Places and Times When There is Opportunity for Change
Loren B. Mead
Judicatory and denominational officers and agencies can affect how a congregation understands its "connection," occasionally bringing it more in line with what the denomination's polity calls for, or at least making the connection more constructive and helpful to each. In the last two essays, I described the Mental Map in characterizing this connection. With the appropriate intervention, it is possible for a congregation to shift its location on the Mental Map continuum line between (1) Autonomous to (10) Structured.
I. A CONFESSIONAL INTRODUCTION TO THIS ESSAY
In my experience judicatory executives and staff sometimes have a problem respecting the integrity of the congregation in this area -- feeling so strongly about what is "right" behavior for congregations of that denomination. They have a hard time listening to that congregation's actual values and are tempted to seek to control its behavior. Even saying this makes me uncomfortable, because some denominations and individuals feel so emphatically about what is right behavior for congregations that they cannot, in good conscience "permit" what they see as "deviant" behavior. Such rigidity on one side makes real conversation difficult if not impossible.
The same is true on the other side -- that of the congregation that will not engage with its judicatory in genuine conversation, but demands unilateral control over the relationship. I am writing to share what I have experienced in these transactions, but as I write it is clear to me that I am no tabula rasa. I have a set of values and concerns I think I had better share. I am not only a witness, I am a biased witness.
I believe judicatories and congregations have more creative relationships when there is constructive give and take, when each side is willing to hear the other, when neither seeks to impose its will on the other. My bias is not the only legitimate one. If one believes theologically or philosophically in the absolute extremes of the continuum I described in the first essay, then it genuinely is not necessary for there to be a conversation.
Another part of my bias is spread through the first and second essay and will probably affect what I say in this part -- my personal experience of Church is as an Episcopalian. That is the air I breathed as I went to Sunday School and grew up. We always had a special chair in our parish church that was reserved for the bishop when he visited, about once a year. The bishops I knew for many years were splendid persons -- not overwhelming minds, but solid, authentic human beings who loved God and led people. My congregation did not have much to do with the bishop, but we tried to do what he asked us to do. I grew up understanding "connections" that way, and I think it has made me biased about judicatories in two ways: 1) On the 1 to 10 continuum from autonomous to structured/subsidiary, I suspect I am personally about a 6 or 7, with a gut feeling that is toward being connected and being loyal to that connection while yet wanting some independence. 2) I find that my personal experience with judicatory leadership through a bishop, has given me a bias toward that form of governance in a person rather than a board or committee. It just comes more comfortably to me that way.
I make no case here that my position is right -- indeed I would be the first to point to other experiences I have in which other systems have been spectacularly better and "my" systems have been spectacularly poor. For now, I just want to warn you of my biases as well as I can, so you can adjust your reading of my material to take it into account. I do not want to trick you with my biases, but I cannot erase them from what I know without erasing myself. You are warned, then.
A final point, since I am going to be talking about "interventions for change" in this third essay, is that working as a consultant is working to help people change.
I have often been called into situations in which congregations and judicatories had found themselves angry with one another, suspicious of one another, or bearing strong grudges. When that happened, I had a rule of thumb I followed -- if either the congregation or the judicatory was only interested in making the other fall into line, I would not accept the contract. If both were genuinely interested in trying to work something out and listening to the other side, I tended to be willing to take the contract. Also, if the congregation was a "known trouble-maker," and I determined that they were truly loyal to their system but fiercely opposed to some parts of what their denomination/judicatory was up to -- again, I tended to take the contract. My value depended upon the loyalty of their opposition.
Now let me name the points in the life of the congregation at which some kind of intervention by the judicatory can result in significantly different relations between the congregation and the judicatory. There are six principal points:
Change of pastor
Activities of the Judicatory
II. SPECIFIC INTERVENTION POINTS FOR CHANGING RELATIONSHIPS
A. The Change of Pastors
Anyone who knows my work would expect this to be my first point. Since 1973 when we first completed research on the "calling process," the "search process," and the "appointment process." I have been clear in teaching and writing that this is the one point in the life of a congregation at which the most growth is possible.
What happens in the months before, during, and the year or so after one pastor leaves a congregation and a successor takes over the position is the most critical moment in the life of that congregation. What is true in the life of the congregation is also true in terms of the relationship between the congregation and the judicatory. It is possible, during this period, for dramatic changes to occur in how a congregation views its judicatory. This is a time at which many members of the congregation, for many of whom the judicatory was a myth about something far away, may have their first direct experience with the judicatory -- its executive, its staff. A personal face is put on what had been a far-off bureaucratic idea.
