Why Congregations Are Stuck

We can... but will we?

We can… but will we?

I had an “aha” this weekend about why many of our congregations seem so stuck.

I attended a “Building and Empowering Communities” leadership training sponsored by VOICE, a group of congregations and institutions in northern Virginia that are doing community organizing around issues of affordable housing, immigration, and other issues.

The tools of community organizing are not just for engagement in the wider community; they are also helpful within the congregation, as you seek out leaders and discern a vision.

The crux of the training centered on the one-on-one “relational” meeting, in which you try to identify potential leaders through getting to know people and learning their stories—their histories, their passions, and what “keeps them up at night.”

To give us a taste of this, each presenter offered a bit of personal history before launching into his/her topic, and it was easy to connect the dots between the person’s past experiences and his or her life’s work. One person’s aunt and uncle was the victim of a predatory loan. Another saw her single working mother face discrimination and sexism and was driven to empower herself and other women in her community as a result. You get the idea.

Then we practiced one-on-one meetings, and I was struck with how many stories (mine included) were some variation of “I had a pretty comfortable life… and now I just want to give back and make the world a better place.”

Now, admittedly, many of us were brand new at this relational meeting stuff. The organizers who trained us (and whose dots were so easy to connect) have been telling their stories for a long time. And granted, it was an artificial exercise, taking place in a fishbowl, and we could only go 8-10 minutes long instead of the 30-40 minutes that is suggested.

But these rather bland, generic responses revealed to me how we find leaders and volunteers in the church, and how we talk about service. And how it’s killing us.

Here are three realizations I had:

1. We do discernment primarily around gifts rather than stories. We need to stop doing that.

Whether we’re the nominating committee trying to put forth a slate of officers, or a youth director trying to find confirmation sponsors, we think predominantly about a person’s skills and gifts. “This person is a teacher, so I bet he’d be a great Christian Education elder.” “She’s chief operating officer of her company; maybe she’d serve on the stewardship team.”

It’s not that gifts are unimportant. After all, spiritual gifts language has been with us from the very beginning. But one of the tenets of community organizing is that good leaders are made, not born. As a pastor, I can teach skills. But I cannot teach passion. Getting in touch with a person’s history allows you to find those deep hungers that will motivate and drive them even when the going gets tough. No wonder so many of our congregations are boring and lethargic—we’ve been talking about the wrong things!

2. We need to get way more concrete in our language about service.

“I want to help people because Jesus tells us to love our neighbor” doesn’t get us anywhere. Yet it’s our default response when people ask us what drives us. The content of a relational meeting is why and how. “Why do you want to help people? Why does that matter to you? How have you seen that impulse lived out? How do you see that not being lived out in your community?”

Just as we’ve relied on gifts as the primary mode of discernment, we have not taken the time to drill down past our surface responses about service. Many of the overworked pastors there (myself included) were searching for shortcuts—Can’t you do this work in group settings? Does it have to be one on one? What do you suppose the response was?

3. Anger is not the enemy. It is a resource. 

Maybe you’re one of those who had a genuinely untroubled childhood. You didn’t see your aunt and uncle’s devastation at almost losing their home because of that predatory loan. But I bet there is an injustice that makes you furious. We don’t like to talk about anger, especially in the Church of Nice that so many of us belong to. Anger is bad, we tell ourselves—something to suppress. But anger, properly contextualized, is also energy. Anger is fuel for action. And there is plenty of holy anger in scripture. One of my favorite benedictions has the line, “May God bless you with anger—at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people, so you will work for justice, freedom and peace.”

There are plenty of injustices in the world that I worry about. But when I look back on my personal history, the key issue for me has been women and girls, again and again. The specifics of that have played out in different ways over the years, and the pivotal events that sparked that anger are for another post. But yeah. Women and girls.

My favorite quote these days is this one by Howard Thurman:


But how do we know what makes people come alive unless we ask them?

12 thoughts on “Why Congregations Are Stuck

  1. Roy Howard

    Great stuff here MaryAnn. And the final question is the ESSENTIAL question for pastoral ministry. I ask it all the time, preach it frequently and invite our leaders regularly to ask if the work they are doing as church leaders/volunteers is what makes them come alive. If the answer is no, then a conversations unfolds that often leads far deeper than church tasks.

