The Episcopal Diocese of  
of Western Massachusetts

Canon Richard M. Simpson 


21st Century Congregations - March 2015

From the Rev. Canon Richard M. Simpson



The Messy Work of Renewal


If you don't know the website, Alban at Duke, I commend it to all ordained and lay leaders in our diocese.  When you go to the site, notice the bar under Topics which includes the following: buildings, conflict, leadership, money, worship and much more.  Under the topic of leadership you will find really good articles such as "Congregational Leadership as Spiritual Practice."


Recently I was perusing this website because I was going to recommend this piece above to you this month, which happens to have been written by my former campus minister at Georgetown University, Bruce Epperly.  And I do still recommend it. But while on the site (doing exactly what I've just invited you to do) I stumbled across an article from seven years ago entitled The Messy Work of Renewal.  And it is this article that I'd like to reflect with you on this month, especially as we continue our journey through the wilderness time of Lent. It's one of those short pieces I wish I'd written myself, because it so closely mirrors my own experience as Canon to the Ordinary (and previously as a parish priest.)  While I urge you to read the whole article, let me quote at length here for anyone who has not yet clicked on the hyperlink above:


If you've ever remodeled a house while attempting to live in it, you have a sense of the chaos and complexity of congregational renewal. It will take far longer, cost you more, and prove messier than you ever imagined at the start. People who have worked with both church starts and church renewal will tell you that starting a church is easy compared to renewing one. The difficulty lies in the work itself. Pogo's line holds true here: "We have met the enemy and he is us."


The church seeking renewal must look beyond simply improving its programs and its building, though both may ultimately be changed. Pastors and laity leading renewal in their declining congregations are asking people to make fundamental shifts in their perspectives, their attitudes, and their behaviors. The work demands a great deal from a people and a pastor.


Your congregation is what it is today not because of what a bad pastor did to it, or because the neighborhood has changed, or because our culture is going to hell in a hand basket. Although those occurrences and many others have had an impact, your congregation is what it is today because of how it responded, or failed to respond, to the realities it faced. What your congregation will be in the future is up to you and the other members and how you work together to create something new from the realities you face. What you do or don't do now will make the difference. Your actions will either reinforce the patterns that have become established in your congregation, or start to counter and shift them. The leadership provided by your pastor can help or hinder, but it cannot make your congregation succeed or keep it from ultimately achieving the goals you set for yourselves. (Emphasis mine)


Our former diocesan bishop, Gordon Scruton, used to talk a lot about the DNA of a congregation. I think this was his shorthand for what is being spoken of above. Patterns get ingrained in congregations as they do in our families, and workplaces, and in our daily lives; sometimes healthy ones, and sometimes unhealthy ones. Shifting these old reactive behaviors is really, really, hard work. It is also vital to spiritual growth and congregational development.


The writer here goes on to remind us that "renewal has both outer and inner aspects. To move to a new place, a congregation must tend to both," and then points out three phases of this work:   

  1. Developing readiness: preparing the leaders to lead the congregation in a new direction.
  2. Surfacing a compelling congregational vision that will guide decision making.
  3. Developing and implementing strategies that move the congregation toward the envisioned future.
I know the clergy of our diocese pretty well, and I'm getting to know the lay leadership better each and every day. We have a lot of very smart people and I am guessing that there is nothing I've written above that comes as brand new information. And yet - I want to return to the title of the article:
renewal is messy. The metaphor is that it's like living in a house as you remodel it. Years ago I read a book by Tom Kroeger on preaching,

Preaching While The Church Is Under Reconstruction. Same metaphor. Same mess.


Can I confess something to you, something my wife and children and my colleagues at Diocesan House and my former parishioners in Holden will all attest to? I like my ducks in a row. I like the finished product. I don't revel in the chaos and I get cranky in the midst of messiness.  But with God's help, I am learning to live with the Church we get and I am trying to embrace (like this long New England winter) the fact that the Church is just going to be messy for a while.


Because metaphorically and literally, the Church that was "constructed" in the 1950s no longer works. Like a home built in the post-war suburbs, we either reconstruct or we let it fall down around us.


This is a hard time to be the Church - although I suspect that truth be told every time is hard in its own ways. Jesus never promised us that it would be easy. In fact he said over and over again that it would be hard work. Yet this is the work that God has given us to do - as leaders in the 21st century church, in this year of our Lord 2015. It takes time, and patience, and vision, and perseverance, and courage-because always change will be met with resistance.

We have been talking a lot on the Diocesan staff about Vital Congregations. This year's Parish Leadership Day on March 7 will focus on this theme. If you have not yet spent some time on your vestries with this document, Marks of Congregational Vitality, I encourage you to do. Show up at Parish Leadership Day! And then have the hard conversations about developing readiness, surfacing a compelling vision, and developing and implementing strategies to move from discernment to implementation. I guarantee that it will be hard work, because there are no easy answers. And it will be messy. And it is absolutely necessary.


And all the way, pray for grace, for courage, for a sense of humor, for the patience and wisdom to live with the messiness a while. Prayer for companions along the way and the courage to take the next step, and then the one after that, toward the Promised Land...


Peace and all good.