Congregation members on the search team discover what resources the judicatory can provide or cannot provide. They find out if the people at regional offices answer their phones or not, treat people decently or not, know what they are talking about or not, are dependable or not.
At another level the congregation learns whether the judicatory really is interested in them, or is simply trying to use them to solve a judicatory problem -- place an unemployed clergy person, get a loyal "party man" into that pulpit, or something like that.
Down the line as the new pastor takes his or her place, the judicatory that has begun to build better relations with congregational leaders has a chance to help the congregation's leaders connect with the new pastor in the "start-up" period. Again, the opportunity to build better relations with the judicatory happens, even if it is subsidiary to the main task -- getting the congregational leadership team together and effective, with new pastor and laity.
A judicatory that works hard on this area will, over time, have opportunity to refresh relations with every congregation in the judicatory. Not only that, the opportunity recurs from time to time -- there will be another opportunity in 5 or 10 years when this pastor leaves. A judicatory that is wise will develop skills and staff and focus them on this as a priority -- assisting in the pastoral change process.
Once when a bishop asked me what was most important for him to remember, I said, "Put all your energy into the congregations involved in pastoral change. Forget about the others!" Of course I was exaggerating. But not much. If you look at the calls on a judicatory as overwhelming, and if you fall back on a strategy of triage -- those congregations experiencing pastoral change are the ones who need help NOW.
Every congregation I have ever known gets into fights from time to time. Most of the fights are pretty modest disagreements, but often enough they escalate into real donnybrooks. I still remember from when I was in high school reading in the morning newspaper of a fight in a congregation I knew where one elder (whose daughter I had dated) belted another and the two had to be held down from going at each other. I think it was about a church building project. I remember it because that really does not happen very often, but also because I remember a couple of situations in which I was tempted to similar behavior. One of the problems is that church people tend to get surprised by conflict and overwhelmed by how it can escalate. Every institution has its disagreements and conflicts, but most have rules or processes people know about and can use to settle whatever is amiss.
People in those institutions simply know that such disagreements go with being human. In churches we have bought into the fiction that "nice people do not fight." When a fight does break out, often the pastor and the leaders of the congregation flip from being defensive to angry to scared rapidly. Whatever they had learned earlier about dealing with disagreement evaporates from their memory and all they can focus on is either on "winning" or on "not letting those people win."
This is a time when a congregation needs help from outside -- sometimes it needs someone who will give them some perspective, sometimes someone who can help them set procedures, sometimes someone who will be a referee so that they fight fair. The point is that this is an opportunity for the judicatory to be helpful to the congregation in a way that can improve the connection between the two. Such perception of helpfulness depends on the judicatory really having help to give, real skills in conflict management.
My experience with judicatory staffs is that they are often splendid with some disagreements and conflicts, but they often underestimate the time it takes really to be of help. They often also underestimate the skills needed to bring resolution. Their own schedules require them to "handle" the conflict at one or two evening meetings, sometimes with another full day. There are conflicts, many of them, that require more time than the judicatory staff has available to it. Poor or inadequate intervention in a conflict is probably much worse than no intervention at all. It can be like pouring kerosene on a fire. A judicatory that does a poor job of its conflict interventions is likely to generate a lot of negative feelings in the congregation for anything the judicatory does. It harms the "connection."
A skill judicatories need badly is diagnostic skills. Speed Leas, my colleague at the Alban Institute for many years, developed a very helpful diagnostic tool when he described the five "levels" of conflict that he has encountered: 1) Solving Problems; 2) Disagreements; 3) Contest; 4) Fight/Flight; 5) Intractable. The higher the intensity of the conflict, the more skill and time is needed to work on it. A judicatory with good diagnostic ability, trained in recognizing signs of different levels of conflict, is more likely to know when the difficulty is more likely to respond to the level of staff skill and amount of time available -- and when outside help is needed. We also find that there is judicatory wisdom immediately to farm out some intense conflicts to outside consultants. Sometimes a "fight" is so hot by the time the judicatory is aware of it that the chances of a peaceful solution are near nil. It such situations, if it is likely that the fight will end with blood on the walls, it is better for the judicatory to stand back and let a hired gun (consultant) go in. That permits the judicatory to come in a supportive, pastoral role to help people bind up the wounds. Wise interventions by judicatories at times of congregational conflict can improve the "connection" between judicatory and congregation, wherever the two find themselves on what I have called the "continuum."