    Oh, and I am going to “borrow” that poster.

  2. Sharon

    Do you mean to say that we are taught that anger is bad and should be suppressed, or do you really believe that anger is bad and should be suppressed? Your section heading suggests the former, but the text of that paragraph reflects the latter. As a psychologist, I would contend that anger is not inherently bad or in need of suppression. Anger is a signal that something is not right. It is up to us to discern whether the something that is not right is an external circumstance or an internal dysfunction and then to choose a course of behavior that productively uses the energy of our anger to work toward addressing the (internal or external) problem in a constructive manner. We learn to fear anger and desire to suppress it because we confuse the destructive behaviors that people enact in their anger with anger itself.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Sharon, thank you for helping me see I didn’t make that clear. “Anger is bad” is a message we tell ourselves—I’ve revised the post to reflect that.

      That said, while I believe that anger can be a positive force, it is something I was socialized not to trust or express. (Which is something that plagues many of us…) So it’s something I work on.

      I also know people who are angry in a way that is neither productive nor attractive (attractive in that leadership sense of encouraging people to want to come along with you).

  3. Susan

    What you’re talking about is the core commitment to the Discovering our Call method of discernment–everything is through story telling.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      That’s great to hear, Susan.

      There’s an analog here with appreciative inquiry, which also is narrative in nature. Although it focuses on strengths more than passions/hungers.

  4. Diane Roth

    I’ve been in and out of church-based organizing for many years now, doing one to one training and and congregational tool kits, and you are right in all the things you say. Stories are how we call out leaders and passions; anger is a resource (though not the only resource);we do need much more clarity about ourselves and why we are doing the things we are doing. I will say, though, that it still seems that something is still missing in church-based community organizing, which was originally developed to empower people to seek justice for their own community, not for comfortable do-gooders seeking to help other people. As an example of the former, read Heidi Neumark’s book “Breathing Space’, about her work as a pastor/organizer in the Bronx. In this process, powerful human and community transformation happens…

    I have come to believe that church-based community organizing can be really effective once a congregation has clarity about it’s own purpose and values. But if our congregations and the people in them remain fuzzy about who they are and what it means for them to be disciples in their communities in this time and place, the resistance to organizing is overwhelming.

    Thanks for good reflections! you have got me thinking again…

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Thanks. I do think you’re right about the makeup of our churches and what drives many of us…

      I saw an amazing thing happen in one of the “practice” relational meetings. A man who attends a church pastored by a couple of friends of mine began his story using those general phrases I was talking about. Then he started talking about what it was like to live through the extreme rancor that happened in his community around some immigration issues. This man is white and is not an immigrant, but the vitriol and scapegoating he saw “almost tore the community apart.” It’s not that he portrayed himself as a victim—he was certainly not—but we could see how it affected him personally. Once we hit on that, it was crystal clear—here’s “where the blood is” for this particular person.

      I have met Heidi and have her book, though I haven’t read the whole thing. She is indeed impressive.

  5. Karen

    I’m really with you on how we need to listen to people’s stories. I’ve been surprised over the years at the unexpected depth of a person’s passion (and their effectiveness!) who had been a “second choice” because someone(s) on the nominating committee didn’t think they had the right skills or “gifts”. The Thurman quote is also one of my very favorites. I had it carved into a lovely wooden box for my friend who completed her EfM three weeks ago and she, too, found it meaningful.

  6. Deborah

    Good post and helpful realizations but this one’ s in the levity department. When I logged onto your site and took a quick look at the headline, I was positive it read, “Why Congregations Suck.” I thought, “Wow, I wonder where she’s going to go with that.” Glad that wasn’t really your post but it did get my attention. 🙂

  7. Byron Wade

    MaryAnn – great post, as always!! I have to confess that I have never experienced the “relational” meeting exercise but it sounds like it really uncovered why people serve and commit to a certain cause. You are right in saying that the church needs to turn the focus from gifts to stories. One of the things I have done in our Session meetings is during our meetings we have a devotional period and instead of me talking and they listen, we make a point of sharing our stories in line with the particular scripture used that evening. People do not necessarily know their gift but everyone has a story!


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