sciencenow/3410/03-ask.html to see an excellent NOVA interview on what emergence really means.
 

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Emergence, Networks and Church Growth

The church, local and global, is struggling to grow, struggling to stay current, struggling.  Many voices from within church circles project reasons for the struggles–rejection of Biblically mandated social values, women’s equality, cantakerous ingrown memberships, clashing expectations in the community as in worship life vs. social activism of mission, etc. 

Other voices suggest the loss of growth is more obscure–youth don’t come back, people don’t find what they are looking for, services don’t ‘feel’ relevant, membership isn’t demanding enough or is too demanding, or culture has privatized religion, making belief nothing more than personal opinion… 

Quietly, some people say simply that there isn’t enough money in smaller, rural or inner city churches to do the kinds of things that Christians should be doing in witness, as if the problems lie in programs.  Others point to moral failures of clergy or the moral ridiculousness of dogma applied literally (creationism, intelligent design).   

Even gathered all together, none of the things people say or clergy leaders proclaim really meet the observable facts:  Increasingly, American and European culture at least, finds the Christian religion in any form, less and less relevant to life in every arena. 

Thinking about this when prompted by a Bill Maher special or another diatribe by his opposites, pundits on Fox News or tv preachers on Tiger Woods or socialism, I wonder about schools of fish.

For me, chief among many lovely public luxuries of a wealthy capitalist society is the National Aquarium in Baltimore (http://www.aqua.org/).  It ranks with our National Parks Service (http://www.nps.gov/index.htm) in opening vistas for wonder and continual learning. 

The Aquarium features an immense column of water running up through several floors, in which one sees a huge silver school of fish in constant motion, turning, swimming as one through 75 feet of water, up or down and sharply left or right, without any perceptible leader in charge.   What makes them able to do that, not just in a contained space, but in the ocean as well?  What makes great flocks of birds rise and flow like bolts of material flung out billowing over a recently harvested field, and then swerve as one and flow in a thin, dark stream over the highway and fling out swirling like a summer skirt, on the other side?  Where is the leader of those birds?

There’s an answer in a field of science called emergence (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sciencenow/3410/03.html).  Since the 1950s, a growing group of scientists, philosophers and technology developers have been thinking about oddly mysterious things, like how the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts, or how such phenomena as ants on the march and then ants building colonies, happen.  How does a checker game, for example, become so complex from so few rules?  How do we really move and become whole societies, out of individually separate beings?  How do water molecules become liquid? 

And to our own problem, how do churches really form?  We can say, with scornful toss of the head, “The Holy Spirit, of course,” or “the will of God,” or “good leadership.”   Well, ok, but that cannot be enough of an explanation. 

Saying things like that pose serious problems for our situation.  If churches form and are sustained by the Holy Spirit, why are churches in such disarray now?   (And of course someone is going to say, ‘not my church!’ but please, look all around, not just in the mirror)  If churches are formed and sustained by the will and grace of God, what’s going on with us now?  If churches are formed and sustained by good leadership, what do we have to say about clergy these days?   The standard explanations still hold water, but we are not obliged by doctrine to stop thinking at those points.  There is more to be learned, and if learning from sources outside dogma and doctrine feels threatening, open that circle and put new knowledge in.

Paul used the analogy of the body for a congregation’s form and function and we have learned immensely about ourselves in applying this analogy to our communal form and function.  Just so, we are free today to look around at the world and find metaphors therein to understand our situation now.  We can do this without abandoning Paul’s (sainted) metaphor, if that makes people feel more comfortable about ‘wandering away’ from scripture to understand ourselves. 

So, with all the problems of life and growth in the church and all the responsibility we bear for ourselves in mind, I suggest we start paying attention to what the science of emergence is telling us about ourselves and the world as a whole.

This is a rich, inexhaustible vein of exploration for self-understanding in the church.  I am not attempting to do more here than lift up a few of the first connections I saw when I first saw the Nova essay at the hyperlink above, or when I went on to read John Holland’s books on the science of emergence. 

First, though, we need to recognize that we are often blind to what we might understand, because we expect one thing, and can’t see what is really there beyond our expectation.  For example, we expect the right and useful order of things will necessarily be top down–general to army, conductor to orchestra, king to dominion, clergy to congregation.   But in emergence, there is no conductor, no leader, no one in charge.  Yet there is great order.  Where does it come from?

The scientific evidence shows that order that results in complex, growing, learning systems, comes from the bottom up.  Patterns emerge and take on energy from the bottom up.   There’s no leader fish, leader ant, or leader bird.   There’s no leader cell in the development of our eyes, our fingernails, our lungs, our brains.  Someone might object that schools of fish and flocks of birds don’t do anything and if we left churches to come into networked complexity by themselves, they wouldn’t do anything either.   Well, as to birds and fish, they survive and multiply.  Can’t say as much for churches these days.  And as for people and human networks, the principles of emergence are seen quite plainly in the Internet, in Amazon.com, on eBay; the principles are seen equally in our immune systems.    

We expect that without a leader or a plan, things will disintegrate.  But in fact, the science of emergence shows that in all things, order emerges from complexity, not from control, and complexity emerges from the interactions of the individuals that adapt to each other and their changing environment, learning as they connect and act together.  The immune system is an example of this kind of order at work within us.  (That’s why vaccinations are effective–they add smallpox or polio or H1N1 to the complexity of interactions within the immune system.) The more agents or individuals  in constant interaction, the more complex the system becomes.  The more complex the system, the stronger the whole becomes at adapting, learning and changing.  Our brains work this way.  The more connections we make, the stronger our brains become.

John Holland says, “Complexity depends on how connected the parts are to each other.”  The healthier the system, the more complex it is, and obviously, the more connected the individual parts.  How do our congregations do at being complexly connected?  If they aren’t complex and constantly growing in interconnection, why not?  And what could change this?

Scientists studying the world in this new way, have seen that when an environment makes connections possible, the network creates hubs and more networks that increase the strength and agility as well as the growth of the system (read: congregation).  Perhaps we need to start thinking with more imagination about creating an environment without top down control or oversight, and with more ground up connections.  Worship, for example, is a space of such environment.  Another is mutual learning situations, in adult ed classes or forums.  Focus on excellence in worship education, and include more and more people in all aspects of this excellence; perhaps within worship itself, as within a learning setting, a network of connections is strengthened almost without effort. One doesn’t have to control what happens next, but it would help if clergy and leader oversight did not decide how to direct with approval or disapproval, what rises next in the group’s intention.

That’s just one example.  I’m thinking about more, and mostly about examples that would take members out of the institution but not so far apart from each other that they couldn’t maintain and increase their connections and their larger group sense of direction. 

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