C. Financial Relations
Few areas have more potential for hurting the connection between congregation and judicatory than their financial relations. I have been unable to find a logical explanation of this, perhaps because few of us relate to our finances in a logical manner. But I find that money talk between congregations and their judicatories almost always triggers irrational reactions -- defensiveness, protectiveness, envy, outrage, suspicion, cupidity -- you name it.
The facts are that judicatories exist largely because of the financial resources made available by contributions from congregations. This sets up a dynamic in the judicatory of aggressive search for funds for what are seen to be essential missional tasks. And a simultaneous dynamic of holding back, hiding, or seeking to reduce the contributions called for because of what are felt to be more pressing needs of the mission that is carried out by the congregation. It is money that turns congregational/judicatory relationships into Us-Them relationships. By definition, this relationship demands open communication, direct talking, and sensitivity to one another's concerns. It demands negotiation and give and take.
Few judicatories, in the pressure of their work, can be anything but daunted and frustrated by the necessity to negotiate carefully with 40 to 90 individual congregations. The temptation to cookie cutter methods is overwhelming. The result is the search for a "formula" for judicatory asking, a formula that will be fair, yet will produce the necessary resources for judicatory program. And every time there is such a formula, it turns out not to fit some of the congregations; other congregations grow alarmed at the total size of the requests and ask for cutbacks in judicatory budgets.
What I am trying to say is that everywhere I look along the connectional continuum, 99% of the congregations and judicatories are in a system that will always put stress on them. The only people happy with it is the 1% at each end of the continuum -- the ones who have nobody to tell them what to give and the ones who can take what they need by confiscation.
Bad news about connections? I do not see how congregations and judicatories will ever solve this. Good news about connections? The relationships between congregations and judicatories open up for conversation inevitably around this issue. It won't go away, and it won't let congregations and judicatories slam the door on each other. Small solace, but it is some!
D. Regional Activities and Program
Most judicatories try to serve their congregations through a number of programs and activities. Where these programs and activities result from careful judicatory/congregation interaction, there are two elements helping the connection. The first is the experience of dialogue in the planning can bring greater understanding of where each is coming from. The second is that good program and activity actually does sometimes bring positive interactive feelings and actual results that make a difference.
Some kinds of congregations -- very small, isolated ones, for example -- can see a vision of church in a large denominational meeting that they never experience at home. Youth leaders can meet youth leaders of other congregations, forming important personal links as well as church links. Information about things such as new educational curriculum can be shared with other congregations. My own bias (as an Episcopalian) creeps in on me in that I see worship at such events as perhaps as important as the "program." So correct for my bias, but check it out first!)
A judicatory can -- in regional events -- touch morale of congregations across the church the way few other media can. The ability to marshal resources of music and preaching for challenging and/or inspiration can be done in a kind of scope that makes a difference. Judicatories need, in my estimation, to be cautious about this. Generating program and activity is a special need and it needs to be used strategically. I do occasionally get the picture that congregations are tired of feeling that the judicatory staff is just thinking up things to keep the congregations busy. If you go that far, you have stopped helping the connection and started blocking it.
E. Congregational Trauma
Just as congregations can expect fights to pop up every now and then, so it is that trauma of one kind or another is just bound to happen. I want to suggest that a judicatory that is aware of such trauma and responds to it has a chance to improve the connection.
I do not have a formula for what that response should be. Instead, let me name a few of the congregational traumas I have seen that were open doors for judicatory intervention:
* An airplane crash on the outskirts of a city
* A church or one of its buildings burns down
* Drug activity overwhelms a public school
* A leading lay family is killed in a car crash
* Somebody embezzles funds from one congregation
* Somebody in the congregation is accused of a terrible crime
* A leader of the congregation is in court in a big trial
* Some scandal breaks out about a church member
That is just a sampler. How should one respond? You need to respond in a way that is genuine to you.
I know of a judicatory executive who -- with a raincoat pulled over pajamas joined a pastor out front of the church as it burned and simply said, "came to help you watch your church burn down!" That was real, and that pastor and that congregation tell about it now, 30 years later. I know a bishop who went to a public school where the faculty was demoralized by drug raids on the students -- and he just went and had coffee in the faculty lounge for several days. The point is for a judicatory to have its feelers out to pick up signals like that, and not to be embarrassed because it does not have the "right" answer.
You will note that the trauma I listed is not always a specifically congregational trauma. My point here is that when a community hurts, the congregations hurt. A judicatory that acts on that will find it builds better connections. The other side of this is true, also. When great, exciting things happen, judicatory attention pays off, too.
