Congregations need to be ready for change, to be nimble and to have faith in the future. And that usually means sorting through the debris to find out what’s worthy of keeping.
The Rev. Dr. Charlotte Wright, Resilient Congregations Program Director, has worked with many congregations in transition and she’s ready to help many more. In her new role at The Brookfield Institute, she’s hoping that congregations ask for help before trouble hits.
“We often come in in the middle of a breakdown,” she says about her work with Karen Nell Smith and others on conflict transformation. They’re asked to “pick up the pieces” of a broken congregation when, Wright says, it’s much healthier to be proactive.
To that end, The Brookfield Institute has started the Resilient Congregations program to focus on helping with clarity, change, decisions and coping with adversity. As Wright points out, “resilient” means being able to spring back, to recover quickly and to keep going. While it almost always has to come in the face of difficulties, there are ways to minimize the problems and the pain.
The time to ask for help is once a congregation knows change is coming — whether it’s a new minister, a capital campaign or even a new roof. It doesn’t have to be a monumental change; the process benefits congregations at any stage.
The main thing Wright focuses on is having the congregations find their core values. “What are the things, the non-negotiable, that the church wants to carry forward?” Wright asks. The list can range from Sunday School to a food pantry to being Open and Affirming. The point is to find clarity what makes the church tick, the things they can’t let go of.
And, on the opposite side, is what Wright calls the “clutter.” “It helps to let go of things that are not important or have outgrown their usefulness,” she says. She remembers one congregation where the well-intentioned and — at the time of its conception — much-used computer lab had run its course. The church had three rooms full of outdate and donated computer equipment and no space for Sunday school. Having an outside consultant like Wright come in and point that out is often the nudge a church needs to go forward. She negotiated a reduced rate to recycle the three truckloads of equipment, helped the congregation spruce up the classrooms and the church once again began attracting young families.
She likens the clutter-clearing to getting ready to sell a house, but it’s not always physical clutter either. “Churches may have to let go of a cherished past to make room for the future,” she says. They have to find things they can jettison so they create space for God's new work to begin. And that comes back to defining the core values of the congregation — the non-negotiable that are God’s call for the church.