I return to the confessional once more for a moment. While working on these notes in the week after the terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon. Mayor Giuliani, to my mind, has been the image of what I would hope a judicatory executive should be -- present in the middle of the muck and mess, not giving out placebos, but encouraging those who are tired. When distress hits a community, I think it is important for the religious system to be aware and be present -- in and through the pastor and lay people, primarily, but also in the symbolic presence from the larger church where possible.
F. Pastoral Trauma
Here I speak more directly of the trauma that may affect the pastor of any congregation.
When a pastor or his/her family get into trouble, most judicatory executives know they have work to do, and most of them do it well. There are resources they know to call on -- psychiatric resources, family counseling resources, often financial and legal resources. Most judicatories have provided financial resources for this help for years. My cautions here are that I suspect that those resources are getting strapped by higher and higher medical insurance and legal bills. Our judicatories may need to review their future needs in this area.
The list of traumas I am talking about here includes all the personal and family traumas clergy deal with daily among the people of the congregation. In most cases the "answers" are no different from the things good pastors already do with people in the congregation.
What I want to note is that what the judicatory does when a pastor gets into trouble is not always visible to the congregation as it is to the pastor. It may not have much impact upon how the congregation feels about the judicatory, but it will have direct impact upon that pastor, probably for the rest of his or her life. That can, indeed, have an impact upon the connection between congregations and judicatories.
One area of trauma in a pastor's life is also an area in which the whole congregation gets involved. If the trauma comes from actions in which the pastor proves him or herself to have violated people with whom he/she is in relationship -- the trauma of the pastor immediately becomes a trauma of the congregation. In recent years the plethora of cases of sexual misbehavior of a pastor with a parishioner, staff member, or counselee give us examples of what I am talking about. In a few cases I have found that other moral issues (e.g. stealing, embezzling, plagiarism) sometimes touch a nerve in some communities that makes the case explode into a congregational trauma in almost a similar way.
The judicatory will be drawn into such trauma with deep difficulties and split responsibilities -- to the law, to the pastor, to the congregation, to the injured parties. In these traumatic areas a judicatory executive who operates without a lot of advice and training on top of uncommon wisdom will find him or herself in very deep water quickly.
Congregational-judicatory relations are strengthened where congregations are convinced that their judicatory has clear policies and good advisors and consultants for dealing with such eventualities. Congregations throughout a judicatory quickly get such information on denominational grapevines.
III. A MISCELLANEOUS NOTE ON THE USE OF CONSULTANTS
I am adding this note simply because I cannot find the right place to bring it up, yet I have found this issue complicating relationships between congregations and their judicatories. The issue has to do with the nature and deployment of consultants.
More times than I like to remember, I have discovered a real dilemma judicatories have in using consultants to work with congregations. The difference, as I understand it, is this: a staff person carries out the policies of the judicatory and is responsible to the judicatory structure or executive. He or she is paid by the judicatory. A consultant is hired and paid by the congregation and is responsible to the congregation.
Judicatories often want consultants to operate as staff, carrying out the intentions of the judicatory. Such an understanding assumes that the judicatory controls what will happen. It violates the essence of the consulting process. It may "work" to the satisfaction of the judicatory, but it violates the integrity of the congregation. In the long run, I think this is very bad for the connection between congregations and judicatories. It is not honest.
In a true consulting relationship, the consultant works for and is paid by the congregation, which gives the congregation the power to terminate the relationship and maintain control of its own decisions. Such use of consultants strengthens the congregation's ability to be clear about what it needs and wants and help it enter genuine negotiations and communications with others. I think that is one of the most important ingredients in building a strong connection between congregations and judicatories -- which is one reason I see that any genuine consulting process is a very important learning opportunity in the churches both for congregations and for judicatories.
I am not romantic about this. I know it is important that the consultant and the judicatory be trusting of one another. But if a judicatory asks me to be consultant to one of its congregations I have to say, I will be glad to talk to them, but they have to agree on a contract with me. One thing is that I will not report to the judicatory unless the congregation permits me to do so. Indeed, if the congregation says, "We cannot pay your fee," I am willing to work with them to figure how to put the funds together -- which may mean asking the executive for help on the bill.
Working that way, a consultant can help the congregation stand on its own feet and enter into adult relationship with its judicatory. In the long run, I think that makes for a stronger church, no matter what end of the continuum of connection you inhabit.